Education Opinion

One Size Does Not Fit All- Part Two

By Donalyn Miller — January 20, 2008 3 min read
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I promised last week to provide solutions and compromises for how to best teach whole class novels or share common texts with your students. Many of the comments posted to last week’s entry suggest a range of methods for approaching this issue. This advice, from fellow classroom teachers, includes many practical ideas. Go back and read their comments along with my suggestions.

If you have to read a specific book with your students:

Read the book out loud to them. Your ability to fluently read a text that may be inaccessible to many students increases their comprehension, vocabulary development, and enjoyment.

Share read the book. Share reading requires you to read the text out loud to students while they follow along in their own copies. In addition to the benefits of read alouds, share reading increases students’ reading speed because they have to keep up with someone who reads at a faster rate than they do. Additionally, students’ sight word recognition of vocabulary is increased because unknown words are pronounced for them. Instead of focusing mental energy on decoding, students can focus on comprehension.

Strip away every bit of “Language Arts and Crafts”. Any activity that does not involve reading, writing, or discussion is an extra that takes away from students’ development as readers, writers, and thinkers. Richard Allington reminds us in What Really Matters for Struggling Readers that, “When we plan to spend six weeks on Island of the Blue Dolphin, we plan to limit children’s reading and fill class time with other activities.”

Narrow down the amount of literary elements you are explicitly teaching. Do not try to use one text to teach everything a ninth grader needs to know about symbolism, characterization, or figurative language. Focus only on those elements that students need for comprehension. Same goes for explicitly teaching vocabulary.

Evaluate whether or not you are truly required to read a certain text or if this is simply tradition. Teaching the same books year after year because that is what has always been done, you have invested so much energy in crafting your novel unit, or because you have all of those books in the closet doesn’t leave much consideration for students.

If you are only expected to meet specific instructional goals, consider these alternatives:

Select one theme or concept which students are expected to understand and then gather a wide range of texts on this topic. For our current study of World War II, I am expected to explore with students how different groups became involved in the war and how they were affected by it. Using a Janet Allen-style Book Pass, students will select a book on World War II, either fiction or non-fiction, and read it. All writing and discussion will circle back to our two guiding questions. This issue-based study will be much broader and richer than if we read just one book together. We can look at the war from the points of view of all of the stakeholders involved and not just one or two groups.

Naturally, using universal themes or literary elements as the anchor for instruction instead of one text acknowledges the wide range of reading levels and interests in a classroom and still allows the teacher to meet curriculum goals. If your district or school is promoting differentiated instruction, this is the simplest way for a reading teacher to do it.

Use short stories and poems to teach literary elements or reading skills and ask students to apply their understanding of these concepts with their independent books. When teaching conflict to my sixth graders, we read several short stories from our adopted textbook and discussed the types of conflicts in the stories and how they were resolved. Students were then asked to reflect on their independent novels, identify the conflicts in the story, and evaluate how these conflicts were resolved or make predictions on how they should be resolved. Any student who can do this has shown me that not only do they understand the concepts of conflict and resolution, but that they also have comprehended the story, no book report needed.

Reading one book together is not the only way to share literacy in a classroom. Students passing books back and forth because they have liked them and found them meaningful, students begging you to read out loud to them, students arguing about the motives of the characters in their own books, all of these activities build a community of readers.

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.