The Road to Participation: The Evolution of a Literary Community in an Intermediate Grade Classroom of Linguistically Diverse Learners

Ailing Kong
St. Joseph's University

P. David Pearson
University of California, Berkeley

Over the past two decades, the number of American students who speak a language other than English at home or practice a non-mainstream home culture has risen dramatically, and this number continues to grow (August & Hakuta, 1997). Studies have documented that the differences in language and culture between these students' home and school settings make academic success at schools difficult (Heath, 1983; Au, 1998; Banks, 1993). Statistics show that students with diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds are at a higher risk of lower achievement on wide-scale measures (Donohue, Voelkl, Campbell, & Mazzeo, 1999, Au & Raphael, 2000) and of becoming school dropouts (Fillmore & Meyer, 1992). Valdes (1998) claims that language barriers prevent students from gaining access to success, and schools are failing to help them find ways through those barriers. Educators and researchers have explored ways of helping diverse students experience success in school settings (Au & Mason, 1981; Raphael & Brock, 1993; Garcia, 1996; Hiebert, 1991; Cummins, 1986; Moll & Gonzalez, 1994; Nieto, 1999; Trueba, Jacobs, & Kirton, 1990). The current study joins this effort by examining the role of a literacy community--a setting in which students with diverse backgrounds are assisted in developing cultural practices and discourse conventions that will allow them to participate in a classroom literary discourse.

Conceptual framework

The theoretical framework guiding this study is decidedly sociocultural; the perspectives on learning and development by Vygotsky (1978, 1986), Wertsch (1985), Lave & Wenger (1991), and Rogoff, Matusov, & White (1996) were all influential both in shaping the practices of the community that was created during this study, and in finding research tools to answer our questions. A fundamental tenet of sociocultural theory is that all higher (internal) psychological processes originate in purposive social interactions among human beings within an environment in which cultural tools and artifacts are present. Learning and development occurs while the learners interact with the more knowledgeable members of a community within specific social, cultural, and historical contexts. According to Vygotsky (1978), "Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological), and then inside the child (intrapsychological)" (p. 57). Harre's (1984) "Vygotsky Space" metaphor, in its adapted rendition (Gavelek and Raphael, 1996; see Figure 1) was influential in helping us think about how learning moves from its social aspect to its individual phase and back to the social again. In this model, learning begins in the social/public arena, where learners are exposed to the cultural practices of the community. What they see and hear gets appropriated and transformed through the learner's personal and individual space, after which the learners demonstrate their understanding of the cultural practices in the public/social space. Through the recursive cycles of appropriation, transformation, publication, and conventionalization, learners construct knowledge of their community's cultural practices as they interact with the more knowledgeable members of the community and, more importantly, engage in the practices of that community within an apprenticeship setting.

The dialogic and interactive nature of learning and meaning construction highlights the importance of participation, which becomes the goal as well as the means of learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Rogoff, Matusov, & White, 1996; Dewey, 1916). Lave and Wenger (1991) describe learning as a process through which "newcomers" proceed from "legitimate peripheral participation" to full participation in a community of practice. For Rogoff, Matusov, & White (1996), learning and development entail transformation of participation in sociocultural practices. During the process, learners develop their understanding of the practices and change their roles and responsibilities.




Source: Gavelek & Raphael (1996), p. 186. Copyright 1996 by the National Council of Teachers of English ( Reprinted with permission.

Literature-based instruction

Beginning in the mid-1980s and continuing at least through the late 1990s, literature-based instruction gained increasing attention in both research and classroom pedagogy. Originally popularized as an antidote to the dominant skill-based instruction of the 1970s, literature-based instruction gained momentum alongside the process writing and whole language movements (Pearson, 2000). Au and Raphael (1998) state that the purpose of literature-based instruction is "to engage students in active meaning-making with literature, to give them the ability both to learn from and to enjoy literature throughout their lives" (p. 124). Purves (1993) highlights the educational impact of literature, suggesting, "Literature, that collection of imaginatively created and artistically crafted texts, is an important cultural expression, and its place in the schools is to bring the young into an understanding of their culture and the cultures that surround them" (p. 360). Galda (1998) views literature as both the "mirrors and windows" through which we learn to understand better about ourselves and others.

Literature-based instruction aims to engage students in what Rosenblatt (1978) calls an "aesthetic reading" experience, where readers engage the affective character of the text, as opposed to "efferent reading," in which information acquisition dominates the process. Benton (1983) describes this aesthetic experience as a journey through the secondary world created between the reader and the text. Galda (1998) summarizes Benton's arguments and argues that when we read aesthetically, "we picture characters and events, anticipate actions, think back over what we have read, identify with characters, and make the virtual experience; we are shaping part of our lives" (p. 2). Reading aesthetically is a creative, transactional process that involves readers in actively creating meaning under the guidance of the words on the page. In Rosenblatt's (1978) original conceptualization, the notion of transaction is central in that the result of the transaction between reader and text is something different from either. In her classic Reader, Text, and Poem, the poem is the result of this transaction. Children in Eeds and Wells' (1989) literature study group engaged in this transactional process through their reading and "grand conversations" about literary texts. In these conversations, they also developed their inquiry skills, learned to become collaborators, and created a learning community that encouraged risk-taking and exploratory behaviors.

The change to literature-based instruction from skill-based instruction requires not only a change in materials and learning activities, but also a change in beliefs about the very nature of reading, literature, learning processes, assessments, learners, and the distribution of power within the classroom. Literature-based approaches have tended to adopt sociocultural perspectives as an underlying theoretical lens, emphasizing reading and writing as higher-order mental processes acquired through interaction with more knowledgeable others in the enactment of cultural practices (Vygotsky, 1978; Brock & Gavelek, 1998). Students are seen as knowledgeable beings with their own theories of the world (Smith, 1975; Anderson & Pearson, 1984) rather than as "blank slates" or "empty vessels" waiting to be filled with knowledge. Literature-based instruction encourages students to construct meanings actively in their interactions with text and the members of the learning community in their classroom. Instruction, as we argued, is not a process of transmitting a set of skills, processes, or bodies of knowledge, but rather scaffolding student activity as children engage in cultural practices, in which they make sense of the text through reading, writing, and talking.

Book Club program

One particular approach to literature-based instruction, the Book Club program, was developed collaboratively by university researchers and school teacher researchers in the early 1990s, working under the guidance of Raphael and her colleagues (Raphael, Pardo, Highfield, & McMahon 1997; McMahon & Raphael, 1997; Raphael & Hiebert, 1996). Raphael and McMahon (1997) outline four contexts for instruction and participation in language and literacy in the Book Club program: community share, reading, writing, and book clubs 1, the last of which is the center of the program. Teacher instruction is "contextualized to meet the particular needs of students' acquiring and developing literacy abilities (i.e., reading and writing) and oral language abilities (i.e., as speakers and listeners in meaningful discussion)" (p. xii).

The body of research on Book Club has helped generate a model of reading that emphasizes interaction and participation as the most critical processes in learning to read (Gavelek & Raphael, 1996). First, the approach calls for a "community of learners" in which students feel safe and valued enough to be willing to accept the invitation to participate and explore ideas (Rogoff, et al., 1996; Raphael & Goatley, 1997). Second, the Book Club program provides students, including students with learning disabilities and diverse learners, with time, space, and opportunities for learning. The opportunities include activity structures such as small group discussions (book clubs) and whole class discussions (community share) in which students can share their developing thoughts, ask each other questions, and collaboratively construct meanings of texts and of their own life experiences (McMahon & Raphael, 1997; Raphael & Au, 1998; Goatley, Brock, & Raphael, 1995; Goatley, 1997; Raphael & Brock, 1993; Brock, 1997). These learning opportunities help foster and extend students' interpretation of and responses to texts (Brock & Gavelek, 1998; McMahon, 1992; Boyd, 1997; Highfield, 1998). Third, Book Club opens possibilities for teachers to explore new forms of assessment and evaluation in which students share responsibility for the outcome (Wong-Kam, 1998; Bisesi, Brenner, McVee, Pearson, & Sarroub, 1998; Bisesi, 1997). Finally, Book Club activities permit teachers to play multiple roles with their students, moving from teacher-centered stances (e.g., explicit instruction and modeling) in which they control the flow of activity, to shared stances (e.g., scaffolding and coaching), in which power and responsibility are more equally shared, to more student-centered stances (e.g., facilitating, and participation) in which students take primary responsibility for enacting activity structures (Au & Raphael, 1998). Based on the ongoing observational assessment of students' needs, teachers can provide the instructions--both direct and indirect, sometimes planned and other times impromptu--to help students develop the knowledge and skills needed to participate in a literary community.

Looking across the array of scholarly efforts to understand and evaluate literature-based instruction, it appears that literature-based instruction is well framed within a theoretical and rhetorical framework that teachers can readily embrace. However, changes in practice do not automatically accompany the change in rhetoric. In a recent study, Scharer and Peters (1996) compared the two teachers' perceptions of book discussions and their interactions with students in book discussions. They found that although "both teachers indicated in their interviews that it was important for students to talk with each other and express thoughts and opinions," they created few opportunities for students to talk with each other and they asked for students' opinions "within a highly controlled, limited framework" (p. 46).

The gap between theories of literature-based instruction and teachers' actual instructional practices is also revealed in the five-year multilevel project reported by Johnston, Allington, Guice, and Brooks (1998). They noticed that teachers incorporated authentic literature into their daily literacy lessons, driven by the assumption that higher-quality children's literature would lead to a more "thoughtful" literacy and make learning to read more engaging. However, "the time allocations, the teacher-child interactions, the assessment and evaluation practices, and the tasks children were given remained largely stable across the 5 years" (p. 88).

Wells (1997), after examining students' participation in Book Club discourse communities, asks the question: "How can teachers, with their students, create a community that engages with literature in a spirit of open-ended exploration and inquiry?" (p. 114). Rueda (1997) suggests that as a field we need to know more about how responsive teachers, such as those in Book Club, monitor their classroom instruction and assessment, and what it might take to enable teachers to engage in this type of instruction. To this end, McMahon (1998) describes in detail what she and one teacher, Jacqueline, did to help her students improve (a) the quality of their written responses, and (b) the quality of their participation in discussions. In the process, Jacqueline and her class developed a rubric that represented their view of quality written responses and that included both "global" and "local" knowledge" (Fitzgerald, 1999). For example, to get a "5" on a log entry, a student had to "give examples and details by using words directly from the book," "use paragraphs appropriately with several sentences," "relate the story to self or tell how the reader feels about the book," "use correct spelling and punctuation," etc. (p. 293). To help students understand what quality conversations were, they examined previous group discussions and looked for "how well they expressed opinions and the means of supporting their ideas, as well as noting who participated, how well group members interacted with one another, and how they entered the conversation" (p. 300). As the year progressed, students focused more on their interpretations of the texts. Their oral discourse became more engaging, more meaningful, and "more revealing about their developing sophistication in responding to texts" (p. 301).

However, to provide maximum assistance to teachers who may want to begin this journey, we need to know, first of all, whether the journey is worth the effort. If so, then we need to answer questions like: How did the teachers and the students begin? What struggles did they have? What assistance did they get? and How did changes occur? This study is designed to answer such questions. It examines the changes in teaching and learning that occurred in a single classroom over a whole school year as the teacher struggled to engage a linguistically and culturally diverse group of students in the Book Club program. The two research questions the present study asks are:

  1. What learning trajectory did a class of culturally and linguistically diverse students travel as they learned to participate in Book Club, a literature-based instructional program?
  2. What learning opportunities were created by the teacher? How did she create them? What motivated her at each step along the way?


Participants and setting

This study was conducted in a fourth/fifth grade classroom at an urban school in a Midwestern U.S. city. The school was founded as a Focus School in 1994 to meet the needs of the growing number of students in this city who needed special instruction in English as a new language. At the time when our study was conducted (the 1998-99 school year), it was a 100% school of choice, with both regular education classes and DLP (developing language proficiency) classes that offered language support instruction. The classroom teacher, Ellen, had been teaching at the school full-time for four and a half years; this was her fourth year teaching Book Club. She believed that knowledge is constructed through interaction with the more knowledgeable others in a community, and that Book Club program created a lot more opportunities for students to develop their literacy knowledge and skills by reading good literature, writing responses to the texts, sharing/discussing their responses with each other, and constructing meanings collaboratively. Mini-lessons, Community Share (the whole-class discussions), and the Fishbowl group discussions, enabled her to provide direct and indirect, planned and impromptu instructions on literacy knowledge and skills, all based on the needs of her students.

Ellen was teaching a split regular education class comprised of students who truly represented the diverse student population of the school. When the year began, there were 25 students in her class--10 fifth-graders and 15 fourth-graders, 14 boys and 11 girls. Ethnically, 6 were Vietnamese, 4 Hmong, 4 multi-racial, 3 Caucasian, 3 Latino, 3 Haitian, 1 Somali, and 1 Bosnian. Linguistically, more than 60% of the students came from homes in which a language other than English was spoken. These students were at various English proficiency levels and some had been in the DLP class during the previous year. Over 90% of the students in this class were eligible for free or reduced payment for meals.

During the data collection year, Ellen implemented the literature-based instructional program, Book Club, for English Language Arts instruction. Book Club was a daily activity except on half-days, and took about 70 to 90 minutes of daily instructional time. After the initial fishbowl discussion phase, a typical Book Club day began with book clubs (discussion in small groups), followed by community share (whole class discussion), mini lesson, reading in groups, and ended with individual writing in response to prompt questions (open-ended questions designed to engage students in personal, critical, and creative responses to literature). New groups of four or five were formed for each new book unit. The whole class read the same book at the same time; a total of 11 books were covered in 9 book units during the school year. All the texts were generally acknowledged as modern classics for young readers (see Appendix A for the list of books).

Data collection

This interpretive case study is methodologically eclectic, making use of participant observation and grounded theory development (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995; Merriam, 1988; Strauss & Corbin, 1990) as well as quantitative measures to assess students' literacy development (Slosson, 1963; Schmitt, 1990). We followed the case study class over the course of a school year, observing their daily activities with a focus on their interactions during Book Club activities. Data collection was concentrated within three time periods: (1) six weeks between the start of school in late August and early October, (2) two weeks in early February, and (3) two weeks in early May. During the rest of the school year, Ailing observed in the class at least one day every other week. Altogether, observational data were collected on 31 whole school days, 19 half days and 6 visits of only the Book Club instruction and activities. Six students, 4 from Vietnam and 2 Hmong from Thailand, were chosen as focus students for the convenience of data collection. After the initial fishbowl discussion phase, all students discussed their reading at the same time in small groups of four or five. Ailing taped only one group discussion each day, concentrating on the group that included the most focus students. The data included field notes for all activities, videotapes of Book Club group discussions, whole-class discussions, and mini-lessons, and interviews with the teacher and the focus students. The Slosson Oral Reading Test (SORT) (Slosson, 1963) and the Metacomprehension Strategy Index (MSI) questionnaire (Schmitt, 1990) were given to all students in the class at both the beginning and the end of the school year. These tests were part of the classroom teacher's assessment tools.

We chose to concentrate on the three time periods for data collection in hope of capturing changes during the school year. The initial six weeks of focused data collection helped us to achieve two goals. First, the beginning of the school year was essential for establishing the tone for the whole year, as new practices and rules were introduced. Second, it allowed Ailing a long period of time in which to "hang out" with the class and blend into the community she was observing as a participant observer.

On the first day of school, Ellen, the teacher, introduced Ailing to the students, telling them why she was there, what help they could ask from her, and what questions they should not ask her. When Ellen was teaching, Ailing would sit at the back of the room observing and taking notes and sometimes videotaping their activities. When students were working individually or in small groups, Ailing would walk around and provide help if students asked her, on everything from math problems to getting a new pencil. Sometimes she would just sit at a table and listen. Occasionally, she would join the group reading, but she rarely participated in any group or whole-class discussions. During recess she would play games with the students in the classroom or out on the playground. She also participated in other whole-school activities. For example, she attended the school's Unity Day celebration and their fundraising event to collect money for a camping trip by the fourth- and fifth-graders. As a result, both the students and the teacher recognized her as part of their community.

Data analysis

Data analysis involved most of the methods typical of an ethnographic approach--perusal of the data for emerging themes and categories, followed by revision of those themes and categories with each new round of analysis. We reviewed field notes, interview transcripts, and videotapes multiple times during and after data were collected to try to identify the patterns of students' learning over the year, and the factors facilitating the changes we observed. We examined both teacher and student practices. Categories of teacher behavior included building a learning community, valuing students' opinions, disciplining students, creating opportunities for student-centered talk, and guiding student participation. The analysis of student behavior focused on the questions they raised, the topics they discussed, and their interactional patterns. The roles played by the teacher and the students and their participation patterns in book discussions were the key data for our analyses. The SORT test and MSI survey data were analyzed statistically for differences: while we did not set out to "prove" that Book Club worked, we did want to know how engagement in Book Club influenced student performance on conventional and unconventional measures of reading.

Findings: The development of a shared literary practice

For analyzing and reporting purposes, the year divided itself conveniently into three stages of distinct categories and overlapping features. As the class participated and interacted with each other in reading, writing, and talking about the quality of adolescent literature over the year, there emerged a "gradual release of responsibility" (Pearson and Gallagher, 1983) from the teacher to the students during small-group and whole-class discussions (see Figure 2). Stage One, "Teaching by Telling," evidenced both the teacher's and the students' initial efforts to construct the meaning and practices of Book Club. In this stage, teacher and teacher-led talk dominated the discourse. Stage Two, "Teaching by Modeling and Scaffolding," began with students' fishbowl discussions. This stage was marked by a big increase in the time allotted for student-centered talk and the creation of more public space for the teacher, as well as more knowledgeable peers, to model and scaffold literacy skills. The time and space allowed students the opportunities to observe, appropriate, practice, and develop the knowledge and skills they needed for participation in the literary discourse. Stage Three, "Learning by Doing," distinguished itself from Stage Two by the teacher's explicit effort to push students to a higher level of engagement with the texts. This stage was characterized by a shift of power and control from the teacher to the students in leading the discussions, as students gradually mastered the Book Club discussion discourse.

In general, while the distinction between the first and second stages was characterized by a dramatic shift in the amount of student talk (during Stage Two the students held the floor for a much higher percentage of time), the distinction between the second and third stages was in the quality of student-centered conversation. However, in reality, the disctinctions between the three stages were not as clear-cut as our description implies. The students were engaging in Book Club discussions and practicing the knowledge and skills needed for participation long before they "took over" in February, while the teacher continued to model and scaffold ways of reading, writing, talking, and thinking long after that takeover. The journey toward the development of a shared practice began with excitement, challenges, and resistance on the part of the students, and guidance and persistence on the part of the teacher. It ended with students' increased expertise in the knowledge and skills needed to participate in a literary discourse.

Teaching by telling: The first stage of the journey

In analyzing this initial stage, when the teacher and her class were trying to construct the meaning and practice of Book Club in their classroom, we focus on two aspects: (1) Ellen's effort to help her students understand what was involved in Book Club and how they were expected to participate, and (2) the challenges confronting the teacher and the students.

Introduction of Book Club

During this initial introductory stage, Ellen provided three types of support to induct her students into the practices of Book Club. First, she worked to create a classroom learning community in which students respected, shared ideas with, and learned from each other. Second, Ellen discussed with students how to ask "fat, juicy questions" and how to write for a "know-nothing audience," two key skills needed to participate in Book Club. Finally, she made explicit to her students her expectations for their performance, including their responsibility to self-evaluate their work and participation in Book Club.

Creating a collaborative learning community

For Ellen, creating a classroom learning community was essential in order to make Book Club successful. At the beginning of the school year she told her students that they were a learning community. Using a boat metaphor, she said to them, "If one of us kicks a hole [in the boat], we all sink" (Field notes, August 31, 1998). She organized games for students to play in small groups, as well as with the entire class. Some of these games helped students get to know each other, while others required all group members to collaborate. To foster a feeling of mutual respect and comfort in sharing ideas and discussing personally meaningful issues, Ellen also tried to disabuse students of the notion that the teacher possessed the final and correct answers to all questions in their discussions. She told students that their ideas were valuable because each one of them had unique life experiences--they could all teach and learn from each other. She said, "You might know lots of things that I don't know. Okay, you have 23 different life experiences and I only have one. So your different life experiences may give you information to help your peers in your group better than I might be able to do by myself." (Transcript, September 1, 1998)

Ellen championed the differences in students' responses. She explained to them that differences in response don't mean that one person is right and the other wrong. When reading good books, they should not expect one right answer; instead, there would be lots of answers. She asked students to think, "What if my answer and Rico's answer are completely different? Does it mean he's correct and I'm wrong or I'm right and he's wrong?" To further make the point, Ellen shared with students that she tried to get away from using the word answer by using response instead. "Usually with answer, people think of right or wrong; while with response, we can have different responses but we could all be right" (Transcript, September 1, 1998).

In summary then, Ellen attempted to achieve three goals in this early phase. She wanted her students to know that (a) they could help and learn from each other, (b) they all had unique life experiences to share, and (c) they could--indeed should--have different responses to books. Ellen viewed each of these goals as a critical contribution toward the development of a collaborative learning community.

Asking fat, juicy questions and writing for a know-nothing audience

In addition to creating a classroom learning community, Ellen also wanted students to engage in specific writing and discussion strategies. In an early introduction, Ellen discussed with students a prepared list (on an overhead) of how to share in book discussions:

keep conversation going

respond to questions

elaborate response

challenge interpretations

clarify ideas

include all members of the group

take turns

stay on task

The list of what to share included

elaborate written response

formulate questions

share personal response or experience

construct meanings of and evaluate the text

move beyond literal interpretations

ask fat, juicy questions

(Field notes, September 1, 1998).

After the general introduction of how and what to share in book discussions, Ellen focused on two key skills: (a) asking "fat, juicy questions" and (b) writing for a "know-nothing" audience. To help students understand what "a fat, juicy question" was, Ellen provided examples that distinguished them from "skinny/lean questions." She asserted that "A fat, juicy question has no `yes/no' answer, no right answer.... A juicy question makes you think about the story. And the response to fat, juicy questions could be different.... They are open-ended" (Transcript, September 1, 1998). Ellen also explained to students that fat, juicy questions would often begin with "how do you think" or "why do you think?" She told students that she expected only fat, juicy questions for Book Club. As much as she encouraged students to ask open-ended questions and share their own responses, Ellen also emphasized that she expected them to support their ideas with evidence from the texts and/or their own life experiences.

The other skill Ellen introduced to students at this time was the special writing technique that she called "writing for a know-nothing audience." She explained to students that she expected them to write for readers who had not read the text and knew nothing about the book; therefore, they should provide background information. She shared writing samples to help students see the distinction between a text written for a know-nothing audience and one that was not. She told the students:

Be specific... about the plot, the characters, where it's taking place.... When you do your responses, you shouldn't be starting your response with he, she or it. Why not?... Yes, a know-nothing audience doesn't know who he, she, or it is. (Transcript, September 8, 1998)

However, Ellen also pointed out to students that this was not the only way to write. She listed times when it was okay not to give all the details, such as when writing to one's teachers, friends, or even themselves, in the form of letters or journals.

Involving students as responsible learners

Ellen made explicit her expectations for student performance in Book Club and involved students in assessing themselves as well. She asked students to evaluate their own participation in group discussions using a list of specific criteria. She discussed what it meant "to be prepared, to share ideas, to listen and respond, to ask fat, juicy questions, to have positive attitudes and no off-task behaviors" (Participation Evaluation Sheet). She also shared with students her scoring rubrics for their written responses. After each book unit, students would (1) assess their own learning and written responses, and (2) respond to the teacher's grading and comments by setting goals for their next book unit.

To summarize, within the first few school days Ellen introduced Book Club to her students, together with a set of new terms and concepts, such as "fat, juicy questions" and "writing for a know-nothing audience," with the hope that as the year progressed these terms and the practices they named would gradually become part of the students' vocabulary and practice. However important this introductory step was, the naming and discussion of these concepts would not be sufficient to enable the students to practice them. The journey towards developing a shared practice for this literary discourse community had just begun.

Challenges to participation in book club

Initial student resistance and the teacher response

Participating in Book Club was a big challenge for Ellen's culturally and linguistically diverse students. First, it placed new demands on their comprehension of the readings, their participation in discussions about texts, and their ways of thinking. On top of these cognitive challenges, second language learners also faced social and linguistic challenges. The collaborative nature of knowledge construction in Book Club called for a different set of interactive skills. Students needed to learn when to talk, with whom, and how to agree or disagree with others. They also needed to learn new concepts (e.g., point of view, character development) and language usage(s) for expressing their reasoning, providing support, and challenging other's ideas.

These challenges became a source of frustration for the students and the teacher during the first stage. Students also displayed implicit and explicit resistance to participation in Book Club. They came to class without finishing their reading/writing assignments. They openly shared their confusion and complained. For example, one day Kelsey asked, "What does it mean how you feel about him?" (Field notes, September 10, 1998). Thi asked what the word "up-against" meant in the prompt, and others complained that they "didn't get it" (Field notes, September 11, 1998).

Near the end of the second week, Ellen started to check students' written responses before morning recess. If they were not properly done, students were required to "catch up with the work" during recess. "Many students worked on their responses during recess" (Field notes, September 10, 1998) and "Many students forgot to do the assignment. If they wrote, they wrote little" (Field notes, September 11, 1998). Getting students prepared for Book Club continued to be a major challenge for Ellen during the second stage.

Besides checking homework assignments and talking to students about the importance of being prepared, Ellen made a series of efforts to help her students overcome their initial difficulties and resistance. In mini-lessons, she modeled how to respond directly to prompt questions and how to pull evidence out of the readings to support an argument. She also talked about techniques for interacting in group discussions. To that end, she showed the class a group discussion segment from the commercially-available Book Club tape, and invited her students from the previous year to demonstrate a group discussion so that students could observe how more "expert-like" peers participate. Ellen called the live demonstration a "fishbowl discussion," as the discussion group sat in the center of a group circle.

In the post-tape discussion, students noticed several key elements necessary for a good discussion: the group was listening and responding to each other; they had a positive attitude; they asked fat, juicy questions; they shared their own personal ideas and experiences; and they were supportive of each other. Ellen also directed the students' attention to an important feature that they didn't notice themselves--that it would "still be okay" to disagree with each other (Field notes, September 14, 1998).

Before the class watched the live demonstration, Ellen's students discussed what to watch for. Afterwards, they shared their reactions. One student noticed that the group was confused about a particular element during the demonstration. Ellen used the case as an opportunity to highlight one important purpose of Book Club discussions, which was to help "clarify" (Field notes, September 15, 1998). Observing and talking about their observation of how "more knowledgeable peers" participate in book discussions gave Ellen's students the opportunity to begin to "appropriate" the Book Club practice at the social/public level (Vygotsky, 1978; Gavelek & Raphael 1996).

First fishbowl discussion

The class conducted their first fishbowl group discussion on September 22, when they began reading the book Shiloh. The group consisted of 4 students: 2 boys (Osman and Tu) and 2 girls (Rosie and Maria). They were expected to discuss their character map for Marty, the main character in the book. Students shared their prepared responses with their group, but they had no discussion, no give and take. Tu was well-prepared and responded to all aspects of a character map, which had been explained by the teacher the day before. However, "when he finished, everybody sat quietly and looked at each other in silence." Ellen tried to generate a discussion by asking "Have you got some response to him?... Do you agree with everything? What specific thing do you agree with him [sic]? Or do you disagree with anything he has said?" After each question, she deliberately left a long pause, but no student took the floor. Later, after Osman's one-sentence sharing, Tu asked him a question, but received no response. Tu also suggested to Rosie that she use the words "he" or "him" instead of "Marty" in her writing (Field notes, September 22, 1998). This focus on the form, rather than the substance, of the response is typical of feedback provided by novices in such discussions. In short, the first fishbowl did little more than demonstrate the class's lack of experience in participating in these sorts of discussions and responses to text.

The challenge of expressing different interpretations

All of the students experienced difficulty with the practice of expressing different interpretations, as demonstrated by the following fishbowl (October 8--much later in the year). In the fishbowl discussion about the book The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963, the main prompt for discussion was whether or not the Watsons were "weird." Alicia and Kelsey, the two girls in their group of four, both said that they thought the Watsons were not weird; they were just different, and they cited examples to support their claim. Thahn then opened his speech by agreeing with the two girls: "I don't think the Watsons are weird because they are just like different people" (Transcript, October 8, 1998). Interestingly, in his written response, which was prepared before the discussion, he wrote, "The Watson is funny because Byron he put his lips in the mirror and Kenny try to help him" (Thahn's written response, October 7, 1998). Despite the fact that he thought the Watsons were "funny," at least before the conversation, Thahn seemed to shy away from stating this view openly, or perhaps didn't feel comfortable challenging the girls' view.

Then J. R. began sharing his written response. The first sentence he had written in his response was "The Watsons are weird and funny" (J.R.'s written response, October 7, 1998). However, seeing all his group members holding a different view, he hesitated in sharing his idea. This hesitation was demonstrated in the following excerpt by the three unsuccessful starts he made when reading his response.

J.R.: The Watsons are like a... [pausing for a while, turning to Ellen, and asking her very softly] just read what I wrote?

Ellen: Uh?

J.R.: Just read what I have?

Thahn: Yes.

J.R.: Some parts do not make any sense.

Thahn: SO?!

Ellen: You ought to be making sure your writing makes sense to you. If it doesn't make sense to you, who else does it make sense to?

Thahn: Just add something... [inaudible].

Ellen: [Sensing something] You think the Watsons are weird?

J.R.: NO.

Ellen: Then read what you've got.

J.R.: [Reading] The Watsons are funny and... (pause) I don't know. When Byron got his lips stuck on the mirror, I thought... [pause]

Ellen: Could you speak louder please?

J.R.: When Byron got his lips stuck on the mirror, I thought... [pause again]

Ellen: [Walking up to J.R.] What have you got here? [reading from his paper slowly for J. R. to read along] The Watsons are weird and funny. The kids are...

J.R.: [Joining Ellen and reading]... Smart. Byron is [Ellen stopped reading] mean and not kind to his little brother and his little brother's friend. I think the Watsons are weird because...

(Transcript, October 8, 1998)

In the above scenario, J. R. struggled with what to share with his group and tried to conform to what others had said. Reading his response, he skipped the word "weird" in the first sentence, he stuttered, he asked Ellen if he had to read what he wrote, he apologized that some part didn't make sense to him, and he lowered his voice. Even when Ellen asked him explicitly whether he thought the Watsons were weird, he answered "No." Though Ellen constantly emphasized to the class that all ideas were valid as long as they had support, what J. R. tried to do, or what he tried not to do, showed that at the beginning of the year it was definitely not easy for students to express a different point of view.

Dominance of teacher talk and teacher-led talk

One marked feature of the discourse patterns in Stage One was the dominance of the teacher: she either did the talking or led the talking during this period. During the 11 days when the class worked on the book Stone Fox, they spent an average of 71 minutes each day in Book Club. A lot of the Book Club time was used by the teacher to introduce the whole idea of Book Club, to engage students in teacher-led talks on how they should participate in Book Club discussions, or to provide instruction on how to respond to the writing prompts. These three types of teacher talk and teacher-led talk took an average of 37 minutes per day, while students had only an average of 3 minutes per day to talk or share among themselves. Out of the eleven days, students only had group discussion on two days (9 minutes on the first day and 10 minutes on the second) and community share on two days (3 minutes on the first day and 10 minutes on the second) (see Table 1).


Average time/day spent on book club activities in stage one


Average time/day (min.)*

Student centered talk


Teacher talk and teacher led talk


Student reading and writing


* Based on field notes on the first Book Club unit.

Teaching by modeling and scaffolding: The second stage of the journey

Stage Two began with the implementation of fishbowl discussions, in which teacher and class shifted from talking about what Book Club should look like to actual enactment of the program. Students were given more time to talk about books amongst themselves, first in the fishbowl discussions and later in book clubs (group discussion) and community share (whole class discussion). The changes in activity structure created more opportunities for students to practice and develop the knowledge and skills they needed to participate in talking about books. The changes also allowed the teacher more space to adopt different pedagogical moves within the students' zones of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978), such as modeling and scaffolding in a meaningful context. As a result, Stage Two witnessed a gradual release of responsibility from the teacher to the students (Pearson and Gallagher, 1983) for conducting book discussions.

Mediating tools

Two mediating tools--the fishbowl discussion as a structural tool and the writing prompts as an instrumental tool--helped facilitate this transitional process. Ellen introduced fishbowl discussion as a daily event when the class began reading their second book, Shiloh, and such discussions continued through the class's next book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963. Book club groups took turns conducting the fishbowl discussions. Starting with their second fishbowl, Ellen added two extra chairs at the fishbowl table for anybody in the audience to join the group and ask questions or make comments. Thus, fishbowl discussions became a public space where ways of responding and thinking and talking about texts were demonstrated and observed. The public space provided Ellen with opportunities to model and scaffold students' knowledge and skills for participation in context. This space also enabled the more knowledgeable peers in the class to practice what they learned and the other students in the audience to observe book discussions in action and to appropriate the practice as well.

The daily writing prompt mediated students' learning of literary skills: craft, genre, and interpretive conventions. The prompts consisted of open-ended questions grouped under topics such as Me and the Book, Point of View, Character Map, and Character Development. Ellen would introduce the topic and the questions for the day during the mini-lesson, which occurred right before students began reading in groups. Each time a new topic was introduced, Ellen used the mini-lesson time to help students understand the key concept (e.g., what a point of view was, what a round/flat character was and how they were developed). She also used the mini-lesson to teach students how to make a character map, or to use a Venn diagram to compare and contrast two characters. Over the whole year, students responded to a total of 122 prompts for the 11 books they read. By responding to the questions, students learned to analyze the text, synthesize it, interpret it, make personal and intertextual connections, articulate their own ideas, and provide support or evidences to their arguments. Students also learned about certain structural techniques, such as ways of organizing and presenting ideas and ways of arguing one's point. The writing prompts, as an instrumental tool, helped mediate students' development of literary knowledge and skills.

From teacher-centered to student-centered talk

During the second stage, teacher/teacher-led talk gave way to student-centered talk, due to two factors. First, the enactment of fishbowl discussions, and later of book clubs and community share, positioned students in the center of the conversation. Second, Ellen gradually retreated from her former position as key speaker, while students learned to assume more responsibility in discussions and undertake tasks performed exclusively by the teacher at the start of the year, such as initiating topics, asking each other questions, and commenting on each other's ideas. This shift is evident in both qualitative indicators (what the teachers and students did) and quantitative indicators (the shift in the floor time taken by teacher and students).

Increased Student-Talk Time

The evidence of a shift in the student share of the conversations is quite dramatic. Table 2 shows that student-centered talk occupied an average of 32 minutes per day in Stage Two, compared to an average of 3 minutes per day in Stage One. Teacher talk decreased to an average of 21 minutes per day, from 37 minutes per day in Stage One.


Comparison of the average time/day spent on book club activities in Stages One and Two


Average time/day (min.)


Stage One

Stage Two*

Student-centered talk



Teacher talk and teacher-led talk



Student reading and writing



*Based on field notes on January 28, February 1, 2, 4, 5, and 9, 1999.

Participation Patterns

The enactment of fishbowl discussions, book clubs, and community share created more opportunities for students to actually engage in student-centered conversations about books. But what does this numerical shift really mean? What happened differently in the discussions in Stage Two? What roles did the teacher and students play respectively in these conversations? What were the changes, if any, in their participation patterns in talking about the books over time? To answer these questions in meaningful detail, we examine student participation by focusing closely on two conversations: one from an early community share conversation in mid-November, and a second from a small-group discussion in February.

During their community share on November 18, the class was reading Number the Stars and responding to this prompt: "What kind of mood did you feel that this chapter had? What were the specific events that happened that created this mood for you?" (Prompt sheet for Number the Stars). Their conversation appeared to be very engaging. Within the 12-minute discussion, 13 students' voices were clearly heard. In addition, on 7 occasions several students were responding at the same time. There was also a high frequency of turn-switching. There were 95 turn changes altogether, with the teacher taking 34 turns and the students taking 61 (see Table 4).

Teacher talk. Our analysis of the functions of teacher talk revealed 4 major categories, all of them demonstrating that the teacher was persistently trying to precisely scaffold the knowledge and skills that would contribute to an expert literary conversation (see Table 3). First, Ellen asked students to provide evidence and support for their claims. She asked students to be "specific" on five different occasions, and encouraged them to elaborate on what they had said: "OK, be specific about it. What setting [as described in the chapter] made your group think that...?" On one occasion, she modeled how to do it by saying, "Could you expand what you just said...? Talk more about that. `It didn't have a happy mood because...'"

Second, Ellen tried to scaffold the practice of students speaking to each other, rather than to her. For example, she told them, "Don't talk to me; look at the rest." Third, Ellen invited all students to participate in the discussion. For example, she asked, "Anybody else who has not been in the discussion?" She told students not to raise their hand, and that "as long as there is no one talking" they could talk. The fourth function of the teacher's utterances was to join the conversation as a participant. For example, she asked a student, "No, no, you said you thought it was...?" She also shared her own revelation with the students, "In fact, I didn't think about relief, the relief point, when you were talking about being happy. Now I think you were more talking about relief." During this early community share conversation, the teacher acted as a guide; she was clearly the more knowledgeable member of the community, and modeling and scaffolding were her tools.


Functions of teacher talk and their frequencies*




Asking students to provide support for their ideas



Directing students to speak and listen to each other



Inviting students to participate



Joining the conversation as a participant









*Based on transcript of Community Share on November 18, 1998.

Student talk. By now, students seemed to realize that they were expected to participate in conversation about the reading during the community share time and many spoke up. Sixty-one out of 95 speaking turns were taken by the students. However, an examination of what they were talking about and how they were talking shows that students had not yet grasped the Book Club discussion discourse. Their discussion was choppy, and any single line of thought was short-lived. When extended talk occurred, it focused on the factual information in the book rather than on the book as a work of literature. Students also seemed to have problems presenting their ideas and bringing up relevant evidence. Thus, Ellen continued to lead the conversation by asking students questions, pushing them to provide details, and trying to keep their attention and the conversation focused.

However, toward the end of Stage Two, students were clearly developing some sense of the book-discussion discourse. An analysis of a book club discussion on February 4 shows some differences in their participation, as compared with their participation in the whole-class discussion 10 weeks before, on November 18. In this conversation, the teacher rarely spoke; students were talking to each other, and their conversation was focused on shared topics. Though some of the differences in participation may be due to differences in the nature of the activities--one being a group discussion and the other a whole-class discussion--the analysis shows that the teacher talk in these two conversations served very different functions. Also, had the conversation not gone well on February 4, it is highly likely, given everything else we know about Ellen, that she would have provided a stronger "intervention" (one more explicit and directive) on the later occasion.

The small group consisted of five students. Ellen was sitting with them. The discussion, which lasted 25 minutes, focused on the topic of character development in the book Tuck Everlasting. The prompt for the day was: "Use a graphic organizer or paragraph method to describe how Winnie has changed. You must clearly describe how she was in the beginning of the story, the middle, and now near the end."

The following excerpt is from a conversation about Kelsey's assumption that Winnie was happy because she fell in love with Jessie. It shows that, unlike ten weeks before, students were now clearly communicating with each other on this topic. In this conversation, the group challenged the assumption that Winnie fell in love. They believed that she "just like[-ed] him [Jessie]" and wanted "to be friend with" him, but they also suspected that Jessie might "think differently." To support her assumption, Kelsey quoted Winnie: "she said he was beautiful." Though Tu did not join others in talking about this, his question indicates that he was listening to what they were saying.

Thi: Why Winnie felt happy when she fell in love?

Ia: When you say Winnie fell in love with Jessie, she just like Jessie, she didn't fall in love with Jessie.

Kelsey: Yeah, because she said he was beautiful [she and several others giggle].

Ia: Winnie just like him.

Dang: Winnie just want to be friend.

Thi: Winnie just want to be friend with Jessie, but Jessie thinks differently.

Dang: Did he want to marry Winnie?

Tu: [Asking a question that changed the topic] What are other feelings of Winnie besides happy in the middle [of the story]?

(Transcript, February 4, 1999)

The teacher played a dramatically different role in this day's group discussion. During the whole 25-minute discussion, Ellen took only 5 communicative turns, including one non-verbal turn when she lightly tapped on Kelsey's shoulder to encourage her to participate (see Table 4). Two of her verbal utterances were managerial, one requesting a student to speak louder and the other asking a student to repeat his question. Ellen asked her third question when the group was talking about why Winnie didn't want to go home with the stranger, even though she missed her family: "Did Winnie really know that she was going to be taken home by the stranger?" Her question helped clarify the situation when the conversation seemed to get stuck.

Finally, she repeated Thi's question on why Tuck took Winnie to the water, thus bringing students back to explore further this student-initiated and thought-provoking question.

Thi: Do you think the Tuck took her to fishing and to the water, uh, is it for some reason? Or they were just nice?

Ia: They were nice and they wanted to tell her about the spring.

Kelsey: Maybe since she met the Tucks, the Tucks didn't want others to know their names and they didn't want anybody to find out about them.

Ia: But the stranger know who was their names.

Kelsey: Yes, I know. But I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about mom and dad.

Ellen: Could you talk a little more about that?... [To class: excuse me, a little bit too loud. ...] Why did the Tucks take her to the spring? What is the reason? Why?

Ia: Because they want Winnie to keep the secret that no one says anything about the spring and knows about it, because if they know it, they want to spoil it.

Kelsey: Why did they take her to the spring? She didn't know about it in the first place. Why didn't they just let her go?

Thi: The Tucks want to tell her about the life cycle and the wheel.

Ia: If she drinks the water, the world wouldn't go.

Tu: The Tucks took her to the water, to spring, because if she was thirsty at that time, she probably would drink the water.

(Transcript, February 4, 1999)


Turns taken by Ellen and her students during the two discussions


Discussion on Nov. 18
(whole class discussion)

Discussion on Feb. 4
(group discussion)

Total number of turns



Turns taken by the teacher (%)

34 (36%)

5* (3%)

Turns taken by the teacher (%)

61 (64%)

142 (97%)

* This includes one non-verbal communicative turn.

Looking across the two conversations on November 18, 1998, and February 4, 1999, we see differences in who controlled the conversation, what they were talking about, and how they were interacting with each other. In the conversation on November 18, the teacher played a leading part by asking students questions and keeping the conversation focused. In the conversation on February 4, the students were interacting among themselves. The first conversation also seemed choppy and unfocused, while the second was more fluid--students began to listen and talk to each other, and their conversations started to focus on shared topics.

Teacher moves: Multiple instructional strategies

Ellen played an important role in facilitating this transition. She adopted multiple teaching strategies to help students acquire the knowledge and skills needed to participate in Book Club. These included (a) building on students' prior knowledge, (b) using peer knowledge, (c) modeling, and (d) scaffolding/challenging students' thinking and participation.

Building on students' prior knowledge

In her teaching, Ellen consciously tried to operate within her students' zone of proximal development, helping them to make the leap from the known to the unknown. For example, in explaining the concept of "point of view," Ellen used a "fight" her class had had with another class on the soccer field the day before to show her students how their story about the fight was different from that told by students from the other class. She explained that this was because everyone had a different point of view. Since many of her students had been involved in the "fight," they were able to understand this description of "point of view" with little difficulty (Field notes, September 14, 1998).

On another occasion, Ellen was teaching the idea of "going beyond literal interpretations." She started by asking students what the book Charlotte's Web was about, knowing that they had all read it the previous year. One student said the book was about a pig and a spider. Another student added that the book was also about friendship. Ellen juxtaposed the two views and explained that the first was a literal interpretation while the second went beyond literal interpretation. Hearing these two views in contrast, the students began to understand what literal interpretations were and what it meant to reach for a more thematic analysis.

Creating opportunities for students to teach and learn from each other

Besides helping students connect new knowledge to old, Ellen also tried to create interpersonal connections--connections in which the learning and skills of the more knowledgeable peers became public knowledge. Ellen used four strategies to share this public knowledge with the whole class.

First, she drew the class's attention to how the students responded to texts and interacted with each other. After the volunteer fishbowl discussion on the book The View from Saturday, Ellen emphasized a practice, in this case "paraphrasing and clarifying," that Michael and Thahn had exemplified in the discussion. She told the class:

A few times I heard people say, "I think what she means is...," or "I think what he means is...." It sounds like that [sic] you're clarifying that and there's an opportunity for the other person to say, "Yeah, yeah," or "No, that's not what I mean." So that's really good. (Transcript, December 3, 1998)

Second, when introducing tasks requiring challenging cognitive skills, Ellen would ask certain (presumably more knowledgeable) students to model the task for the class, demonstrating how to think about, talk about, or approach the task. To illustrate how "to support one's argument with specific evidence," Ellen asked the class a question about the book The View from Saturday: "Do you think Ms. Olinski thought it was Julian who wrote the word `cripple' on the board? Why or why not?" Then she called on several students whom she knew would be able to give evidence from the text to support what they would say (Field notes, December 9, 1998).

Third, when new students joined the class, Ellen would invite the "veterans" to mentor new students in the practices of the Book Club. When Munira joined the class on December 9, 1998, Alicia told her, "What we do in Book Club is we read the book and we write on the prompts. Then the next day we'll discuss it and we'll have the whole class discussion." Students also explained to her why they had group and class discussions, saying that if some people didn't understand the book, they could ask the people in their group for clarification (Transcript, December 9, 1998).

Fourth, Ellen shared model student responses with the whole class, pointing out the strengths of the responses as well as places for improvement (Field notes, October 15, 1998).


Explicit instruction is a necessary part of teaching (Fradd & Lee, 1999; Roehler & Duffy, 1986). Ellen gave much planned, explicit instruction in Stage One. Telling and modeling became more spontaneous in Stage Two, most often arising in response to students' needs. One extreme example of Ellen's telling occurred when Thi's group had their first turn in the fishbowl discussion. Seeing the group sitting there silently, Ellen squatted beside Thi and literally whispered a question into her ear for her to repeat (Field notes, September 28, 1998). Thi came from Vietnam--this was her second year in the United States and her first year in a regular education classroom. A quiet and shy girl, she seldom spoke in class. By giving her the question and encouraging her to ask it, Ellen helped reduce her anxiety about speaking up and drew her into the group discussion.

While helping students respond directly to prompt questions, Ellen sometimes wrote down the exact sentence structure or the topic sentence of a paragraph for the students. Giving students the exact language to use or questions to ask helped the second language learners enhance their language ability and build their confidence to participate.


In addition to explicit instruction, Ellen employed scaffolding and challenging techniques as her primary means of interaction with students during Stage Two. In the second fishbowl discussion, as soon as Alicia, the first student to speak, finished sharing her response to the prompt, Michael started to read his. Ellen walked to the empty chair and interrupted Michael, saying to Alicia, "Wait, I have a question for you."

Ellen: [To Alicia] You said that Marty is a very determined boy. I'd like to know what type of things he did that shows he is determined.

Alicia: He tried...

Ellen: Louder, talk to the whole group.

Alicia: He wants the dog. Shiloh is the one he wants. He tried to get...

Ellen: What kinds of words did he say that tells that he is determined?

J.R.: He does not use bad language?

Ellen: Does that tell you that he is determined?

Alicia: He said, "Shiloh, I'll never let anybody mistreat you and kick you again."

Ellen: Thank you....

(Transcript, September 23, 1998)

In this excerpt, Ellen modeled asking questions--"I'd like to know what type of things he did that shows he is determined"--and scaffolded Alicia in answering it: "What kinds of words did he say that tells he is determined?" She also challenged J. R. by asking, "Does that tell you that he is determined?"

Throughout the year, Ellen tried to make students realize that in discussions, questions should have a point. Very often, especially at the beginning of the year, students seemed to ask questions or make comments only for the sake of speaking, without fully understanding the purpose of their question or even the action or event it referred to. During the volunteer fishbowl in early December, Michael commented that Tu said twice "Allan was too young to live in the Century Village." It was not clear to Tu and others why Michael was saying this. Through interactions with Michael during the fishbowl discussion and the debriefing afterward, Ellen tried to make her point to the class, which she stated explicitly, "When you ask a question, you need to have a point to make" (Transcript, December 3, 1998). In the following excerpt, we see Ellen really pushing Michael to think hard about why he made the statement.

Ellen: Michael, why are you saying that? [Michael is silent] What's the significance of that statement?

Michael: .... [Inaudible]

[Tu looks at his writing and finds that he did say that at two different places.]

Ellen: Michael, what's your point? He said that two times. Is there something wrong about the Century Village? Explain your point.

(Transcript, December 3, 1998)

In the debriefing after the fishbowl, Ellen brought up this issue of making a point again. She tried to help Michael and all other students see the reasons for asking questions or making comments.

Ellen: Michael, I'm not picking on you in particular, but for example, you went up to Tu and said, "Why did you say it twice?" Is that what your main point is? What's your point when you're asking that?... For example, you could go up and say, "Is it your point that he doesn't live in Century Village?"

Michael: I didn't really understand it.

Ellen: Well, to do that you say "I'm confused about what you meant about him being too young to stay in the Century Village." So you're giving Tu the opportunity to clarify it. Then we know your point is that you're confused about it....

(Transcript, December 3, 1998)

By pushing Michael to think hard about the point of his comment, Ellen tried to make him and the rest of the class understand that people do not say things only for the sake of saying them, but rather because they want to communicate something. Ellen was trying to help students see the functions of talking and asking questions.

Thus in Stage Two, which we have called Teaching by Modeling and Scaffolding, we see Ellen employing an array of practices and strategies, all of which involve her in an active role. She gives them information they need. She models strategies. She challenges their use of a strategy in order to help them fine-tune it. And she does all of these things with the single broad aim of nurturing their independence. But it is not until Stage Three that she will realize the fruits of those efforts.

Learning by doing: The third stage of the journey

While Stage Two differs from Stage One in that students were given more time and space to engage in student-centered conversations about books, it was the quality of these conversations that distinguished Stage Three from Stage Two. In Stage Three, students seemed to become more comfortable and confident talking about books among themselves. They learned to express their opinions, challenging other's ideas and supporting their own with evidence from the book and their own experiences. They learned to interact with each other by listening to opinions, asking questions, and keeping discussions focused. Students also seemed to begin developing sensitivity toward differences and diversity.

The first key event in Stage Three occurred in February, when Ellen challenged the class to avoid tolerating outlandish ideas, predictions, and explanations from one another. In Stage Two, she had focused on encouraging students to participate in discussions, share their thoughts about the books, and respond to each other. Now she stopped students from sharing outlandish ideas for three consecutive days and began to help them hold themselves up to higher standards for the quality of their discussions. It would no longer be enough to speak up; now their thoughts would need to be logical and grounded in evidence from the text and their own experiences.

Learning to engage in book discussions at a higher standard

As students became more comfortable sharing ideas with each other and acquired more language and skills for participation, they were eager to make their thoughts known. In reading the fantasy book Tuck Everlasting, students developed imaginative ideas, but sometimes without rational reasoning behind them. Ellen called those ideas "outlandish" and for three consecutive days she tried to help students see that they needed to provide evidence to support their ideas. In one discussion, Ellen told the class, "I want to stop you at this point. What happened in the story that made you think of that?" Later some students suggested that Winnie was hit by a tree at the age of 78 when she was looking for the spring water. Ellen reminded students of the fact that Winnie learned about the water when she was 11 and she then questioned students about how realistic their idea was. She later told the class: "I don't like to sit and direct the discussion, but you need to keep in mind: the outlandish ideas need to stay out of the discussion.... I'm all for coming up with ideas but they need to be well-supported. It's not going to be outlandish" (Transcript, February 9, 1999). Clearly, Ellen was trying to help her students develop habits of talking and thinking in ways that matched the norms and values of the larger literary community: i.e., using logical reasoning and presenting supported arguments.

Book Club discussions create learning opportunities for students

In Stage Three, students continued to enjoy the time and space granted to them in Stage Two to share their responses to books, and they continued to practice and develop their cognitive, social, and linguistic skills. Table 5 presents data showing that student-centered talk increased from a daily average of 3 minutes in Stage One to 32 minutes in Stage Two and 34 minutes in Stage Three. It also indicates a decrease of teacher-centered talk from 37 minutes in Stage One to 21 minutes in Stage Two and 14 minutes in Stage Three.


Comparison of the average time per day spent on book club activities in Stages One, Two, and Three


Average Time Per Day (min.)


Stage One

Stage Two

Stage Three*

Student centered talk




Teacher talk and teacher-led talk




Student Reading and Writing




*Based on field notes on May 3, 5, 7, and 10, 1999.

Opportunities for the development of cognitive skills

By participating in Book Club, Ellen's linguistically diverse students developed the language and skills to (a) make personal and intertextual connections, (b) develop multiple perspectives, and (c) formulate their own world-views.

Making connections. Reading and discussion of texts created opportunities for students to learn to make connections between what they read in a book and what they experienced in their world. Sometimes connections were made because the prompt questions required it; at other times, students made the connections because they felt a need to use personal examples to support their opinions. In a discussion about Walk Two Moons, Thahn thought Mrs. Cadaver, a main character in the book, had murdered her husband. When challenged, he solicited support from the author and said, "Why did the author say she came back late [if she didn't murder her husband]?" Andy used his uncle and aunt as examples to explain to Thahn that doctors and nurses usually worked late hours. He stated that since Mrs. Cadaver was a nurse, it was not abnormal for her to come home late, and thus she might not be the murderer (Field notes, May 7, 1999).

Sometimes the prompt questions asked the students to make the connection. In another discussion on the same book, students were asked to compare Mr. Birkway, a teacher in the book, with their own teachers. The group in the following example was comprised of Thi, who went to school in Vietnam from first to third grades; Andy, who went to kindergarten and third grade in Ecuador, and Tu and Vong, both of whom had been to school in the United States, although Tu was Vietnamese and Vong was Hmong. Two features marked their discussion. First, the conversation was focused and involved everyone in the group. Second, the atmosphere was relaxed. Students had a genuine interest in what each other was saying and they asked Thi and Andy if they personally got whipped. Students also related what they learned from each other to their own situation, as when Tu commented that "It's a good thing that I didn't went [sic] to school in Vietnam." Andy hinted that one student in their class might be whipped because she seldom finished her homework, which aroused some giggles from his peers (Transcript, May 5, 1999).

Tu: Did you say that the Vietnamese teachers, they whip you?


Thi: Yeah, the principal, it's like, in here, if the teacher whip the students they can't teach no more but in Vietnam, it's different.


Tu: It's a good thing that I didn't went to school in Vietnam.

Andy: Can you imagine they had Jessey and they had Book Club, Jessey, she would be just like, oh, man! [They all giggle]

(Transcript, May 5, 1999)

Developing multiple perspectives. Book discussions opened opportunities for students to develop multiple perspectives. They became aware that different people might view things differently and began to consider the historical context in which an event occurred. On February 2, the class discussed what Mae Tuck could do to escape from prison in the book Tuck Everlasting. Some suggested that she could pretend to be dead and then would be taken to the hospital. Thi questioned whether they had hospitals in the early 1800s like we have today. This historical perspective was picked up again in their discussion on February 5, when Rico asked if they had the same court system then as we have today. Rico challenged another student, "I mean to get her out, was it like that you can pay a fine so you can bail him out? Was it like that way back in the 1800s? To bail him out?... Are you sure? I don't think so" (Transcript, February 5, 1999).

Developing a personal world view. Book discussions also created opportunities for students to discuss serious issues--the very sort of issues that literature is supposed to evoke-- such as the meaning of life, friendship, and responsibility. These discussions helped students explore their own world-views and value systems. Some conversations were deep, others were not; but they all forced students to face real issues and challenged them to think independently (recall how difficult this was in Stage One for J. R. and Thahn).

During a discussion of the book Walk Two Moons, Andy said that he thought Grandma and Grandpa were crazy because they had stolen a tire from a senator's car in Washington. Tu challenged this assumption by saying that they were only borrowing. In the following conversation, two different perspectives were presented, with each boy providing support for his opinions.

Tu: How are they crazy?

Andy: Of course they are crazy, because only crazy persons are going to go to rob tires from a [senator].

Tu: They didn't rob it.

Andy: Yes they did. They stole it.

Tu: They borrowed it to them.

Andy: SO, they stole them.

Vong: That's the kind of borrowing.

Andy: So I go and steal someone's video games and I'm just borrowing them?!

Tu: To them they are borrowing and to other people they are stealing.

(Transcript, May 3, 1999)

In another discussion, the class discussed whether they should judge people by their appearance. During the conversation, three views were presented. One was that we should not judge people by their appearance; another was that some types of appearance gave people a bad impression; and the third was that an appearance different from that of most people was bad. Both Tu and Rico employed specific examples to support their points of view. Though no particular conclusion was reached, the process of discussing these thorny issues was more important for helping students develop their own thinking (Transcript, May 10, 1999).

Opportunities for the development of social skills

By participating in talk about books, the students gradually developed their social/interactive skills. They learned to monitor their group discussions, challenge each other's thinking, and share different--and sometimes only tentative--ideas.

Monitoring group discussions. In discussions, students learned to talk and listen to each other. They learned to monitor and maintain their conversations, including bidding for the floor, inviting others to talk, asking for clarification, and requesting others to speak louder. They also learned to express and accept different opinions and challenge each other's ideas. In their conversations, they learned to say "Do you have any questions for him?" "You should listen to him," "Could you do it slowly so we can answer your questions?" (Transcript, November 2, 1998), "Can I ask a question?" (Transcript, April 15, 1999), and "I know what you mean, but I want you to be specific" (Transcript, December 3, 1998).

Challenging each other. In discussions, students gradually learned to ask and think about fat, juicy questions. During book clubs, students constantly asked each other questions like "Why do you think...?" "What made you think...?" or "Can you give an example?" These question structures helped students to frame their thinking. When Hussain, who joined the class in spring, predicted that Sal in Walk Two Moons would be "crashing" in the end, Andy asked, "Why do you think that? Could you support that?" Hearing Hussain say "no," Tu wondered, "Why do you say that if you can't support that?" The ability to support one's ideas was becoming a habitual part of their thinking (Transcript, May 7, 1999).

In discussions, students also learned how to go about challenging other people's views and expressing different opinions. In one group discussion on the book Tuck Everlasting, the conversation turned to how Winnie could tell her family about the magic water. Thi seemed to believe firmly that Winnie would not release the secret. At an earlier point, she reminded the group, "But that's the secret." Nobody paid any attention to her remark, however, and they continued to discuss how Winnie might tell her family in a way that would lead them to believe her. Finally, Thi asked her group members directly, "But do you think that Winnie will break the secret or what?" Hearing "no," Thi asked again, "Then how can the family know about the water?" (Transcript, February 4, 1999).

Opportunities for the development of language skills

Participating in the reading, writing, and discussion of literary texts with an authentic audience provided Ellen's linguistically diverse students with opportunities to practice and develop their language skills in meaningful contexts. Students learned to use appropriate language to communicate with each other, to elicit other people's ideas, to provide uptake, and to challenge each other. They also occasionally asked each other about word meanings. In the following conversation, Andy, Thahn, and Michael answered Thi's request for a definition of the word "divorce." They told her that it meant "you sign paper" and became only "friends" when you don't want to be married anymore; in other words, "you dump them" (Transcript, December 3, 1998). It is also an example of how group members listened to each other, built on each other's ideas, and collaboratively constructed the meaning of a word.


Thi: What does divorce mean?

Andy: When you marry someone and you want to marry.

Thahn: And then you don't want to marry them and you sign paper.

Andy: Then you get divorced and you can only be friends.

Thahn: You divorce.

Michael: You dump them.

[Laughter and smiles from all group members]

(Transcript, December 3, 1998)

As students wrote responses to the prompts and discussed them, they learned to appropriate the discourse of academic discussions of literature in their communications with each other. Some discourse markers which were notably absent in their conversations early in the year began to appear more frequently in their discussions as the year progressed. For example, students started to quote from the book to support their views, writing things such as "Ethan told us in the book that..." (Field notes, December 3, 1998) and "Why does the author say ... in the book?" (Field notes, May 7, 1999). They learned to link their own comments to the views of a classmate, for example, "Like Alicia said that..." (Field notes, February 5, 1999).

What is learned beyond talk in Book Club discussions

The school year witnessed significant changes in the students' participation patterns in Book Club discussions, as they gradually mastered the discourse and formed a literary community in the classroom. Parallel to these changes in students' participation, evidence from the quantitative measures taken at the beginning and the end of the school year shows that (1) students dramatically increased their vocabulary, and (2) they became more metacognitively aware of their own strategies.

Slosson Oral Reading Test

At the beginning and end of the school year, students were tested on the Slosson Oral Reading Test (SORT). SORT is a progressive test of word recognition which is designed for use with students from preschool through high school; the words just keep getting harder and harder. We used this test not because we thought that it might be particularly sensitive to the Book Club intervention, but for the very reason that it had virtually nothing to do with Book Club. We wanted to know whether something as simple as word recognition increases beyond normal expectations when it is embedded in a broader literacy practice like Book Club. Clearly these students were recognizing a lot of words in silent and oral reading, but there was no specific curricular attention given to word recognition.

We have complete data (both pre- and post-) for 19 students (out of 25) in Ellen's class; they are used for this analysis. Their average pre-test raw score was 86.4 and their average post-test raw score 123.5. The average gain in raw score was 37.2 words, equivalent to 1.8 years of growth. With the exception of one student, everyone gained more than one year of growth in their reading vocabulary (see Appendix B). According to the Slosson norms, this sort of gain is quite exceptional. Of course, without a control group, we cannot attribute these gains to the Book Club intervention, but even so it is interesting to note that the Book Club intervention was capable of sustaining growth on a measure only incidentally related to its purpose.

Metacomprehension Strategy Inventory (MSI)

The Metacomprehension Strategy Index (MSI) (Schmitt, 1990) measures a reader's awareness of the strategic reading process. The questionnaire has 25 items, with each consisting of 4 choices, one of which indicates appropriate metacomprehension strategy awareness. According to Schmitt (1990), MSI assesses students' awareness of a variety of metacomprehension behaviors that fit within six broad categories: (a) predicting and verifying, (b) previewing, (c) purpose setting, (d) self questioning, (e) drawing from background knowledge, and (f) summarizing and applying fix-strategies. Clearly, the MSI is more closely related to the curricular intentions of Book Club than is the Slosson test.

A t-test was conducted at a confidence interval of .05 to compare the differences between students' pre-score and post-score results. The comparison shows that the differences are statistically significant (p < .01) (see Appendix C), suggesting that students became more aware of and used more reading comprehension strategies in their reading at the end of the year than they had at the beginning. Further analysis of the paired mean differences of the six categories shows that students especially improved in the areas of self- questioning, drawing from background knowledge, summarizing and applying fix-strategies, and predicting and verifying (see Appendix C). Again, without a control group or grade-level norms, it is difficult to assess the growth observed. Even so, this pattern of results is certainly consistent with the avowed intentions of Book Club to promote greater student reflection.


Analysis of our data delineates the road traveled by Ellen and her class of culturally and linguistically diverse students, as they learned to engage in literary discourse in a community of learners. It reveals Ellen's gradual release (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983) to her students of responsibility for conducting Book Club discussions over the school year. More importantly, the analysis reveals three overlapping but distinguishable stages in this transition. Though Ellen continued to provide guidance and support to her students, teacher talk and teacher-led talk in Stage One gave way to student-centered talk in Stage Two. In Stage One students averaged only 3 minutes of talk during small-group and whole-class discussions, while teacher and teacher-led talk occupied 37 minutes per day. In Stage Two, by contrast, the student share of talking time soared to 32 minutes per day, while the teacher's share dwindled to 21 minutes. Timewise, Stage Three evidenced a small increase in student-centered talk (2 minutes per day) and a small decrease in teacher-led talk (7 minutes). However, what truly distinguished Stage Three from its previous stage was the quality of student-centered conversations. By the end of the year, students assumed more responsibility in their group and whole class discussions by raising topics of interest, monitoring their own discussions, and constructing new knowledge together. Evidence shows that over the school year, student conversations became more "expert-like." Students learned to speak to one another by asking questions and sharing thoughts on the common topic. Their conversations became more focused. They learned to engage in critical and reflective talk about text as the focus of their conversations shifted from factual information to the stuff of which literature is made--the fundamental questions of human existence. The students learned to appreciate literary texts and enjoy conversing with each other. Along the way, their vocabulary increased dramatically and they became more aware of the strategies they were using to construct meaning in response to texts.

Data analysis also reveals five classroom practices that helped create opportunities for students to practice and develop the knowledge and skills needed for participating in the literary discourse. First, Ellen believed that all students brought rich experiences and knowledge to the discussions and tried to cultivate this understanding among students to create a community of learners. Second, she gave her students time and space to share their responses to quality literature, and encouraged them to construct meanings collaboratively. Third, she pushed students to think critically and reflectively about what they read by responding to high-level questions. Fourth, she employed multiple modes of teaching, including telling, modeling, scaffolding, facilitating student discussion, and participating as a member (Au & Raphael, 1998). Finally, Ellen persisted in challenging the students and maintained high expectations for their performance. There was real accountability in this classroom--the very sort of accountability that is hard to capture through any sort of paper-and-pencil assessment. It is a higher accountability--to the integrity of the authors' ideas, to one's peers (for the quality of their arguments), and to the teacher's expectations about one's responsibilities in a learning community.

Ellen was very aware of the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of her students; in fact, it was this very awareness that pushed her to work so hard to nurture the belief in a community of learners that dominated her thinking, planning, and moment-by-moment decision making throughout the year. There is clear evidence that she valued the cultural traditions that her students brought into the classroom; she even encouraged them to share their "culturally marked" thinking ("Someone from Vietnam will have a different view"). But she was equally aware of her need to help them master the important academic discourse called book talk. Her nurturing took on many forms, as our analysis suggests--sometimes pulling, sometimes pushing, sometimes coaxing, and sometimes just letting go.

The real story in this study is about the unwavering beliefs of the classroom teacher, Ellen. She believed that students are knowledgeable beings, that learning occurs through participation in the communal practices of a learning community, that instruction must be based on students' needs, and that if she, as a teacher, could be as persistent in challenging students as she was supportive in helping them meet those challenges, there would be no limit to what they could learn. This study is about one unique classroom, with a unique teacher and a unique group of students.


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Appendix A. Books read during the school year






Gardiner, J. R.

Stone Fox

The Harper Trophy


Naylor, P. R.


Newbery Medal 2 (1992)


Curtis, C. P.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963

Newbery Honor (1996)


Lowry, L.

Number the Stars

Newbery Medal (1990)


Konigsburg, E. L.

The View from Saturday

Newbery Medal (1997)


Babbitt, N.3

Tuck Everlasting

ALA Notable Book4


Taylor, M. 5

Mississippi Bridge



Taylor, M.

Song of the Tree



Taylor, M.

The Friendship6

The Coretta Scott King Award (1988)


Taylor, M.

The Gold CadillacSee The class used a version that has both stories in one book.

The Christopher Award (1988)


Fenner, C.

Yolonda's Genius

Newbery Honor (1996)


Creech, S.

Walk Two Moons

Newbery Medal (1995)


Appendix B. Students' gains from pre to post SORT test scores (N = 19)




Pre-SORT Test

Post-SORT Test



Grade Level

Raw Score*

Reading Grade Level

Raw Score*

Reading Grade Level

Raw Score*

Reading Grade Level

























































































My Linh
















































J. R.
































*Raw score = the number of actual words students could recognize.

Appendix C. Analysis of paired mean differences for pre- and post-test scores in MSI (N = 20)



Mean Differences

Standard Error

Predicting and Verifying (7 questions)



Previewing (2 questions)



Purpose Setting (3 questions)



Self Questioning (3 questions)



Drawing from Background
Knowledge (6 questions)



Summarizing and Applying
Fix-Strategies (4 questions)



Total (25 questions)



* p < .05 ** p < .01


1. I will follow McMahon and Raphael's use of "book clubs" without capitalization to refer to small group discussion, and of "Book Club" with capitalization to mean the Book Club program as a whole.

2. The Newbery award is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.

3. Natalie Babbitt is the Newbery-winning author of Knee Knock Rise and the Search for Delicious.

4. ALA Notables are given annually to the year's outstanding books by the American Library Association.

5. Mildred Taylor is the Newbery-winning author of Roll of Thunder: Hearing My Cry.

6. The class used a version that has both stories in one book