1 Introduction

CHAPTER ONE:  INTRODUCTION

‘Literature Circles in EFL’ are teacher accompanied classroom discussion groups among EFL learners, who regularly get together in class to speak about and share their ideas, and comment on others interpretations about the previously determined section of a graded reader in English, using their ‘role-sheets’ and ‘student journals’ in collaboration with each other.

As a practicing English teacher in Bulgaria, I got acquainted with ‘Literature Circles in EFL’ while I was searching for a textbook for my extensive reading class. As I was going through some conference proceedings, I came across ‘Bookworms Club’ series editor, Mark Furr’s exciting remarks about literature circles, where he simply states that they are ‘magic’. He thinks that they are the magic formula for natural, enjoyable discussions in English. He eagerly tells his experience about literature circles, which he believes, transformed his students from passive, rather shy, reticent Japanese university students into students who eagerly refer to their texts in order to support their arguments while sharing their opinions in English (Furr, Literature Circles for the EFL Classroom, 2004, p. 1). I was curious about the dramatic effect of student to student interactions on Japanese students during these literature circles and decided to conduct a study on literature circles to find out how they stimulate social interaction during the discussions and promote collaborative learning in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classes.

Soon afterwards, when I was in quest of the starting point of these literature circles, I learned about the project in Chicago in connection with bringing book clubs—the centuries-old tradition of informally talking about stories and books—into elementary and secondary native language (L1) classes by an American teacher and researcher, Harvey Daniels and his colleagues (Daniels, 2002, p. 1). Together, they have done a great deal of research and Daniels has reported the success of literature circles in L1 classrooms in North America, especially mentioning that literature circles have developed a prolific professional literature and research base in the US (Daniels, 2002, p. 7).

Overview

A ‘book club’ is a group of people who meet regularly to discuss the specific book they have read and express their opinions, likes or dislikes about it. Similarly, as DaLie explains, a literature circle is a students’ equivalent of an adult book club in the classroom. The aim is to encourage student-choice and a love of reading in young people. The true intent of Literature Circles is “to allow students to practice and develop the skills and strategies of good readers” (DaLie, 2001, p. 85). In literature circles, small groups of students gather to discuss a piece of literature in depth. The discussion is guided by students’ response to what they have read. You may hear talks about events and characters in the book, the author’s craft, or personal experiences related to the story (Schlick Noe & Johnson, 1999, p. ix). Literature circles are a form of independent reading, structured as collaborative small groups, and guided by reader-response principles in light of current comprehension research (Daniels, 2002, p. 38). Today, nearly all EFL coursebooks compete to include the most up-to-date and interesting texts for the target age group, while on the other hand the fiction literature has a treasure of themes (See Appendix A, p. 62) which, I believe, relate more to our everyday lives. All this goes against what most English language learners and many English teachers as well believe: poems, short stories, and plays do not have a major role in classrooms aimed at developing communicative competence in English, and literary texts are only for advanced learners. In reality, most students often think that the study of English literature is boring and difficult. This problematic situation might be the result of not teaching literature in the right way. Most English learners think that studying literature is definitely not the right way to develop either language skills or interest into literature.

Today, most of the foreign language teachers, like me, are in search of specific learning approaches that have strong student centered components like cooperative and collaborative learning. In this study, the term ‘literature circles’ in the EFL classroom refers to; small groups of students—five or six in each group—reading same piece of literature to accomplish different tasks like preparing questions, reporting challenging vocabulary, finding cultural items, determining the well written parts or making connections with the contemporary society. The members of the groups later come together in the classroom to have a discussion under the supervision of their English teacher on the piece of literature they covered. Being greatly influenced by the effect of these literature circles on L1 classes, I urged to conduct a research to find out more about how teachers can increase the student interaction and adapt literature circles into EFL classes to increase foreign language competence. The main question arising from the problem at this stage was: Is there an effective way to use literature in the EFL classroom? I was also focused on how much the student interaction in an EFL class could be encouraged through literature circles.

Background and Aims

Based on all the above-mentioned issues related to the difficulty of implementing literature in EFL classes, my initial aim with this research was to find out how literature circles stimulate the social interaction among language learners and promote the collaborative learning in the EFL classroom.

Wendy C. Kasten believes that literature circles promote peer discussions, negotiation of ideas, and the expression of comprehension, which is a feature that is most common in literature circles (Kasten, p. 70). As it is clear that classroom interaction and social learning will appeal to teachers and researchers who have an interest in classroom discourse, this research tends to find out more about the extent and importance of literary discourse in foreign language acquisition and the need and importance of literary texts for a comprehensive attainment of higher levels of language skills.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand what literature circles are is to examine what they are not.

 

Table 1: What Literature Circles Are

 

Literature Circles are . . . Literature Circles are not . . .
Reader response centered Teacher and text centered
Part of a balanced literacy program The entire reading curriculum
Groups formed by book choice Teacher-assigned groups formed solely by ability
Structured for student independence, responsibility, and ownership Unstructured, uncontrolled “talk time” without accountability
Guided primarily by student insights and questions Guided primarily by teacher- or curriculum-based questions
Intended as a context in which to apply reading and writing skills Intended as a place to do skills work
Flexible and fluid; never look the same twice Tied to a prescriptive “recipe”

 

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

It is my belief that this research can be important on the grounds that, with greater needs on improving foreign language learning and skills development for general language competency and exam preparation, there is a need for a research into the process underlying the performance and literary materials used to stimulate the student interaction in foreign language classes through collaborative work on literature circles. As Nunan states, this kind of research can provide guidance for teacher education, instructional materials, and curriculum development (Nunan, 1992, p. 43).

At this point, I would like to explain the context in which my research exists by briefing the main research questions and hypothesis and try to show how my research fits into the greater scheme of things. In this context, to discuss the stimulation of the social interaction in classrooms and find out its effects on foreign language learning, later we will cover the methodology which mainly provides information on participants, data collection, analysis and basic concepts related to the procedure of the literature circles study.

Research Questions and Hypothesis

The main issues, my research intends to investigate and expects to find out, are mainly focused on the responses and findings of the following major research questions: What language interactions and classroom discourse are taking place in literature circles and how might this affect the language development of foreign language learners? The intended research further aims to discover if teaching of literature or literary texts makes language acquisition more ‘use-focused’ instead of ‘form-focused’ and if it is beneficial to include literature or literary texts in EFL curriculum at all the stages of language learning in general.

My main research hypothesis suggests that, as a balanced element of the school curriculum, literature circles can provide an exciting way to promote student engagement in social interaction and improve foreign language learning by means of cooperative learning and collaborative work and offer the potential to promote reading for enjoyment.

Literature circles fit into a comprehensive literacy program as a way for students to apply what they are learning about reading and writing:

Table 2: Literature Circles in a Comprehensive Literacy Program
From Chapter 1, Getting Started with Literature Circles
by Katherine L. Schlick Noe & Nancy J. Johnson.
© 1999 Christopher-Gordon Publishers, Inc.

Methodology

Searching for a suitable research methodology for the project, I came across Lemke’s statements where he embraces a social perspective on language that sees schools not as ‘knowledge delivery systems’ but as social institutions in which people affect each other’s lives. He argues that classroom education is talk. “It is the social use of language to enact regular activity structures and to share systems of meaning among teachers and students” (Lemke, p. 1).

This research project mainly focuses on literature circles, which Daniels describes as a quite sophisticated and highly evolved part of the wider collaborative learning movement (Daniels, 2002, p. 35). Before we make a distinction between cooperative and collaborative learning, we should know that, the act of learning takes place in social interactions through joint, collaborative activity. Learning takes place first at the social level which is ‘the intra-personal level’ and is later appropriated by the individual one which is ‘the intra-personal level’ (Baquedano-López, Literacy practices across learning contexts, 2004, p. 247). Daniels introduces a distinction between ‘cooperative learning’, which is mainly used to describe traditional skills-oriented school tasks assigned by teachers to student groups, and ‘collaborative learning’, which is preferred for more higher-order, student-centered and open-ended activities (Daniels, 2002, p. 35). To find the relation between literature circles and communicative and cooperative learning, I depart from Raphael and Gavelek’s view that ‘literature circles’ can be traced to the idea of cooperative learning study groups where students work collaboratively on specific projects or tasks (Raphael & Gavelek, p. 98). As it is also mentioned by Ernst-Slavit, Carrison, & Spiesman-Laughlin, literature circles provide opportunities for oral language and literacy growth for all students, including English language learners. Many teachers, however, are hesitant to use this instructional approach with students who are learning English (Ernst-Slavit, Carrison, & Spiesman-Laughlin, p. 91).

On the one hand, it is generally difficult to make a distinction between cooperative and collaborative learning methods at the beginning. When we consider the advantages of small group structure and active student participation in collaborative and cooperative tasks over passive, lecture based teaching, the two terms seem quite close in meaning. In both ways learning is supported by a discovery based approach. Both methods require group skills and come with a framework upon which the group’s activity resides, but cooperative learning is usually more structurally defined than collaborative learning.

On the other hand, experts define the differences between these methodologies as one of knowledge and power (Rockwood, 1995a, p. 8). It can be concluded that cooperative learning is based on foundational knowledge while collaborative learning is more on the constructionist’s view that knowledge is a social construct. Cooperative learning requires the instructor as the center of authority and is usually more closed-ended and usually has specific answers. In comparison, collaborative learning does not entail the instructor’s authority and requires small groups which are often given more open-ended, complex tasks.

 

Participants.

The study was conducted on two groups of students at a private high school in Sofia, Bulgaria. The first group consisted of 34 (fourteen-year-old) teenagers in eight-grade and the second group included 33 (eighteen-year-old) young adults in twelfth-grade. The aforementioned high school is an English language profile school, where eight-grade is a preparatory year with 21 hours of English language instruction weekly, starting from elementary level up to the intermediate throughout the year. In the school, starting from the ninth-grade onwards, the language of instruction for math, physics, chemistry and biology is English as well. Twelfth-grade is the graduation year, when students study intensively to get ready for university entrance exams such as, State-Graduation-Exam, TOEFL, IELTS or SAT. Because of these reasons English language is the most crucial subject for those age groups. The school has a multicultural setting as there are many students from different nationalities and family backgrounds. The class sizes are rather small with an average of 15 students per class.

 

Data collection.

When it was time to conceptualize a research design after reviewing the related literature and formulating a research problem, I planned a study which I believe attempts to explain how to increase student interaction which leads to better learning of foreign languages and the way how language can be integrated into the activity routines of the classroom. So the data which is necessary for the research was planned to be collected by methods of analyzing classroom interaction which involves the analysis of classroom talk during the literature circles. To achieve this, a classroom observation form (See Appendix B, p. 64) for the teacher was chosen which complies with Bales’ Interaction Analysis System (IPA). Later, the data collected will be interpreted according to Bales’ Interaction Process Analysis system (See Appendix C, p. 66) and may be exposed to conceptual theoretical work and may lead to further relevant data collection or writing conclusions for the research.

About the choice of data collection during classroom observations, Nunan states that, although formal experiments are widely used to collect evidence on language learning and use, they are comparatively rare in genuine classrooms which have been constituted for teaching purposes, not for the purpose of data collection (Nunan, 1992, p. 92).

On the other hand, as Ellis describes the empirical research of L2 classrooms, he mentions that an ethnographic study of interaction would be suitable for the classroom interaction and L2 acquisition whose goal is to test a number of hypotheses relating to how interacting in the classroom contributes to L2 acquisition and to explore which types of interaction best facilitate acquisition (Ellis, Instructed Second Language Acquisition, 1990, p. 15).

Considering all this, to decide on a method for my research, I realized that a flexible qualitative method which allows greater adaptation of the interaction between me and the students seemed to be the best method for class observation among such a small participant group. In this way I would be able to ask more open-ended questions when necessary and the participants would be free to respond in their own words instead of just saying simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

The source for the data will primarily be semi structured methods such as the video recordings of the literature circles, stimulated-recall sessions followed by interviews and questionnaires filled in by students and teachers notes on the discussions conducted in class. The two main variables being observed will be classroom activities like; activity type, participant organization, content, student modality and materials and classroom language like; use of target language, information gap, sustained speech, reaction to code or message, incorporation of preceding utterance, discourse initiation and relative restriction of linguistic form mentioned as the communicative orientation of language teaching by Nunan (Nunan, 1992, p. 99).

In addition, because of the less formal relation between the researcher and participants, they will respond more elaborately and in greater detail. I would also have the opportunity to respond immediately to what participants say by tailoring subsequent questions with the information the participant has provided. That is why I concluded that, by conducting a qualitative research, some new ideas and a hypothesis may be generated for a later quantitative research.

 

Data analysis.

The main focus of the analysis will be the continuous observation of communication patterns in literature circles. The main concern will be over how these variables affect the language development of foreign language learners. For the analysis of the collected data, Bales’ Interaction Process Analysis (IPA) system is to be used especially to identify and record the nature of each separate act in ongoing group interaction. IPA is devised by Bales for the continuous observation of communication patterns in interactive groups. It is mainly based on the assumption that group success depends on both how well the group can solve its tasks (task function) and how satisfied it can keep its members (socio-emotional function). Bales identified 12 interactional “moves” in four categories (See Appendix C, p. 66): (1) socio-emotional positive (shows solidarity, tension reduction, agreement); (2) socio-emotional negative (shows antagonism, tension, disagreement); (3) task-related attempted solutions (gives suggestions, opinions, orientation); and (4) task-related questions (asks for suggestions, opinions, orientation). At least one rater observes each group member, and scores occurrences of each interactional “move.” This method has been used in a variety of settings, and is a reliable and useful way to analyze group interactions (Antony S.R. Manstead, 1995, p. 328).

After analyzing the classroom interaction during the reading circles according to Bales’ IPA system and gathering the information from the interviews and questionnaires, it is clearly seen that literature circles stimulate the student interaction in terms of Bales’ criteria in a dramatic way. This probably must have been the reason why Furr calls ‘magic’ to define literature circles (Furr, Literature Circles for the EFL Classroom, 2004, s. 1).

Limitations.

Some of the drawbacks that the research suffered from can be summarized as the limited number of students to be accessed compared to the high number of variables observed. To provide enough detailed evidence for such a study, the number of participants was kept reasonably small. The reason for such a low number has been the fact that the participants were mainly chosen to provide an authentic classroom atmosphere to be observed and evaluated in relation to the determined criteria. The main variables observed can be listed under the ‘classroom activities’ and ‘classroom language’ headings which are explained in the methodology chapter in detail.

Another drawback has been the limited control over the instructional process and observing the learning outcomes in relation to the broadness of the issue. As the study intends to observe the student interaction in a foreign language learning environment, teacher involvement has been kept at minimum not to interfere with the authentic atmosphere of student interaction during the discussions. The meticulous observation process has also been quite difficult taking all the related criteria into consideration.

For a better understanding of the limitations, more information on the participants and data collection and analysis can be found in the third chapter, which explains the methodology in detail. But still, considering all these drawbacks, we can say that the results reached with this study open a way for a future quantitative research over literature circles in EFL.

Outline of the Study.

Together with the introduction chapter presented above, this thesis is organized in five main chapters. The first chapter, apart from providing an overview of the study and the influencing factors in its development, also introduced the setting and methods used in the study.

The second chapter includes the literature review, which provides the necessary background information to familiarize with the prior researches and the relevant theory about collaborative learning, literature circles and classroom interaction among students.

The third chapter, which is about the study design and the methodology of the research, begins with the explanation about why the qualitative method was particularly preferred for the research on literature circles in EFL classes. Next, the specific data about the participants and how they were chosen is explained and the rationale for the use of specific sample size is clarified. Then, all tools and instruments used in the study and included in the appendix section are described in detail. What follows is the detailed report of how I actually carried out the research and the data collection procedure. The last thing in this chapter would be the step-by-step data analysis procedure which is followed by a summary of the research design and methodology.

The fourth chapter mainly contains the results and findings of the thesis. The results part presents the data collected with observations, interviews and questionnaires which provide enough information for the research questions. The following subsection includes the discussion of the findings from the research project.

The fifth chapter is the final chapter where I have summed up the entire research revisiting the initial problem and hypothesis and presenting the conclusions reached, as well as the limitations and practical implications of the research project. Here, I have also mentioned my thoughts about the overall impact of this research in the field and how the results may affect the EFL classroom. Finally I introduce my suggestions for a further quantitative research which I believe would have great practical implications for the EFL classroom.