2 Literature Review


The purpose of this chapter is to present a survey of the literature, journals, articles and book chapters in an attempt to better understand the literature circles as well as their associated use for EFL. I will concentrate on the definitions of the key concepts, their historical backgrounds, and the current researches on the topic with which they are associated. Finally, the chapter concludes with a summary of the previous research results that can be further discussed or challenged.



To start with the nature of the topic under discussion, it would be appropriate to clarify that literature has been defined differently by many scholars at different periods of history. Understanding of literature depends on the individual reader’s memories, associations, thoughts, and questions; the author stimulates this within the reader by the words and sentences (Probst, 1992, p. 75). Literature, most basically can be defined as, a body of written works. The term has traditionally been used to describe the imaginative works of poetry and prose distinguished by the intentions of their authors and the perceived aesthetic excellence of their execution. Taking the necessary criteria into consideration, literature may be classified according to a variety of systems, including language, national origin, historical period, genre, and subject matter (Literature, 2011). What this study mainly focuses on is the language aspect of literature. More specifically, it concentrates on methods of using literature to enhance the quality of learning in EFL classes.

While the definition of literature is so blurred, can we share the same goals of teaching literature? Obviously not! But in our specific subject area, the goal is using literature to improve the effectiveness of teaching foreign languages. In her book, Showalter defines the objective in teaching literature as: “… to train our students to think, read, analyze, and write like literary scholars, or approach literary problems as trained specialists in the field do, to learn a literary methodology, in short to ‘do’ literature as scientists ‘do’ science” (Showalter, 2003, p. 25). In the case of learning a foreign language, studying literature is for the sake of all those new words, collocations, phrasal verbs, idioms and most importantly for a better command of interactional patterns to communicate with others. The main function that literature performs in EFL classes is that, it enables working on language items in a more realistic atmosphere in the form of reading for pleasure and discussion groups.

In this paper, I attempted to investigate and expected to find out what language interactions and classroom discourse are taking place in literature circles and how this might affect the language development of foreign language learners. The research further aimed to discover if studying literary texts makes language acquisition more focused on meaning than form and if it is beneficial to include such literature in EFL curriculum at all stages of language learning. To make the distinction between form and meaning clear, it would be best to define focus-on-meaning approach to foreign language instruction as providing exposure to rich input and meaningful use of the foreign language in context, which is intended to lead to incidental acquisition of the foreign language (Norris & Ortega, 2001, p. 160). On the contrary, form-focused instruction is defined as “any planned or incidental instructional activity that is intended to induce language learners to pay attention to linguistic form” (Ellis, Investigating form-focused Instruction, 2001, p. 2).

Literature in EFL classes might refer to different types of texts depending on the level of the learners. For the literature circles of teenager participants of this research, graded short stories were found to be suitable as they advance from elementary level to intermediate throughout the year. Graded literature uses specially adapted materials to teach a specific point of language. These fiction stories have been simplified for the EFL learners, so that they can read materials suitable for their level of English competence. On the other hand, for the literary discussion groups held by young adult students, excerpts from unabridged editions of English literature classics were found more appropriate as they include more authentic samples of language use.

To emphasize the parameters of the topic in terms of what it includes and excludes we can refer to the main research hypothesis of this study which suggests that, as a balanced element of the school curriculum, literature circles can provide an exciting way to promote student engagement in social interactions and improve foreign language learning by means of cooperative learning and collaborative work and offer the potential to promote reading for pleasure. For these purposes, this research is not directly about teaching of literature, but studies the effects of teaching literature on foreign language learning. It gives an insight of how literature circles can be collaboratively integrated into foreign language learning.

Collaborative learning can be defined as the keystone for literature circle studies in foreign language classes. As Macaro defines, collaborative learning is when learners are encouraged to achieve common learning goals by working together rather than with the teacher and when they demonstrate that they value and respect each other’s language input. And the teacher becomes a facilitator for the students to achieve these goals (Macaro, 1997, p. 134). In collaborative learning, there is a sharing of authority and acceptance of responsibility among group members for the group’s actions. The underlying premise of collaborative learning is based upon consensus building through cooperation by group members, in contrast to competition in which individuals best other group members (Panitz, 1996, p. 2). Although cooperative learning is assumed to be more or less the same with collaborative learning, Panitz makes a brief and immediately comprehensible distinction. He defines cooperative learning as more directive than a collaborative system and closely controlled by the teacher. While there are many mechanisms for group analysis and introspection, the fundamental approach is teacher centered whereas collaborative learning is more student centered (Panitz, 1996, p. 2).

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. Collie and Slater state that there are four main reasons which lead a language teacher to use literature in the classroom. These main factors requiring the use of literature as a powerful resource in the classroom context are valuable authentic material, cultural enrichment, language enrichment and personal involvement (Collie & Slater, 1987). The reasons behind reading and studying literature can be given as integrating language into the EFL classroom, which supports language learning by literary text types at all levels of difficulty. Thus the basic ‘skills and competences’ like reading, speaking, writing, listening, mediating, and ‘linguistic domains’ as lexis, grammar and pragmatics can be improved (Thaler, 2008, p. 23). Eventually, all this leads to what is called ‘language development’.

Being greatly influenced by all these statements, 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 improve foreign language competence. Consequently, the question which formed the basis for the selection of literature was: Is there an effective way to use literature in the EFL classroom? I was especially focused on how much the student interaction in an EFL class could be encouraged through literature circles.

My main source of information has been Harvey Daniels’ studies on implementing literature circles in North American L1 classes (Daniels, 2002). These discussion groups have been quite popular recently and have been adapted to school curriculum by many English language teachers. Besides, Dr. Katherine L. Schlick Noe’s books and resources on the Internet has certainly been of great benefit (Noe, 2011). This “Literature Circles Resource Center” on the internet is designed to support L1 teachers as they plan and use literature circles in their elementary and middle school classrooms. Getting more specific about the usage of literature circles in EFL, Mark Furr has been the person who designed graded reader activities for EFL classes to be used for literature circles, which he calls ‘reading circles’. Furr explains the motivation of students to acquire four skills in reading circles as, “the material is both comprehensible and interesting to talk about, and it consists a framework which makes having a real discussion in English an achievable goal for students” (Furr, Bookworms Club Reading Circles, 2009, p. 5).


Historical Background

Presenting the historical background, including classic texts, some terms should be made clear. Traditionally, an adult book club or a reading group is a company of several readers who regularly meet in person to discuss the books they read each month. As for the historical background of book clubs in America, the first recorded ‘literature circle’ has been portrayed by Laskin & Hughes as cited in (Daniels, 2002, p. 30) aboard a boat bound for the colonies. The noted Puritan figure Anne Hutchinson gathered a women’s study group to discuss each Sunday’s shipboard sermon, during their voyage to America. Hutchinson continued the practice, holding twice weekly theological discussions in her parlor, in Boston.

In 1982, Karen Smith was an elementary school teacher in Phoenix, Arizona, who was once given a box of novels by a fellow teacher and left them in the classroom and forgot about them. Later on during that year, some of her fifth grade students found the books with a fortunate coincidence and organized themselves loosely into groups, and started to discuss the novels. She was surprised at the degree of their engagement with the books and the complexity of their discussions, as they had no outside help or instruction from their teacher. Smith is now known to be the first teacher who implemented literature circles in class (Daniels, 2002, p. 32). The idea of literature circles in class was later developed by Kathy G. Short and Gloria Kauffman based on Karen Smith’s work with literature studies.  Their argument about the implementation of these reading groups into school curriculum is discussed in Kathy G. Short’s dissertation (Short, 1989).

To explain the current mainstream versus alternative theoretical viewpoints, Daniels (2002, p. 1), states in his introduction to literature circles, that literature circles have changed over time like the schools and even the world itself. He further explains that “what used to be a quiet, home-grown activity in a few scattered classrooms has become a trend, a boom, almost a fad”. As we can see, the book clubs which were popular in public soon became effective in school life as well. He claims that now literally millions of students are involved in some kind of small, peer-led reading discussion group, which they call literature circles or activities that look very much the same (Daniels, 2002, p. 1). Transition of book clubs from social life to school curriculum has been quite a natural one. This transfer of book club experience into the classroom by teachers is very well defined by Daniels (2002):

When we go back to our jobs as schoolteachers, we are trying to transfer the energy, the depth of thought and emotion, the lifelong commitment to books and ideas we have experienced ourselves. Whenever we run into problems translating book clubs to the school world, our own grown-up book club experience serves as our management touchstone. We can always ask ourselves first. Well, how do we deal with this problem in our own reading groups? In short, many of us who have been experimenting with literature circles are simply trying to import a powerful, beautiful, naturally occurring literacy structure called “book clubs” into the public schools—without messing them up. (p. 3)


Current Research

In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in literature circles and there are a number of studies conducted to see their performance in language learning classes. In this section, brief information about the possible approaches to the subject will be presented.

A recent research on literature circles is conducted by Harvey Daniels. The research links literature circles to the student achievement. The study mainly helped teachers implement literature circles as part of L1 reading curriculum. According to the research school-wide results were encouraging (Daniels, 2002).

Another study of fourth graders by Klinger, Vaugn, and Schumm found that students in peer-led groups made greater gains than control groups in reading comprehension and equal gains in content knowledge after reading and discussing social studies material in peer-led groups (Klinger, Vaughn, & Schumm, 1998). This effect was confirmed through a standardized reading test, a social studies unit test, and audiotapes of group work.

In their chapter which explores how literature circles work for students and in particular for English learners, Deanna Peterschick Gilmore and Deanna Day suggest that, students who are learning English feel more comfortable speaking in small-group settings. Literature circles are a wonderful way to scaffold English learners for this reason. Literature circles also allow fluent English speakers to learn more about students and their cultures in a more intimate way. Through literature circles, all students are able to share what they think and how they feel about books (Gilmore & Day, 2006).

On the other hand, Carrison—in her article which discusses benefits of using literature circles with EFL students to strengthen literacy skills and student confidence—expresses that using literature circles is a fun and exciting way to afford students’ choice while at the same time exposing them to powerful strategies to build confidence and enhance their language and literacy. She defines literature circles as “decreased anxiety about reading and participation, increased motivation on everyone’s part, and improved reading accuracy and comprehension” (Carrison, 2005).

Deana Day is another researcher who suggests that literature circles are valuable and important for young adolescents. Areas that helped this teacher become a believer in literature circles included: students’ ability to talk about books in the literature circles, students’ natural discussions on the major themes and literary elements, students’ understanding of the texts, and their active engagement and excitement. In the conclusion of her study, implications for teachers and teacher educators are also addressed (Day, 2008).

A paper by Myonghee Kim was written exploring literature circles work in the context of L2 instruction through a close scrutiny of classroom interactions in an adult ESL class where nine ESL learners read fictional works and discussed the readings. The findings suggest that the literature discussions helped the students emotionally and intellectually to participate in the literary text, generating an opportunity for enjoyable L2 reading experiences. In addition, the literature discussions contributed to promoting students’ L2 communicative competence by offering chances for them to produce extended output (Myonghee, 2004, p. 145).

Christina Sanchez is yet another researcher whose purpose is to address the question: What language interactions occur within literature circles and how might this affect the oral language development of English Learners? Her study addresses the question with six English learners in the fourth grade who are responding to literature in a literature circle. She has observed her students engaging in meaningful discussions about literature and expressing many levels of thinking. After completing her research report she is convinced that literature circles are one key to the successful development of English oral language for Second Language Learners (Sanchez, 1999).

In his paper Hae-Ri Kim presents a three-step framework—pre-reading, discussion, and project and evaluation—for teachers to design literature-related activities as well as help foreign language students achieve a true personal encounter with texts, and interpret, appreciate, and gain satisfaction from them. He suggests that if literature in the EFL classroom is taught in a response-based manner, it is not just a vehicle for language teaching, but a form of aesthetic enlightenment (Kim, 2000).

Hsu, defines literature circle as a fresh idea never seen in the history of EFL teaching in Taiwan. He mentions that, as the extension of reader-response theory, literature circles provide more specific direction and guidance for L2 learners to approach literature by rotating different kinds of discussion roles. He believes in giving students more freedom to decide what they want to learn, to read, and to get out of each reading classroom. He defines his goal of implementing literature circles as; to provide the opportunities for his students to explore the literacy experiences and become active and life-long readers. (Hsu, 2000)