The Whole-Class Novel: To Read Together or Not?

Recently, a post on the Notice and Note Book Club page generated lots of responses. This post asked for articles that would help support the position that teaching whole-class novels does not help students become better readers.

I was pleased to see several folks in this group jump in and mention Nancie Atwell’s strong commitment to choice reading; others mentioned the smart work from Donalyn Miller who also supports choice reading. A few mentioned the very important book Readicide by Kelly Gallagher. Obviously, some teachers are doing a lot of reading on this topic and have given it much thought.

There really isn’t a clear-cut, gold-standard answer because so many things interfere in the research that might answer this question. Primarily, answering this question means we all share the same vision of what it means to be a better reader. For some, “better” means more engaged. For others, it means one is able to read at a higher Lexile level. For even others, it means one is better able to support thoughts with evidence from the text. “Better” is in the eye of the beholder. So, the research study that compares how kids respond to interest surveys about reading when reading a whole-group novel versus kids reading self-selected books yields different findings than kids who are tested on something such as vocabulary development.

The study that I turn to over and over again was done a LONG time ago: the Coryell study. (This study as well as a more recent replication of this study can be accessed here.) At first glance, it appears that the Coryell study managed to look at both interest and comprehension. But what it was really measuring was AMOUNT of time spent reading a single book. It found that students who read one book for six weeks didn’t score any better on a comprehension test over that book than students who read that same book in a shorter amount of time and then went on to read other books that they chose. What did matter, though, was when asked about attitudes toward reading, kids who read more books in that six weeks had more positive attitudes toward reading than kids who only read one book. That’s worth remembering: intensive study of a single book negatively affected reading attitudes while extensive reading of many books positively affected reading attitudes. Both types of reading yielded similar scores on the same comprehension test.

Now, did the kids who only read one book have more negative attitudes toward reading because they didn’t like the book the teacher chose or didn’t like having to read the same book for so long or were just frustrated at not getting to choose which book they read together? We really don’t know. The best we can say is that the intensive reading of a single book did not result in a significantly higher score on a comprehension test over that one book than when compared with kids who read that same book in a shorter amount of time. It did, however, lower their attitudes toward reading. That’s critical.

So, where does this leave Bob (Probst) and me? We – as we have stated in Notice and Note and Reading Nonfiction – believe there is room for both whole class reading AND choice reading. We think the problem isn’t that we all read the same book; it’s that we expect kids to read it the same way. We all must be on chapter two at the same time; answer the same questions; have the same conversations. We suggest this “I’ll-tell-you-what-to-read-and-how-to-read-it” attitude is the problem. Just this morning, Bob and I both agreed to read Tony Wagner’s new book Most Likely to Succeed. Bob immediately downloaded it to his Kindle. I bought the print version. I’ll read it in the evenings, with a glass of wine. He’ll read it on an airplane with a Bloody Mary. I’ll read it in one or two sittings. He’ll digest smaller chunks. I’ll want to talk about it as I’m reading. He’ll prefer to wait until he’s done. He’ll mull over specific sentences, sometimes focusing on individual words as he wonders why this author chose this word and not that one. I’ll read first for bigger picture and then return to do that more leisurely mulling. (It’s amazing we get anything accomplished together.) My point: we’re a class (ok, it’s a small class) that has chosen to read the same book; but we will read it in different ways.

We think in-common reading in a classroom is important. It’s something that as adults we all enjoy doing – if not, Oprah’s book clubs wouldn’t be so wildly popular and folks wouldn’t join together to study Readicide, Amplify, Reading Ladders, Book Love, and maybe one of ours. We find community when we read books in common and we learn from one another. When I hear Penny Kittle or Teri Lesesne explain why something resonated in a book we’re reading at the same time, that changes my thinking. When Paul W. Hankins and Tara Smith offer a comment about a book I’m reading, I’m smarter. Reading together helps me grow in a way that I don’t grow when I read in isolation. Reading is a solitary act that has a strong social connection.

But reading in-common does not and should not mean reading the same way. We don’t need to crawl through a book at a snail’s pace. We don’t need to labor over every chapter, learn every new word, answer dozens of questions about each chapter. Two weeks to get through the reading and one week for conversations: more than enough. And did you notice that I said Bob and I decided together what we would read next? We’re having in-common reading but we still had choice. We choose what book to jointly read and we’ll each decide how to read it. What if we saw our classrooms as book groups and we let kids choose which one book they will read together this semester and which one book they will read together next semester? We think that even when having in-common reading we need to give kids choice as often as that’s possible. Give kids a short list from which they can choose and then set a date by which the book must be read. Accept that some will race through it; some will need to sit with you to move through it together; some might need to hear parts read aloud. If you are thinking “But the kids won’t read it unless I’m forcing them through it,” then it’s the wrong book to read. Read the same book that kids agree they want to read; don’t read it the same way.

Yes, some of you will say “But I don’t get a choice on what kids have to read so I can’t give them a choice.” If that’s the case, ask to visit with the person who established that policy and talk through the advantages of giving kids at least some ownership in choosing between two books or among three. I say talk to the person who established the policy because you can’t have a conversation with a policy. You can with a person. Don’t let an administrator or supervisor say, “but it’s the policy.” Policies were written by people. Get to the person and then you can have a conversation.

But build your program on kids having choice. Choice means voice. Sometimes that choice means I’m reading what no one else is reading. Other times it means I’m reading what I agreed to read with a small group. And sometimes it means I’ve joined the larger community called our classroom and together we’re reading one title. Not for six weeks or several months. And not all reading it the same way. But we all read; we all talk; and together, we learn from one another.

6 thoughts on “The Whole-Class Novel: To Read Together or Not?

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  5. It is so true that kids or adults alike do not read the same book the same way. I remember when I was in middle school and tried to read a thick novel, I always skimmed through it to see what happened in the end, many times skipping pages of descriptions of scenery especially if the description was a long paragraph. I wanted to see action, and to know what happened. While my sister who loves poetry would dwelled on any description of setting, digesting the sounds, mood and any colorful languages for hours. As teachers, we need to honor our students’ personality and learning style. In my opinion, inspiring the students to love reading through exposing them to all kinds of reading materials is our mission, so we can foster lifelong learners who will make their future and our future brighter, which is much more important than to have the students get high scores on a standardized test!

  6. I think there are many advantages to whole group reading with a class. I also think that students should be allowed to read what interests them. However, since we as educators spend our money on our classrooms, we lack the funds to secure the resources that would interest students. It is easier to use whole group, or basil, and much less expensive. It would be so nice if dIistricts could spend the money on the things really needed, rather than what is mandated by whoever. I think it is easy to use both to the students advantage in a classroom through a balanced approach.

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