George Lucas Educational Foundation

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.
High school students read novels in class.
High school students read novels in class.

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.

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Peg Grafwallner's picture
Peg Grafwallner
Instructional Coach/Reading Specialist

While I have never been a proponent of whole class novels, I am appreciative of Robert's arguments. He gives us real examples that can be used in class and most importantly, shares with us the challenges and successes. Thank you, Robert, for a peek into your classroom and your insightful wisdom on this topic. Mmmm, maybe it's time I rethink the whole class novel!

Robert Ward's picture
Robert Ward
Robert Ward is an enthusiastic educator, author, and champion for children.

Thank you for your honest, open-minded comments, Peg. I sincerely believe there is room for both independent reading and whole-class novels in ELA classes. The advantages of each are powerful, and we must give students the benefit of both approaches.

TeacherLibrarianFatherWriter's picture

Nonsense. I can't help but think of all the young men that struggle with reading, only to get more frustrated because they can't keep up to the reader. After too many years of teaching English, I truly believe that this is one of the teaching strategies that harms our students the most. You can't applaud differentiated learning and then simply abandon the idea of it when it comes to reading.

Robert Ward's picture
Robert Ward
Robert Ward is an enthusiastic educator, author, and champion for children.

I share your concern for meeting the needs of developing readers, but I have not had the same experiences as you. I taught for over twenty years at a low-performing middle school in South Los Angeles, and I never had any students who could not "keep up" with the audio recording of an engaging grade-level novel. Because these recordings are performed with the appropriate expressiveness and distinctive character voices, all students read along at a pace and a comprehension that is both natural and enjoyable. I also "chunk" the novel so that each section we read together has just enough compelling content and complexity so that every reader is left with satisfaction, as well as with a variety of questions to ponder, discuss, and work through. And that's precisely what we do after each section we read together. Plot, characters, settings, vocabulary, historical context, etc. are reviewed and understood by all. This way, every student is not only prepared and excited to read the next section, they also have the basic comprehension to fully participate in our class discussions of the novel. These discussions take the reader below the surface and include conversations about themes, symbols, inference, and opinion. I indeed applaud and embrace differentiated learning, and I can confidently say that none of my students have ever felt abandoned by my reading instruction. On the contrary, they each feel included, validated, and equipped to experience the next book that comes their way, both as a class and independently. For more on how I differentiate reading, see this article:

Rita Platt's picture
Rita Platt
Rita is a self-described edu-dork who loves all things teaching and learning.

For years I was totally against using whole-class novels (I did, however, use short shared texts.) I felt that it wasn't good to keep all kids reading at a single text level. That is was better to use thematic texts. I still believe that is true for MOST of the reading students do. But, over the years, like Robert, I have come to believe that a novel or two shared with an entire class does three important things. 1. Builds community through shared experience. 2. Helps students love great books (especially if we read WITH kids and don't just send home a list of chapters to read and questions to answer. 3.Gives the teacher an anchor text to use when teaching new skills and strategies that all students know.

Teaching reading is about balance. Professionalism is about respecting other professionals. What works for one may not work for another. As long as the data (both hard & soft) shows kids are learning to and loving to read, all methods are good.

Robert, I sometimes think teachers get dogmatic about one approach or another. You don't do this. You respectfully shared what words for you and I like that. I also like that you're BRAVE!!!! You take a currently underappreciated perspective and share your real views. Sometimes I feel like the blogosphere and Twitter are echo-chambers. I LOVE hearing messages that are different.

Great post!

Robert Ward's picture
Robert Ward
Robert Ward is an enthusiastic educator, author, and champion for children.

Rita, I appreciate your comments on so many levels. First, you perfectly encapsulated the three main benefits of whole-class novels. Second, your point about professional respect and balance is dear to my heart. It is entirely possible to honor and preserve what worked in the past, right along with embracing new approaches and exploring fresh perspectives.Third, as educators, explorers, and adventurers, we all should share our ideas and experiences-- courageously, candidly, and compassionately.


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