Literacy

Getting Everyone on the Same Page

Reading a novel together as a class builds community, pushes everyone to do the work, and still allows for differentiation.
September 18, 2017
High school students read novels in class.
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English teachers are typically literature lovers, so it’s 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 to be overwhelming or problematic. Their most common concerns center around these questions:

  • How can teachers provide choice and accommodate students’ individual interests when the class is limited to reading just a couple of compulsory books?
  • How can teachers differentiate instruction for advanced and developing readers when every student reads the same book at the same time or pace?
  • How can teachers expose students to a wide variety of genres, authors, and writing styles when only a few novels are covered in a single school year and reading them takes up large amounts of precious instructional time?

Balancing Class Cohesion With Student Choice

Teaching literature must never 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’re portals to inspiration, expansion, and empowerment.

For 25 years, I’ve successfully taught whole-class novels while also assisting my students in choosing their own books, 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 targeted suggestions for your students’ independent reading choices. With experience, you’ll 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 or reader in the recording is not only time well spent, it’s 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 becomes increasingly clear and accessible upon multiple exposures and attempts.

With an arsenal of supports and scaffolds, 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 when these 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 disconnected a new book, whether independent or whole-class, may seem at first glance. This overriding sense of cohesion and context imbues your entire curriculum with meaning. Give kids the same 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.

My former middle school students often return to tell me how much they loved the novels we read as a class and how no other teacher since has awakened in them a similar passion 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.