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. 

This post was originally published on my Education Week blog, Teaching For the Whole Story on April 5, 2017. 

In a recent post, I discussed the debate around whether to teach whole-class novels.  In the field, this conversation can get quite polarized.

Many prominent educators make strong arguments for abandoning the practice of whole-class novel studies completely. Their criticisms of whole class novels are convincing, yet their conclusions are narrow. In some circles, the practice has reached taboo status, to the point that some teachers feel worried about sharing their views if they don't align completely.  I find this worrisome; professional debate is important and teaching is complex and nuanced. Though I have strong views about pedagogy myself, I recognize there are multiple ways to teach effectively.

On the other side, teachers defend the value of whole-class novels studies, but many do so without seriously addressing the criticisms coming from advocates of choice reading.  This feeds the polarization of the debate by playing into a stereotype of defenders of whole-class novels simply being attached to old-school educational models, sticking to what they know, rather than trying new things.

Of course, many would also agree with me that we shouldn't be limited to this either/or scenario, and that as a profession we can do better than a decades old stalemate. I believe we must revolutionize, not drop, the whole class novel.  

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The five strategies below are steps toward that end.  Trying any number of these will have a posi-ive impact on teaching and learning, but I should add that they are meant to work together in concert.  I share the method and supporting practices in much more detail in my book, Whole Novels For the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach.


1. Build a culture of independent reading.  

It may seem counterintuitive, but a thriving culture of independent reading directly leads to stronger participation and outcomes in whole class novel studies. If reading books isn't an active part of your students' day-to-day experiences, they bring that lack of experience to the novel you hope they will read with the class. I think this is one of the reasons teachers tend to over-teach whole class novels, and students tend to "under-read" them. Conversely, if students regularly read, they bring those habits to a book the class reads together—similarly to adult readers who join book clubs. Additionally, by being a part of students' independent reading lives, we gain crucial information about students' reading interests, habits, and skills; with this information, we can more thoughtfully select novels for our groups and better support individual students to read them.

2. Select a developmentally meaningful novel

Selecting a novel for an entire class of students is no simple task.  Though students have varying interests, experiences and reading levels, one thing teachers can be fairly certain they have in common is their age or developmental stage, because of the way most schools are structured.  And this is a great entry point for a book choice, because we also tend to be interested in stories that help us sort through major developmental issues. For example, 7th graders tend to be concerned with negotiating with power dynamics within their peer groups, and 8th graders are beginning to understand the concept of a society and critique structures and traditions within it.  If the book deals with a theme that will interact with the big questions students are grappling with as they grow up the world—and also passes muster as a title with literary merit—every reader in the room will gain from the story experience.

Using development to guide novel selections will likely rule out some of the classic texts often associated with a given grade level and readily available in the book room. That's just the kind of revolution we need. 

    • For profiles on each age group, try this book by David Elkind or this one by Chip Woods.
    • For thinking through whole class text selections, check out this tool.
    • Check out this post by fellow Ed Week blogger, Christina Torres, with her take on the value of whole class novels, and how she chooses for her class.

3. Let students read the entire book before pushing for analysis

This probably sounds like a tall order, and perhaps it is, but consider this: novels are works of art. Imagine being asked to analyze the corner of a painting without having seen the whole painting. Imagine that the person asking you to do so has seen the whole painting and keeps asking questions that hint at the meaning, which only becomes clear when you have seen the whole picture.  That would be rather silly.  It makes much more sense to see the whole picture (ie. read whole story), and then go back and look closely at pieces of it, now with the whole in mind. That is what I mean by a whole novel approach.

Here are some tips for making this shift:

    • Make a pacing calendar, with a reasonable amount of pages for your students to read each day.  (Depending on my group and the density of the particular text, I've gone with 10-25 pages.)
    • Make sure every student has a copy of the book. Provide class time for reading, and require students to finish the day's reading at home.
    • Allow students to read ahead (get the whole picture faster!), using the calendar as a minimum.  For those who finish early, reading time is still reading time. I offer a number of choices for their continued reading. 
    • Avoid leading students' reading with your questions, which are informed by your whole-picture understanding.  Focus on supporting students to access the text and enter the world of the story for themselves.
    • I teach students to annotate the text with sticky notes as they read. My goal is to get them to pay attention to their own thoughts and articulate them.  My rationale is that this is a habit many adult readers use authentically when a text is thought-provoking or challenging, and it can be applied to any text, rather than teaching students to become dependent on my questions.
    • Create small group activities that position students to engage with one another to build comprehension and read more deeply. There are many creative possibilities. Here are two:

 4. Offer differentiated supports for students as they read

Some students will be comfortable reading mostly independently. Others will benefit from reading aloud with a partner, or conferring frequently with a partner. I offer all students access to audiobooks, and for those who need it most, it makes a huge difference.  Finally, I do some teacher-facilitated small group reading and processing aloud together (either me or a co-teacher).  When we "process aloud," we are focusing mostly on figuring out what is happening, and sharing questions or reactions, rather than analyzing.  Teacher and author Pernille Ripp (who generally advocates for students self-selecting reading materials) has written this thoughtful piece suggesting that multiple ways to access a whole class text is a small idea that makes a big difference. 

5. Let students drive the content of discussions, analysis, and writing pieces.

Once students have completed the book (ideally by the due date on the calendar—I know what you are going to ask... and that will have to wait for another post), I bring students together for seminar-style discussions.  I like to do this with half of the class, while the other half works on a creative writing assignment.

In whole-novel discussions, I do not create discussion questions. I don't even ask students to generate discussion questions, though I don't have any issue with that.  Instead, I ask every student to say something about the book to start the discussion. After everyone has spoken once, the discussion is open.  Questions and debates emerge, which creates authentic purpose for turning back to the text for close reading.

I maintain a role of facilitator. I type notes on everything that is said, which I give to students afterward as a record. I prompt students to turn back to the text, for evidence or to reread sections for a deeper understanding. I try to create opportunities for quieter students to speak, and for students to continually dig deeper into the questions they raise. 

We do this for three days. Yes, all in all, it takes six days for both halves of the class to complete their three discussion sessions. 

After talking through so much of the book, students develop critical interpretations of themes, critiques of the author's craft, and other compelling ideas. They are ready to write.  We create essay questions (not predetermined by me) based on the big ideas and questions that came up in discussions. The notes become a huge resource, and students are highly motivated to put their ideas and arguments onto the paper in a convincing way.  The community discussions help them to formulate ideas that matter to them. 


I could go on and on (which I why I had to write a book on this). For now, I'll say that a community of learners is a powerful resource, and literature is a powerful art.  Bringing these two elements together around a single book is a joyful and humbling experience, one that expands my students' own reading lives and prepares them for the expectations of college level work. I am eager to have more conversations about how and why we make the choices we do in whole class novel studies.

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.