The funny thing about educational research is if you look hard enough, you can usually find studies to support both sides of an issue. Very rarely do you find a straight yes or no answer to what is a good or bad theory or practice. Generally, it boils down to the common sense of the teacher in regard to their individual students and the level of freedom the teacher is given by the administration.
Sadly in today’s standardized test-heavy climate, teachers are given less and less freedom to choose what is best for their students. So many curriculum guidelines have become so rigid that teachers aren’t able to modify or enrich with their own lessons and materials.
I struggled with this myself while teaching 4th grade. I taught in a high-poverty, low-scoring school. Most of my 4th graders were able to read at a 1st-2nd-grade level. Very few came to me over the years reading on grade level. The biggest challenge I faced as a reading teacher was getting kids excited about reading. They saw it as such a challenge, and our district used a basal series for reading instruction that was unrelatable and very boring! The students saw no reward for their challenge of getting through a story because the stories were so uninspiring, and they had no emotional connection. I knew if I could “turn them on” to a book, they would see more value in reading and feel payback.
Fortunately, I was blessed with a principal that valued my knowledge as a teacher and let me teach as I saw best for my students. I started with a read-aloud time where the kids would get comfortable, and I would read to them. Kids in the upper elementary grades don’t get read to enough for enjoyment. Often, read-aloud is reserved for the emergent readers of the primary grades. I chose high-interest, generally humorous books that the kids could enjoy. I didn’t strive for any deep thinking for this activity. I just wanted the kids to experience reading as enjoyable. Read-aloud became a favorite part of the school day for both the students and myself.
Once I got my feet wet in the classroom, I started developing novel studies for books where there was a short excerpt in our basal. It is only common sense that reading the whole book is more enjoyable and leads to a much greater understanding by the student. Of course, I was careful to incorporate the skills taught in the basal in my units. I started teaching these novel units alongside the basal stories, and the change between reading the basal versus the novel was amazing. I had kids who were reading at a 2nd-grade level actually focused and challenging themselves reading chapter books at a 4th-grade reading level. They actually wanted to read them versus just getting through some worksheet assignment from the basal. More and more, these lower-level readers were chiming in on class discussions about the books and picking up age-appropriate books by choice in their free time. As a teacher, I found it easier to use Bloom’s higher-order questions using a novel instead of a short excerpt because you could dive more deeply into the story and the characters.
I see similar experiences with my own children when they are allowed to read a “real” book vs. a text-based short story. They’ve never come home from school excited about something they read in a basal, but many times have come home and initiated lengthy discussions about novels that they are reading!
As for the sought-after test scores, I didn’t do any formal research on the subject, but my student’s scores certainly did not drop, and their love of reading soared! Sadly this is not a statistic that is measured often enough.
Another benefit of novel study-based reading instruction is the ability to enhance the student’s critical thinking skills by diving deep into character and plot development. Sadly, we are seeing fewer critical thinking-focused activities in our current “test-prep” atmosphere.
Maybe the most beneficial reason of all to use novels in the classroom is to really tap into the empathy and awareness that books can bring to students. By reading books like Wonder and El Deafo, students can learn about different disabilities and how people learn to live with and excel despite their disabilities. Books such as Number the Stars and Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes can be a great introduction to the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima for elementary students. Hatchet and Esperanza Rising are great books to dive into with a character that faces and survives insurmountable odds. The One and Only Ivan helps students empathize and think about the impact we humans have on the planet. These are just a few examples of how a novel can get students thinking deeply about issues that motivate them to enact positive change in our world.
Using novel studies in the classroom can provide numerous benefits for students and can be a great way to enhance their learning experiences. The benefits of incorporating novel studies into your curriculum are:
- Improved Reading Skills: By reading and analyzing a novel, students can develop and improve their reading skills, including comprehension, critical thinking, and vocabulary.
- Cultural Awareness: Novels often reflect the culture and values of a specific time and place, allowing students to gain a better understanding of different perspectives and worldviews.
- Enhance Writing Skills: By writing essays and participating in class discussions, students can improve their writing and speaking skills.
- Encourage Empathy: By reading about and analyzing characters, students can develop empathy and learn to understand and relate to the experiences and perspectives of others.
- Promote Engagement: Novel studies can be a fun and engaging way for students to learn and can help foster a love of reading.
Incorporating novel studies into your curriculum can provide a multitude of benefits for your students and can enhance their learning experiences in many ways.
Are you interested in reading about and sharing ideas with other educators on using children’s literature in your classroom? My goal is to bring together teachers and homeschoolers who teach grades 3-8 and use novels with their students. I’d love for you to join me to learn, share, and grow together!