Reading & Literacy

A Call to Abandon Whole-Class Novels

By Liana Loewus — March 16, 2017 3 min read
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Long taken for granted as a solid literacy approach, the practice of having all students in a class read the same book has come under scrutiny in recent years.

Last month, school librarian and blogger Leigh Collazo, put the argument in the virtual spotlight once again. She wrote:

I am so tired of seeing secondary school teachers still clinging to the whole-class novel. I’ve even seen a disturbing trend toward whole-school novels. Groan. I’m sure forcing students to read a book that someone else picked for them makes all the reluctant and non-readers out there just fall head-over-heels in love with reading. Who doesn’t love being force-fed something they don’t want? That doesn’t fit? That they don’t care two licks about? And we wonder why so many teens say they hate reading.

Students’ maturity levels, reading levels, and interests vary greatly in secondary school, she wrote, making reading entire books together problematic. Classes can have deep, meaningful discussions by reading short stories, essays, and poems as a group—the “interminable whole-class novel units” aren’t necessary.

Literacy expert Pam Allyn made a similar argument in a 2011 Education Week Commentary.

She told the story of a 12-year-old emerging reader whose class was reading To Kill a Mockingbird. Allyn wrote:

He faked his way through it. Ashamed, he did whatever he could to distract the teacher and his fellow students from recognizing his struggle, from fooling around while everyone was reading to acting goofy when the teacher asked a question. In 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. And he was alienated and isolated from his peers.

The use of the whole-class novel is “not good for anyone,” she wrote. And in a world where students curate their own interests all the time (through apps and social media), teachers should encourage them to do the same with their reading.

Over the last few years, teacher-writers Donalyn Miller (who used to blog for Education Week Teacher) and Nancie Atwell have been strong advocates for allowing students to choose what they read, albeit with some guidance.

Reviving the Literary Canon?

Still, many teachers continue to see value in reading books as a class.

Teacher-writer Ariel Sacks, who blogs for Education Week Teacher, wrote yesterday that, “there is powerful learning—academic, social, and personal—that can happen when a community of students experiences the world of a novel together and studies it.” She published a book in 2013 titled Whole Novels For the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach, promoting a method for having middle school classes study novels in their entirety.

In a book on teaching literacy published last year, Doug Lemov, the chief executive officer of the Uncommon Schools charter network and the author of Teach Like a Champion, argued for a return to the literary canon. “When a student makes a reference to a similarity between a scene her class has just read and a scene in another book, the power of that moment is magnified a hundredfold if everyone has also read that other book,” he and his co-authors state in a more recent book, Reading Reconsidered.

Cheryl Mizerny, a veteran English teacher and blogger, acknowledged her affinity for the whole-class novel in a 2014 post, though somewhat apologetically.

I like teaching whole-class novels. There, I’ve said it. I know it is not a popular point of view in the current English teaching world, but whole-class novels have been good to me. Over the years, I have found the whole-class novel to be an incredible community-building and learning process for my students and I have come up with some ways to make it a worthwhile experience.

And while it’s possible to go full-throttle using all whole-class novels or all self-selected reading, many teachers opt for a bit of both.

Mizerny emphasizes that choice reading and read alouds, in addition to whole-class novels, are part of her “balanced literacy classroom.”

Kelly Gallagher, the author or Readicide, has pushed for a mix of whole-class books and independent selections (though he tends to be an advocate for literary choice).

As Sacks put it, “There is a way (probably more than one way) to develop and support independent readers who choose books to read for themselves, and also read and discuss novels as a class. There is great value in doing both ... .”

So while the philosophical debate is likely to continue, many teachers simply won’t feel a need to dig in their heels either way.

As always, feel free to contribute your own thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.