A Balanced Approach to Teaching Literature: Pairing Whole-Class Novels with Independent Reading Choice

This is a companion to my Edutopia article, Getting Everyone on the Same Page.

Since I believe that balance in all aspects of education is crucial, I teach whole-class novels right along with assisting my students in choosing the books they read independently. In fact, my middle school students are always in the process of reading four different books at the same time throughout the school year.

Here is how I accomplish this reading cornucopia:

1.) Major Whole-Class Novels (one per semester)

I select one major class novel per semester that we read in its entirety and together as a class. Depending on the grade I am teaching, I choose two books from these middle-level favorites: The Outsiders; The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963; Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry; Maniac Magee; Holes; or The Island of the Blue Dolphins.

For other excellent book choices, see my popular Edutopia article, Young Adult Novels that Teach a Growth Mindset.

I lead the class discussions of these novels, and my students respond to my carefully crafted questions with their insights, ideas, and opinions backed by textual evidence and explanation.

Various short stories, poems, songs, non-fiction articles and texts, artwork, and films related by historical period and/or theme supplement these novels. This way, my students gain experience with many genres, writing styles, and forms of artistic expression. Students use all of these sources in responding to a variety of essay prompts.

In my classroom, the notion of “forcing” students to read what the teacher somehow demands from on high is transformed into a process of allowing the great stories themselves to entice, inspire, and enrich my students, just as they have for generations. There is good reason why some books become classics, but if a certain book is not your cup of tea, just choose a different classic or try a contemporary novel surely destined to become part of the young adult canon.

2.) Minor Whole-Class Novels (three or more per school year)

In tandem with the two major whole-class novels, I select another in-class novel that has several sequels and that we also read together throughout the year. I usually choose either the heartwarming Shiloh quartet of books by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor or the rivetting Hatchet series by Gary Paulsen.

For these novels, the students themselves lead the discussions and use the inquiry process of creating compelling questions to pose to their classmates. My mixture of comprehension, analysis, inference, and response questions referenced above with the major whole-class novels serve as an ongoing model for how my students can compose their own probing questions that move the literary conversation forward or below the surface.

Through the student collaborative process and with my feedback and support, each student refines their ability to interact with rich text on a very perceptive, profound, and personal level. With these books, my role as facilitator becomes one of pointing my students in a (slightly) different direction, filling in gaps, and nudging them towards interpretations they may have missed.


3.) Self-Selected, Independent Homework Books (one per month, seven or more per school year)

My students are also required to read at least one self-selected book per month for homework (pre-approved by the teacher) and to complete a book report that mirrors the activities used with our various whole-class novels. These activities include work with vocabulary, settings, characters, predictions, figurative language, literary devices, symbols, irony, foreshadowing, themes, point of view, conflict, and critique.

Students must procure these homework books on their own (from the school or public library, from home, or purchased) because I want them to familiarize themselves with the resources available in order to find a book that captivates them and that also matches their current independent reading level. Through the course of the year, these independent reading books allow me to progressively build each student’s reading skills and reading enthusiasm, as well as to progressively challenge them to read longer and more complex books.

This independent reading is my students’ only homework for my English class. This homework is flexible in that students do not necessarily have to read every single night; they only need to budget their time in order to complete the book and its related assignments by the end of the month. (I abandoned reading logs and the accompanying parent signatures years ago.) I can think of nothing more powerful or pleasurable for students to do at home than to interact with a book they love.

I will not approve books that were made into a movie, however. There are plenty of other amazing books in the genre of their choice without a student being dependent on reading the current box office sensation or a readily downloadable film. This stipulation makes my book report very hard to fake, and I can easily discern when any student has not actually read a book.

I also do not approve graphic novels or heavily illustrated books. Students are welcome to read these books for their personal pleasure, but these will not be accepted for English homework credit.

Unlike many teachers, I do not “just” want my students to read or to “just” read anything. I want my seventh and eighth graders to approach text (pages and pages of rich, relevant text) with anticipation instead of anguish and with aplomb instead of anxiety. This reading delight is accomplished because time after time I have proven to my students with the novels we read together in class (and they have proven to themselves with the books they have chosen to read at home) that reading is not only worthwhile, it is essential and deeply fulfilling.

Concept of training. Wooden bookshelf full of books in form of m

4.) Self-Selected, Independent In-Class Reading Books (ongoing)

An additional, independent novel is kept in class for each student. For this book, my students choose a book from my extensive classroom library, which is organized by genres. I have become an expert at suggesting great books for those students who ask for advice, and students themselves enthusiastically recommend their favorite novels and authors to their classmates. Students may bring in their own books, but these particular books must be kept in class until finished.

These in-class novels are passed out to sit on each student’s desk every day and to read as an automatic sponge activity when students finish assignments early. These books are also read during English class (and every day for students in my Homeroom) at various, designated silent reading junctures during the week.

Since I cannot control which students actually do their reading homework, having these in-class independent books assures me that every student is indeed reading on their own, several days per week, at their current level, and in a genre they enjoy. I use these designated silent reading times to check in with students regarding their comprehension of and satisfaction with their current book, as well as to offer targeted suggestions for their next favorite book. My book recommendations always include the goal of expanding each student’s horizons and prodding them to read more challenging and sophisticated novels.

Whenever students finish these in-class independent books and complete the same activities required for home reading, they turn in these book reports for homework credit or extra credit. Because the amount of in-class silent reading time varies from week to week and these books remain in class, students cannot be sure of when they will complete these in-class books and therefore should not depend on them for the current month’s homework credit. Nevertheless, the time spent in class reading independently will eventually contribute to a student’s grade, and this provides added incentive for them to read diligently during the class time provided.

If they do their homework, my students read a total of at least twelve books by the end of the school year, with many voraciously reading twenty or more, at least half of which are of their own choosing. In the four ways ways outlined above, I am able to balance the benefits of cohesion and direct instruction with differentiation and student voice and choice.


A Word about Literature Circles

I have never been a personal fan of literature circles; therefore, I have never used them. Nevertheless, I have many colleagues who swear by them. So if this approach is of interest to you, there are many articles extolling their benefits.

As explained in my companion Edutopia article, I think it is crucial for the entire class to have a wealth of common reference points. My major and minor whole-class novels accomplish this with great results, while providing equal access to challenging, grade-level texts for my developing readers.


The Importance of Preserving Narrative Fiction

Even though there is a movement to progressively limit the ratio between the reading of narrative fiction and non-fiction, I will have none of it. I advocate for a balanced approach to all aspects of teaching, and this area is no different.

Students only study narrative fiction in English class, but they read non-fiction texts in history and science classes all the time. So in order to preserve an overall reading balance, narrative fiction should actually constitute the bulk of ELA reading.

English Language Arts class is the only core subject that has art included in its title. While there is a certain artistry to non-fiction writing (and I have written three of this type of book and scores of articles), there is no comparison to the imagination, originality, and creativity of narrative fiction. If we say we want to cultivate lifelong readers, we must acknowledge that the vast majority of adult reading will be in the form of narrative fiction.


In Praise of Student and Teacher Choice

As much as I honor student choice in what they read, I also firmly believe that individual teachers should have autonomy to choose which novels their students read as a class. Due to limited resources and to ensure articulation without undue repetition, I completely understand that English or grade-level departments may need to agree on a menu of novels from which each teacher can choose; but that is about as restrictive as it needs to be.

Requiring that every student in a school read a certain novel at a certain time is unnecessarily prescriptive to teachers who know their students’ needs, as well as their own needs and proclivities, better than anyone else. Although it is not always easy for a teacher to procure and preserve an entire class set of the same novel, they not only should try, they should be fully supported in doing so.


In the Comments section below, please share your experiences with and opinions about balancing whole-class novels with individual reading choice.

Whole-Class Novels Edutopia

Read the companion article on Edutopia, Getting Everyone on the Same Page.

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For more information on a balanced approach to teaching that honors the needs of the whole child, check out the latest book by Robert Ward, Talented Teachers, Empowered Parents, Successful StudentsIn this book, you will find a detailed explanation of the student inquiry approach to interacting with complex text referred to in #2 above.

11 thoughts on “A Balanced Approach to Teaching Literature: Pairing Whole-Class Novels with Independent Reading Choice

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