Talking About Books:
A Phenomenological Study
of Teachers’ and Children’s
Perspectives Across Grades
Janine Certo, Kathleen Moxley & Kelly Reffitt
National Reading Conference, Austin, TX
November 29, 2007
The Larger Study (2-year mixed methods
design in one urban elementary school)
Students’
perceptions of
their literature
circle
experiences
across grade
and ability
levels
Students’ executive
functions, including social
skills and leadership skills,
that mediate or moderate
reading outcomes for
children participating in
literature circles
Elementary teachers’
perceptions of their
evolving roles in literature
circles and how they
negotiate offering texts
and the approach within a
strictly-dictated district
literacy curriculum.
Methods and data sources
include Piaget’s clinical
method for interviewing
children (1979), the
Behavior Rating Inventory
of Executive Functions
(BRIEF; Gioia, Isquith,
Guy, Kenworthy, 2000),
subscale items from the
Behavior Assessment
System for Children Second Edition (Reynolds
& Kamphaus, 2004),
existing aggregate and
individual student
standardized test data,
interviews with teachers,
and researcher field notes.
Why this analyses?
 Most studies at the elementary level have been:

conducted within single classrooms


conducted at single grade levels (middle
elementary)


(e. g. Allen, Möller, Stroup, 2003; Burns, 1998; Evans, 2002;
Goatley, Brock, & Raphael, 1995; Hadjiaonnou, 2007; Hauschildt
& McMahon, 1996; Kong & Fitch, 2002; Martin, 1998; Raphael,
Gavelek, & Daniels, 1998)
(e. g. Allen, Möller, Stroup, 2003; Almasi, 1995; Almasi,
O’Flahavan, & Arya, 2001; Berry & Englert, 2005; Burns, 1998;
Evans, 2002; Goatley, Brock, & Raphael, 1995; Hadjiaonnou,
2007; Hauschildt & McMahon, 1996; King, 2001; Kong & Fitch,
2002; McMahon & Goatley, 1995; Raphael, Gavelek, & Daniels,
1998)
with limited early readers’ participation

(Frank, Dixon, & Brandts, 1998; Martin,
1998; McIntyre, 2007)
This work is informed by. . .
 Researcher interest and funding targeted at teacher




professional development and learning communities (similar
to work of Raphael and Florio-Ruane (2000) and their
associates with the Teacher Learning Collaborative).
A belief that meanings created in social interactions provide a
foundation for learning (Dewey, 1916; Rogers, 1969; Piaget,
1947; Vygotsky, 1978).
Reader response theory (Rosenblatt, 1978, 1983) as students
negotiate meaning alone and together.
Gee’s (2001) argument for participation in learning “social
languages” (in this case, learning how to talk in a group about
a book) that are connected to social activities (literature
circles).
A situated cognition perspective (Brown, Collins, & Duguid,
1989) that suggests learning about comprehension strategies
can be embedded in discussions about texts.
Gaps in the research
 In studies conducted on classroom discussion students are
rarely asked about their perceptions or interpretations of
their own talk within literacy discussions groups (Evans,
2002, Erickson & Schultz, 1992; Alvermann, 1996).
 Studies that consider and juxtapose students’ perceptions
across grade level and multiple settings.
 Studies where individual students are interviewed privately
to explore their own perceptions that they may be ill at ease
revealing within small group contexts (Evans, 2002).
 Studies that consider teacher viewpoints in conjunction with
students’ viewpoints.
Research Questions
1. What are the perceptions of the teacher role in
literature circles?
2. What are students’ attitudes toward group
discussions of literature?
3. What are the perceptions of student learning in
literature circles?
Context and Study Site:
Otto Elementary School
 Western PA metropolitan area
 Thirty-five percent of students received free/reduced-price meals
 54% White, 33% Black, 9% Asian and 1% Hispanic
 8% English Language Learners
 12% received special education services
 Reading First initiatives and district-mandated literacy activities
 Use of a commercial basal dominated language arts instruction
 Pattern in classrooms was dominated by an I-R-E discourse
pattern (Cazden, 2001)
Collaborative Intervention
& Professional Development
 Voluntary teacher participation
 Four half-day workshops across two years
 Weekly, differentiated consultation, observations
and in-class support
 Principal and teacher input into larger study design
 Literature circle groups met 1-2 times a week for
20-40 minutes.
Participants - Students
Grade
Total
1
6
4
3
7
4
5
N=24
African
American
White
Other
Students
with
Learning
Disabilities
English
Language
Learners
Students
Identified
as Gifted
2
1
3
2
1
2
0
5
2
1
3
3
2
2
2
5
1
4
2
3
0
1
0
2
6
5
1
1
5
0
2
0
2
M F
Participants - Teachers
Grade/
Assignment
Total
Years Teaching Experience
Highest Degree Earned
1
3
2
3
15; 25
6, 15, 17
4
5
4-5
1
2
1
3
6; 12
30
MA in progress
1
20
MA
BA; MA
MA; BA; BA
BA; MA
MA
Reading
Support
Librarian
N=10
Data Collection, Analysis & Strategies to
Monitor Credibility and Dependability
 Interviews with all teachers; stratified random sample of





students (n= 24)
Semi-structured audiotaped interviews
-Teachers
-Students
Prolonged field work and use of a field log
Use of Hyperresearch© data management and analysis
software program
Cross-examination of data by two researchers
Audit trail
THEMES
Role transformation (T, S)
Modeling and Scaffolding (T, S)
Enjoyment (T, S)
HELPING
Learning how to talk in a group about a book
(S)
Writing improvement (T, S)
Responding to literature and using
comprehension strategies
Questioning (T, S)
Connecting (T, S)
Summarizing (T, S)
Noting important information (T, S)
Clarifying (T, S)
Predicting (S)
Imagining (S)
Decoding (S)
Findings: What are the perceptions of teachers’
roles in literature circles?
TEACHERS
 Reported difficulty relinquishing control of the teachinglearning process
 Traditional roles transformed to that of leader, modeler,
facilitator, and observer.
STUDENTS
 Students across grade and ability levels described a variety
of teacher roles
 sitting and listening to groups discuss books, helping
students read unfamiliar words, selecting books, keeping
students on task, clarifying confusing questions, and
evaluating group performance
Findings: Modeling & Scaffolding
TEACHERS
 Reported modeling and scaffolding for:
-group discussion behavior (“You don’t have to raise your hands.”)
-reading for meaning
-preparing for discussion (different forms of writing)
Initial use of “roles” or “jobs” to scaffold discussions/7 teachers eliminated
them once they were internalized.
 Agreement that modeling was vital, especially how to journal/make notes
to prepare for discussions and asking good questions.

[We modeled] what the discussion does look like, so far as good questions,
and then we modeled asking really bad questions, [and] let the kids pick
out the bad questions. Then we talked about what makes a good question.
[The students] would take some notes in their
journals and then…they
©
would be expected to write, on their Post-It notes or in journals some
good questions.
(5th grade teacher)
Findings: Modeling & Scaffolding
STUDENTS
 Initial anticipation and excitement about jobs and roles
across grade levels.
 Three students (grade 1, 3 & 4) reported being “scared” or
“nervous” at first to come to literature circles.
 One student receiving special education support wanted
more help from his teacher in preparing him for literature
circles.
 Fourth and fifth graders preferred coming to literature
circles with writings and jottings from their logs. Ike, a
fifth-grader reported “if you're always on the job, then it’s
directing your discussion for you ... last year, we did
literature circles and the jobs were the only thing that we
did ... it wasn’t as fun as this.”
Findings: What are the perceptions of
students’ attitudes toward literature circles?
Enjoyment
TEACHERS
 Teachers perceived that students found the texts they read
in literature circles “much more pleasurable for them
because they weren’t worried about answering questions
as they read.”
 “They got very excited about the reading…and they
anticipate what job they’re going to be assigned, and so,
they just love it.” -3d grade teacher
 Perceived student excitement about reading chapter books
and pride in having their own copy of the book.
 Reports at the fourth and fifth grades that students’ reading
and discussions continued outside of literature circles.
Findings: Enjoyment
STUDENTS
 22 students preferred “literature circles books” over their “reading
book” [commercial basal program]. Upper elementary students
articulated the richness of an authentic novel:

Well, the reading book only gives you part of the story, not
the entire story, and the one that was actually published,
gives you the entire story of what happened. – Jeff, fourth
grader
 Students overwhelmingly reported they enjoyed coming to group
discussions, referring to it as “fun” and characterizing it as the best part
of language arts. Three students above grade level reported that,
although they enjoyed literature circles, “it would be ok if they [LC]
went away” because they just liked reading.
 Students at all levels cognizant of changing classroom discourse
pattern.
 50% of students reported picking up and reading more books and/or
discovering a new genre, author or series.
Findings: What are the perceptions of student
learning in LC? Learning how to talk in a group
about a book
STUDENTS
 From 1st to 5th grade, children who initially did not know
how to respond to texts become proficient at participating
in literacy conversations In this study, there was evidence
of this from first to fifth grade, and it was even true of
students identified as gifted. Tammy, a first grader reading
on grade level, reported how literature circles helped her
discuss books, “I learned how to talk about a book because
I didn’t know what to say, and now I do.” Fifth grader,
Allen, who attended a center weekly for Gifted Education
“learned how to talk in a group ... I never really talked in a
group about a book. I usually just think about it myself,
and now I realize how to talk with a group of people, and
how they can help me with the book and stuff like that.”
Writing Improvement
TEACHERS
 Fourth and fifth grade teachers reported that writing
improved across the curriculum.
 Across all grade levels teachers perceived longer,
higher quality writing. The teacher of special needs
students reported, “students who struggled in
writing in previous years were writing the longest
and most quality responses to literature that I’ve
ever seen and I know it’s because of the amount of
writing we do in literature circles.”
Findings: Writing Improvement
STUDENTS
Every student reported that writing helped with discussion,
even if they did find it difficult. One first grader, Asia,
reported, “I like to do the writing because sometimes we do
it [the writing] like from one day, we do it [the discussion]
like in the next week sometimes, and it’s too long, and you
might forget.” Evan, a third grader with special needs
commented, “Yeah, I hate all that writing , but it [writing]
helped me not to look like a fool. It helped me to ask a
good question from Case of the Bad Stripes (Shannon,
2004) like ‘What made her eat lima beans at the end?”
Responses to Literature:
Questioning
TEACHERS


Perceived that over time, with modeling and practice, students were
asking more open-ended questions.
Reported students who emerged as leaders asking good questions to
keep the discussion going.
STUDENTS




Ivan, an advanced third grade reader reported, “other people’s questions
made me understand the book more.”
Reported at least one student who emerged as a leader asking good
questions to keep the discussion going.
Other students’ reports echo the cliché of “two heads are better than
one” when it comes to question posing and comprehension. Maleek, a
third grade, on level reader explained “because you work together and
there’s more people. They might have different answers than you so you
can get more answers from them.”
Ava, a fourth grade, above level reader agreed, “because you answer
questions with your friends within those little groups, and it’s easier to
try and understand the book when you're doing it with your friends.”
Responses to Literature: Connecting
TEACHERS
 Teachers who used roles or jobs reported that students most enjoyed having
being the “Connector” in literature circles.
 When roles were dropped, teachers noticed that students made more personal
connections to the text.
STUDENTS
 A particularly powerful connection was made by Yasmine, a fifth grader in
the reading support room who reported that Freckle Juice (Blume) related to
her because she “usually wants stuff that other kids have. When asked what
she wants, she replied, “To live with my mother, because I don’t really live
with my mother. . . I live with my grandma who cares about me, and we go to
a good school, and I have someone who talks to me.”

A first grade student also shared how he made personal connections with
books discussed in LC, and how his group learned more about a new student
in their classroom. “In this book [points to Honey, I Love], we all talked about
places we love and places we’ve gone, and Hon Li was telling us all about
Japan. He lived there before he came to our school.”
Responses to Literature: Multiple
Interpretations
STUDENTS
 A first grade student reported, “. . . if you talk about it to the
whole class ... then the teacher would give you ... ideas. I
think it‘s better ... getting ideas from ... your- age kids.
 Lynn, a third grade, on grade level reader reported, “Yeah,
you got to understand the book more, you got to actually see
the book from their point of view.”
 Evan, a third grader, realized that interacting with others
influenced his thinking and understanding, stating, “You get
more ideas, more details to add to yours, and you get to
agree with them, and disagree, and change your answers.”
 Sam, a fifth grade, above grade level reader thinks it is fun to
talk about books ... and get different ideas from other
people.”
Responses to Literature: Multiple
Interpretations or Clarifying for Understanding
TEACHERS


Frog and Toad All Year (Lobel) ... the whole joke is Spring is just around
the corner, and Frog goes looking for Spring just around the corner, and
Anastasia wrote, “what does he mean?” She didn't get it. So here she’s
questioning what’s going on in the story. And I ... happened to walk up
and I was listening to her group discuss and she said, “what does he
mean?” and then the other boy that was sitting in their circle said,
“Yeah, I wrote I don't understand,” and someone else said “Yeah, I put a
question mark” because they didn't get the saying “Spring is just around
the corner” so they talked about it a little bit and then they went on to say
they might see it soon or it’s the next season .... they were having trouble
understanding it and then when they came together in the group, they
were trying to figure it out themselves. So that was kind of neat. -1st
grade teacher
Students were arguing about the meaning of the chapter title, Scarlet
Deluge. . .[in the historical novel Johnny Tremaine (Forbes) about the
revolutionary war]. . .how it could be bloodshed, not just the Red Coats
coming in. -5th grade teacher
Using Comprehension Strategies
STUDENTS
 Well, while we were reading Shiloh (Reynolds & Moser, 2000), this
kid in my group ... didn't really understand why the man would really
look for his dog, and she didn't understand why the man didn't think
the dog was dead. And I explained because he knew that he was alive
because he [the dog] ran away a lot and he always like went over to
this kid’s house so that’s why the man was always looking at the kid’s
house.
 Charlie, a first grade advanced reader described how ... Students were
also examining or learning new words. . . “Yeah, my friend Stefano, he
was reading and he couldn't figure out a word and me and Julian were
helping him get the word out. He was thinking it was “Jose [long e],”
but we said it was Jose because the Pirates [baseball team] have a
player, and his first name is Jose, and that’s how he spells it.” (first
grader)
 Students monitored and adjusted their predictions based on continued
interpretations about text. Yagmur, a third grade advanced reader,
reported, “Like if you make a prediction about the book and you read
it, and you're right, and the prediction was right, it is sort of exciting.”
Using Comprehension Strategies
STUDENTS
 Ava, a fourth grade, advanced reader, described her job as
summarizer and what she learned about it: “You just sort of
summarize it up even if there are details that you can’t
really include, just to make it like easier to understand
what’s been happening so far It’s hard to discuss like real
deep if you don’t get the basic gist.”
 As one gifted fifth grader reported, “in Hoot (Haissen), it’s
hard to keep on track where all the events are happening,
because it will change, and then it will change back real
fast. I had to keep re-reading it, and try to figure out where
scenes stopped ... when I read alone, I ... speed read ... and
I found out [when I was in literature circles] I was missing
a lot of stuff.”
Some Other Key Differences
by Grade or Ability Level
TEACHERS
 Seven of the ten teachers abandoned roles as scaffolds by the end of the
second year.
 Five of the ten teachers offered choice of books to students by the end of
the second year.
STUDENTS
 There were developmental differences in terms of children’s perceived
use of comprehension strategies in literature circles.
 Upper-grade elementary students argued for authentic student-led
discussions.
 Three students with special needs admitted they had difficulty paying
attention or being prepared for literature circles. One student reported,
“I'm not really good at discussing. Because it's like you gotta say a lot of
stuff, and I don’t like saying a lot of stuff. . . every time it comes up in
my head, I forget it when we're ready to discuss.
Discussion & Implications
 Moving from traditional classroom discussion formats where teachers are





front and center leading the talk to more authentic student-led talk is a
difficult task for teachers (Almasi, O’Flahavan, & Arya, 2001; McIntyre,
2007).
Strong connections will be evident between teacher and student roles and
children’s responses to literature and comprehension strategies used.
Teacher modeling and scaffolding is necessary across all elementary grades.
In classrooms characterized by IRE discussion patterns, arrival at
authenticity may take years for some teachers.
Sustained, high quality professional development should be provided to
support teachers in including authentic literacy activities, such as literature
circles, in their curriculum and continually move towards creating more
authentic discussions.
As part of balanced literacy instruction, literature circles have the potential to
rejuvenate excitement about teaching among teachers and invoke student
excitement about texts, reading and group discussion.
Discussion & Implications
 Only two students preferred the basal approach over LC (with special needs),





and three students expressed difficulties. Reasons included not feeling
prepared, forgetting to do work, daydreaming, and disliking the books. Such
students certainly require choice in book selection, but may also require
interventions to address self-monitoring and planning (Miller, Schmitt, Certo &
Greene, 2007).
By and large, there is substantial corroboration between teachers’ and students’
perceptions.
All children perceived that they learned how to talk in a group about a book,
and they were excited about this new experience.
Children at all grades and ability levels can recognize and articulate the
relationship between written text and oral discourse (see also McMahon, 1991).
Children can experience/learn about responses to literature and comprehension
strategy use in group discussions about text.
There were 215 variations of the word “help” in the data. Group discussions
about text has the potential to facilitate positive social interactions. Other
analyses underway is looking at social and leadership development among the
127 students participating in the study (Certo, Moxley, Miller, Reffitt &
Sportsman, in preparation).
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Enjoyment, Social Outcomes and Learning in Literature