Reading & Literacy Opinion

Reading Fiction Whole

By Ariel Sacks — February 29, 2012 7 min read
English teacher Ariel Sacks believes it's important to lead students to make their own discoveries in literature. —Emile Wamsteker
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Literary fiction is an art that seeks to create an immersive experience for the reader, but we often don’t approach it that way with our students. We parcel out books in pieces and ask students to analyze them along the way without the ability to understand a work in its entirety. This is sort of like asking students to interpret a corner of a painting. Without the entire context, it lacks meaning and can become frustrating.

Imagine walking into a movie theater and finding that the movie is switched off every few minutes. Someone in the front of the room asks questions designed to see if you understand what you are seeing and demands that you analyze the clip in front of the other moviegoers. Only then does he move to the next clip. It takes 12 hours to get through the entire feature-length film. If this were the norm, would you ever go to the movies?

Yet, as teachers, we continue to segment literary works and erect barriers between students and their experience of fictional worlds. In my view, this is one of the big contributors to the widespread phenomenon that teacher Kelly Gallagher famously dubbed “readicide.”


When I was studying to be a teacher at Bank Street College in New York City nine years ago, my advisor and children’s literature instructor, Madeleine Ray, planted a different concept in my mind: Let students read novels in their entirety. Then let them talk about what they find interesting in the book, facilitating the group’s exploration of the text. She convinced me to do away with prescribed comprehension and discussion questions and let the students lead the way.

I first tried this “whole novels” method as a student-teacher in Bank Street’s own private lab school. I gave students a schedule for reading Walter Dean Myers’ Scorpions at home and Post-it notes to record their thoughts on the pages as they read. A week later, we gathered for discussions. To my surprise, every student had read the novel and posted sticky notes as requested. We had a fascinating time discussing and taking apart the elements of the novel, acting out scenes, and writing about the issues Myers raises.

Naturally, I tried the format again in my first teaching position in a Title I school in East Harlem. On the date the book was due, we gathered together for discussions. It quickly became apparent that exactly half the class had read the book and the other half hadn’t gotten past the first few pages. I realized I had some problem-solving to do if I wanted to keep using this approach in an environment where students’ reading abilities and study habits varied widely. At the same time, I was impressed that many of the students had completed the reading on their own. This group’s discussions were full of energy, driven by their authentic responses to the novel. They felt rewarded and were hungry for more. I wanted to help all my students rise to the challenge.

Since then, I have been developing ways to work with students of varying abilities in reading whole novels and driving their own discussions. Every time I’ve taken this leap of faith with my students, they have surprised me. I’ve found that students can discover on their own just about everything I might have planned to “teach” them about literature. The keys are to create a supportive classroom community and give them the time and space to interact authentically with the literary work. Here’s how I do that:

Framing the project. After selecting a developmentally and thematically meaningful work, I launch each whole-novel study with a ritual I learned from Madeleine. Each student receives a gallon-size Ziploc bag with a copy of the book and a letter from me introducing the novel and expectations for their work inside. Also enclosed are a reading schedule and Post-it notes for them to record their responses. The students recognize this ritual as the beginning of a personal literary journey.

Providing reading time and support. After that first year, I learned that I had to support students through the reading process. The key, I’ve found, is to make students feel part of a group process without getting in between them and the text. Once the project has begun, I often begin class with a check-in meeting. I ask, “How’s the reading going?” and get some informal responses. Sometimes I ask students to choose a section from last night’s reading to read aloud together, and we talk briefly about it.

I also give students time to read independently roughly three days a week, while I circulate, conferring with individuals, or reading aloud with a small group. On other days, I pair students strategically and have them read aloud to one another and write notes together.

Tracking progress. The sticky notes have become my primary method for holding students accountable for the reading, though they also serve other purposes. The idea is for students to use them to record real-time, free-form responses to the story—questions, observations, connections, and opinions. In general, I require students write four notes per night, though I give some stronger readers more flexibility.

As the project moves forward, I regularly assess students’ notes to find areas where I can help them better comprehend or deepen their experience without breaking their flow or doing the work for them. I grade their notes and follow up with families when students fall behind.

Not surprisingly, many students find that writing the notes helps them become more engaged in the story. Some of my struggling readers choose to write Post-it notes on almost every page of the book.

Creating group mini-projects. With each novel, we focus on a literary element or combination of elements. For example, with The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, we look closely at setting and theme. I design group mini-projects that allow students to investigate the literary world of the book through the lens of this literary element. For example, students might select quotes that describe setting and create drawings based on them, or map relationships between characters.

In these projects, students collaborate to expand their understanding of what they read without interrupting the subjective, immersive nature of their experience and without having me fall into the role of chief thinker in interpreting the novel.

Discussing literature. By the time the due date arrives for completing the reading, students are usually dying to discuss the book. We sit in a circle. I do this with half the class at one time, while the other half works on creative writing related to the novel. We go around the circle to air gut reactions to the book. “You may say anything you want about the book—something you liked or hated, a character or scene you want to comment on, something that confused you, or you can share a favorite Post-it note,” I tell students. I take notes on my laptop, projecting them onto a screen so we can refer to them later.

After everyone has spoken once, the discussion is open, and students determine its direction. For example, students may debate a character’s motivation in a particular scene or the merits of the novel’s ending. I moderate and encourage students to back up their points with evidence from the text.

We continue the discussions over three days. At the start of each session, I pass out copies of the previous day’s notes to provide context.

I never really know how the discussion will unfold, but I’ve discovered some trends over the years. In the second session, we tend to do a lot of rereading of controversial or confusing sections, examining evidence for students’ opinions and seeking further insight in the language. This work often guides us to the discovery of patterns or themes within the text. I try not to lead the group with a heavy hand to discover such patterns, but I do make a point to direct attention toward pertinent comments when they come up.

I also look for occasions to introduce discipline-specific terms to name students’ discoveries. I celebrate these discoveries and tell the students, for example, “There’s an official name in the world of literature for what you’ve just described—it’s called foreshadowing.” By the time I introduce the term, many students already understand it on a conceptual level.

In the third session, we usually shift focus toward the author’s role and purpose in creating the work. If the group doesn’t enter this level of analysis on its own, I lead gently with a question. “We’ve talked a lot about this character,” I might say. “Why would the author include someone like this in the story?” Or I might ask, “Why might the author choose to end the book this way?” We reread the end for clues as to what the author wants us to think about upon leaving his or her literary world and what the overall message might be.

Leading a whole-novel study is like throwing a boomerang. If the boomerang is carved well, and I aim it properly, it will take a journey and come back to me. If the literary work is artfully written and meaningful to students, and I support the class well, they will arrive at all the learning objectives I am responsible for teaching and then some. What’s more is that they build stamina, confidence, critical thinking, and the habit of reading whole books by themselves.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2012 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Reading Fiction Whole


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