To Read or Not to Read, the Whole Class Novel?

In the 15 years, I’ve been teaching so much has changed about how we teach kids to read and write. Many things have been the same since I left college, but how we teach books has definitely changed. Last summer I spent my sleepless nights feeding our newborn and reading all I could on teaching reading. I’ll admit when a colleague, much younger than myself, dropped the “I don’t teach whole class novels” bomb, I was flabbergasted. Wait? How can you get away with not teaching everyone the same book? Of course, Nancy Atwell has been saying this for years, but I didn’t personally know a teacher who listened to Atwell’s advice. Plus, this was not what I learned in college, which prepared me to be a great teacher. (I hope you just laughed with me!) Yes, college gave me a lot of head knowledge to do my job, but teaching is something that needs to be experienced. This is why they ask us to student teach. Figuring out how to organize every detail that needs to be addressed in the small amount of time you are spending with students per day takes a lot of practice. Then they throw a wrench in the system and change it all up on you. Atwell’s system has a lot of details to work out, and as hard as I’ve tried, the workshop model has been difficult to tackle.

Whole class novels are he latest debate among reading teachers. Find out what I learned in my classroom experiment. We spent the year without a single whole class novel.

Ohio is three years into the transition to Common Core standards. We have always had standards to teach and methods for which to teach these standards, but times have changed and research is shedding new light. The focus used to be teaching the book to kids. It was all about the book. The focus has now shifted, it’s all about the kid. Teach the kid how to read the book, any book actually. This makes so much more sense! Now I get why we don’t have to teach the same book to every kid. It’s about the skill of reading, not the experience of the book.

Every kid who says, “I don’t like to read,” will hear my standard response, “You just haven’t read your favorite book, yet.” I’ve actually said this to a few adults as well because it’s true. When you find that one book that really grabs hold of you, suddenly reading doesn’t seem so boring, or useless. For kids in middle school who have trouble reading have an even harder time finding their favorite book. Think about a student in middle school, they are probably 12 to 13 years old, much more interested in what their friends have to say, and usually, care a whole lot about their image. With this in mind consider the books they would have to choose from if they could only read at a third-grade level. Most of those options have main characters who are third graders. Most of the book covers make this very obvious. If you were a middle schooler would you want to carry around a book that most of your friends would identify as a “kid” book? Probably not, and here begins the vicious cycle of kids choosing not to practice their reading to become better readers. If they can’t read well, they won’t have books to read that they can truly enjoy, so they continue to hate reading, and never getting any better. Unless we step in as their teacher and teach them how to be better readers. The focus must shift to the kids and away from the book.

Next school year I plan to keep my whole class anchor or mentor texts to short stories or nonfiction. I’ve been converted. What do you think, is there still a place for whole class novels? Or should teachers let go of this traditional method?

2 thoughts on “To Read or Not to Read, the Whole Class Novel?

  1. I still do one whole class novel. It used to be 3, but doing 3 just isn’t practical anymore. Year after year my 3rd graders love Little House in the Big Woods. It is rich in vocabulary, historical references, and even figurative language.
    I have been told by many people at school that the book is just too hard for some students and I shouldn’t do it. Well just because a book is hard doesn’t mean all students can’t enjoy it. This book allows students to understand the hardships and hardwork of a frontier life. It captivates students minds, and it allows me to create many integrated activities to make their learning authentic.
    As far as to do or not to do whole class novels, I think it depends on the novel and how you are going to use it. But I also think you need a combination.

    1. Your exactly right, it depends how you plan to use the novel. Traditionally teachers have required students to independently read the same novel and as you mentioned that style can be dangerous for kids who are not reading at the book’s level. What you described is what teachers call shared reading. Everyone reads while the teacher reads aloud, the same book. This is an anchor novel for vocabulary, figurative language examples and cross curricula references.

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