English teachers are typically literature lovers, so it is natural for them to share their passion for reading with their students by introducing them to great books. However, some teachers find the prospect of reading and analyzing an entire novel with their classes overwhelming or problematic.
Teachers’ most common concerns center around these questions:
How can I provide choice and accommodate students’ individual interests when my students are limited to reading just a couple of compulsory books?
How can I differentiate instruction for my advanced and developing readers when every student reads the same book at the same time or pace?
How can I expose my students to a wide variety of genres, authors, and writing styles when only a few novels are covered in a single school year, the reading of which often takes up large amounts of precious instructional time?
Balancing Class Cohesion with Student Choice
Teaching literature never must be reduced to either-or propositions. Instead, provide students with breadth and depth, options and new opportunities, as well as individualized instruction and equal access. Facilitated properly, whole-class novels are not constricting; they are portals to inspiration, expansion, and empowerment!
For twenty-five years, I have successfully taught whole-class novels right along with assisting my students in choosing their own books that are tailored to their personal interests and abilities. Practicing the reading process as a class only creates better independent readers and thinkers.
This all begins with knowing what moves your students, while also knowing what moves you as an educator. For when these two potent motivators intersect, teaching magic occurs. Ask colleagues who have expertise with students similar to yours about which books their students love. Then read some of those yourself, and teach the ones that speak to you.
Use the rest of those recommendations and lists of favorite books as a basis for your classroom library and as targeted suggestions for your students’ independent reading choices. With experience, you will become an artful book matchmaker, skillfully pairing each student’s proclivities and proficiencies with the perfect book!
A Compelling, Communal Experience
A sense of community and scholarly inclusion is created when students laugh, gasp, and weep in unison while reading the same engrossing grade-level novel. The experience becomes one of not just reading the book together but of collectively living the book as the characters, plot, and life lessons unfold and draw students in ever more deeply.
Therefore, I prefer entire books to be read in class, with every student silently reading along with an excellent audio recording of the novel. Only after students gain a clear grasp of what they have read do I assist them in developing their reading fluency by having each student choose a favorite passage to practice and then read aloud to the class.
This process addresses two common complaints with whole-class novels—that many students will not actually read assigned chapters for homework and that cold-reading the text in class, even when students volunteer, is often a slow and cringe-worthy endeavor. Listening to articulate, expressive reading modeled and performed by the professional actor in the recording is not only time well spent, it is time thoroughly enjoyed by all. And isn’t igniting a love of reading the gateway to lifelong learning?
Differentiated Instruction Provides Equal Access
Teachers build community not just through shared experience but also through shared understanding. Whole-class novels provide access to all because no student must completely comprehend everything right from the beginning. If some students struggle with initial confusions about historical context, vocabulary, or anything ultimately crucial to a full grasp of an especially challenging book, they soon find that what may have been complicated at first will become increasingly clear and accessible upon multiple exposures and attempts.
Along with an arsenal of supports, scaffolds, systems, and strategies, evolving readers will gradually be able to interact with the text on an equal footing with their peers, and when they do, the boost in their self-confidence is writ large upon their faces. This collective lesson in grit and growth mindset will then be carried over to when your developing readers actually stick with their independent book choices and reap the rewards of reading entire novels on their own.
Also, an expanding series of common reference points and literary terms with which to compare and contrast multiple novels over time exposes the underlying universality of literature, no matter how seemingly disconnected a new book, whether independent or whole-class, may be at first glance. This overriding sense of cohesion and context imbues your entire curriculum with meaning.
My former middle school students often return to tell me how they loved the novels we read as a class and how no other teacher since has awakened in them a similar passion and proficiency for reading. And when my current students clamor, “Can’t we read just one more page?” I know I have another class hooked on reading.
Meat and Meaning
With a great book in hand, it is easy to engage even the most hesitant student, but it is quite another thing to sustain that interest when the assignments and discussions are deeply demanding and increasingly nuanced. Yet when teachers also focus upon every student’s need for self-expression by awakening their sense of passion, purpose, and pertinence, students become thoroughly involved and invested.
The teaching of whole-class novels fulfills this yearning for significance when teachers choose books that resonate with their students on many levels. The expansiveness of novels, as opposed to short stories, invites multiple interpretations and a wealth of personal connections. When teachers provide their students with these meaning-making opportunities, the buy in is palpable.
Critical thinking and reasoned evaluation require increasing sophistication, but even developing readers are eminently capable of startling insight and informed opinion—if the teacher has given them the opportunities and encouragement to actually share their ideas. Give kids a great novel, and on a very profound level they all can quite soon bring something to the table, even as the nuts and bolts of reading may still need a little tightening for some.
Whole-class novels or independent student reading choice? There is room and reason for both! Read more in “A Balanced Approach to Teaching Literature.”
This article was also featured on SmartBrief.
For more on attending to the whole child and how teachers and parents can be allies in education, read the latest book by Robert Ward, Talented Teachers, Empowered Parents, Successful Students.