At this moment in the field of English/language arts, I’m noticing an odd friction between two significant, growing movements that touch our work.
The first one, to me, is perhaps the most exciting thing going on in education right now, period: the bursting field of new literature written for children and young adults by an increasingly diverse field of authors. Wonderful titles are released almost daily—and maybe for the first time it doesn’t feel like a huge struggle to find books that represent the diversity of our students and the real world. While more work needs to be done to reach full representation and challenge stereotypes, the movement forward is undeniable. A great many educators are passionate about bringing diverse texts into our classrooms and disrupting traditional canons, and they’re spreading the word in their schools and on social media. In so doing, we are helping to create life-long readers who learn empathy and self-determination through powerful storytelling.
This literary boom is very much centered on books, especially novels, as a major format for reading. And when we think of the voracious young readers we know, books are generally what they like to read. While I’m all for including and honoring all mediums and genres for reading, I believe that the practice of reading actual books plays a key role in developing engaged readers.
On the other hand, in this same moment, there’s a second movement pushing for reading shorter texts, including articles, poems, and excerpts of novels, thus minimizing the use of whole books.
The recent trend toward short texts seems to have come from the Common Core State Standards and accompanying standardized tests. As Peter Greene explains in a Forbes Magazine article, Common Core Testing and the Fracturing of Literature, “Both the standards and the tests are focused on ‘skills,’ with the idea that the business of reading a play or a story or any piece of text is not for the value of that text, but for the reading skills that one acquires and practices in the reading.” This limited focus on skills overlooks so much of what literature offers young people. But my issue with excerpts goes beyond the skills versus content debate, which has been going on many decades.
I question the choice to alter a novel’s form by excerpting it. This is partly on principle—the author didn’t intend for it to be read in bits. But more importantly, I believe reading excerpts puts students at a disadvantage in developing a love of reading and their skills in literary analysis.
The Whole Story Advantage
Literature is art. When we read a novel, we are reading an author’s artistic production, which was created intentionally in a specific form. The novel as a literary form asks readers to spend time living in a world and experiencing the story subjectively as it unfolds, detail by detail. Sure, the length can be prohibitive at times on a practical level; but fundamentally, the work of art begins at the beginning and ends at the end. Without the whole story, our experience is incomplete, and we really can’t know what the author is trying to convey with major gaps in our knowledge of the text.
I like to compare this to looking at a work of visual art—a painting, for example. Yes, we can study a corner of a painting, but we would almost never do so without first viewing the painting as a whole. Without seeing the whole, we miss out on the experience of the art as it was intended. And we are at a gross disadvantage in analyzing even the details we see in one corner, because we don’t know what purpose they serve in relation to the whole.
To complicate matters, when students are reading excerpts and missing the whole picture, there is almost always one person in the room who has the whole picture advantage: the teacher. Students learn to look to the teacher to point out what’s important, and teachers end up doing a lot of the analysis for the class.
This direct transfer of thinking from teacher to student is a useful option once in a while, but this does not provide students with the kind of reading experiences they need to be able to do the analysis themselves, which is the goal. And students can critically analyze literature if they have the tools and opportunity, and appropriate and meaningful texts with which to practice.
What Are We Compromising With Excerpts?
In schools, I have heard educators talk about using excerpts as a way of dealing with resistance from students to actually reading certain longer books—a Band-Aid for low reading stamina and motivation. These discussions among teachers are almost always connected to external pressure for students to read more complex texts.
The common-core standards have challenged the ideas most teachers (myself included) held about what is appropriate reading material for a given grade level. Many teachers now feel they must present students with texts that meet new standards of “rigor,” but which are often too difficult for many of their students to read with much independence. No teacher or student wants to be stuck in that position for long, and so, given the perceived lack of options in selecting more appropriate texts, using excerpts may be preferable to whole books.
However, reading difficult excerpts with heavy teacher guidance is not likely a path to solving the issues that made teachers choose excerpts in the first place. Instead, we need to build students’ reading strength with texts that allow them to practice within their zone of proximal development, and which connect meaningfully to their lives and interests.
The argument for excerpts isn’t just coming from common core test-stressed educators. I’m also seeing it among some literacy leaders. In a post on the topic, renowned literacy expert Tim Shanahan is skeptical about the benefits of teaching with novels, based on his review of the available research, though he recognizes some potential. However, he concludes with this: “I’d suggest one novel or a couple of novellas each year in high school, balanced against a more aggressive and intentional use of excerpts and shorter works.” Shanahan is also an author of the Common Core State Standards, whose own teaching experience was in 1st grade.
Literacy consultant Berit Gordon advocates for teachers to work with excerpts of classic novels in her book No More Fake Reading: Merging the Classics With Independent Reading to Create Joyful Lifelong Readers. In this method, the teacher leads the class in reading select pieces of a classic to examine and appreciate the author’s craft and use of literary devices. Then students apply those processes to their independent, self-selected reading materials in a workshop model, where they do gain experience reading whole books. I think this approach may make sense for the purpose of exposing students to certain classic texts that they might not be able to read on their own, in order to keep their dependent reading time to a minimum. But I see it as a compromise to achieve a goal in imperfect conditions rather than a best practice for teaching literature.
Having the whole picture is an advantage we ought to give students when we teach literature. That is the concept at the core of the whole novels method I use in my English classroom. In it, I support students to read entire novels—selected to be high interest and developmentally meaningful—and analyze them in discussions and writing after they’ve read the whole thing. I teach habits of response they use along the way, but we hold off on major analysis until students finish reading, so that we’re all working with the complete information. We include whole class novels and choice reading throughout the year, so students are reading a variety of whole books. I increase the complexity of the whole class novels throughout the year, ending 8th grade with a classic text.
In this renaissance era of young adult literature, are there times when it makes sense to look at an excerpt from a novel as an example of a particular literary device? Maybe, though the same goal can be achieved other ways. Are there times when reading excerpted selections from a difficult but worthwhile book may be a better choice than forcing students to read the whole thing? Sure, on a limited basis. But should we be using excerpts from novels instead of whole books—and calling that a best practice—because someone told us to, or because we’re not sure how to build confident readers who can read through a whole novel? No. We can do better than that, and our students can, too.