Education Opinion

One Size Does Not Fit All

By Donalyn Miller — January 13, 2008 3 min read
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My seventeen year-old-daughter is what we call here in Texas, “a long, tall drink of water.” I, on the other hand, have a full-figured glass that has overflowed. When shopping, we laugh when we see clothes sporting tags that claim “one size fits all” remarking, “Not us!”

Stretch this t-shirt over the ubiquitous practice in reading classrooms of teaching whole-class novels, and you can see that it doesn’t fit most readers.

Teachers build elaborate units of instruction around novels--breaking down a text into discreet concepts for closer study. As a new teacher, the best you can hope for as a means of survival is that some wiser teacher will share these Rosetta Stones that decipher how to teach reading, complete with all of the activities you need to get your students “through” a book.

Many school districts and schools create a list of required novels that all students in a grade level are supposed to read. These lists are revered as sacred law in spite of the fact that you cannot find a single state or national standard which requires students to read certain texts.

So what is the purpose of this practice? Many teachers claim that it is important to expose students to great works of literature. Students need to read The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn as part of their cultural heritage. I don’t disagree with this goal in theory; after all, I had to smile to myself when my daughter, after reading The Crucible, referred to Salem in a joke. But is the ability to generate a pithy literary reference all she got out of reading Miller’s play?

Teaching whole-class novel units does not create a society of literate people. Take a poll of friends and relatives (those who did not become teachers) and ask them how they feel about the books they read in high school. Now, ask them how much they still read. In the Phi Delta Kappan article, “Farewell to Farewell to Arms: Deconstructing the Whole Class Novel”, Douglas Fisher and Gay Ivey attest that, “…students are not reading more or reading better as a result of the whole-class novel. Instead, students are reading less and are less motivated, less engaged, and less likely to read in the future.” Teachers can always point to a few students who loved these books, but I doubt it was the majority or that any became future readers as a result.

When I have denounced teaching whole-class novels in past entries, the comments I received from readers spanned a range of emotions from hearty agreement to derision. I feel emotional about this topic, too, so let’s take emotion out of the equation and face some truths:

No one piece of text can meet the needs of all readers. A typical heterogeneous classroom may have a range of readers that spans four or more grade levels. It is impossible to find a book that is at an instructional level for all of these students.

Reading a whole class novel often takes too long. Planning a month or more of instruction around one text replaces a lot of time students could be reading more books on a wider range of topics. It takes even a slow reader only a few weeks to read a book at their reading level. Do the math.

Laboring over a novel reduces comprehension and denies students the ability to fall into a story by breaking books into chapter-bites. No reader, outside of school, engages in this piecemeal method of reading.

Students’ interests in what they choose to read are ignored. Reading becomes an exercise in what the teacher expects you to get out of the book they chose for you, a surefire way to kill all motivation to read-- other than to complete assignments.

Many novel units are stuffed with what education gadfly, Michael Schmoker, calls, “Language Arts and Crafts”, extensions and fun activities which are meant to motivate students, but suck up days of time in which the students are NOT READING OR WRITING.

What about those students who have already read the book? Admittedly, this may be a small number of readers, but I have sixth graders who have read To Kill a Mockingbird or The Outsiders, two books I know are taught in future years. Are they going to be expected to read it again- for two months?

Finally, I am not convinced that these “event novels” even accomplish one of their primary claims- broadening students’ understanding of the complex themes of human experience. No one book can teach students everything they need to know about prejudice, friendship, or honor.

I personally believe that the widespread use of whole-class novel units is to provide teachers with a plan of attack, a method to objectively approach literary analysis which is a largely subjective endeavor.

Whoops, there I go, getting all emotional again…

I have some ideas, some compromises and alternatives, which I will share in next week’s entry.

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.