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 regards to his/her 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 are not 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 could read at a 1st-2nd-grade level. Very few came to me over the years reading on grade level. The biggest challenge I had as a reading teacher was to get 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 see a “payback” so to speak.
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 in my opinion. It is reserved for the emergent readers of the primary grades. I chose high-interest, generally humorous books that the kids could just enjoy. I didn’t strive for any deep thinking for this activity. I just wanted the kids to experience reading as enjoyable. This turned into a favorite part of the school day for the students and for me.
Once I got my feet wet a bit in the classroom I started to develop novel studies for books where a short excerpt had been made in the 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 the chapter books that were 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 really dive so much farther 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 they have many times come home and we’ve had 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 looked at often enough.
Another huge benefit to novel study-based reading instruction is the ability to really enhance the student’s critical thinking skills by diving deep into character and plot development. Sadly, we are seeing fewer and less critical thinking-focused activities in the current “test-prep” atmosphere in schools today.
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 in with a character that faces and survives insurmountable odds. The One and Only Ivan helps students empathize and think about the impact that we humans have on the planet as a whole. These are just a few examples of how a novel can get students thinking deeply about issues that can motivate them to enact positive change in our world.
I really encourage you to give novel studies a try in your classroom. I promise you will not be disappointed and your students will thank you for it!
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!