Using Literature Circles in the Montessori Upper Elementary Environment

Student with open notebook

The secret of good teaching is to regard the children’s intelligence as a fertile field in which seeds may be sown, to grow under the heat of flaming imagination. Our aim therefore is not merely to make the children understand, and still less to force them to memorize, but so to touch their imagination as to enthuse them to their inmost core. 
—Maria Montessori
To Educate the Human Potential, p. 11.

Literature circles are often used in a Montessori upper elementary environment as part of a student-centered, reader-response based literature program. I had my first encounter with using literature circles in my own upper elementary classroom. And like anything where there is freedom of choice, the student response and enthusiasm for reading was unparalleled.

A literature circle is a small group of students who come together to read and discuss the same book. Each student assumes a different role within the group. The students take turns leading discussions and assuming roles that expand on their ability to analyze text in different ways. The teacher, in true Montessori spirit, acts as the facilitator, and allows the discussion to be controlled by the students.

How to Make the Literature Circle a Success

Teachers who are new to Montessori may worry about giving up control and allowing students to construct their own meaning from texts. After all, how can students possibly know what a book is about if teachers don’t tell them?

However, literature circles are part of the carefully planned Montessori environment. There is much work that goes on behind the scenes before the literature circle takes place, preparing students for success. First, the teacher identifies which books will be discussed. Will there be a theme, for instance, to coincide with a cultural topic, or will the books be selected from award-winning children’s authors? Perhaps, they will all be coming of age stories.

Once the teacher has decided the theme or types of books the students will discuss, she determines how many groups there will be. She then chooses enough titles for each group, making sure to have ideas for two or three books beyond that to give students a good variety. 

Literature Circle Roles and Responsibilities

The teacher also decides the roles that students will take on in in each group. Going over the duties and responsibilities of each role beforehand is important so that students understand what is expected of them. Literature circles usually include the following roles:

·         Discussion leader – Responsible for discussing the big ideas of the selection

·         Vocabulary enricher – Finds  and analyzes new or challenging words

·         Illustrator – Draws or otherwise illustrates something that happened

·         Map Maker – Maps the events of the selection

·         Plot Detective – Uncovers the plot of the selection

·         Connector – Makes  connections between the text and self, others, and the outside world

·         Summarizer – Gives a short and precise summary of the selection

If you have large groups, you might even have someone in charge of organizing, planning, and preparing snacks!

The students’ roles change each time the group meets, with new roles being decided upon before the students adjourn their session.  

Students are held accountable for their work and for their learning by their peers. If someone does not do his or her job, the whole group suffers. After the final literature circle, students are each asked to write a reflection of how the literature circle went, including both what worked well and what they would improve.

Literature circles allow everyone a chance to participate and contribute. Small group discussion provides a more comfortable environment than speaking in front of a large class, and students feel empowered to analyze and construct their own meaning from a text.

Literature Circles are...Literature Circles are not...
Reader response centeredTeacher and text centered
Part of a balanced literacy programThe entire reading curriculum
Groups formed by book choiceTeacher-assigned groups formed solely by ability
Structured for student independence, responsibility, and ownershipUnstructured, uncontrolled "talk time" without accountability
Guided primarily by student insights and questionsGuided primarily by teacher- or curriculum-based questions
Intended as a context in which to apply reading and writing skillsIntended as a place to do skills work
Flexible and fluid; never look the same twiceTied to a prescriptive "recipe"

From Getting Started with Literature Circles
by Katherine L. Schlick Noe and Nancy J. Johnson
© 1999 Christopher-Gordon Publishers, Inc.

To learn more about literature circles, please visit:

Works Cited

Aguilar, Elena. An East Oakland Odyssey: Exploring the Love of Reading in a Small School.

Curtis, Christopher Paul. Annenberg Learner. “Teaching strategies: literature circles.”

Montessori School of Bali. “Literary circles.” November 28, 2017.

Noe, Katherine L. Schlick. Literature Circles Resource Center.

Michelle Irinyi — NAMC Tutor & Graduate


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