This post was first published on March 23, 2016 at SmartBlog on Education in collaboration with Center For Teaching Quality. 

As a beginning teacher, my response to the state test vacillated between righteous defiance of the inauthentic and sometimes cruel measures of my students’ learning -- and a rushed, somewhat desperate attempt to help diverse learners face the realities of the exam that was coming whether we liked it or not. Years later, I’ve worked through some of the noise around standardized testing. I’ve come to a few realizations that allow me to essentially stay true to my principles as an educator without sending students into a high-stakes situation unprepared. I still can’t endorse these tests as especially worthwhile measures of student learning, but I’m happy to share the compromise I’ve made in an imperfect situation:

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Realization 1: Voracious readers do better on standardized tests. Consistently, my students who score well on the state tests read a ton. They read for pleasure, and they read what they want to read -- even if that means plowing through title after title in fantasy series after fantasy series. Though their reading interests are a little myopic, their vocabularies and reading stamina are strong. Put an obscure, lengthy article in front of these readers, and they tackle it without much difficulty. Research confirms that voluntary reading correlates strongly with academic achievement -- and this is one factor that holds true across socioeconomic status. This is one place where my goals as an English teacher and standardized measures of student achievement are not so much at odds.

What to do: Don’t drop pleasure reading during testing season! Throughout the year, I devote plenty of class time to my students’ independent reading, whether they are reading self-selected materials or we are in a whole class novel or other common text. When it’s time to prepare more explicitly for the test, the last thing I want is for students to become disconnected from their regular practice of reading. So, amid claims that there’s no time for pleasure reading “because of the test,” I remind myself that yes, there is, and it may be the most important thing we can do to impact student achievement. With multiple priorities, I’ll preserve at least the first 10 minutes of class for independent reading. It’s also a nice time to encourage content area teachers to provide more reading opportunities for students in their classes, thereby increasing students’ overall “time in text” throughout a day.

Realization 2: Answering multiple choice questions is not a reading skill. Reading is an interactive process, involving a unique reader experiencing, responding and interpreting a text in a specific time and place. I work hard all year to help students understand that there are multiple valid interpretations of a text, and their relative strength depends on how we support and explain our viewpoints. This is rigorous real-world work that literary critics, lawyers, and scientists do to communicate their thinking. Choosing from among four answers presented by an outsider with no explanation is not reflective of an authentic reading process. While reading is a necessary skill for answering text-based multiple choice questions, we measure something else with these question types, especially when they go beyond literal comprehension.

What to do: Teach multiple choice strategies distinct from reading strategies. I remember my mentor, Madeleine Ray, saying, “Don’t send children to battle with no weapons or training” [even if we are opposed to war]. Just be clear with students about what they are preparing to do. Avoid language like, “Good readers read all four answer choices carefully.” This is a strategy of good test takers -- and the difference matters for kids. We don’t want students who are developing their love of reading to confuse the difficulty of test questions with their abilities as readers.

In multiple choice -- especially on new Common Core tests -- there is nearly always more than one answer that responds to the question with some accuracy; students must select the one with the most or best evidence. Simply choosing an answer that they believe is “true” based on their initial reading results in about a 50% chance of selecting correctly. The key is the thought process we engage in to methodically weigh each answer against the other choices, using evidence from the text. Here is a tool I developed to help students practice this, first in pairs, then independently. More than specific test reading strategies, this process has dramatically helped my students respond to test questions.

These realizations don’t encompass a complete approach to preparing for the exam, and there are still many factors beyond our control that affect students’ ability to show their learning on standardized tests. Overall, though, I’ve come to trust that developing authentic reading and writing habits throughout the year serves students better on the test and in life than anything else. I can still give those finite skills that are specific to standardized exams their moment, without letting them take over my students’ education.


An oldie but goodie: This post was first published in on March 30, 2011 at On the Shoulders of Giants hosted by Center For Teaching Quality. 

Today I "caught" a student who I would characterize as a reluctant reader reading the walls of my classroom to another student, who has also struggled a lot with reading this year. Mind you, they were both supposed to be doing a different assignment at their tables. While one part of me was about to redirect them both, I realized that this was a great moment I had no interest in interrupting. They were reading together out of a genuine interest for the information on the walls. Voluntary reading—the best kind. 

What was on the walls? Students have been studying the history of the English language, how words get their meanings and how they change across time and place. It has been fascinating. One night for homework, I asked them to research their own names. Where do their names come from? What do they originally mean? How did they get their names? What do their names mean to them?

The written responses shared with one another in class were wonderful. They beautifully reflected the diversity of the students and shared something special about each of them. From a linguistics standpoint, it was illuminating to see the myriad ways that people arrive at names for their children, where these names come from, and what they mean. These stories echoed the word etymologies students had been studying in class at the same time.

Finding the two boys reading the walls was a great reminder that, for every student, there is a way to voluntary reading. Sometimes the wall is the perfect medium for repackaging something from class—especially student voices—to reach more students. Sometimes the timing is just right for reading and the wall is a way to catch a child on a whim and create flexible opportunities for reading. Finally, this reminded me that, though it takes time to update classroom bulletin boards, it is so worthwhile.    


Paul Stoddard, a 6th grade ELA teacher in Las Vegas, Nevada, contacted me with the wonderful story of his first year implementing a whole novels studies in his classroom. With only three years of teaching experience, he's accomplished an impressive amount with his students, and he's taken the time to reflect on it and share it all with us here! His message to other teachers? "Just try it!" Stay tuned for the next part of Paul's story, in which he describes some of the struggles he encountered in subsequent novel studies and how he responded. ~Ariel

Paul Stoddard, 6th grade ELA teacher, Las Vegas, Nevada

I think that the whole novels approach is one of the greatest ideas to come into my teaching life, and I hope to spread the news. I think that with all the structures in place in this method, and an individual teacher's own ingenuity, it is possible to have deeper experiences with whole class novels than I ever thought possible. The truth is that the books and the students themselves discover what is important, because the authors and their magnificent use of language make it impossible not to happen.


After finding Whole Novels For the Whole Class by Ariel Sacks at the teacher and curriculum library of my university, UNLV, I fell in love with the book. Not only did it contain theory and ideology that made the approach appealing to me, but more importantly, it had the day-to-day, practical and specific details that any practicing teacher desires (and needs). Aftre reading it, I was ready to implement and jump into the whole novels approach right away, and throughout my study, I had a guidebook to turn back to. With Ariel Sacks as my mentor (through her book), and my students as my inspiration, I was ready to start alone and unassisted, and confident my students would enjoy this.

Chapter 1: The beginning- The first page

Last year, my students were 6th graders, and it was my second-year teaching. I worked in an arts-integration based school where the Kennedy Center and arts-integration were considered the philosophical lights to guide the school. However much that ideal may or may not have been met on a daily basis, I wished for my students to read more whole-class novels in a student-centered way, in which they could experience and appreciate the art of the story. I worked in a suburban charter school in Las Vegas, Nevada, a rapidly growing area, which had experienced dramatic economic fluctuations over the last 5-10 years. This was an area in the southwest part of the valley filled with foreclosed homes and brand new homes. It was beginning to recover, and the parents were lining up to get into the arts-integration charter school, and to escape the “failing” school district (CCSD).

I was about one-quarter into my second year when I introduced the concept to the students and parents. Although the school adopted a prescribed curriculum, Springboard, we had considerable freedom to adapt and alter it for the students’ needs. The school has a variety of ability levels, and in one class I had students with college-reading levels all the way down to 2nd grade reading levels.

I prefaced with e-mail in which I communicated to families a message along the lines of, “By the way, I have decided we would read more books this year; one is not enough anymore! Please purchase the following books for your student.” I also told the students, “I expect you can do more, so we will!” The students showed the positive attitudes that I was certain would help on this journey.

It all started with introduction to the first novel we read, The Witches by Roald Dahl.  The welcome letter and first chapter read-aloud had students excited to begin reading and my class was full of sticky notes right away. We did the model lesson on three-types of thinking (described in Chapter 3 of Whole Novels For the Whole Class) by using Ashputtle, the original Cinderella story, as I wrote down student responses on the board. We classified them as Literal, inferential and Critical a few days later. The reading schedule was a great way to keep students on track. They were reading, I was conferencing with them, and everything seemed off to an awesome start.

Below is the welcome letter I gave to students along with the books: (adapted from Whole Novels For the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach, 2014)

Dear 6th Graders,

Welcome to your 1st whole class novel study of the year!

I am very excited to lead you as you begin this journey! The first day of our journey starts now. You will read The Witches, by Roald Dahl. It is organized into chapters and features illustrations by Quentin Blake. This book has been a favorite of thousands of young readers since before I was born. This is no ordinary fairy tale; it is a story about REAL witches! You will read an adventure that involves many extraordinary events.

You will need all the following, which we will go over today:

·      A copy of the Novel

·      A Schedule and reading guide

·      Sticky Notes

Expectations: We will read in class nearly every day for about 30 minutes and for homework. You are always responsible for keeping up with the schedule and writing at least four sticky notes for each night of reading. (This applies even if you are absent or there is no class or a substitute teacher.) Keep the books in good condition, and bring your book to class every day!

After the book is finished, we will begin true, real discussions just like we did when I read Ashputtle to the class. Bring your honest reactions, responses, reflections and questions about the story. I look forward to the interesting conversations!

You can do this- little by little, bit by bit. :)

Your teacher,

 Mr. Stoddard


During the novel study, I supplemented the book in the following ways:

·      I broke students into differentiated groups and assigned a mini-project on character that is directly from Whole Novels For the Whole Class (see pages 224-225). I think this helped students make sense of the characters in the story.

·      We also did dramatic enactment strategies as this is a big part of the school-- integrating English and theatre is a major factor in my teaching. About half way through the novel, I had students act out the scenes that they wished to in small-groups.  Then I had the observers say which scene was taking place and give an oral summary the scene back to the performing group.

·      Finally, I also had students perform tableau scenes from the witches following the same process as I did for the scenes acted out above.

·      We also watched the film version of the book which has a different ending then the book itself.

·      Some students partner-read in order to support each other, and others received pullout sessions with the Special Education teacher going over their sticky notes and reading the book together.

On the first day of the discussion circle, I was excited, nervous and thrilled all at the same time. I recorded the thoughts on a laptop and the students discussed in half-circle groups while the other half worked on the short fiction writing scenes. The students surprised me with their deep understanding of the book.

On the 2nd or third day, after prompting from me to go back to the text, we ended up discussing why the author did a couple things the students brought up. First, why did he drag out this one scene in the middle for so long when it was not very exciting?  Second, there was so much debate about the ending. After we figured out what actually took place, which took much questioning on my part to return to the text, they debated why the author ended the book the way he did, and where the author went wrong with this. Students discussed how they would have ended the book, and this was a direct lead in to the fiction writing assignment to continue the ending or rewrite a scene.

After reading and discussing the book, we did a newscast activity where the students created “News From Mr. Stoddard’s Class” presentations in the form of news reporters. This was a big hit with the students!

Stay tuned for Chapter 2 about Walk Two Moons, in which I reach my first hurdle.  



Hello and happy Friday!

I'm writing to let you know some exciting news: I have begun a new blogging adventure, called Teaching For the Whole Story, hosted by Education Week. There, I will write about many aspects of education (as I have done at On the Shoulders of Giants), but I will be focusing especially on issues and practices related to the teaching of reading and writing.  

So far, I have two posts:

In the first one, Why I'm Teaching For the Whole Story, I try to apply the whole novels concept to life beyond literature and explain what I mean by teaching for the whole story. It's a post that was not easy to write and took me back to some pieces of my own history that led me to teach. 

This week, in Helping Students Toward Reading More Complex Students Independently: No More Training Wheels!, I tried to answer the question of how we should approach teaching students to read complex texts independently, since there is so much pressure to increase the Lexile levels in our text selections. I find some answers to this question in a story involving bicycles. 

I hope you'll check these out! I will continue to post updates here about all things whole novels, and more.  



AuthorAriel Sacks