Allowing Students Choice in Reading: Why I Don't Do Whole Class Novels
Updated: Nov 21, 2019
Many middle and secondary English Language Arts teachers are required to teach specific novels to the entire group. Using these as the only method of instruction is faulty and this forcing of reading a required text could turn students off to reading. I am not against doing a SHARED novel experience; I don't support using the novel as the only means of instruction.
What are whole class novels?
Teachers are given a novel to use with their class. This novel is typically an on grade level text. Traditionally, they are required to give all students a copy of the novel and all students read at the same pace. Then, various activities are done with the novel and the class does a "novel study". Sometimes, students are quizzed or tested on topics revolved around the novel.
I'll never forget the first whole class novel I read. I was in 4th grade and my teacher introduced Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. I was actually very excited about this. I was a reader and was so happy that I didn't have to be reading from a boring text book. So, my first experience was very pleasant since it was a book I enjoyed and it was straying from the typical path.
I honestly don't remember ever reading another novel in school until 7th grade. I couldn't even tell you what it was because it did not stand out to me at all. It was around this time I was turned off to reading. Why do I have to read this boring book? Luckily, my parents promoted reading and I dived into books outside of school, but in school? I did what I had to to get the good grades.
Then high school hit and along came Moby Dick and The Canterbury Tales. These books were pure torture to me. I stopped reading. I found the Cliff Notes and relied on those. What's worse was all of the tests and projects we had to do on those novels. I didn't read for pleasure anymore. It wasn't until my junior year in high school that I got back into reading because we were allowed to read any book we wanted from a list. I chose A Handmaid's Tale and I was back in! I also had a wonderful 12th grade teacher who exposed us to all types of texts and media and didn't rely on the novel studies for grades.
Once I finally got out of college and started teaching, my first experience was as an aide. The district I worked in used Reading Workshop and I was enamored. How was it possible to teach reading using DIFFERENT books? I studied everything they did and vowed to teach in such a way when I had my own classroom.
Well, once I got my first classroom, a big ol' basal reader was placed in front of me. As a novice teacher, I did what I was told and taught from the basal. Needless to say, I was bored and so were the kids. Were they successful? Sure. But were they really readers? No.
It wasn't until I came into my current district where I had the freedom to do what I wanted. I abandoned the text book and took on Reading Workshop full-force. I taught 3rd grade at the time, and I had all of my kiddos reading books they wanted to read. It was very successful and I continued as I moved into 5th, then later, 6th grade.
Why not whole class novels?
I am sure you got the gist from the previous section, but whole class novels, in my experience, turn readers off to reading. I think a lot of teachers think it's better than using basal readers, which it is, but a book is still being forced upon the students. Here are my concerns:
Is that book meeting a student's reading level? I don't condone forcing students to read on their level, but for instructional purposes, I don't think a student should be reading something that is too easy or too hard for them.
The book may be completely uninteresting to them. They may not connect with the characters. The setting may not be something they are familiar with. If they cannot connect with the text, they will tune it out.
Reading shouldn't be about teaching a specific book. It should be about teaching the reader. This is a statement made by Dan Feigelsman and he's right! What ends up happening a lot is teachers teach the book, expecting students to know all the minor details that occurred. While state testing DOES encourage this, it is just teaching memorizing and not deeper comprehension and meaning.
It takes too much time. So much time is spent in one book. All of this time could be spent reading a variety of books and making connections across numerous texts. All this time spent teaching a book takes away from students reading MORE books, especially if they have to read set pages at home!
So um, what do you do?
As mentioned I am a big proponent of Reading Workshop. I am not going to elaborate on the intricacies of the program. If you haven't heard of it, you're probably living under a rock. Joking aside, I'd suggest looking into Nancy Atwell, Lucy Calkins, and Donalynn Miller's works if you want more information.
I don't really follow a super traditional workshop model. I morph lots of things into my program.
Let them read whatever they want...to an extent. I don't care about reading levels.
I teach reading genre UNITS, not books. I do use Lucy Calkins' Middle School Units of Study to guide my instruction, but I put in my own flair. I teach Social Issues book clubs, Dystopian partner books, Realistic Fiction, Graphic Novels, and Non-fiction for Research. Within these units, students are reading books of their choice in those genres.
Provide lots of books for them to choose from. Now, if you are lucky enough to have a district that supports you, reach out to them and see if they can purchase libraries from Booksource. Not so lucky? I got TONS of books from the used section of Barnes and Noble. Garage sales and thrift stores are your friends. No money? Reach out to your local librarian. I work very closely with the town librarian. I take the students there as often as I can. We work together to be sure students know how to use the library card and how to request books. When I did my book club units, students had to get the books themselves from the library. The librarian was able to order enough sets of books for the students and kept them behind her desk for the students to pick up on their own. Better yet, bring them to the library to get them. I've even returned books for students.
But what if I HAVE to use a whole class novel?
If your district forces you to use whole class novels, use it as a read-aloud/mentor or shared text. You may want to check out the book A Novel Approach...I haven't read it, but I've heard good things!
When I taught 5th grade, I taught a unit on historical fiction. When I was a new teacher, I was told by prior teachers that they used Number the Stars by Lois Lowry as a whole class novel. So, I decided to allow the students to read any historical fiction they wanted and used Number the Stars by Lois Lowry as a mentor text. We'd read pieces of the novel together during mini-lessons and would use those portions to relate to their own books. For example, the students would identify symbolism in Number the Stars and then connect that to symbolism in their own texts. They had a copy of the book, so they could go back to refer to it for guidance. I'd model identifying symbolism with NTS and they'd do the same with their texts.
But what about assessment?
This will probably be a future blog post. I think some people like whole class novels because they can assign quizzes/tests to be graded, plus teachers know the book very well.
Even with free-choice reading, you can assess the students. Your mini-lessons should require the students to apply such skills that it's abundantly clear they didn't grasp the SKILL with their books. For example, they may need to make an inference and support it with text detail. If their text detail does not support their inference, then it is clear they do not comprehend the text. If you are teaching character traits, if the student cannot back up the trait they are claiming for their character, then they didn't comprehend the text appropriately. You do not need to read every book your student reads!
I also use a reading response rubric to grade their reading assessments.
Obviously, we will all do what we are comfortable with. If you decide to use a whole class novel, please consider how you are meeting the needs of every reader. Don't rely on it for ALL instruction...use it to allow students to apply reading skills to their own texts. Overall, though, it sure beats using a basal reader!
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