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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Literature Can Be a ‘Gateway for Understanding Everything’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 21, 2015 14 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

Joe asked:

What’s the most effective way to approach literature education in the secondary classroom? Reading assigned for hw? Read alouds? Independent reading?

I suspect that I’m not alone in my memories of high school English teachers beating the life out beautiful literature by just having us read it and answer simple comprehension questions. How can high school educators bring literature alive to our students, especially in the Common Core era when nonfiction appears to be a higher priority?

Today, several educators - Nancy Steineke, Sean McComb, Nancy Frey, Doug Fisher, Bill Himmele and Pérsida Himmele - will help answer that question. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Nancy Steineke, Sean, Bill and Pérsida about this topic on my BAM! Radio Show.

My sole contribution to this discussion is recommending what I consider to be an extraordinary resource -- The New York Times Learning Network’s “Text-To-Text” series. If you’re not familiar with it already, check it out!

Response From Nancy Steineke

Nancy Steineke, an English teacher for over thirty years, is an author, consultant, and Illinois Writing Project leader. Her latest book, co-authored with Harvey Daniels, is Teaching the Social Skills of Academic Interaction. She is also the author/co-author of several other books, including Reading and Writing Together, Texts and Lessons for Content-Area Reading, Texts and Lessons for Literature, Mini-Lessons for Literature Circles, and Assessment Live!:

Though teachers fret about how to teach the canon or whether text is complex enough, their real concern should center on accessible text. When a text is too difficult, students give up, and it is often the teacher who ends up “reading” the text to the students in the form of lecture or teacher-centered whole class discussion. Ironically, in an effort to expose students to complex text, students may be doing even less reading than they were before. Consistently, research reveals that those who read the most test the best (and also find greater college and career success), so maybe our goal as literature teachers should be to get students reading!

Make Reading Attractive: Many leisure time activities compete for time with reading. Numbers crunched by the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal that teens (ages 15-19) read less than five minutes a day. Giving students reading choices is the primary way to entice them to invest more time in text. However, for choice to work, students need to know how to choose.

We have to teach students how to find good books. That means stocking a classroom library (from garage sales if necessary). That means taking students to the school library on a regular basis. That means talking about interesting books every day; the talk will start with you but as students grow as readers, they should be recommending books to each other. That means teaching students that readers always have another book ready to go when they know they’re finishing one up.

Carve Out Daily Class Time for Reading: If we can find time in class for speeches, presentations, movies, or grammar exercises, why can’t we find a daily ten or fifteen minutes for independent reading? First, offering students just ten minutes of reading time every day would mean they would be reading three times more than they would otherwise! Furthermore, studies have shown that reading is directly connected to vocabulary growth. The more students read, the more words they are exposed to. The typical teen reader encounters about 282,000 words per year. Adding ten minutes a day bumps word exposure up to 895,043, a 217% increase. These statistics do assume 15 minutes of reading every day, but if your students have a reading routine, it won’t be that hard to get them to read twenty minutes on the weekend!

Make Reading Whole-Class Texts Collaborative: We all know that no book will appeal to every reader, but we also know that we face some non-negotiable curricular demands. Assuming that the text is accessible, teach students how to read and annotate with small group discussion in mind. Acknowledge that a book might not be their first choice, but then teach students how to have fun with it by sleuthing out controversial passages and creating questions that spark lively peer discussion.

Response From Sean McComb

Sean McComb is the 2014 National Teacher of the Year. He has served as an English, AVID, and Staff Development Teacher at Patapsco High School in Baltimore County, MD. You can connect with Sean via Twitter at @Mr_McComb:

I don’t think there is a single, best way to approach literature instruction, but a thoughtful combination of strategies based on the needs and strengths of students can help nurture readers. Three guideposts on my journey have been:

Cultivating Curiosity

At the outset of our course, as I get to know my students, we do more of our reading together. When I choose to assign a text, I know that I need to sell students on giving up their time and choice in order to read what I’ve selected. There’s some convincing to be done. When I introduce Oedipus Rex, I frame the story by telling students we are going to read the Ancient Greek version of a “Who’s the daddy?” daytime talk show episode, with tragedy unfolding before our eyes. When we read Night, we pair it with some psychology studies on survival and articles exploring man’s capacity for evil. This approach peaks interest and frames stories as an invitation to explore the human condition, which is highly appealing to teenagers looking to define themselves. Once students are hooked into the narrative, and a few tantalizing questions are offered to consider at home, I’ve experienced much higher rates of completed outside reading.


There are times when I’ll choose a section of a whole class text to read in class due to complexity or sensitivity, but when the vast majority of reading can be completed at home, our time in class can be dedicated to higher order work. This is a mix of familiar strategies: close-reading of complex passages, student-led discussion of student-generated interpretive questions, and Socratic seminars. This approach also allows us the opportunity to explore complimentary texts that can lend another light to the narrative in class. One skill I try to focus on developing with students is to put two different texts “in conversation” with one another. In the information age the ability to connect and weave together two or more texts in an analysis is increasingly important.


I like to give students choice in selecting their texts for independent reading and a literature circle project. As adults, we read what naturally appeals to us, and students should be encouraged to practice that as well. This combination of choice outside reading and having a common text, allows students to make personal text-to-text connections with the narrative we’re reading together. With independent texts, students complete a book review (Amazon or Goodreads), another writing assignment, and meet three or four times with a small group to compare and contrast characters and themes from their texts. Toward the end of the course students also complete a Literature Circle project choosing one from a selection of 6-8 texts having to do with a social justice issue. This project dovetails into our research work.

There are times to read together and times to encourage more independence, but as I make those choices and seek a rigorous balance I am always focused on getting the kids to do more of the reading and thinking.

Response From Nancy Frey & Doug Fisher

Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey are professors of educational leadership at San Diego State University and teacher leaders at Health Sciences High School. They are the authors of numerous books, including Rigorous Reading (Corwin, 2013):

There’s so much to say about this - and entire books have been written about literature education in secondary schools. For our part, we’d like to add to the conversation by suggesting that English needs to become inquiry-based. Literature should help individuals and society answer big questions in life. Early in our own education, we were introduced to Charlotte Huck’s idea that literature should function as both a mirror and window. In other words, students should see themselves in the texts they read and they should meet people and visit places that they might otherwise never have the opportunity to. We’d like to add to Huck’s metaphor. Literature can also be a door through which the reader passes, having been changed as a result. Of course mirrors, windows, and doors need walls to support them and foundations to support the walls. That’s our corny way of saying that a lot goes into a strong literature instructional program.

But back to inquiry. Most secondary school students have no idea why they have to take English, and they don’t like it very much. When asked why, students often tell us that they don’t see the point of English or studying literature. They can’t imagine that they’ll ever use the information gained in their high school English class later in life. It really doesn’t matter which instructional strategies we use if students don’t see the information and content as relevant. They may be compliant with the tasks and assignments required for a passing grade, but they don’t learn to read better or engage in reading more often as a result.

And this is why we use essential questions to drive our English classrooms. These questions allow students to make connections between and among content areas. They also provide students with a more authentic reason to read. When they want to know the answer to the question, students are more likely to read. Therefore, at our school, we invite students to vote on the essential questions. Teachers, parents, and administrates don’t get vote, only students. The questions that received the majority of votes for this academic year are:

  • How does WHERE you live influence HOW you live?
  • Avenge or forgive?
  • Can you buy your way to happiness?
  • Does gender matter?

Just think about the wide range of books students could read to answer those questions! And they do. The entire English department, not to mention a wide network of friends, librarians, and book sellers, conspire to identify texts that will help students answer these questions.

Each teacher then selects one text from the list to read, study, and interrogate in class. Students select books from a long list to read on their own. Our students write weekly literacy letters, an idea borrowed from Nancie Atwell, so that we can dialogue with them about the texts they’ve chosen. At the end of each term, students write in response to the question, sometimes using argumentation, other times explaining and informing, and still other times creating a whole new narrative. They come to understand their thinking, through the texts they have selected, in response to an important question.

Our students end up reading a lot - about 13 texts on average per year - because they aren’t usually satisfied with the answer to the question from a single source. They want to know how other people, fictional or not, might respond to the questions they have asked. And by the way, their test scores are amazing. Last year, 97% of the 10th graders passed the High School Exit Exam on the first attempt. We believe that this is because we have increased their stamina in reading. Yes, of course their teachers also provided amazing instruction, but we think that our students learned to hunker down and actually read texts that matter.

Response From Bill & Pérsida Himmele

Pérsida and William Himmele are associate professors at Millersville University and William is also coordinator of Millersville’s ESL certificate program. They have each taught in a variety of environments, and have written and presented on topics including student engagement and teaching English language learners. The Himmeles are authors of the ASCD books Total Literacy Techniques: Tools to Help Students Analyze Literature and Informational Texts, Total Participation Techniques: Making Every Student and Active Learner, and The Language-Rich Classroom: A Research-Based Framework for Teaching English Language Learners:

Read Alouds, independent reading, and teacher-selected literature units need to all work together toward the goal of immersing students in vibrant literary lives of their own. We would not recommend imposing required readings on students’ independent reading times by assigning books that students must read. We know that as students get older, the amount of independent reading that they do decreases. We’ve met students who at one time loved reading, but no longer love it because they had no interest in the books that they were required to read, and they were never effectively engaged in what they were assigned to read. If we want students to love reading, we’re going to need to allow them to read what they love, especially when it comes to their independent reading.

In-school literature units based on teacher-selected literature, and accompanying out-of-school assignments, are ways of exposing students to rich types of literature that they wouldn’t necessarily select on their own. We really need to get this right, in terms of what we hope to extract from the literature we select, because literature is a perfect vehicle for developing so many of the essential attributes that our students will need in order to thrive in academically rigorous settings. It goes much further than viewing literature as stories to be enjoyed. While there certainly is that, if that’s all we aim for, we’re missing out on so many opportunities that literature provides to our students.

Among just a few of the benefits that literature provides are the many excellent opportunities for developing students’ proficiencies in understanding and using academic language. It exposes students to comprehensible academic language in a way that, because of their brevity and lack of context, informational readings are not able to achieve. We’ve asked students to point out the words that were confusing or unknown in literature as well as in informational readings. Invariably, when students come across unknown academic vocabulary in informational pieces, the unknown vocabulary leaves them flustered with critical comprehension gaps. When students pointed out unknown or confusing words embedded in literature, they were often able to determine many of the words’ meanings based on the context of what was read. Both literature and informational texts are important, but literature can provide a gateway for understanding everything else we read.

Another key benefit of literature is that it presents opportunities for developing higher-order thinking skills when teachers pair it with higher-order prompts. Literature presents students with case studies in life. It may have the potential to build empathy, as well as allowing students to step out of themselves and analyze and evaluate societies objectively. It goes way beyond the teaching of literature as content. As our friend Keely Potter would say, we have to help students get used to going beyond literal comprehension, beyond “What is the book about?” and get them used to being expected to answer the question, “But, what is the book really about?”

Thanks to Nancy, Sean, Nancy, Doug, Bill and Pérsida for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. Readers’ comments will be included in Part Two.

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