Whole-Class Novel: To Read or Not to Read...Together

Whole-Class Novel: To Read or Not to Read...Together

Ariel Sacks, a New York City-based English Language Arts teacher who works with middle school students in grades seven through nine, has a busy professional life. In addition to her "day job" in the classroom, Sacks is a published author who has written two books on teaching, maintains her own website, and contributes a weekly column to the online journal Education Week. One of the strategies she promotes most often is something she calls the “whole-novel concept,” which is rooted in helping students have an immersive, uninterrupted experience with works of fiction.

Parts of the whole

Sacks, who credits her time in a Bank Street College of Education training program as laying the groundwork for her interest in the whole-novel concept, said her mentor Madeline Ray first “planted a different idea” in her mind regarding students and literature. For example, rather than continuously guiding students through a reading by having them pause repeatedly to answer questions or record observations, Ray advised Sacks to “do away with prescribed comprehension and discussion questions and let the students lead the way.” The central activity in this scenario involved having all students read the same novel on their own before reconvening as a class to share their individual insights.

From the perspective of Sacks and many other whole-novel proponents, the goal is to give students more voice and agency. Sacks provided further details of the approach in one of her Education Week columns, then went on to share both the lessons she’s learned and the joy of watching her students take ownership of their work through group discussions that are often “full of energy” and “driven by [students'] authentic responses” to books.

However, that doesn’t mean the undertaking was instantly successful. Indeed, Sacks readily acknowledged the challenges involved in adopting a whole-novel approach, noting that although assigning all kids one novel to read can build community, it also quickly reveals the unavoidable truth that “students' reading abilities and study habits varied widely.” In response to the fact that not all students have the same success rate when it comes to independently keeping up with a reading assignment, Sacks was prompted to develop some better approaches to both assigning a whole-class novel and ensuring greater participation and success. What she came up with might best be described as "structured independence" and includes the following guideposts:

  • Setting the stage: Choosing the novel is the first step. After this comes a “ritual” Sacks learned from her college mentor that involves providing not just the book and clear instructions to each student at the start of the project, but also a reading schedule and a way for students to record their thoughts as they read.

  • Provide reading time and support: “After that first year, I learned that I had to support students through the reading process,” Sacks recalled. This support may take different forms, including pairing up students to read aloud together, providing one-on-one help, and setting aside time to read and discuss parts of the book as a class. The ultimate goal? To increase participation and inclusion.

  • Hold students accountable: After giving out Post-It notes at the start of each reading assignment, Sacks asks her students to “record real-time, free-form responses to the story—questions, observations, connections, and opinions” each night. This method has proven helpful for boosting student engagement, and also provides a quick way for Sacks to look over students’ notes (and, therefore, to check their progress).

  • Prioritize collaboration: To facilitate a spirit of collaboration in the classroom, Sacks assigns students “group mini-projects” that build community around the common novel. The focus of these projects can take many forms, such as developing character interpretations and engaging in further analysis of a specific aspect of the story. In addition to promoting group work, this approach can also help students deepen their understanding of what they are reading through engaging with their classmates.

  • Whole-group discussion: Once everyone has finished reading the novel, Sacks gathers the class for a student-led discussion that she records in real time on her laptop. By acting as a guide, Sacks is able to keep the discussion on track while encouraging students to ground their thoughts with textual evidence. She provides copies of the previous days’ notes for the sake of context, and also connects the students’ insights to specific literary terms such as foreshadowing to promote the more technical aspects of this area of study.

Potential drawbacks

Although the whole-class novel approach certainly has its proponents, other literacy advocates have argued that it can leave struggling readers behind. After all, while abandoning guided discussion and other aspects of more direct instruction may be liberating for students who read at or above grade level, students who need more support may find it intimidating or counterproductive—indeed, teacher and writer Pernille Ripp has touched upon this topic in several blog posts and discussion threads, including this one from her website. After acknowledging that she was intrigued by the whole-class novel concept (and pointing out that some teachers work in districts where the instructional method is mandated), Ripp admitted that she can’t help but worry about the students who may be left behind while other, more confident readers gallop ahead independently.

With this in mind, Ripp encouraged teachers to make the whole-novel concept as inclusive as possible, beginning with a reminder that reading environments should be created in which everyone can be part of the discussion. This doesn’t mean whole-class novels have to be abandoned; rather, Ripp advised teachers to create multiple pathways for success by allowing students to choose how they approach the project. For instance, in addition to the standard option of students reading the book alone and coming to class “ready for discussion,” students may choose to read the book with someone else for added support (such as in pairs with another classmate or with a teacher in a small-group setting), or to listen to the book rather than read it.

Ultimately, it is important to recognize that some—perhaps many—students may need direct instruction or other accommodations to fully reap the benefits of a whole-class novel approach. Much like Ripp, teacher and writer Melissa Kruse believes that success with the whole-class novel is possible, as long as educators keep in mind that “whole-class novels fail when enough scaffolding is not provided.” Kruse recommended that teachers keep students’ reading skills at the forefront of any whole-class novel assignment by “focusing on helping students effectively apply reading strategies to texts.”

Simply put, it is not only possible but also beneficial to employ the whole-class novel approach—provided that prioritizing and accommodating students’ diverse instructional needs remains at the forefront.

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