How to Use Whole-Class Novels Without Killing the Joy of Reading

When we require our students to read a certain novel or other book together as a class, we are always at risk of committing readicide.

The term “readicide” comes from Kelly Gallagher’s book, Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It. The author argues that many of the practices used in schools to improve students’ reading abilities are killing students’ love of reading. We often force students to read difficult, boring texts, and we follow them up with lots of comprehension-check questions and vocabulary practice activities. The result is that many students hate reading. They associate it with hard work. It’s only something to do when forced. And this methodology doesn’t even reach its desired objective—as Gallagher points out in his book, these teaching practices have not led to a significant increase in students’ reading scores on standardized tests.

When we take a text that is meant to be read for pleasure—like a novel—and require students to read it and to complete a lot of boring activities associated with it, we are likely contributing to the problem of readicide.

But yet, I still sometimes use whole-class novels in my classes. One reason is because I think there is value in reading longer texts—like entire books—as a class. It can be fun to read books as a class so we can experience them together and discuss them together. Another reason is because many of my students seem to enjoy reading whole-class novels. At the end of the semester when I ask my students what they enjoyed most in class, many say the whole-class novels were their favorite or one of their favorite parts. Of course, my teaching context is different from many others. I teach adults who have signed up for the class of their own volition and are, for the most part, highly motivated to learn. Most of the controversy about whole-class novel reading comes from K-12 language arts teachers, where student attitudes are quite different from my students’ attitudes.

But even in a class of highly motivated adults, we are still at risk of committing readicide when having all students read the same book together. It’s still easy to fall prey to that teacher mindset where we want to help students “get as much out of the book as possible” or help them “learn the new vocabulary words as thoroughly as possible.” We have good intentions, but we sometimes end up sucking the pleasure out of reading. And then even those students who came to class with a strong desire to learn can quickly lose that desire when forced to complete mind-numbing reading activities.

How To Use Whole-Class Novels Without Killing the Joy of Reading

It’s sometimes difficult to find the right balance, but I do think it’s possible to use whole-class novels in a way that can help our students acquire language without killing the joy and pleasure of reading. Here are some of my ideas for how to strike the balance:

Choose a book that is at an appropriate level for the students. In my opinion, this is probably the most important factor. There is a tendency to want to “give students a challenge”—but if we give too much of a challenge, it just makes the reading process overwhelming for students. They get easily frustrated that they can’t understand very much, which just leads to discouragement. Especially when it comes to whole-class novels, I think it’s better to err on the side of giving students a book that is too easy for them than one that is too hard.

Give as much choice as possible. When selecting a book for your students, don’t just rely on your own intuition about what you think they would like. Ask them! I know that it’s not always possible to give students complete choice—sometimes there are only certain books available due to budget restrictions, etc. But try to find ways to let students select the book they will read. I usually try to give students two or three options of books we could read as a class. I give a short summary of each book and then have the students vote on which one they want to read. Even just the simple act of letting students vote can make them more motivated since it helps them feel like they have a voice in what happens in class.

Limit the number of extra activities students do in connection with the book. Part of what makes many students hate reading is because we make them do boring activities related to it. I’m primarily thinking of things like vocabulary practice activities (like “match the word to its definition” activities or multiple-choice vocab quizzes), lots of comprehension check questions, or short-answer questions on topics they don’t really care about. Some of these activities can be useful—for example, asking our students comprehension check questions helps us to know whether they understood what they read, which we can use to clarify misunderstandings and to inform our future instruction. The problem is when we over-use these activities. Do we really need to have students answer 15 multiple-choice comprehension check questions after every single chapter? Instead, maybe we could we just ask a few questions after each chapter that focus on gauging whether students understood the main ideas. Also, we can formulate questions in more interesting ways than the typical comprehension check questions. For example, asking a question like, “Why do you think [character name] made the decision he did?” can lead to an interesting discussion in class that engages students in critical thinking, and it simultaneously helps us gauge the students’ comprehension of the text. They probably won’t be able to answer that question if they didn’t really understand what they read. If we use comprehension checks sparingly and judiciously, I think we can strike an appropriate balance. As I’ve heard several other teachers point out, when we guide our students in reading, we should think about our own reading lives—How would you feel if you were reading a book you really liked, but you kept getting interrupted every few minutes by someone asking you comprehension-check questions or testing you on the meanings of specific words? Most of us would get frustrated and perhaps even give up on reading the book altogether.

Don’t get too attached to the book. Be open to abandoning the whole-class novel if it isn’t going well for whatever reason—if it’s too hard for the students, if they don’t seem to like it, whatever. I know that this can be hard sometimes, especially if books have already been purchased or a curriculum is supposed to be set in advance. But if at all possible, I think it’s best to remain open to the possibility of letting go of an unsuccessful book. That’s what we all do when we read a book on our own—if we don’t like it, we stop reading it. There’s nothing wrong with that. You could even directly communicate this idea to students when you start reading by saying something like, “We’re going to read the first few chapters of this book together, and then you can tell me whether or not you want to continue reading it together.” If it turns out that a lot of students don’t like it, let it go. For those students who like it and want to finish it on their own, you can offer it to them as an option during free reading time. You could even think of whole-class novels more like an extended Book Talk or Book Commercial—it’s simply a way to advertise a certain book to students to let them decide if they want to continue reading it on their own.

Let your students have a say in setting the pace of reading. I typically read one chapter of the book per class period with my students, but I also try to remain flexible. In one of my classes recently, we got to an exciting part near the end of our book. The students insisted that they really wanted to finish the rest of it, so I abandoned my other plans for the day, and we finished the book together. Nothing beats that feeling of being really, really excited to keep reading and to find out what’s going to happen next, and I don’t want to destroy that feeling for my students. Again, this reflects what we all do as readers outside of school—if we get to an exciting and suspenseful part of a book, we keep on reading, even neglecting other tasks we feel like we “should” be doing at that time. And when we’re in a less exciting part of the book, we usually read at a slower pace. We don’t force ourselves to finish a book in one sitting if we don’t feel like it.

Avoid giving students grades or doing formal assessments over the whole-class novel. Testing students over a novel they read is one of the quickest ways to make it feel like a stressful experience for them. Even in my adult education classes, where grades don’t really matter at all, I’ve found that giving students a numerical score or simply calling something a “test” or “quiz” immediately heightens students’ anxiety. It turns something that is supposed to be a pleasurable learning experience into something stressful. Thinking about ourselves again—How would you feel if you read a book that you enjoyed and then found out that you were going to be tested on it? That someone else was going to evaluate whether or not you sufficiently understood and responded to the book? Knowing that we are going to be evaluated makes us feel anxious and usually decreases our enjoyment of the activity. I used to give my students a short test each time we finished reading a book together. At the time, it seemed like an appropriate way to wrap things up. But then I realized that it was causing stress for some students. The “good” students—the hard-working, highly motivated ones—were studying for the test by re-reading the book and trying to memorize facts about it, worried that they would be tested over discrete details (despite the fact that I always tried to focus on the main ideas of the book). As the saying goes: “Weighing the pig doesn’t make it any fatter.” Testing students over what they read doesn’t make them read better. There are times when it’s appropriate to formally test students, but I don’t think novel reading is one of them.

 

I hope these ideas are helpful if you use or are considering using whole-class novels in your own classroom. Comment below if you have other ideas or tips to share!

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