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Whole-Class Novels vs. Choice Reading: Why Not Do Both?

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Like many secondary English/language arts teachers, I strive for a balance of whole-class texts—including novels and other genres—and allowing students the choice of what to read. The interplay between these two kinds of reading experiences, I believe, propels my students forward.

The backdrop for my quest for balance is a fairly longstanding and fractious debate among English and literacy educators about whether choice reading or whole-class novels should be the dominant format for student reading in school.

Strict adherents to a "reading workshop" model believe it’s counterproductive to force students to read an entire novel they didn’t choose and that won’t be at an appropriate reading level for every single person. On the other side of the spectrum, there are teachers who believe that they are best equipped to choose worthwhile literature for students to read, and to lead them through that process.

By now, though, a body of research shows a strong relationship between voluntary reading, at school or at home, and academic achievement. Voluntary reading is a strong predictor of reading achievement and correlates to increased brain and language development. A wealth of resources is available to support teachers of any grade level to facilitate choice reading in their classrooms.

At the same time, pedagogy around whole-class novels is evolving. My book, Whole Novels For the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach, as well as 180 Days, by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle, and Kate Roberts' A Novel Approach, all provide detail on how whole-class novel studies can be reimagined: Let go of some of the control traditionally exercised by teachers, and select texts that connect meaningfully to students’ lives, rather than sticking to classics.

In my classroom, the distinctions between whole-novel studies and choice-reading cycles have actually become less clear than they once were. I celebrate this, because I think it reflects that reading is happening in an organic, continuous way. This continuity of practice builds strong readers who internalize the habit of reading, carrying it well beyond 8th grade.

Building Reading Momentum

Carmen, for example, started 8th grade "behind grade level" and vocal about her lack of interest in reading.

In late September, we launched our first whole-novel study. The book was American Street, a poignant and gripping story of immigration, and we had the wonderful opportunity to meet author Ibi Zoboi after we read it. The story caught Carmen’s interest. "This is actually good," she said with surprise.

Carmen read the book mostly in class—sometimes listening to the audio recording through an app on her phone and sometimes reading with a small group. (I offer audio support to all students during whole-novel studies, and we have audio-recordings for most book club and additional texts. Students read along as they listen.) She only completed some of the required sticky note annotations, but she finished reading in time to enter formal discussions with the rest of the class, and brought to that experience her authentic responses to the story.

Next we went right into a whole-novel study of The House On Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Carmen and Abigail, her friend and classmate, discovered that they loved reading this book aloud to one another and writing their notes together after each vignette. The two made a good team and met their deadline. Like a lot of students, Carmen enjoyed Cisneros’ poetic language and many of the vignettes, but she was frustrated with how much the book jumped around without a clear narrative. The whole-class discussions at the end of the reading were crucial in helping students construct an understanding of what the book as a whole conveyed.

Then we began a choice-reading cycle. For the next week, Carmen and Abigail could be found all over the school reading aloud back and forth in The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. Carmen connected strongly to this book. She loved the free verse poetic narrative, and this was her first time reading a protagonist who, like herself, is Dominican American. About 200 pages into the book, December break arrived. Carmen finished the last 100 or so pages on her own at home.

When we launched our third novel study after break, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Carmen surprised me. She started reading it by herself, and chose not to use the audiobook. Abigail joined a small reading group led by my co-teacher, and Carmen continued solo. She finished the book a week ahead of schedule. Her annotations revealed an authentic conversation with the book as she read, peppered with ideas on themes and conflicts, elements we had studied in class. I was impressed.

Carmen has developed a love of reading and stronger muscles to engage with texts, thanks to the chance to read books of her choosing by diverse authors, and the social experience of reading and discussing interesting novels with her peers. If she hadn’t read and loved American Street with the class, and pushed herself to read House on Mango Street carefully with Abigail, I doubt she would have devoured The Poet X as avidly as she did. Reading The Poet X helped her develop confidence and drive to take on The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian independently.

Three Practices to Promote Engagement and Equity

Aside from the rich variety of diverse, developmentally meaningful books I’m able to offer my students, these practices support my integration of whole-class novels and choice reading:

Make reading a continuous thread. I set a routine of daily reading, which is consistent regardless of the unit we are in—the structure can be used for whole novels, choice reading, and often both simultaneously.

I allot between 10 and 30 minutes for reading, generally at the start of class, and much of our other work is anchored in this core practice. My goal is that meaningful reading happens daily, and we never drop this thread.

Hold no one back. When the class studies a novel together, I create a pacing calendar. However, students don’t need to stick to the schedule, and many comfortably finish reading more quickly. After that, I have additional books that connect to the class novel waiting for them. However, the choice of what to read next is really theirs.

Some students juggle two books—once they meet the daily page requirement for the study book, they transition to reading their choice book. The study book is in the priority position, and we focus as a community on the style and themes of that text, but a lot of choice reading is happening as well.

Offer choice in how students access the reading. Many readers use audio-recordings when the whole-class novel or other selection is beyond their independent comfort level. This allows a range of readers to come together around a powerful, relevant novel, and it also helps struggling readers gain valuable listening experience. Providing the choice to everyone sends a message that being read to is inherently valuable and minimizes stigma students might experience for needing help.

I imagine our reading as a maze of intersecting pathways; some we travel as a community, and others we forge as individuals and small groups. Choice reading and whole-novel studies feed one other in an additive process that keeps students engaged and moving forward.

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