Balancing Whole Class Reading with Independent Choice Books

February 11, 2012 — 7 Comments

Current efforts to improve our students’ love of reading is allowing them the opportunity to choose what they want to read.  Since the amount of time available to teachers in a school year is finite, the inclusion of independent choice reading materials in a curriculum means that some things, usually whole class novels, have to go. In the case of our 9th grade students, the curriculum has been reduced to  three whole class reads: Romeo and Juliet, Speak, and Of Mice and Men. The remainder of the year is devoted to student choice, fiction and non-fiction. In other words, I am running a blended reading curriculum of student choice with whole class novels. I am convinced my students need this balanced approached to literacy.

Balancing between whole class novels and independent reading

Those who advocate student choice in the classroom make some excellent points. Last fall (2011), Kelly Gallagher (Readicide) in an audio interview with Mike McQueen on the Reading on the Run website said,

” I want to know does my child’s school have expectation that my child will read recreationally? Do they support that by giving kids time to read? Do they support that by giving kids interesting books to read not just academic books to read? Those are kind of questions that I would ask in looking at my child’s school.”

Gallagher’s most recent tweets on his KellyGtogo@Twitter demonstrate his continued campaign against language arts curriculum that are limited to whole class readings:

  • gr. 4-12: half the books our students read should be recreational in nature. We don’t want to raise test takers; we want to raise readers. 
  • more books = more reading = better reading. nothing happens without books.
  • Dear Common Core, where are recreational reading expectations? 

Yet, Gallagher still recognizes the importance of the whole class novel stating, “I am a proponent of academic reading, I do believe that kids should read you know, rich academic text. You know, I want my 9th graders to read Romeo and Juliet or my 12th graders to read Hamlet.”

There are, however, some educators who have eliminated whole class reading in an attempt to either engage students with choice only or as a differentiated approach to addressing reading levels in a class. In an article in Education Week  (7/2011) titled, Against the Whole Class Novel, Pam Allyn takes the position that whole class novels do not encourage reading and instead lead to alienation and isolation. She writes, “We have now reached a point at which teaching with neither the whole-class novel nor the basal reader, in which the whole class reads a selection together, is viable. We must end these practices. They are not benefiting our students.” She illustrates her position with the story of Sam who struggled with To Kill a Mockingbird saying, “…no way was this book a refuge for him, or an inspiration. It did not help him learn to read, nor did it help him to become a lifelong lover of text.”

Instead, Allyn suggests,

“If a student has found 16 blogs about boats, let him read those in school. And maybe that student will follow one of those blogs to a newspaper series about a regatta, or to Dove, Robin Lee Graham’s personal account of sailing around the world as a teenager. In these ways, our students will be exposed to a wider variety of genres than the whole-class novel ever allowed, and they will be more compelled to think critically across genres, as the common-core standards will require of them.”

While I agree with Allyn that not every book will make a student a lifelong reader, I believe she is clouding the issue of whole class reading with bad teaching of a whole class novel.Yes, it is true that some books are very difficult for reluctant or low level readers, so it is surprising that she suggests a student may choose Graham’s Dove  (RL 6.6) given her earlier reference the isolation a low level reader may have with to To Kill a Mockingbird (RL 5.6)  Regardless, a low level reader will struggle with a high level text unless there is some instruction or support. And while I agree that her suggestion of more inclusive reading materials (blogs, magazines, non-fiction) is important,  I also believe the communal experience that occurs in the reading of a whole class novel is equally important.

I am not suggesting the unit that beats a novel to death for week upon week, or what I refer to as the “it takes as long to read The Hobbit as it did Bilbo to get to his confrontation with the dragon, Smaug”. I am promoting the whole class novel experience where students work collaboratively to decode a text, share opinions, make comparisons, or criticize plot points. I promote the whole class novel with support for the low level readers and supplemental activities for the less engaged students. Reading levels should not limit student accessibility to a text when there is support available, for example, an audiobook. Please note: I did not say vocabulary and worksheets are supplemental activities.

Ideally, I advocate the whole class novel to capitalize on contexts or issues in other subject areas. Students can read All Quiet on the Western Front while they are studying World War I in Modern World History classes. Students can read Silent Spring as a companion piece to an enviormental studies course. Students can share the stories in Warriors Don’t Cry or Mississippi 1951 when they are studying a Civil Right’s unit. Whenever possible, I advocate a interdisciplinary read as a whole class novel.

I see great benefit in asking students to recall the themes, characters, settings or plot points with something they read earlier in their lives, particularly with the more complex texts at the middle or high school level. I will ask about the dystopia of The Giver when we read Brave New World, or the societies represented by animals in Charlotte’s Web when we read Animal Farm. A shared understanding of a previous reading experience with others provides immeasurable insights into a new reading experience.

Another argument for whole class reading comes from educator, Mrs_Laf in her blog post Confessions of an English Teacher who recently admitted that while, “I am the first person to champion individual and small group reading and used to be the first to decry the whole-class novel…I’m teaching a whole-class novel.”

She explains that her immersion into choice only reading resulted in many students selecting reading that did not challenge them. Students chose “fun books”, which she compared to beach reads noting that her students were not reading as closely as she wanted. In other words, “not all reading is the same.”  She decided that many students still needed to be taught to read a novel, just the same as students are taught to read a poem or short story. Her solution? Well, first she picks high interest books (The Hunger Games) which students purchase for annotation. Students make notes in the margin, put question marks next to the text they find confusing. In using this approach, “The trick is to get them to be patient with it.  This is a different kind of reading and we are reading for a different purpose.” Her point is a good one. Many students may need to be taught to read a more challenging text if all they read is what interests them.

I see reading as a community for my students as both academic and social.  I need to prepare students for the rigors of college and the real world since there is an expectation of cultural literacy  in our society. Students will encounter references to texts that compare relationships to the doomed Romeo and Juliet or the awkward Holden Caufield or the fair-minded  Atticus Finch or the the skin-flint Ebenezer Scrooge; they should understand those references. Teaching complex texts that students would not select independently ensures they can be included in conversations that extend beyond the classroom.

Teaching a whole class novel can be successful if, like any subject matter, students can be engaged. Language arts teachers need to seek a balance in in allowing for student choice while still teaching students how to read a challenging text. Every wave of innovation in teaching such as the recent calls for independent choice has an opposite one, such as traditional whole class novel instruction. Maintaining balance with these waves is what makes education successful. Balance means emotional stability; calmness of mind; harmony in the parts of a whole. Providing for independent choice plus whole class reading equals a balanced student.

7 responses to Balancing Whole Class Reading with Independent Choice Books

  1. 

    great piece, and thank you for writing it. i should clarify i am not at all opposed to close readings of text by a class or school community and agree that it can be exhilarating when a teacher treats it thoughtfully and with care. but too often i’ve seen the whole class novel become a terrible burden on too many students who either read beyond it or who cannot manage it. i would advocate for those close readings to focus on shorter text overall. i very much appreciated this blog, will share it and your good points, and your excellent writing. hope to stay in touch.
    pam allyn

  2. 

    Not a lot here that I disagree with, and well said. Entirely with you on the need for balance. Kids need to be taught how to read a text critically, which independent reading will not teach them, but they also need to be able to explore titles on their own. Where a lot of teaching goes wrong, in my experience, is when instructors try to micromanage every contact students have with books, which almost always results in students reading fewer books. Where YOUR students have such an advantage is they have a teacher who is widely read not only in the classics, but also in contemporary teen lit, and they are encouraged to pursue both. The recent NYTimes article discussing the lack of reading improvement among middle school students in the city, I would strongly contend that much of it comes down to a vast lack of familiarity with interesting, age-appropriate titles among middle school teachers to recommend to their students. Lucky students, yours.

  3. 

    I appreciate your description of the current debate around whole class novels. I agree with finding that balance between choice reading and shared experience of a whole novel study! I wonder what you would think of the approach I describe in my book, Whole Novels for the Whole Class–it’s a much more student-centered, workshop approach to whole class novel studies.

  4. 

    I’m a third year teacher, and am struggling with how to balance independent reading with whole novel study – I am looking for, but can find very little practical guidance on time management. HOW do I teach a whole novel without beating it to death or taking forever? Particularly in a Title I school where students can’t afford breakfast, much less their own copy of a book, so all reading has to happen in the classroom?

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Class reading | Babystepsandbe - March 31, 2012

    [...] Balancing Whole Class Reading with Independent Choice Books …Feb 11, 2012 … There are, however, some educators who have eliminated whole class reading in an attempt to either engage students with choice only or as a … [...]

  2. Arrrg! No Need for a Reading War on Common Core Text Complexity | Used Books in Class - August 27, 2012

    [...] The ELA CCSS can be met with a blend of independent reading and complex texts. (see my earlier post  on blending independent student selected reading with whole class novels) Porter-Magee’s [...]

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