Lively Literature Discussions with Middle Schoolers

Middle School BooksOf all the academic things we can teach our children to love, reading and writing are my favorite. Now, for some reason I’m actually better at teaching other people’s children these subjects, but my sons got a good exposure.  Although some of my adult sons don’t make time for reading books now that I no longer have the authority to make them, they do all appreciate the great literature we’ve shared together over the years.  Imagine my surprise when it dawned on me that there are actually mothers who hate teaching literature to their children.  We all have those areas.  I’ll hire someone else to teach my child science, but literature I love.

Several years ago, I got it in my head that this would be a good area to do a group co-op.  Now, we home school, so this is part of our school day, however anybody interested in inspiring students to read could start a literature discussion group.  You can do it on an evening just as well as during the day.  In this post I am going to tell you how I ran our middle school literature discussions which were tons of fun.  In future posts I will explain how we adapted this model for high school students and also what I did with elementary aged students.  In time you will also find several posts sharing book suggestions.

Just as I feel over-teaching grammar is a sure way to destroy a love for writing, I believe MOST literature guides do the same to destroy the joy of reading.  They might take a small detail of the story and have you make a project out of it, or otherwise go off on tangents that are just plain distracting and time consuming.  I did use a few (3-4 max.) Progeny Press literature guides over the course of 4 years of high school, but certainly not for every, or even most, of the books we read.  My philosophy is if you give the students an active role in choosing the questions, quotes  and vocabulary that they feel are vital to the story, they are far more likely to internalize the book, and far less likely to hate the experience.  It’s really OK if you don’t define every vocabulary word or get every concept the author put out there for you to ingest.

So, let’s get started.  I am first going to lay the foundation for how I set up our group and then take you through a typical meeting.  You might want to skip down to THE MEETING at this point and then come back and read the details of setting up a group like this if you like what you see.


Although I welcome suggestions and input, as the leader I choose the books we read myself because I have seen book clubs deteriorate over the entire group trying to decide which titles to read.  Too many opinions are bound to cause conflict.  Perhaps you won’t feel the same way I do, but I allow families to pick and choose whether to participate or not for any given title.   I invited probably 30 families from our home school group to participate.  About 10 families took me up on it.  Wanting to teach and encourage mothers to do this themselves, I required the moms to also read the book and participate in meetings.  Reading aloud together or even listening to an unabridged audio-book is acceptable; however I strongly encourage the students to follow along in a written copy of the book.  Because we were blessed to have a spacious church hall to meet in, we allowed younger siblings to come along.  Often they sat in on the reading at home and so they were able to participate in some of our activities.  Preschoolers sat at a table and colored, did puzzles, or Duplo blocks or whatever else their moms brought to entertain them.  One or two of the attending moms kept an eye on that group. Depending on the length and difficulty of the books you choose, you can decide whether to meet monthly or every other month.  The point is to meet after the families have FINISHED reading the current title.

Because a lot of the families at the time were skeptical of facebook, I set up a “members only” website where students and moms could communicate with me and each other while reading the book.  A “secret” facebook group would work perfectly for this.  These are my requirements:

  • Each student must submit (via the group page) a vocabulary word with page number and definition for set sections of the book.  This might be every chapter, or every several chapters depending on the layout and difficulty of the book.  Moms are welcome to submit vocabulary too if vocabulary words are plentiful, but should hold back if there are a limited number of difficult words.
  • Each student must submit (via the group page) a favorite quote, along with page number, from the same set sections of the book, AND tell why they chose that quote.  Moms are welcome to submit quotes too if they’d like.
  • Each student AND EACH MOM must submit one discussion question about the book before the meeting – also via the group page.  (This gives moms the opportunity to inject literary concepts if this is important to them.  e.g. “What are some examples of foreshadowing in this story?”)
  • Each student must bring a minimum of 2 trivia questions with them to the meeting.  These are to be written on 3×5 index cards with the answer and the page number for where the answer is found.  Students should also put their name on each card.  Moms are welcome to submit trivia questions as well if they choose.
  • At the beginning of the year, each family is asked to contribute a bag full of fun-sized candy OR $5 (to buy the candy) to be used as prizes throughout the year.  This gives us a good variety of candies which I take charge of storing between meetings.  If your group is opposed to sweets, you could alternatively have each family contribute a roll of quarters.
  • Students are expected to read through the group communications ahead of time so they have time to consider the discussion questions and learn the vocabulary words.
  • Students are also encouraged to make thoughtful comments on anything posted on the group page.



The day before the meeting, I copy the vocabulary word on one side of a card with the definition on the flip side – one word per card. I also note on the card who submitted that word, as you are not allowed to answer your own vocabulary submission.   Additionally, I copy the discussion questions in large letters on bright colorful half sheets of paper – one question per paper.  If you’re meeting area has a whiteboard, you can just write the questions up there instead.  Don’t forget the candy!

Before the students arrive at the meeting I set the vocabulary cards all around a table or two with definition sides down.  I place a small candy on each card (more favored candies on more difficult words).  I write the discussion questions up on a board or tape the colored papers up on the wall.

The quotes are only shared on the group page and are not addressed specifically at the meetings, though references might be made to them.  It’s a fun look into the students’ minds to see what they choose and why.  The quotes are sometimes very humorous and other times deeply touching.  The kids tend to be anxious to get their quote up there right away before somebody else “steals” it.


Our meeting typically lasts 60-90 minutes depending on how many students are participating.  We do the same routine each meeting – vocabulary words, trivia questions, discussion questions – in that order.

As families arrive, I collect the trivia questions from the students, making sure their names are on them.  (I also am prepared to add any last minute discussion questions to the board/wall.)  I shuffle up the trivia cards as I receive them and keep them closely guarded.  Moms settle in their little ones while unoccupied moms take their place around the vocabulary tables.  Students are allowed to peruse the vocabulary words if they get there early, but they may not touch them, answer them or move the candies.

Once the set time for the meeting arrives the vocabulary game begins.  This is a subtle encouragement for families to arrive on time.  Latecomers will have fewer words to choose from.  Students can grab the attention of any mom, claim a word and try to define it.  The mom checks to see if their definition reasonably matches the answer on the back and if so, she awards that student with the attached candy and removes the card from the table.  If poorly answered, the card and candy remain in place.  In the first round, students are allowed to “win” only 3 words.  Students are not allowed to answer the words they submitted (which is why I write the submitter’s name on each word).  After everybody has had the chance to get their 3 prizes, the remaining words are open to whoever wants to claim them.  If there are any words left on the table at the end of this time, I read the words and definitions aloud to the group just as a means of reinforcing them.  Alternatively, I might give the moms a chance to earn a piece of candy.

Next the students will answer the trivia questions.  Here is an example of the difference between a “trivia” question and a “discussion” question.  A Trivia question is very specific and has a correct answer.  For instance,  “Where did John hide his bear after being teased about it?”, whereas a discussion question would be more open ended.  For instance, “How would you have handled the teasing situation if you were in John’s shoes?”  We read the trivia questions first because some of the answers might be given away during the discussion questions.  For trivia questions, I first say who is not allowed to answer the question – the person/s who submitted it.  Then I begin reading the question until interrupted.  When a student feels he knows the answer to the question he stands up, at which point I stop reading.  It is essential that the other moms help determine who stood first as my eyes are focused on the card and the kids can get rather competitive with this.  A correct answer is awarded with a piece of candy and students are limited to earning only 2 pieces of candy during this game.  If the student answers incorrectly, I finish reading the rest of the question and again students who know the answer jump to their feet.  If nobody can answer the question, then students who have reached the limit may answer the question for an additional prize.  Once all the trivia questions have been answered, the extra prizes are put away and we move into the discussion part of the meeting.

With the questions visible to everybody, students and moms are welcome to refer to any question on the board and begin a discussion about it.  Moms are encouraged to hold back enough to let the kids participate and nudge them along to keep a vibrant discussion going.  As one topic gets spent anyone can introduce another topic off the board/wall.  I do it this way rather than going through the questions in the order listed because it lends itself to more lively conversation.  We make every effort to see that each discussion question gets some time.  Once all these questions have received enough attention we bring the meeting to a close and I give the kids a short introduction / teaser to the next book we will be reading and the whole process starts again.

I’m sure this all can sound overwhelming but you don’t have to commit to a full year.  Try out this system with just a single meeting after reading one book.  You may just find yourself hooked.