Using Book Clubs to Foster Student Engagement
At it’s core, traditional teaching and learning involves students gaining meaning from printed and oral language. Raphael and McMahon (1994) suggested that comprehension is achieved through a partnership of students, peers, and instructors. Students should not sit isolated working individually. Instead, students should interact through oral and written language to aid in comprehension. The use of a book club in class provides an “opportunity for personal response to encourage students to construct meaning with their peers and to question whether meaning is inherent in text” (Raphael & McMahon, 1994, p. 103).
Outside of the classroom, book clubs abound and range in many different formats, styles, and purposes. Book clubs seemingly enhance many aspects of peoples’ lives. For example, the Get into Reading Project has set up over 50 book clubs in settings such as psychiatric facilities, care homes, homeless shelters, and libraries. These books clubs are designed to incite self-reflection and foster positive change in the participants’ lives. The adults in these programs have demonstrated remarkable changes from increased mental health to empowered life transformations.
Furthermore, the use of book clubs has been shown to boost literacy among children, adolescents, and adults (e.g., Kooy, 2003; Raphael, Florio-Ruane, & George, 2001; Ward, 2010). While increased literacy has been the primary variable used to evaluate book club outcomes, a number of other educational processes and outcomes across the lifespan have been examined. For example, Raphael & McMahon (1994) found that, at the conclusion of their book club process, elementary school students with varying reading comprehension levels and cultural backgrounds (a) developed a greater ability to synthesize information, (b) had higher standardized test scores than those in more traditional reading programs, (c) had better recall of the content of the books read, and (d) demonstrated a more sophisticated writing style over time. Additionally, homeless men have been found to be more open to counseling and talking about health-related topics while participating in a book club (Home, 2008). Others have reported a link between participating in classroom book clubs and higher-order ethical decision-making (e.g., Cohen, 2006).
I have been using book clubs in my face-to-face courses for many years. I started utilizing them for several reasons. One, I wanted students to feel more ownership in their educational process. For that reason, I do not lead the book club discussions; they are student-led. Two, I wanted students to wrestle with challenging reading and discuss how to apply the material to their lives. I typically choose books that are either evidence-based applications or that are theory-based and written by the theorist. Finally, I wanted students to be more engaged with each other. I have heard from students over the years just how meaningful these books clubs have been. I have tweaked things here and there based on their feedback, but by and large students have expressed genuine affinity for the process (but not always the books I’ve chosen).
I recently decided to collect some data from students to examine the process and outcomes more closely. I won’t share all the methodology here, but some of the qualitative data might help sway you toward thinking about this as a possibility in your own courses. First, a description of the process seems in order. I give some class time for the book club discussions to occur, and each of those assigned weeks students read a chapter from the book. Students remained in the same group for the entirety of the book club process. Each week, one student from each group led the discussion by bringing a few prepared questions for dialogue. All students in the group were instructed to formulate some ideas for each book club dialogue. Group leaders submitted their prepared questions each week to the instructor via the course learning management system site.
The following are some verbatim quotes taken from the data collected from the students:
“I found the readings valuable and was enlightened by the new perspectives.”
“I took a lot of notes and applied it to my own life. The book really enhanced my learning.”
“From a multicultural perspective, especially lower SES, we talked about how we could apply the book club’s knowledge to those populations.”
“It provided an effective way for us to process and synthesize the information. We were able to communicate on a different level.”
“We were more invested emotionally. That was great.”
“We were able to discuss some of the same concepts each week, but with a different slant based on the current reading. That helped me learn so much more than if I had just read the chapter and then discussed it in the usual classroom way.”
“It was a positive experience because it helped me a great deal to discuss the material and make learning more of an active process.”
“The book club process was extremely beneficial, as different perspectives and insights really added to the learning of the material read.”
“Hearing other students’ viewpoints helped broaden my critical thinking skills.”
Of course, not all comments were so positive, but negative responses were few and far between. One thing that really emerged from the data was that the students indeed felt more ownership in their education. In addition, they also felt more obligated to read the material and be present in class. Wow, what a win!
Cohen, R. (2006). Building a bridge to ethical learning: Using a book club model to foster ethical awareness. Journal of Legal Studies Education, 23, 87-103.
Kooy, M. (2003). Riding the coattails of Harry Potter: Readings, relational learning, and revelations in book clubs. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 47(2), 136-145.
Raphael, T. E., & McMahon, S. I. (1994). Book Club: An Alternative Framework For Reading Instruction. The Reading Teacher, 48(2), 102-182.
Raphael, T. E., Florio-Ruane, S., & George, M. (2001). Book club plus: A conceptual framework to organize literacy instruction. Language Arts, 79(2), 159.
Ward, H. (2010). Teachers’ book club helps boost boys’ reading ability. Times Educational Supplement, (4891), 13.
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