10 Techniques to Teach Whole Class Novels

A MiddleWeb Blog


I believe in teaching the READER, not the READING.

In this post, I want to share some of the principles and practices for teaching whole-class novels that I’ve developed and that help me translate my belief into action.

There’s no perfect way to do this. These are teaching-hardened techniques that work in my classroom. I hope you’ll share your own thoughts and ideas in the comments. This could be a good summer chat.

A few of my earlier posts that connect here include Whole Novels or Choice Reading? Or Both? and also Resolved: Amp Up the New Year!

1. I use whole-class novels as a community building and learning experience. Not as a means to formally assess students. Because we read the book together, we have a touchstone to refer back to in future class sessions. Not every student loves every book we read, but they all experience growth and gain some appreciation for the author’s writing ability.

Wonder-cvr-298hWhat’s more, it makes me happy as a teacher that nearly all of my students have read Wonder in elementary school, and will read To Kill a Mockingbird later in middle school. There are some texts that have such deep meanings that I consider an education without experiencing them incomplete.

In my mind, this is no different from my colleagues in other disciplines providing foundational knowledge in the periodic table, the quadratic formula, or the Civil War as a starting point for digging deeper into their subject. These novels are worth reading because they can lead to so much more.

2. I want my students to read like writers. So we use our study of the text to explore the writer’s craft. I start from the foundation that every sentence in a novel has a purpose and was deliberately included. We talk about WHY the author may have written what he/she has and HOW they have structured the novel to achieve their desired goals. We appreciate their use of the language and try to emulate our favorite parts.

3. I want to honor their adolescent attention span. I have a short attention span, too, which greatly benefits my middle school students. I do not spend any more than 3 weeks on a novel. What’s more, we only read one novel per marking period together.

This means that in my current situation of teaching 6th grade in trimesters, we have three community reads during each period, for a total of 9 to 10 weeks. This leaves plenty of time for other activities. I find this time investment reasonable because 75% of the school year is left for choice reading and writing activities.

4. I provide lots of “framing” for the text. This can be historical context, current examples of the theme in the world, the author’s background, and “topic floods” (providing students with multiple bits of information related to key topics of the novel) to eliminate possible barriers to understanding.

Often students will say they don’t like a book they read on their own, but that is because they don’t always understand what is going on. To illustrate, when I taught The Outsiders to eight graders, they could absolutely relate to adolescents struggling to find their place in society and they only needed a little background knowledge about the time period to be fully invested in the novel.

ties that bindI now teach sixth-grade all-girls classes, and we read a wonderful novel by Lensey Namioka entitled Ties That Bind, Ties That Break about a young girl in pre-revolutionary China who refuses to have her feet bound and the consequences she faces as a result.

This leads to rich conversation about unrealistic standards of beauty, going against family traditions, and acting on your convictions. All of these are invaluable when educating future female leaders. By the end of the year when we read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, their profound discussions about racism and its legacy are deeply moving and worthwhile.

5. I choose a book that is at the reading level of the majority of my students. But that book is also an engaging work of literary merit such as a Newbery honor/award book. For those for whom my chosen text is a bit of a stretch, I incorporate many scaffolding and support techniques including audio books, partner reads, read aloud, and parent involvement to ensure they can access the material.

Conversely, I disagree that those students who are not challenged by the book’s reading level are getting less out of it. For me, rigor is the depth of thought involved in the process and not the decoding of the words on the page.

Most of what we do is open-ended, and my students take the discussions to incredibly insightful levels. Even those children who did not quite understand what they read eagerly contribute to the discussion because they are interested in the concepts.

roll of thunder6. I gradually release responsibility as the year goes on. In my class, for the first novel, students lead the discussion of each chunk of text based on Notice and Note signposts they have found.

For the second novel, we focus on a couple of signposts, the chunks of text are larger, and students bring in their own questions to ask of peers. During the third novel of the year, students read the entire novel first and are then grouped in Book Clubs to allow for more discussion time.

7. I allow students to read ahead. The proviso is: they do not give “spoilers” during the discussion. They have been very good about honoring this policy. If we get partway through the book and they just could not wait to finish (as often happens), I will allow them the time to work in a small group to discuss things that happened after the chapters the rest are discussing. Or I chat with them individually after class with what they are bursting to talk about.

8. I find a literacy focus and learning target for reading. Students can’t hit a bullseye if they don’t know the target. For me, the magic bullet in making sure all students can explore and appreciate the novel in depth has been incorporating Beers and Probst’s Notice and Note into the mix.

I cannot say enough about how much I adore their book, and I have written several posts on my personal blog about it. Ariel Sacks uses three levels of questioning: literal, inferential, and critical. Chris Lehman and Kate Robert write about Lens, Patterns, and Understanding in Falling in Love with Close Reading.

It doesn’t matter which method you use to help your students to understand and appreciate the text. They all have merit. However, you will notice that none of these authors advocates the use of study guides, comprehension questions at the end of the every chapter, memorization of vocabulary words out of context, and endless worksheets. You don’t want to bury your students under a blizzard of worksheets.

walk two moons9. I incorporate writing assignments and active experiences. Both tie into the book and complement the text. For example, we read Walk Two Moons, and there is a chapter where the mother explores the importance and origin of her name. We then read “My Name” by Sandra Cisneros and “Isn’t My Name Magical” by James Berry, and they write their own creative piece about their name.

You will note that these are not what Donalyn Miller calls “Language arts and crafts.” No dioramas, no character drawings, no book jackets, no travel brochures. I use authentic, meaningful, relevant writing experiences to draw them deeper into the text as well as allow for personal connections to be made.

10. I grade almost nothing during this time. At the end, there is a reflective writing piece as well as some kind of literary analysis writing, but students are ready for this based on the rich discussions they have experienced.

There’s no perfect way

There is no perfect system for teaching everything we need to teach in the limited amount of time we are given. But this way of teaching whole-class novels allows me to achieve my teaching objectives without killing the novels and/or monopolizing the entire school year with these experiences.

In the years I have been teaching novels this way instead of as a nine-week worksheet, I have come to love talking about books with my students. I hope you experience book love in your classroom too.

Cheryl Mizerny

Cheryl Mizerny (@cherylteaches) is a veteran educator with 25 years experience – most at the middle school level. She began her career in special education, became a teacher consultant and adjunct professor of Educational Psychology, and currently teaches 6th grade English in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Cheryl writes about student motivation and engagement at The Accidental English Teacher. Read more of her MiddleWeb articles here and here.

23 Responses

  1. Mary Langer Thompson says:

    I love your suggestions and have one more to add. Find a real author in your community and have them come in and talk with kids about how the publishing world is changing, their process of writing, or anything else the class wants to know.

  2. Great suggestion and I agree wholeheartedly! This year, we had Nathan Hale and Andrew Clements (the uncle of one of my colleagues!!!) come. Next year, I am hoping to have a new author, Kristin Lenz, who happens to be the mother of one of my former students who is just publishing her first MG novel. Author visits are the best.

  3. Miriam says:

    This is great! I do something similar to this with my classes.

  4. Mark Condon says:

    These are great! I kept expecting to see you using the Subtext Strategy, in which students select a character in the book, jot down what the character is thinking (not feeling, that comes naturally from thinking) and then discuss the book from that character’s point of view. It is guaranteed to generate heightened engagement and deeper thinking. You can find several versions of it for fiction, non-fiction and composition via Google.

  5. Susan Smith says:

    Solid, terrific ideas, but having taught 8th grade for 30+ years, I object to the lack of ‘literature arts and crafts’ in your piece. Art and craft activity in association with the rigor you describe, offered the needed differentiation of instruction for some students in my classes to allow them to walk away from their literary experience with an often unspoken depth to their reading, but also love of literature that only the arts can bring.

    • Susan, I completely agree with you that artistic experiences in association with a novel can be valuable and rigorous. (In fact, I am a former art and special education teacher, so I use numerous artistic activities in class.) I was using “arts and crafts” to represent those activities that do not meet the criteria of being valuable or rigorous. If they are delving deeper into their reading in an artistic way, that is definitely useful. Often, that is not the case. Building a diorama of the setting or making a bookmark of the cover is not nearly as valuable as, for example, an artistic representation of the setting with captions explaining the impact of the setting on that event, a bookmark with a symbol representing the main character with a justification of why it was chosen, or determining a soundtrack with a song associated with each chapter. I apologize if that was not clear in my article. By all means–we should incorporate artistic projects that involve critical thinking versus those that are artistic busywork. I am a huge believer in choice of expression and a love of the arts. I think we are on the same page with that.

  6. Caitlin says:

    This was so helpful. I have just finished reading The Book Whisperer, and while I am very much a supporter of choice in books and independent reading, I couldn’t quite give up the whole class novel. Your idea of just spending less time on class novels and shifting the focus really hit home. Thanks again!

  7. June says:

    I really liked the points you’ve made. I am new to a middle school with units that include three week novel studies, and I was a bit concerned that it might be too overwhelming. How much time do you spend in class reading the novel? Are the students responsible for any reading at home? Thanks!

  8. Stormy says:

    I am trying to foster a love for reading, and I want my students to read more, but teaching skills has been the core of my curriculum, Leaving me only enough time to get 3 novels read. I only have 50 minute classes. Advice on how I can get more reading in?

  9. Nada says:

    Hi, I just have a quick question. Is the actual reading done in class or do you assign the reading to be done at home? Or both? What percentage of a text would you say in read at home? Thanks

  10. Debbie Hall says:

    Thank you for suggestions and making the reader and the reading the focus. Your post has a real and natural approach to working with those lovable 6th graders!

  11. Bobteach7 says:

    I’m in the middle of teaching a novel with a study guide. The kids hate it. I hate it. I want to teach it in ways mentioned above. Is it too late for me to trash the study guide or do I have to slog through it?

  12. Cheryl Henneman Mizerny says:

    I would say feel free to move on from it. You will be less frustrated and I am sure the kids will appreciate it as well.

  13. Maria says:

    Do you pause the reading to teach strategies such as cause/effect, compare/contrast etc. ?

  14. Heather says:

    Are there other articles that show us how to teach like this?

  15. Emily says:

    I have seen several people ask, but have not seen an answer to: What portion of the text do you have students read outside of class? I do not have enough books for students to take them home and even in the classes where I do have enough, students DO NOT read at home! So if I assign it, they don’t do it and can’t contribute to the analysis work in class. Because all the reading is done in class, we are moving very slowly and I am concerned that it is taking too much time to get through the novels I am now teaching.

    • Cheryl Mizerny says:

      In my current situation, my students each have their own copy of the novel so they do the bulk of their reading either during the first ten minutes of my class, during their study hall, or at home. I also encourage the use of audiobooks at home for readers who struggle. It is very difficult to get through a whole novel as a class in less than a month if all of the reading is done in class. There is no easy answer to that question. When I was in that situation in the past, I used audiobooks in class as well as read some of the text aloud myself. I know that some teachers skip chapters, but I would rather lengthen the timeline rather than skip chapters. Also, I used shorter novels such as The Giver and The Outsiders when we read in class. Finally, you could always alternate reading the novel one day with a skill or workshop lesson on another. It does take longer if all reading is done in class, but I feel it is still worth it.

  16. John says:

    Stunning. I love what I just learned from you. You have also reminded me of several valuable keys on my “keyring” that I have recently neglected to use. Thank you for sharing your fire! (I’m looking forward to finding and reading more of your posts.)

  17. Amy O'Connell says:

    Wonderful insight. I struggle with pacing with class novels. Going to ditch the comprehension questions for upcoming 8th grade study of “The Outsiders”

  18. Britnrery says:

    Its not the reading part its how the questions are worded!!! Try HARD I GUESS

  19. Katie says:

    How do the students “lead the discussion” of their reading? My classes use Notice & Notes: the kids share their N&N, and then I add mine. I feel like I’m too in charge of it all.

    [Regarding #6: I gradually release responsibility as the year goes on. In my class, for the first novel, students lead the discussion of each chunk of text based on Notice and Note signposts they have found.]

    • Cheryl Mizerny says:

      Hi Katie, I usually just ask my students what signposts they found and then ask them the corresponding question. I also ask them if they found anything else they want to discuss (and they often have). Then, if they missed something consider important, I add it to the mix. My favorite thing is when they come up with something I haven’t.

  20. Ntswaki says:

    I like the analogy of a journey in teaching a novel.

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