Like many secondary English/language arts teachers, I strive for a balance of whole-class texts—including novels and other genres—and allowing students the choice of what to read. The interplay between these two kinds of reading experiences, I believe, propels my students forward. 

The backdrop for my quest for balance is a fairly longstanding and fractious debate among English and literacy educators about whether choice reading or whole-class novels should be the dominant format for student reading in school. 

Strict adherents to a "reading workshop" model believe it’s counterproductive to force students to read an entire novel they didn’t choose and that won’t be at an appropriate reading level for every single person. On the other side of the spectrum, there are teachers who believe that they are best equipped to choose worthwhile literature for students to read, and to lead them through that process. 

By now, though, a body of research shows a strong relationship between voluntary reading, at school or at home, and academic achievement. Voluntary reading is a strong predictor of reading achievement and correlates to increased brain and language development. A wealth of resources is available to support teachers of any grade level to facilitate choice reading in their classrooms.

At the same time, pedagogy around whole-class novels is evolving. My book, Whole Novels For the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach, as well as 180 Days, by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle, and Kate Roberts' A Novel Approach, all provide detail on how whole-class novel studies can be reimagined: Let go of some of the control traditionally exercised by teachers, and select texts that connect meaningfully to students’ lives, rather than sticking to classics.

In my classroom, the distinctions between whole-novel studies and choice-reading cycles have actually become less clear than they once were. I celebrate this, because I think it reflects that reading is happening in an organic, continuous way. This continuity of practice builds strong readers who internalize the habit of reading, carrying it well beyond 8th grade.

Building Reading Momentum

Carmen, for example, started 8th grade "behind grade level" and vocal about her lack of interest in reading. 

In late September, we launched our first whole-novel study. The book was American Street, a poignant and gripping story of immigration, and we had the wonderful opportunity to meet author Ibi Zoboi after we read it. The story caught Carmen’s interest. "This is actually good," she said with surprise. 

Carmen read the book mostly in class—sometimes listening to the audio recording through an app on her phone and sometimes reading with a small group. (I offer audio support to all students during whole-novel studies, and we have audio-recordings for most book club and additional texts. Students read along as they listen.) She only completed some of the required sticky note annotations, but she finished reading in time to enter formal discussions with the rest of the class, and brought to that experience her authentic responses to the story. 

Next we went right into a whole-novel study of The House On Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Carmen and Abigail, her friend and classmate, discovered that they loved reading this book aloud to one another and writing their notes together after each vignette. The two made a good team and met their deadline. Like a lot of students, Carmen enjoyed Cisneros’ poetic language and many of the vignettes, but she was frustrated with how much the book jumped around without a clear narrative. The whole-class discussions at the end of the reading were crucial in helping students construct an understanding of what the book as a whole conveyed. 

Then we began a choice-reading cycle. For the next week, Carmen and Abigail could be found all over the school reading aloud back and forth in The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. Carmen connected strongly to this book. She loved the free verse poetic narrative, and this was her first time reading a protagonist who, like herself, is Dominican American. About 200 pages into the book, December break arrived. Carmen finished the last 100 or so pages on her own at home. 

When we launched our third novel study after break, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Carmen surprised me. She started reading it by herself, and chose not to use the audiobook. Abigail joined a small reading group led by my co-teacher, and Carmen continued solo. She finished the book a week ahead of schedule. Her annotations revealed an authentic conversation with the book as she read, peppered with ideas on themes and conflicts, elements we had studied in class. I was impressed. 

Carmen has developed a love of reading and stronger muscles to engage with texts, thanks to the chance to read books of her choosing by diverse authors, and the social experience of reading and discussing interesting novels with her peers. If she hadn’t read and loved American Street with the class, and pushed herself to read House on Mango Street carefully with Abigail, I doubt she would have devoured The Poet X as avidly as she did. Reading The Poet X helped her develop confidence and drive to take on The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian independently. 

Three Practices to Promote Engagement and Equity

Aside from the rich variety of diverse, developmentally meaningful books I’m able to offer my students, these practices support my integration of whole-class novels and choice reading: 

Make reading a continuous thread. I set a routine of daily reading, which is consistent regardless of the unit we are in—the structure can be used for whole novels, choice reading, and often both simultaneously. 

I allot between 10 and 30 minutes for reading, generally at the start of class, and much of our other work is anchored in this core practice. My goal is that meaningful reading happens daily, and we never drop this thread. 

Hold no one back. When the class studies a novel together, I create a pacing calendar. However, students don’t need to stick to the schedule, and many comfortably finish reading more quickly. After that, I have additional books that connect to the class novel waiting for them. However, the choice of what to read next is really theirs. 

Some students juggle two books—once they meet the daily page requirement for the study book, they transition to reading their choice book. The study book is in the priority position, and we focus as a community on the style and themes of that text, but a lot of choice reading is happening as well.

Offer choice in how students access the reading. Many readers use audio-recordings when the whole-class novel or other selection is beyond their independent comfort level. This allows a range of readers to come together around a powerful, relevant novel, and it also helps struggling readers gain valuable listening experience. Providing the choice to everyone sends a message that being read to is inherently valuable and minimizes stigma students might experience for needing help. 

I imagine our reading as a maze of intersecting pathways; some we travel as a community, and others we forge as individuals and small groups. Choice reading and whole-novel studies feed one other in an additive process that keeps students engaged and moving forward.

This article was first published on April 16, 2019 at Education Week Teacher.

One of my goals this year is to share more materials and ideas from my classroom here. Today’s share is a very simple process for looking at one scene in a novel that works really well, allowing stretching students to stretch in their zones of proximal development. Equally nice is that they are fun to read. 

Alicia Hunter, 8th grade English teacher, Berea, Kentucky

Alicia Hunter, 8th grade English teacher, Berea, Kentucky

I first met Alicia Hunter on Twitter.  She told me she'd read Whole Novels for the Whole Class and was really enjoying implementing the approach in her classroom. Not only that, but she was experimenting with allowing students to choose the novels they would study together. This something I've dabbled in at times, but never gone full force. It's always a question people ask me--"If you're so student-centered, why don't students choose the whole novels?" Although I have my reasons for selecting texts the way I do, I've wondered what would happen if I gave that over to students. Now I might just give it a real try-- Alicia's example is terrific and inspiring!  Another neat thing about Alicia is that not only does she teach 8th grade English, but she is also the principal of her school! I'm thrilled that she's shared her whole novel story with us.  ~Ariel

Alicia Hunter is the founding principal of Farristown Middle School in Madison County, Berea, Kentucky.  She taught high school English for fifteen years and has been an administrator for seven years. In 2013-2014, she taught 8th grade English. She lives in Berea with her husband and two teenage daughters. You can find her on Twitter @Hunter_FTMS

Blending Whole Novel Studies and Student Choice 

By Alicia Hunter

As my eighth grade English Language Arts class finished Stargirl, students created service projects. During our Whole Novel-inspired end discussion, students kept circling back to the idea that our school needed a Stargirl. They started asking questions that began with could we…, how can we…, would it be ok if… Their excitement was contagious, and I knew many of our school’s students would benefit from their ideas and their enthusiasm alike. They had already tackled big ideas like bullying, nonconformity, and isolationism. So I asked them, “How can you bring Stargirl to Farristown? What do our students, what does our community need?”

The students immediately started brainstorming ideas. Several wanted to mentor younger students…they wanted to share their experience, pass along the “tricks of the trade.” They wanted to help with homework, social skills, and life in general so younger students would be prepared for 8th grade. Others wanted to just start “service projects.” They wanted to pick up trash around the school, and start a recycling bin in the cafeteria; they even talked about planting gardens for elderly people in our community. We worked on these projects and were ready to implement them.

Giving Up More Control in the Next Novel Study

It didn’t take long before our Whole Novel discussion of Stargirl moved into questions about our next unit of study. Early in the year, I had taught my students that writers always have more than one project going at a time, so we are constantly multi-tasking. Some asked if they could read Love, Stargirl…the next book. One student asked me, “Would it be possible for us to read different books, Mrs. Hunter? You know, choose our own books?”

I said, “So you want multiple books going on at once?” As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I knew I was opening a door I had to walk through. So many things were going through my head: I have suggested this process to many teachers over the years, I have read about this idea, I have watched teachers use this approach, but I have never successfully implemented it. Yes, I have used Literature Circles, but I never felt like students engaged with the reading and formed communities of readers in the ways I hoped they would. I never had a group that I could really turn loose with it.

So after I thought for a few minutes, I swallowed hard and said, “Yes, of course you can choose your own book. Why not?” Then the fear hit me. I had relinquished control.

Making Choices and Framing the Study

Our school is fortunate to have a bookroom organized by Lexile. When students chose books, I encouraged them to choose from a certain area. I wanted students to enjoy, but also wanted them to be challenged a bit. Stargirl was not a challenge by Lexile, but by content. For students to choose their own books, we looked up book trailers, read the backs of books, used our LMS, and students recommended books to each other. Students checked books out from the library, purchased their own, downloaded them, and borrowed them from friends. Students made surprising, liberating, choices. Hatchet, a book many teachers use to get boys interested, was chosen by a group of girls. The Fault in Our Stars was the choice of a group eager to read it before the movie came out. Students were so excited to read that a few of the groups huddled together and began reading while a couple other groups negotiated between several books, carefully weighing their options. I helped by encouraging them to decide which book they wanted to read this time, and that they’d have other chances to read more.

The Farristown faculty worked through Shirley Clarke’s Active Learning through Formative Assessment this year, and with this in mind I talked with the students about what makes a successful book group. I have struggling readers as well as advanced readers, but they all worked together to determine the success criteria for reading groups. Every student had a voice, and students thrilled me by settling on the following criteria:

  •  Groups must have 3-4 members, so everyone can be totally involved
  • Everyone must be interested in the book and ask questions as we go
  • Get along with others; be respectful and take time to help others
  • Meet deadlines
  • You can’t not read

We established a deadline, an end date on which we would share end products, and each group set its own reading schedule. Some groups decided it was important to read more during the week and not on weekends (though they had to decide whether Friday was a weekday or weekend), while others spread the reading evenly to include the weekend. No matter how they structured them, the schedules came to me looking a lot like the one I gave them for Stargirl. Students had internalized the effective pacing I had tried to model. Of course, my model was Ariel’s from Whole Novels. J

Some groups wanted to keep sticky notes, others decided to have try a variety of forms of note taking. During class, I provided some time for reading, other time for activities like those outlined in Whole Novels. I told students on which days we would discuss characters, conflict, and other topics that would be appropriate as they began reading, and they factored those into their scheduling too – not only did they set aside time for class-wide conversations, they also made sure to prepare in their groups for topics they knew would be coming, holding each other accountable for close reading and productive critical thinking.

Familiar with the CCSS, students heeded my warnings to read with our learning targets in mind. I started each class with mini-lessons on language, character analysis, and theme that included excerpts from one of the novels students were reading. We discovered how, for example, Language standard 8.4a, using context to determine meaning of words and phrases, operated in a passage in one book, then students in other groups found similar examples in their books and shared those with the class. Doing so not only reinforced the learning target, it also had the added bonus of suggesting still other books students might want to read.

Letting Them Drive!

The month of our independent novel study flew by. Students were engaged in the reading; books had been well chosen. Group members reminded each other of the good-group-member success criteria we established from the beginning. The one point that frustrated most students involved reading ahead or not keeping up. But collaboration reigned: a group with a “struggling” reader almost wordlessly revised their schedule to build in discussion days just “to make sure we all know what’s going on in the book.” All students loved the freedom of being in charge of their schedule, their tasks and their end products. The group size and camaraderie made it possible for students to support each other in each endeavor.

The phrase most often directed at me during these weeks of novel study was, “Hey, Mrs. Hunter look at this.” Groups called me over to share in their discoveries, to celebrate their breakthroughs, and to support them in their learning process. Ultimately, the independence they gained, their knowledge that they could rely on themselves and each other, may prove to be the most valuable skill they will acquire. I’m glad I got to be a part of it.