Tips for Setting Up Book Clubs & Literature Circles

Struggling to get your students engaged in their reading? Looking for a way to give them more choice and ownership in their learning? Tired of teaching that a class novel that seems to drag on forever?

I’ve been there! While there’s nothing wrong with a well-done class novel, there’s a magical alternative to mix up your literacy instruction: book clubs or literature circles. FYI, whether you call them clubs or circles, they’re the same thing: small groups of students that read and discuss books. Each group selects a different text to read and engages in student-led discussion and other meaningful activities.  Ideally, the book choices are united by a common genre, theme, or essential question. For example, my students are currently in book clubs reading novels in verse such as Long Way Down and House Arrest.

The structure and logistics of lit circles will vary from classroom to classroom, and that’s the beauty of book clubs. They’re flexible! As long as you’re committed to good books and student choice, you can find a way to make book clubs work for you and your students. The challenge, of course, is figuring all of that out, especially when you’re implementing book clubs for the first time. It may feel overwhelming at first, but nothing will feel more rewarding than walking around your classroom and listening to students lead their own discussions about literature!

Are you excited to launch your first round of literature circles or book clubs but don’t know where to start? If so, here are 5 tips for setting up a successful, student-centered experience:

5 Tips for Setting Up Book Clubs & Lit Circles
5 Tips for Setting Up Book Clubs & Literature Circles

1. Start planning in advance! Give yourself more time than you think you need to select and read the books.

The best thing you can do to plan successful lit circles is preparing ahead of time. If you’re reading this blog post, there’s a good chance you’re doing just that! Setting up a book club or lit circle unit is a lot of work, but it’s worth it. Give yourself more time than you think you need to select books, get books, and then READ the books before giving them to the students. For context, I started planning my lit circles almost 2 months out. Still, I found myself scrambling at the last minute trying to read all the books before students began the unit. It happens, but the more you can get ahead, the better.

In addition to reading the books, set aside time to learn about lit circles if you’re launching them for the first time. There are incredible books, websites, educators, and other resources out there to help you plan your unit!

Here are some helpful resources for planning your next book club or lit circle unit:

Start planning in advance. Give yourself more time than you think you need to select and read the books.
Start your book club/lit circle planning in advance.

2. Use your resources: your school librarian, local library, and Overdrive

The most challenging part of creating a new book club unit is often acquiring all of the books. Even if you can’t secure funding for text sets, don’t limit your literature circles to what’s on your shelves or in the book cabinet down the hall. Collaborate with your school and local librarians to see what books you can pull together. In addition, check out Overdrive to access digital copies of books. Many libraries offer free “e-cards” that give readers instant access to ebooks, audiobooks, and more.

For example, let’s say you have one copy of a text and your school library has another. If Overdrive has 3 ebooks, then that can be an option for a group of 5 students. Some books have more digital copies than others, so it’s worth researching different novels. You never know what’s out there! This is part of the reason why it’s so crucial to start your preparation ahead of time. The more you utilize your resources, the easier it will be to offer a diverse selection of high-interest books!

Here’s what I noticed while I was researching novels in verse on my local library’s Overdrive:

  • The library had 96 ebook copies of The Crossover by Kwame Alexander. I had only 2 physical copies. I realized our school library had a few more. Thanks to the ebooks, it instantly became a viable book club option!
  • The library had 6 electronic copies of a new book that I didn’t own: Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case by Patricia Hruby Powell. After previewing the book and reading it in one sitting, I knew I had to make it an option. I quickly found a few extra copies on Thriftbooks for students who might want a physical copy.  I didn’t yet own a copy of the book when I offered it to students! The best part of this is that this book ended up being one of the most popular lit circle choices! I would not have been able to offer this as an option without the library’s ebooks. 
  • The library had dozens of audiobook copies of a book I was already planning on offering: Lifeboat 12 by Susan Hood. While I had a set of paper copies, I was able to offer the book to more students because of the audiobook copies. This worked out well because Lifeboat 12 was another popular option, too.

The moral of the story? Your libraries will expand the choices you can offer your students. And you’ll never know what’s available until you look! 🙂

Utilize your resources for the book clubs/literature circles: your school librarian, local libraries, and Overdrive.
Utilize your resources: your school librarian, local libraries, and Overdrive

3. Determine if students will choose books or groups first. Both ways work, but have a purpose.

One important part of the book club equation is determining how students will form groups. Will you ask your students to consider books first, and then form groups based on their preferences? Or will you arrange groups first, and then ask students to come to a consensus on a text? From what I’ve gathered, most teachers ask students to choose books before groups.

I actually structured it the opposite way for our novels in verse book clubs. One of my main goals was to support strong discussions, so I wanted students to feel fully comfortable in their groups. We discussed how to come to a consensus and accept a compromise that would make everyone happy in some way. This was easy for some groups and challenging for others, but overall, it was a great exercise in real-life collaboration.

Both ways can work, so consider your students and your goals for your unit. If you want students to be completely comfortable with their groups so they can have great discussions, then choosing groups first makes the most sense. If you are more concerned with students reading their favorite book, then you might have students select books first and then arrange the groups based on their preferences.

Determine if students will choose groups or books first. Both ways work, but have a purpose.
Determine if students will choose groups or books first. Both ways work, but have a purpose.

4. Give students ample time to browse and select books.

One of the most important parts of the book club process is book browsing. For students to buy in, take ownership, and enjoy their book clubs, they need to have the freedom to select the books that are best for them. An easy, COVID-safe way to do this is to create digital book displays so that students can “sample” each text from behind a screen. 

Here’s how I structured it in my classroom: I created a set of Google Slides and made the first one a “home menu.” This menu featured all of the covers so students could browse each text before clicking on the linked covers. Each cover took students to a separate slide with a summary, a fun fact or two, a link to a sample on and any available book trailers, author interviews, or other resources. While browsing these slides, students had to list 3 books they were interested in reading and 2 books they were not interested in, as well as specific reasons for why they were interested/not interested in each. After exploring their options individually, students got together in their groups to discuss their preferences and come to a consensus on their top 3 texts.

In addition to giving students ample time to browse, discuss, and select books, it’s important to give yourself enough time to get everything organized! You definitely do not want to do this overnight! My students began book browsing on a Wednesday and finalized their preference on a Thursday. I gave myself until the following Monday to get everything organized and ready. If you know you’ll need even more time to arrange groups or secure copies, don’t be afraid of giving yourself a week or so! It will be well worth it!

Give students ample time to browse and select books for the book clubs/lit circles. Digital browsing works well.
Give students ample time to browse and select books. Digital browsing works well.

5. Ask students to brainstorm expectations and anticipate potential problems.

Because book clubs/lit circles are so student-centered, then it only makes sense to co-create expectations. When students have a say in the expectations of the unit, they’ll be more accountable and invested. While you’ll have overarching expectations for all groups, giving groups the freedom to define their own expectations will help you differentiate instruction for all learners. Some groups will focus on comprehension and completing the work, while other groups may be ready for more challenges. For example, when I set up our novel in verse book clubs, a few groups actually asked me to read two books instead of just one. I said yes, of course! You’ll never know what students can do until you give them the chance to show you.

Here’s how I set students up with the freedom to create their own goals, expectations, and consequences:

First, I asked each group to brainstorm at least 5 specific expectations for their book club meetings. If students wrote down vague norms such as “Be engaged,” I challenged them to describe what “engaged” looks like. I encouraged students to be so descriptive that anyone could objectively tell if they were following the expectations or not. With this extra prompting, students were able to generate more specific guidelines, such as “Pay attention by looking at the person who is talking,” “Open discussion with your personal outtake/thoughts on the book,” and even (one of my favs) “Don’t complain about the work, but you can criticize the story.” 

In addition to asking students to draft group norms, I also provided them with a few different scenarios and asked each group to explain how they’d address each issue. I created an “If, Then” table. In the “If” column, I offered a scenario. In the “Then” column, students outlined how their group would respond. Here are a few of the scenarios:

  • A group member does not complete the reading for that day’s class
  • A group member is dominating the conversation and it’s difficult for others to speak up

During this part of the lesson, students debated appropriate responses and fair consequences before coming to a consensus on how to handle each issue. This exercise was crucial in helping each group anticipate problems and develop a sense of accountability that would work for them. The bonus? When a group member violates a norm or a situation arises, all you have to do is point to the group’s guidelines and follow the plan! (As a teacher, it’s much easier to enforce a student-created consequence!)

Ask students to brainstorm expectations and anticipate potential problems for the book clubs/lit circles.
Ask students to brainstorm expectations and anticipate potential problems.

I hope these tips help! Happy lesson planning. 🙂

I hope these tips help you structure your upcoming book clubs or lit circles! If you like these tips, then stay tuned for the next post on tips for facilitating book clubs or literature circles!

Have questions? Let me know in the comments! I’ll do my best to answer your questions below or in future posts!

If you liked this post, check out the following for more engaging ideas on teaching reading:

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