Squaring the literary circle

18th March 2005 at 00:00
Reading books without pictures gives your imagination the chance to think up whatever you want, says Stephen McGregor.

Reading lots of books is good, says his friend Ryan Gray, because you can look for the differences and the similarities.

"Books expand your imagination and help you write books too. The writer inspires you as well; he makes you like him," adds Ryan.

These boys are members of a P7 literature circle at St Cadoc's Primary in Cambuslang, one of five schools in South Lanarkshire taking part in a research programme to evaluate the US-inspired concept of literature circles for pupils. There are eight children in the group, one of several in the class.

Essentially book clubs for pupils, the literature circles aim to engage children more in reading by encouraging them to share their understanding of the texts. In the early stages the teacher tends to lead the discussion by asking open questions.

Pupils are allowed to choose the book they will read, section by section, together. The circle meets once or twice a week for a discussion - topics may range from plot or characterisation to emotions stirred by the book or how an author and illustrator work together - before agreeing the next target.

For some really keen readers there is some frustration that they are allowed to read only two chapters for the next circle session, rather than racing ahead to finish the book at their own pace. This rule, however, ensures everyone in the group is focused on a particular section and it improves their discussion, says their teacher, Flora Kennedy. And the pupils recognise that they think harder about what the writer is trying to say to them when they are reading for their circle session.

This group is reading the second Lemony Snicket book in the collection A Series of Unfortunate Events. Originally, it was a group of boys only, but four of the girls wanted to read it too, so Mrs Kennedy allowed them to join in.

The girls' first text was Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, written in 1936. They persevered with it but found it quite old-fashioned. Playground chat about Lemony Snicket caught their imagination.

Part of their frustration at not being allowed to read on is, they recognise, the fact that the author constructs the end of each chapter in such a way as to "lure" them (Tony Cartwright's term) on to the next. They are also amused by the author's instruction at the beginning of the book:

"There is nothing stopping you from putting down this book ...", when in fact they have had to put it down when really they didn't want to.

The book's unhappy ending - in contrast to their expectation that all stories have a happy ending - also intrigues them.

Reading and writing have always been a high priority in the school, but Mrs Kennedy says the literature circles have increased her enthusiasm as well as theirs.

"I am trying to really engage them in reading. They do read a lot and they can tell you about a book and write a good review, but from the literature circle we are drawing on language as well.

"Reading, writing, talking and listening: I am able to get all these facets of language into the one lesson, otherwise I would not be able to spend so much time on literature circles when the curriculum is so crowded," she said.

Part of the P7 curriculum is looking at the writer's craft, and the literature circles are already paying dividends here, she says.

Mrs Kennedy says that most of the children in her class of 25 are already keen readers. The reason they were chosen for the literature circle research, being led by Jim Allan of Strathclyde University, was that St Cadoc's Primary had the highest percentage of pupils borrowing books in the local library's summer reading scheme.

She believes that the circles are engaging some pupils who were not enthusiastic readers, but not all, yet. She describes a situation where one boy was not keeping up with the reading tasks in his circle. After discussion among the pupils, he was allowed an extra night to catch up but still did not do it. When the same thing happened again, the other pupils were clearly becoming exasperated. So Mrs Kennedy dropped him from that circle.

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