A Preliminary Report on the Teaching of Chapter Books and Novels, grades 4-8

 

A Preliminary Report from the July 2013 Survey

What Teachers Tell Us About the Novels/Chapter Books They Teach

By Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst

 

About a week ago we posted a survey on SurveyMonkey.com asking teachers in grades 4-8 to tell us about their teaching of novels and chapter books.  This survey was a slightly modified version of a survey we had first conducted in 2008.  We hoped that the current survey would tell us something about the novels finding their way into classrooms, about the approaches teachers were taking to the instruction, and about the influence of the Common Core State Standards.  What follows is a first-look at some of the data.

How many books are we teaching?

We received 435 responses, mostly from teachers with 6 to 20 years of experience.  Of those 435 teachers, 426 responded to the question that asked how many novels or chapter books were taught during the school year.  Of that number, about 90% reported that they teach at least one novel a year.  About 20% reported teaching four a year.  We were surprised that 10% — 41 teachers – did not teach any novels or chapter books at all and just as surprised that a little over 10% reported teaching more than seven books in one year.

How many books are taught in 1 year?

 

Who chooses the books?

Most of the teachers responding choose the books they will teach, with 60% apparently having great autonomy and another 28% required to choose from a list established by the district or at the school level.  Only 2.2% reported that they had no choice whatsoever.

Who chooses the books you teach?

 

What’s the criteria for choosing books?

We were especially interested in the criteria teachers employed in choosing books for their classes.  To over 50% of respondents, the potential for student enjoyment was the single most important criterion.  Of somewhat lesser significance were the elements or standards the novel would enable them to teach, the literary quality of the books, and the theme.   Only a few—4%—choose a book for the genre it would enable them to study, and only one solitary teacher chooses the novel for author study.

What's the criteria for choosing books?

 

How are books being taught?

We were also interested in how novels/chapter books were being taught.  We offered respondents a variety of scenarios from which to choose.  We found that about 34% of the respondents said that they introduced the book, gave some structure over how much should be read, and then had large or small group discussions about each section.   We found that the same number responded that they introduced the book and then read the book with the class either through read alouds or listening to portions on tape.

How I teach novels

 

What books are being taught?

All of the books we inquired about in our 2008 survey are still being taught.  The Giver is still the most commonly taught of all the young adult novels we listed, and none of the other titles had vanished from the list.  Here is that 2008 list as it appears in Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading:

 

Most Commonly Taught Novels 2008 survey

 

What new titles have you added?

There were some new titles, however, to add to our 2008 list.  Some are new books teachers reported they are now teaching, and some are books they’d like to teach.  Among the most popular of the new books now being taught are, listed in order of frequency mentioned:

Wonder            

The Hunger Games

The One and Only Ivan

The Lightning Thief

The Westing Game

Wonder, The Hunger Games, and The One and Only Ivan were also the three most commonly mentioned books teacher would like to teach if given the opportunity.

Other titles that appeared in that list with noticeable frequency were:

Divergent

Out of My Mind

The Book Thief

 

What do we see when we look at data by grade levels?

When we look at data by grade level, we found that “Potential Enjoyment” continued to be the decisive factor in choosing a book.  While we’re still culling data by grade level, here are some first results:

Most commonly taught books from the list provided

4th Grade:  Because of Winn Dixie

5th Grade: Bud, Not Buddy and Number the Stars

6th Grade: The Giver and The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963

7th Grade: The Giver and The Outsiders

8th Grade: The Diary of Anne Frank, The Giver, and The Outsiders

 

Mostly commonly taught book that was not on the list provided

4th Grade:  Wonder

5th Grade: Wonder

6th Grade: Wonder

7th Grade: Wonder and Hunger Games

8th Grade: Hunger Games

 

Most common length of time spent teaching one book

4th Grade:  3 weeks

5th Grade:  3 weeks

6th Grade:  4 weeks

7th Grade:  4 weeks

8th Grade:  4-6 weeks

 

How has or will the Common Core State Standards affect your teaching of novels/chapter books?

When we looked at information about the effects of the CCSS, as many teachers reported that it would not affect their teaching of novels/chapter books as reported that it would.  Those who reported teaching 1-3 novels a year thought they would continue teaching that number.  Those who taught more, feared that they would be unable to continue teaching as many.  An overwhelming majority of respondents reported that the focus on nonfiction, more than anything else, would change their teaching.

 

Final comments

While there’s more data to be culled, we wanted to share this preliminary if cursory glance at it, and to thank all who participated.  We’ll use this survey as a pilot, do some refining, and put it in the field again in September and we’ll continue to report findings over the next few weeks.  The comment we enjoyed the most, though, must be shared now:  “I teach novels not because the CCSS says students need to learn to read texts closely or learn to find details or learn something about the author’s craft.  I teach novels because I teach kids and I want kids to love to read.  And if they are going to love to read, they need to read novels.  They need to read some they’ve chosen; some I’ve chosen; some that are hard; some that are easy; some that make them laugh; some that make them cry.  We’ll read some together, and they’ll read some on their own.  We read novels because novels take us places we’ve never been and let us be people we are not.  That’s why I teach novels.”

 

We agree.

 

 

 

14 thoughts on “A Preliminary Report on the Teaching of Chapter Books and Novels, grades 4-8

  1. Thank you for doing this. I think many of us are feeling the pressure to teach more nonfiction and in many school I know of that pressure has resulted in several books being dropped from the curriculum. I do teach Mountains Beyond Mountains, squeezing it in several years ago to my Honors classes.

    I already teach logic and research and persuasive essay-writing—all of which I learned outside my English classes when I was in school—so I feel I contribute my share to the CCSS.

    I say: when the Biology classes and Tech classes, and Spanish and Band and America and the World classes begin teaching texts that are 30% novels and poetry, I will teach more nonfiction.

    What I see is the deliberate unraveling of what was once a great public education system and a reinvention of an increasingly commercial-driven system that serves business before children, placing profit over people, and the self-interest of certain companies over the best interests of students.

  2. I wish that I had read this a few weeks ago. I did a research project for a graduate course investigating the reading of contemporary YA literature in schools. The outlook from the research I found was pretty grim; this gives me more hope. I’d be interested in the demographics behind the answers, just out of curiosity.

  3. Alex–you’re welcome to email me at beers.probst@gmail.com for that information. We’ll be publishing that later, but if you need some preliminary info now, we’re happy to share. In the subject line please put “request regarding YA survey.”

  4. Pingback: Curricu-Links: 31 July 2013 | Curiously Questioning

  5. Thanks! I handed in the relevant research paper last month, so I can wait and see the demographic information when you get around to publishing it.

  6. I am concerned about promoting the idea that people should teach novels rather than their students. I certainly don’t want my own children to ever have a teacher rob them of the chance to interpret a text with their own minds, and I would NEVER do it to my own students. Isn’t our mission to guide students toward the standards and beyond as best we can? Further, I do hope we begin to see the number of teachers USING multiple whole class novels to teach their students and improve their literacy skills reducing dramatically given what we have recently discovered about best practices in literacy instruction, and I pray no one is teaching novels to anyone.

  7. What percentage of educators are allowing students choose the books they read (perhaps within a given theme or selection of texts)? Allowing students to choose what they read can be a great motivator as well as an opportunity to allow students to develop a sense of agency in learning.

  8. 3/25/14
    This is fantastic data! I plan to share the link with the upper elementary teachers at my school. What I find most interesting is the fact that many of the novels on the list are novels that were required reading when I was in school. As the parent of a fourth grader, I see a disconnect between life today and life in many of the listed novels. There would have to be a large amount of pre-teaching in some cases to help students understand the backstory in a few of these novels. I understand that many of these novels are considered classics, but I wonder how many students could follow the story line of To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, without a history lesson on life in the 1950’s. Having said that, I also worry when I see that teachers are jumping in to teaching new releases like The Hunger Games and Divergent. What is the end result of such novel studies? Are we only trying to engage students and motivate them to read or are we also trying to introduce new genres to students? I am personally a fan of dystopian fiction, and am therefore drawn to these novels. However, the recent pop culture success of these novels makes me wonder if teachers are choosing these novels because they are “good literature” or because they are being made into movies. I also find it interesting that so many teachers (or school districts) choose the same novels. In the past, I have taught novels that integrate Science or Social Studies standards. Is this the reasoning behind Number the Stars or The Diary of Ann Frank? My personal and professional opinion is that teachers should be free to choose novels that speak to them and can also be used as a spring board for critical literacy opportunities. I dislike the idea of being told what novels to read with a class. I believe that giving students the opportunity to have a choice in novel selection would be motivational as well.

  9. I was really intrigued by the number of teachers that teach at least four novels/chapter books a year. I generally teach two novel studies a year (one fiction, one non-fiction). I would like to do more, but I feel very pressed for time. The implementation of Common Core has only added to my feeling of being pressed for time. Generally, I spend about 4 weeks on each novel/chapter books. I would love to know how the teachers that read at least four novels/chapter books a year fit it all in.

    I am also very thankful for the freedom that my administration allows me in choosing what we read. I cannot imagine being told that I had to read a specific novel with my students. I have found that passion comes from within, and when I am passionate about what I am teaching my students, they in-turn become more passionate in their learning. I also believe that I am the one who knows my students best, not someone sitting at the state department or county office. I know what book it going to be the best for them, not someone else.

  10. As an elementary school teacher, I can tell you not many of our students are involved in group reading a chapter book. Students individually pick them from the school library, and share them with classmates, but within the classroom and guided reading setting, students are not engaged in a novel. As your data suggests, it is important for a student to get enjoyment from the text and many teachers feel that is the main reason they choose a specific text. As students enjoy the text more, the quality of instruction and depth you are able to reach is much more significant for students. You make it very clear that many text choices are also either current ‘popular’ text or even old text that defines a clear topic and purpose. I personally enjoyed reading books like “The Watson’s go to Birmingham” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” with classmates because not only did it relate to what we were discussing in other content areas, but also it was rich discussion between classmates as we read through it. One area I think many teachers struggle is the way to teach novels. As we can see from the given responses, many teachers have different methodologies in order to get rich text in the hands of their students. I have seen and experienced literature circles which for me, seemed to benefit my learning more. Reading a portion, then discussing it and digging further into text has deepened my understanding of it. As your final comments suggest, we need to make a switch of teaching novels from something required to a passion teachers have for students to engage in rich text that allow them to get lost in the character and time of the book.

  11. I truly found this data on novel studies incredibly interesting. I was actually surprised at the number of teachers that chose books based solely on the student enjoyment. I admit that when I look for novels, I do take into consideration my students interests to a degree. However, I like to think that it is my job to expose my students to all types of genres. Like many things in life, when we get comfortable with something we generally want to stay in that comfort zone. I want to expose my children to genres that they may not necessarily choose so that they can make the decision about the genre on their own. I also try to find novels that integrate science and social studies standards, as well as novels that I can teach multiple standards or objectives to cover multiple subjects. I do like that they are trying to expose children to the latest books in stores today, however I believe they should also be exposing children to more classic literature as well. I feel that an abundance of multiple types of literature are needed to ensure our students have a well-rounded literature education.

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