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Literature Discussion Groups and the Struggling Reader:
A Comparison of Approaches
by Heather Wall
In this paper the author examines three approaches to conducting literature discussion groups in classroom
settings with a focus on determining the various adaptations each program makes for struggling readers.
A review of literature was undertaken and included several studies in which literature discussion groups were
conducted with special education students. Of the approaches examined, most appear to make few special
accomodations for poor readers. Goatley and Raphael (1992) found that special education students needed specific
direct instruction on both how and what to share with the group when discussing books.
The author concludes with implications gleaned from the research based on a Vygotskian perspective, in which
this review is grounded.
ANGELINA: I got hooked right from the beginning when
there were, um, running away from the, um, uh,
what’s their name?
ANGELINA: From the soldiers. That got me hooked.
And the baby, she was really sick and she was all
(makes a choking sound).
GAIL [teacher]: Can you find a page? Was there a specific
ANGELINA (breaking in): No. It was right in the first
GAIL: Uh-huh. What about that hooked you?
ANGELINA: The way that she explained it. The way that,
it just vibrated me. (Samway & Whang, 1996, p. 11)
The above excerpt from a literature discussion in Gail Whang’s fifth/sixth grade class describes the animated
interactions between a small group of students who have independently read Children of the River by Linda Crew
(1989) and are now meeting to discuss their reactions to the book. Research on literature discussion groups has
increased in recent years as both teachers and researchers have acknowledged the benefits of and begun to implement
student discussion groups and encourage more personal responses to literature (Samway & Whang, 1996; Daniels,
1994; McMahon & Raphael, 1997; Rosenblatt, 1994). Unlike traditional reading instruction where the teacher leads
discussions that revolve around a basal text’s literary elements or simple recall of story events, discussion groups put
the students in control. Students in these small groups discuss real literature which they have chosen to read while the
teacher plays an unobtrusive, facilitative role. Discussions tend to be very conversational in tone, as students share their
personal responses to the literature.
As a reading specialist working with struggling first, second and fourth grade readers in small group pullout
program, the idea of literature discussion groups appealed to me. The students I work with struggle with basic decoding
and comprehension strategies and tend to be unmotivated readers. I am determined to avoid the trap that many teachers
of special education students fall into, in which instruction consists of assigning worksheets focusing on isolated skills
or reading short, specially-constructed passages in order to complete lists of questions (Allington, 1983; 1991). I want
my students to be engaged by reading of real texts. I want them to be so involved with the content of a book that their
struggles with decoding become inconsequential in relation to their overall comprehension of the story. I want to hear
student voices intent on discussing deeper-level issues stimulated by their reading. Literature discussion groups seem
to be the perfect way to get my students to personally respond to real literature at a deeper level, and yet I wondered
what support these groups might offer to readers who still struggle with decoding text. My purpose in this project was
to research various models of literature discussion groups and the accommodations they make for poor readers.
In this paper I describe the basic structure of literature discussion groups and the theoretical rationale behind
them, examine three different approaches to using literature discussion groups in classroom settings, and look at the
research that’s been done with literature discussion groups and special education students.
LITERATURE DISCUSSION GROUPS
Literature discussion groups can be organized and managed in a variety of ways, but the basic purpose remains
the same: small groups of students are given the chance to orally respond to a common text through sharing reactions,
problems, and ideas about the text. Some discussion groups include the classroom teacher (Samway and Whang, 1996)
while others are organized to operate effectively without teacher involvement (Daniels, 1994; McMahon & Raphael,
1997). Many discussion groups require students to individually respond in writing before joining group discussions
(Samway & Whang, 1996; Daniels, 1994; McMahon & Raphael, 1997). Literature discussion groups can be organized
around a central issue or question to be debated by the students (Samway and Whang, 1996), or can be free-flowing and
simply include student reactions to the text (McMahon & Raphael, 1997; Daniels, 1994).
The conversational tone of literature discussion groups is demonstrated in the opening transcript above and is in
marked contrast to standard discourse methods often evident in classrooms. Researchers have investigated traditional
teacher-student interactions and have found that school discourse is often structured in a reliable I-R-E pattern (Cazden,
1988) . The teacher Initiates discussion with a question, students vie for attention by raising their hands, the teacher
selects one of the students to Respond and the teacher then Evaluates the response with either positive or negative
feedback. In many classrooms, this is the extent of classroom discussions. Rather than a genuine exchange of ideas
between students, with or without the teacher present, the typical classroom exchange consists of a demonstration of
knowledge for the teacher’s benefit.
The use of literature discussion groups in classrooms has increased in popularity during recent years due to the
increased use of literature in classroom language arts programs (Gambrell, 1992; Strickland, 1995) and the awareness
of the importance of student response to literature (Rosenblatt, 1994) as well as the advancement of Vygotskian views
of students as active learners who construct knowledge through their interactions with others and their use of language
(Vygotsky, 1978; Bodrova & Leong, 1996).
Three basic Vygotskian principles apply to the use of literature discussion groups: (a) children construct
knowledge, (b) development is a social process, and (c) language plays an important role in the development of mental
processes (Vygotsky, 1978; Bodrova & Leong, 1996). Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky believed that children
actively construct knowledge using their own experiences and the knowledge shared with them by others, rather than
simply passively remembering that which is said to them. The social interactions children have with others contribute
pieces to their mental puzzles to form concepts.
Every function in the child’s cultural development appears
twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual
level; first, between people (interpsychological), and then
inside the child (intrapsychological)....All the higher
functions originate as actual relations between human
individuals (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 57).
Children are active learners and constantly adjust their conceptions as new information is received or experienced. In
literature discussion groups children share ideas with each other, are exposed to different interpretations of texts and
constantly revise and develop their understandings of literature. Through social interactions ideas are explored first
with others and then are gradually internalized by the learner. As an example, new comprehension strategies are best
learned initially in a social context when their use can be discussed with other readers. As the student becomes more
adept at using these strategies they become internalized and language and external feedback is no longer needed.
Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) is particularly important when considering the
performance of struggling readers. In Vygotsky’s words the ZPD is the distance between the child’s actual
developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as
determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers (Vygotsky,
1978, p. 86). The presence of a more knowledgeable other, whether an adult or child, can stretch the learner past his
independent level and into an area that includes mental functions that are not yet independent but are in the process of
maturing. In literature discussion groups the teacher or other students might question the motives of characters or
discuss background knowledge that contributes to the readers’ understanding of the text, such as this discussion about
the book Sadako (Coerr, 1977):
LISSA: But why did they call the bomb a thunderbolt?
MONDO: ‘Cause what if a thunderbolt hit, ‘cause when it
lands it makes some thunder.
BART: ‘Cause lightning is very high in electricity and so is
LISSA: That’s what happened. I saw it in the book the
same story (hitting the desk)....
BART: The bomb could travel. The gas could travel up,
‘cause when the wind, ‘cause when the gas is in the
air the wind blows it and it goes to country, to
country, to country and they all die. (McMahon,
1994, pp. 115-116)
Dixon-Krauss (1995) discusses teachers’ scaffolding of students’ knowledge when working within their ZPD and notes
that (a) teachers mediate learning through social interaction, (b) their roles remain flexible, and (c) their support is
based on students’ needs. In literature discussion groups it can be the teacher’s responsibility to push the students to
consider new ideas and perspectives in order to stretch them toward the upper limits of their zone of proximal
Vygotsky argues that higher order thinking skills are developed when an individual uses signs and symbols,
including oral language, to communicate. The use of language facilitates the development of logical reasoning,
decision-making and language comprehension (Vygotsky, 1978; McMahon & Raphael, 1997). Several studies have
examined the effects of discussion on higher level thinking. Hudgins and Edelman (1986) conducted a study with
fourth and fifth graders in which they studied the effects of discussion on critical thinking once teachers were taught to
increase student participation and encourage students’ responsibility for their thinking. They operationally defined
critical thinking as the students’ ability to provide supporting evidence for their conclusions and to request such
evidence from others before accepting their conclusions. Although there was no significant difference between the
control group and the discussion group on a critical thinking test, examination of transcripts of group discussions
showed that the experimental group did provide more supporting evidence for their conclusions.
Literature discussion groups provide opportunities for children to actively participate in conversations about
books with their peers. As they contribute to these group conversations, they are forced to use language as a tool to
verbalize mental processes and emerging ideas. They are supported in this process by the more knowledgeable others
around them, and they are prompted to explore ideas and concepts that draw them into new mental territory.
That Vygotskian theory applies to both the use of literature discussion groups and instruction of poor readers is
not a controversial statement. Yet if students are to read books independently before participating in a discussion
group, as many approaches dictate, this requires that the teacher of struggling readers either (a) give students easy books
which they can read independently, but which are at the lower end of their zone of proximal development, or (b)
challenge students with more difficult books that push them toward the upper range of their ZPD and simultaneously
lend these readers more support. I researched three different approaches to literature discussion groups to determine
which of these options teachers chose (see figure 1). I was particularly interested in the types of support given to
students when difficult texts were used.
LITERATURE DISCUSSION GROUP MODELS
Literature Circles - Harvey Daniels (1994) has designed an approach to literature discussion groups, or literature
circles, based on a combination of Louise Rosenblatt’s reader response theory (Rosenblatt, 1994) and collaborative
learning methods. Rosenblatt’s theory argues that a text is simply marks on a page until the reader brings his or her
own knowledge to the text to create meaning. She and other proponents of reader response theory agree that no one
correct interpretation of a text exists, but rather multiple interpretations exist based on the prior knowledge the reader
brings to the text. She states that students are not ready for concentrated literary analysis of a text until after they have
personally responded to it. Daniel’s literature circles are heavily dependent on student’s personal responses to literature
and he encourages teachers to begin literature discussions by inviting the readers to make personal connections to the
text, using such questions as How is this character like me? If faced with this kind of choice, what would I do?.
Discussions aim to be open and conversational, and open-ended, divergent questions and answers are encouraged.
Daniel’s literature circles differ most noticeably in the structured, collaborative learning framework that he
proposes, in which each student in the literature circle has a group role for which he or she prepares while reading.
Suggested roles include discussion director, the student who leads the group discussion; literary luminary, the student
who reads aloud self-chosen memorable sections of the text; connector, the student who connects the real world and
background experiences to the world of the text; and illustrator, the person who interprets the text through illustration
of important passages. Other possible roles are also offered, including researcher, vocabulary enricher, character
captain and summarizer. When the literature circle members initially convene to determine the amount of text to be
read by the following day, student roles are assigned. Each role has an accompanying role sheet which outlines that
person’s responsibilities and reserves space for the student’s written contributions. For instance, while independently
reading the next day’s section the discussion director is responsible for thinking of good discussion questions, while the
vocabulary enricher should be on the lookout for terms which might be confusing or particularly interesting. Each
group member brings these assignments to the group meeting on the following day. New roles are assigned for the next
day’s reading. Through this approach Daniels feels students can learn to work as a team while also learning how to
personally respond to literature. Although this method of giving students specific roles is one of the most
distinguishing features of Daniel’s literature circles, it is not permanent in that he acknowledges students will
eventually graduate from role sheets to free-form literature response logs in which they will not be responsible for a
particular role, but can choose to respond to the literature in any way they choose.
Classrooms may have several literature circles convening simultaneously during the language arts period. The
groups meet independent of the teacher, whose role consists of observing, keeping assessment records and conferring
with struggling groups or individual readers. Occasionally the teacher might choose to participate in a group as a fellow
reader. Daniels discusses the benefits of classroom teachers regularly providing positive reading models for children by
joining literature circles, but acknowledges the difficulty of this when several groups are meeting simultaneously. He
also argues that once teachers regularly join literature circles, the teacher tends to lead the group discussions,
circumventing the student-centered design of literature circles.
Daniel’s makes very few if any accommodations for lower-ability students in literature circles. Since books are
independently chosen by students, he argues that readers are free to select books that conform to their individual
reading level. He states that while poor readers may have trouble with lower-order skills such as decoding, they can
often participate fully in discussions which require higher-level thinking and personal reactions to text. If students have
difficulty reading the text they may have the book read aloud to them by a parent or peer, or may listen to the book
recorded on audiotape.
Judith Hechler, a teacher of primary special education students, used literature circles in her self-contained
classroom (Daniels, 1994). She introduced the roles one at a time, allowing the entire group to participate in one role
until everyone was comfortable. Students read the book independently with the understanding that they could quietly
interrupt to clarify confusing passages as they read. Hechler felt the students were involved and comprehended the
Book Clubs - Book clubs, developed by Taffy Raphael and Susan McMahon (1997), is another approach to literature
discussion groups and is based on sociocultural theory and reader response theories. In this approach the literature
discussion groups, or book clubs, are part of a larger reading framework which includes four components: reading,
writing, community share, and book clubs . The reading component consists of a minimum of 15 minutes of daily
reading, which can be done either silently or aloud, alone or with a partner, or even as a class read-aloud by the teacher
or a student. The writing component includes students’ daily written responses to literature using reading logs and
think sheets. Teachers might create prompts for the reading response logs to encourage students to practice
particular comprehension strategies such as predicting or graphically organizing story events. Think sheets are
structured forms set up by the teacher in which students compare story elements, explore difficult vocabulary, question
the author, etc. The community share component of the book clubs framework is a whole group, teacher-led sharing
session which allows the teacher to model reading strategies, make connections across different book clubs, and raise
issues that might have been missed by students in book club meetings.
The book clubs are the heart of the reading framework. These heterogeneous small groups are an opportunity
for students to freely discuss their reactions to a book read by the group. Students control the discussion by taking turns
leading the discussion, clarifying confusions brought up by peers, and asking questions of each other. Book clubs are
modeled after natural book discussions which occur outside of school in which conversation flows naturally around
events in the book. Students are not assigned roles, but instead assume numerous roles as necessary in the discussion.
Group conversations are enriched by the response logs and think sheets which students have previously completed and
brought to the book club.
Various book clubs meet simultaneously around the classroom as the teacher monitors discussions and drops in
as needed. When beginning book clubs, the teacher occasionally has to temporarily join a group to help them refocus
and to provide support, but she promptly removes herself once the conversation is back on track. Book clubs are
intended to be student-led and teacher instruction is reserved for community sharing time.
Virginia Goatley (1997) conducted three studies using book clubs with special education students: a case study
of one student mainstreamed into a classroom using book clubs, a study of a group of mainstreamed special education
students participating in book clubs, and a study of a group of upper-elementary students using book clubs in a special
education resource room. Goatley found that across these studies the students had difficulty with both how to share and
what to share. Students were uncomfortable with the shift in dialogue style from the traditional I-R-E exchange
(Cazden, 1988) to a more open, student-led style. Participants needed direct instruction in conversation skills, such as
taking turns, encouraging all group members to participate, avoiding long pauses and asking for elaboration to clarify
confusions. Students were also unsure about what types of information to share about the books they read. Goatley
found that students particularly struggled with understanding multiple interpretations of a text, tended to overemphasize
literal questions and understandings, and had difficulty relating the text to other sources such as movies and other
books. While all students, regardless of special education designation, had difficulty with both how and what to share,
she found that special education students in particular were not accustomed to higher level discussion or connecting
books to their personal lives. Interestingly, this is in direct contrast to Harvey Daniels’ previously mentioned stance, in
which he argues that struggling readers will have less difficulty with these higher-level skills and will only need help
with lower-level decoding skills.
Literature Study Circles - Another adaptation of literature discussion groups, called literature study circles (LSCs), was
devised by Katharine Samway and Gail Whang (1996). Their groups, based on Louise Rosenblatt’s transactional
process approach to reading (Rosenblatt, 1994), were initially implemented in Gail’s culturally diverse classroom in
California. In literature study circles the teacher is always a member of the discussion group, and acts as both a group
member and a resource for students. In Gail’s classroom, students choose a book to read with other students of various
abilities. After agreeing on a date to complete the book, students independently read the text. Gail provides an hour
each day of in-class reading time. While reading, students jot down ideas, questions or personal connections to the text
on idea bookmarks. Once students are finished with the book, they respond to the book in their literature journals.
On the agreed upon completion date, the small group meets for 20-30 minutes during the language arts period. While
the rest of the class continues reading their books or responding in their literature logs, the teacher meets with the LSC
as the students share their reactions to the book. Because LSCs are intended to be a student-centered approach to
reading, the teacher’s role is mainly to be an observer and occasional participant. Samway and Whang have found that
it often helps encourage student-to-student exchanges if the teacher takes notes during LSC and does not make eye
contact with the student speaking. This forces the speaker to focus on other students as their audience.
At the end of the first LSC meeting, the group debriefs and comments on what they learned from the discussion.
Based on the group discussion, the teacher creates an assignment for the follow-up LSC several days later.
Assignments are authentic responses to the literature that tend to be focused and ask students to explore literary
elements or issues relevant to the book theme. This second LSC is usually the final meeting, although groups may meet
more if they choose to.
Samway and Whang discuss several modifications that can be made for students having difficulty reading the
text. These include arranging for adult volunteers to read the book to the child, allowing the student to pair up with a
more knowledgeable peer while reading, offering shorter and less complex books, and creating audiotapes of the book.
The classroom teacher is also available to help students when she is not meeting with a literature study circle.
LITERATURE DISCUSSION GROUPS
WITH SPECIAL EDUCATION STUDENTS
Some research on literature discussion groups has been done with special education students in pullout
programs. Two such studies were done by Carol Gilles (1990) and Virginia J. Goatley and Taffy E. Raphael (1992).
Carol Gilles observed a group of seventh grade learning disabled students in a pullout program which the
teachers called Trade Book Reading. Rather than working on skills in isolation, the teachers’ goals were for students
to read and enjoy high quality literature and respond to it both orally and in writing. Students chose the books they
would read, read a portion and responded in journals, and then used these responses to direct their small group
discussions. Although the teacher was a member of the group, he was not the leader of the group. Students took turns
being group leader and directing discussions. The teacher occasionally focused students on an issue that another
student brought up, if it appeared important but at risk of being passed over. At the end of the book students chose
projects to extend the reading and evaluated themselves and their group on the effectiveness of their discussions about
Gilles observed this classroom over a six-month period. She was particularly interested in what students
discussed during the group time. She found that students used the groups for a variety of purposes: to talk about the
book, to talk about the reading process, to talk about making connections between the book and themselves, and to talk
about the group process or routine (Gilles, 1990, p. 56). When talking about the book, students discussed elements
such as character intentions, plot, summaries and author’s style. They made connections with personal experiences and
asked questions about parts that they didn’t understand. At times they even became critical of the author’s choice of
Students talked about the reading process by discussing the strategies they used when they didn’t understand a
section. This sharing of strategies made previously unknown strategies available to other struggling readers and
allowed students to verbalize difficult tasks through metacognitive talk. Students were also found to give each other
hints about how to read parts of books, such as when one student suggested that others slow down at the beginning of a
certain book in order to keep the characters straight.
Gilles found that student talk also consisted of making connections between the text and students’ prior
experiences. Researchers agree that activation of prior knowledge is perhaps the single most important factor in
developing comprehension (Alvermann & Phelps, 1998). The teachers modeled making connections to personal
experiences, movies and other books at the beginning of the year. Occasionally a book forced students to think about
their values as they put themselves in place of the protagonist and asked Would I have done it that way?.
Finally, Gilles’ observations of student talk in discussion groups found that students also talked about the group
process and social issues as they discussed who would be the group leader, how far they should read next, and how to
bring the group back on track when they were off the subject. Social issues important to the peer group would
sometimes arise as students questioned the habits or actions of others in the group.
Goatley and Raphael (1992), who worked with the book clubs model mentioned above, conducted research with
a group of 4th and 5th grade learning disabled students in a resource room using a modified version of book clubs. The
program was based on four components: reading, writing, discussion and instruction. All areas were similar to those
mentioned in mainstreamed book clubs except for the instruction component, which consisted of direct instruction
focusing on both what and how to share responses with one another. Students met twice a week for three months.
Meetings involved modeling by the teachers and other students of what and how to share, teacher-led discussions, and
written activities in which students mapped story events, critiqued, and wrote ideas and questions. The researchers
found that in the beginning students had little idea of how to sustain a conversation with one another about the book.
When students asked questions they often remained unanswered as the others rushed on. Long pauses broke the rhythm
of the interactions and students were unsure about how to continue. Written responses generally were short and bland:
It was foome and sad. (It was funny and sad.) (Goatley & Raphael, 1992, p. 318).
Over the short time of this study, as teachers modeled how and what to share for the students and scaffolded
them in their attempts to sustain meaningful student-led conversations, these learning disabled students began to show
improvement. By the end of the first phase of the study students were beginning to show an understanding of
conversational patterns by allowing discussion threads to continue before beginning a new topic. They answered each
others’ questions and showed an awareness of how to direct group interactions. Written responses became more
in-depth and showed evidence of students’ personal connections to the text. Goatley and Raphael conclude that special
education students need direct instruction on both how and what to share and that this assumes that the teacher must
take a more active role than simply being a facilitator or a transmitter of knowledge.
After reviewing the models of literature discussion groups and the findings regarding the use of discussion
groups with disabled readers, I have come to several conclusions. These findings apply primarily to my work with
struggling readers, although I believe they may be useful for anyone considering literature discussion groups in a
1. The teacher should be a part of the group to offer support, both while reading the book and while discussing
it afterward. The fact remains that the readers I work with have comprehension difficulties. I owe it to them to be
available to lend support, although it is important to realize that I am not the only source of support. Both teacher and
students can serve as more knowledgeable others capable of clarifying confusions.
2. Teachers should encourage student voice. This is not as easy as it may first appear. Samway and Whang
(1996) acknowledge the concerted effort that is required for teachers to restrain themselves when students appear to be
stumbling. While long pauses may prompt a teacher to jump in to fill the silence, doing so may be more detrimental
than helpful. Students need the opportunity to lead their own discussions. By learning to express and trust their
feelings and opinions about books, students begin to take ownership of the reading process.
3. Teachers should have time for direct instruction. Although the time for direct instruction is not during a
discussion group, neither does this mean that students should be in complete control of their reading instruction. Time
should be set aside for a teacher-led discussion in which students can be taught comprehension strategies. This might
be a mini-lesson format either before or after student-led discussion groups, or written responses might be structured
through teacher prompts, such as those Raphael and McMahon (1997) employed in their book clubs approach.
4. Students need explicit instruction on how to share (group dynamics) and what to share (types of personal
response). This needs to be modeled for students when introducing discussion groups, and students should be
supported in their ongoing efforts. A good beginning might involve the teacher guiding students through a group
discussion after reading aloud a picture book which addresses a controversial topic, such as homelessness.
An obvious outgrowth of this research is for me to apply these findings in my own resource classroom. While
compiling this research I found myself becoming excited by the possibilities offered by this approach, particularly the
prospect of instructing these struggling readers with an approach that so closely mirrors the discussions that good
readers naturally have about books. I am hopeful that literature discussion groups can begin to motivate my students to
become readers by choice.
Harvey Daniel's Literature Circles
Literature Circles Resource Center
Literature Circles Resources
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Copyright 2000 Heather Wall