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Literature groups: a model of the transactional process.

One of the main goals in early childhood education is to help children recognize the power of literature. This power stems from literature's ability to change the reader forever, "to take you out of yourself and return you to yourself--a changed self" (Short & Pierce, 1991, p. 4). Such a transformation requires readers to transcend the text, using their life experiences and "their experiences with literature to make meaning for themselves" (McConaghy, 1990, p. 39). If we want children to know the power of literature, we must surround them with books and opportunities to critically examine those books (Short & Pierce, 1991). We can provide such opportunities by establishing small literature groups where we encourage children to find meaning in literature.

Review of Research on Literature Groups

Reading is a transactional process where "readers simultaneously bring meaning to and take meaning from the text as they read" (Peterson & Eeds, 1990, p. 18; Rosenblatt, 1938). The ultimate goal for a reader is to transcend the text, coming to a deeper understanding of the text by connecting it with personal experiences. Transcending the text "reveals an ability to reflect, to think about one's own experiences in relation to what is read, and to arrive at a deeper level of understanding of the story and of oneself" (McConaghy, 1990, p. 55). Harste states that "meaningful language settings, where transactions are allowed to occur naturally, are the most conducive settings for literacy learning" (DeFord & Harste, 1982, p. 590). Literature groups provide opportunities for children to come to this deeper level of understanding.

Literature group discussions facilitate and model the transactional reading process. Readers bring personal experiences to and take meaning from the book. Through discussion, young children come to a deeper level of understanding. The discussion models the transactional process by providing opportunities for children to think "together to build new ideas that go beyond what could be accomplished individually" (Peterson & Eeds, 1990; Short & Pierce, 1991, p. 34). "Learning proceeds from the known to the unknown. . . . Children need to be given opportunities to make language their own by making connections with their lives and background information" (Harste, 1990, p. 317). Through participation in literature groups, children gain experience in taking meaning from text and learn to use this same strategy when reading independently.

A literature group is a small group of children gathered to discuss a book. The groups may center around an author, a common theme or students' self-selected books. The group becomes a community of learners who enter into what Peterson and Eeds (1990) call a "grand conversation." Children discuss questions they have about the book, analyze story structure, construct meaning and consider the relationship of the book to their lives or other books.

In order for children to have a "grand conversation," they must support each other and feel free to take risks. "Children learn best in low-risk environments where exploration is accepted and current efforts are socially supported and understood" (Harste, 1990, p. 317). Sharing personal experiences in literature groups involves great risk. A supportive environment is, therefore, necessary to facilitate such risk-taking and ensure quality discussions and higher-level transactions.

Peterson and Eeds (1990) suggest that literature groups provide the opportunity for children to critically discuss literary elements and become more than plot readers. They "believe that awareness of literary elements and of their function in a story nurtures the development of children's ability to respond imaginatively to a text". These literary elements are layers of story meaning, character, place, point of view, time, mood, symbol and extended metaphor. Discussion of these story elements provides a foundation upon which children can build as they become lifelong readers.

Keegan and Shrake (1991) recommend a "think-aloud" strategy when reading to children. In this method, the teacher expresses any personal thoughts about the book, helping "readers clarify their thinking by teaching them to verbalize their thoughts as they read". The teacher's use of this strategy in the literature group becomes a model for children to observe and later use when they are reading. The think-aloud strategy also encourages dialogue that may facilitate readers' understanding of the text.

Short, Pierce, Routman, Smith, Peterson and Eeds suggest that in the most effective literature groups the teacher is a facilitator (Peterson & Eeds, 1990; Routman, 1991; Short & Pierce, 1991). Teachers work alongside their students, negotiating meaning and respecting students' perspectives (Peterson & Eeds, 1990). Karen Smith, in Talking About Books, and Regie Routman, in Invitations, recommend that the teacher demonstrate how to talk about books by sharing thoughts, not by asking questions (Routman, 1991; Short & Pierce, 1991).

For example, instead of asking children, "What does this make you think of?" the teacher says, "This story makes me think of a time when I ..." Thus, the teacher demonstrates how to talk about literature, rather than how to ask questions. Teachers and students have genuine conversations in which teachers offer students the same respect that they offer other adults (Routman, 1991; Short & Pierce, 1991). As children gain experience talking about books, the teacher becomes a participant rather than a model.

McConaghy, in her book Children Learning Through Literature, notes that questions are appropriate if they occur naturally in the flow of the conversation. Authentic questions are those for which the teacher does not have an answer. McConaghy asks questions not for correct answers, but because she is genuinely interested in hearing the children's responses.

When I asked for their response to stories read to them, they seemed to understand implicitly that I was not asking as a way of checking for right answers; they knew I wanted to hear their ideas and opinions. I became tuned into children's interests, feelings, and thinking with more sensitivity than ever before. (McConaghy, 1990, p. 7)

Other researchers suggest using questions more directly. Kelly (1990) uses questions to facilitate discussion and deeper understanding: What did you notice in the story? How did the story make you feel? What does this story remind you of in your own life?

Using Literature Groups in a Kindergarten Classroom

In the spring of 1992, the senior author worked in a kindergarten classroom with Linda Vanden-Bergh at Lake Forest Elementary School in Gainesville, Florida. Three times a week, they met with two groups of five or six children in half-hour sessions. The project operated on the belief that providing time for children to interact with literature in small groups would enrich their kindergarten experience. In literature groups, the children could be close to books and have the luxury of pointing to the book, interrupting the reading to comment and sitting close to a nurturing adult.

As the semester progressed, the teachers realized that the literature group modeled the transactional process of reading. Teacher and students shared the different meanings that each brought to the book and, through discussion, helped each other take more meaning from it. The underlying goal throughout the meetings was to help the children transcend the text as McConaghy, Rosenblatt, Routman and Harste described. Upon reflection, two key elements affected the group's success in facilitating the transactional process: the teacher's responses to literature and each child's role in the classroom.

Key Element #1: The Teacher's Responses

A teacher's use of and responses to literature set the tone for literature's role in the classroom. Teachers who recognize the effects of literature on their lives can share that knowledge with children, showing that they, too, can be affected by literature. A teacher can share ideas, feelings and questions about books during one-on-one reading, with several children gathered to hear a good book or during a shared reading time. These experiences set the stage for a productive literature group. Children learn strategies to discuss literature, discover that their experiences are important and perceive themselves as unique contributors to the discussion.

The authors found sharing experiences to be the most effective strategy for encouraging transcendence of the text. During the second reading of Do Not Disturb by Nancy Tafuri, the teacher noticed how stereotypical the family in this book looked. She commented that if she went camping in the woods with her family, she would go with her mother and her sister. The children wanted to know more about her family and then responded by sharing their own family experiences. One little boy talked about how his mother left his family and how much he missed her. Another little girl commented that she would go camping with her mother and father, but they would probably fight.

The group discussed their families for about 15 minutes, creating an enriched meaning that would not have occurred if the teacher had merely asked, "Does this family look like your family?" As children gain experience discussing literature, the teacher's role in initiating sharing will decrease.

Key Element #2: A Child-centered Classroom

The second key element that affects the quality of the literature group is the child's role in the classroom. In a child-centered classroom, where children are independent decision-makers respected for their uniqueness, children feel comfortable sharing their experiences, insights and feelings. Children in child-centered classrooms have been participating in this way from the first day of school. In a teacher-directed classroom, however, children do not feel that their ideas are valued; they see the teacher as having the right answer and, therefore, have difficulty sharing in a literature group.

Organization of a literature group follows the child-centered philosophy that allows children to choose their topic of study, help pick out books, bring in objects that connect with the topic and think of ideas for written responses or projects. For example, one literature group studied Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault. The children decided they would like to work in groups of two or three and then present the story to the rest of the class. One child suggested that he could retell the story using the overhead projector to illustrate how the letters in the story climb up and fall out of the tree. Another child suggested making letters to hang in a tree. With some help from the teacher and the group, the children stapled letters to hangers and hung them on a palm tree. Other children presented the story using flannel boards, alphabet letters and alphabet-letter puppets made with popsicle sticks.

Another literature group studied the rainforest. One child suggested that they could make a mural of all the rainforest trees and animals. Another recommended decorating a bulletin board. The children worked for several days cutting and drawing leaves, margays, parrots and macaws for their display.

These are authentic responses to the literature because the ideas came from the children. Other authentic responses can be elicited through the following invitations: Would you like to make a poster advertising this book? Would you like to make a pamphlet for the library summarizing all the information we have learned about the rainforest? Would you like to write a letter to the author or one of the characters? Would you like to present what we learned to the group?

These invitations can be either accepted or declined, thus remaining authentic. Invitations are consistent with the child-centered classroom where children make decisions. Giving children assignments is a teacher-directed activity that undermines the atmosphere of inquiry that allows children and teacher to explore literature's possibilities. If children's ideas are central to the discussions, then so too should they be central to the process of written responses. Therefore, assigning children the task of drawing their favorite part of a book is no longer in the spirit of enjoying and living with literature.


The classroom environment and teachers' genuine responses to literature both play critical roles in facilitating productive literature groups. When the teacher interacts with literature in meaningful ways and when children feel a sense of their voice in the classroom, sincere transactions with literature can occur. "Transaction means, not the interaction between two separate and distinct things, but a creation of a new element by a merging of two elements" (DeFord & Harste, 1982, p. 594). The literature group as a social context assists this transaction by supporting its creation. And it is this creation that nurtures lifelong readers who enjoy and live with literature.


DeFord, D., & Harste, J. (1982). Child language research and curriculum. Language Arts, 59, 590-599.

Harste, J. (1990). Jerry Harste: Speaks on reading and writing. Reading Teacher, 43, 316-318.

Keegan, S., & Shrake, K. (1991). Literature study groups: An alternative to ability grouping. Reading Teacher, 44, 542-547.

Kelly, P. (1990). Guiding young students' response to literature. Reading Teacher, 43, 464-470.

McConaghy, J. (1990). Children learning through literature: A teacher researcher study. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Peterson, R., & Eeds, M. (1990). Grand conversations: Literature groups in action. New York: Scholastic.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1938). Literature as exploration. New York: Modern Language Association of America.

Routman, R. (1991). Invitations: Changing as teachers and learners K-12. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Short, K.G., & Pierce, K. M. P. (1991). Talking about books creating literature communities. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Children's Books Cited

Martin, B., Jr., & Archambault, J. (1989). Chicka chicka boom boom. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Tafuri, N. (1984). Have you seen my duckling? New York: Greenwillow Books.

Brooke Tiballi is a Pre-1st/1st-Grade Teacher at Sawgrass Elementary, Broward County, Florida. Laura Drake is a 3rd-Grade Teacher at Terwilliger Elementary, Alachua County, Florida.
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Author:Drake, Laura
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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