In October 2018, I wrote about my decision not to teach the whole class novel. I had read a book over Summer 2018 about giving students time to read what they want to read, and expecting them to do it, and how great their reading would improve, and for a bonus, they would actually enjoy reading. As an English teacher it sounds amazing. They have time to read in class and every student is reading something he or she wants, and they’re hooked, right? There would be no whining about having to read this boring book with everyone. Kids wouldn’t be done and waiting for others to catch up. It sounded amazing, but I had doubts.

The Problems With Independent Reading In 10th Grade

Fairly quickly I could see who struggled to read. All of my students are literate, but I know that I have a few who are significantly below grade level. Those students never really gave reading a chance. They knew that they weren’t very good, and no matter what they read, they were reminded that they couldn’t read very well. They had a big obstacle to overcome and it wasn’t worth it.

Students could still fake their reading checks. It takes great imagination to make up characters, plot, and setting, but it can be done. However, the students who were overly vague knew that they had been caught.

It took several students months of sitting there with a book and hating, it before they found a book that they connected with. Once they found that book though, they looked forward to that reading time and often begged for more.

For some reason, students think that they have reflexes fast enough to switch from their texting app to the book that they are “reading”. It’s annoying knowing that they think they’re getting away with something.

The students who love to read don’t put their books down.

The Benefits of Independent Reading In 10th Grade

The students who like to read, read more and enjoy reading more. The students who are already reading a wide variety of books continue to read a wide variety, and even recommend books to me.

Students have reported seeing vocabulary words we have worked on in school, in their personal reading.

In the end not all students love to read. Even some of the well-organized, intellectual students didn’t enjoy the time that they had to read. I would like to think that their writing has improved, though. I’ll watch that next year.

Conclusion

I’m sold. I would much rather recommend certain students read the books we would have read in class together, and let other students discover which books they connect with. They might not know what they like to read, but with time, they can discover it. Students need a break from their every day stress and other classes. Reading can be a form of relaxation, entertainment, or connection to someone or somewhere else. They recognize those connections, too. They recognize when they relate to the main character. They recognize when they connect with a person in non-fiction. They make connections to what is happening in the world around them. Most of all, they realize that they’re not the only one struggling. They understand that everyone has problems, and that we should be a little more sensitive and understanding when someone is having a bad day.

Hopefully they see that in their day-to-day lives, not just when they’re reading.

I still taught Macbeth whole class, but we watched it more than we read it, and now we’re writing about it. That’s different, right?

What I don’t understand, is how some call Macbeth boring.

If you teach ELA to any age group, I’d like to know what you think about whole class novel instruction. Do you enjoy it? Do you wish you could do something else?

Let me know.

Read on!

-Dave

I think about reading all of the time. I try to think of ways to encourage my students to read more. I spent the first few years of my teaching career teaching whole class novels probably like every other ELA teacher. I was excited to share Bilbo’s journey through Mirkwood. I took a risk by singing the dwarves’ story about the Misty Mountains. I like making kids uncomfortable, ok? I love comparing Bilbo’s choices and character growth to our lives, and I like to think the kids in 8th grade got it.

When I think about the whole process in a big picture sort of way, I can see why so many kids start to despise reading. We start the chapter, then stop to ask questions. Then they get a worksheet or vocabulary, then we finish the chapter. It doesn’t flow. I don’t read that way, and you probably don’t either.

Too often when we read a whole novel together as a class, we ask students questions that they probably aren’t capable of answering yet. Most of them haven’t read all the way through The Hobbit (the movie doesn’t count!). How do they know if he’s a hero yet, or not? They don’t understand the history of the Tooks and Bagginses, and how that personal baggage has an impact on Bilbo’s decisions from The Last Homely House to Smaug’s Lonely Mountain. They barely even notice how regularly he whines about wanting to be home by his fire with a nice cup of tea.

What are we to do, then? Do we really need to pack every kid at every imaginable reading level along for the ride? Not if we’re going to stop and analyze every plot point and every characters action. We’ve lost them before we’ve begun.

I had a great conversation with a friend one recent Saturday. She talked of an experience she had in a high school English class. The teacher tried something for the first time that year. He had the class read The Old Man and the Sea all the way through before beginning to close read and ask questions. No extra assignments for comprehension. They just read. Then they came back and started the book again. But now with an understanding of who’s who, and where they are. She talked about how she actually understood the plot, and character motive, and the big picture of what the story is really about. That is amazing to me!

This is my first year teaching at a high school. I teach sophomores, and I’m trying something new. I get the feeling that they understand what they read better than when they were in 7th and 8th grade. Hopefully that’s true, they’ve been practicing for a few years. I don’t know exactly how I will do it, but I have until January to figure that out. We will be reading Macbeth, and I want to give them access to the characters and story all the way through once before I start to ask the why’s, who’s, when’s and what-if’s. I want them to understand the puns, and how the phrases turn. I want them to appreciate some aspect of Shakespeare’s genius. Sure we’ll read it twice, and at least watch a version of it once, but I’m hoping they love it like we expect everyone to love Shakespeare. Does watching one of Shakespeare’s plays count as reading? Is that cheating?

I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for every possible trick to help my students succeed with and love Shakespeare.

Donalyn Miller has a point. If they’re reading ability or reading enjoyment doesn’t improve, then why are we making them read?

Keep reading!

-Dave