Whole-Class Novels vs. Choice-Only Reading: Part One

Teachers know that most adolescents lack motivation to read, both academically and recreationally, yet we can see how crucial it is for students to develop reading interest and stamina in order to become competent readers and flourishing adults.

As a kid, like most of you, whole-class novels built up the entirety of my ELA curriculum; however, there was (and still is) a huge push across the last decade or so for more independent choice reading. Yet as with most things in education, with that push, it’s obvious that there has been an even more recent reactionary, theoretical pendulum swing back towards more rigorous, shared texts, inspired by the CCSS or otherwise.

Unfortunately, when districts try to operate from these competing and drastically swinging philosophies, this further inhibits adolescents from becoming life-long readers.

It’s frustrating—I’m saying this in the most mild-mannered sense, because trust me when I say that some days I’m beyond frustrated—because there is some much literature out there that presents competing and often misunderstood theoretical perspectives.

If you’re reading this blog, than you’re probably just like me, a self-proclaimed, literacy professional literature junkie. You love studying the craft and working to foster adolescent literacy.  You’ve read everything from Rosenblatt, Krashen, Allington, Beers & Probst, Lesesne, Schmoker, Fisher & Frey, Gallagher, Allen, Burke, Harvey & Goudvis, Keene, Marzano, Kittle, Newkirk, Routman, Smith, Tovani, Miller, and on and on and on. You’ve read it all.

The thing is these texts should work to inform our knowledge of adolescent literacy and thus impact our classrooms. Instead stakeholders (other teachers, coaches, administrators, parents, publishers, politicians, etc.) take these sometimes competing philosophies and—rather than take what these researchers have to say and find a balanced approach—use them to make drastic, one-sided decisions that have long-term impact on students.

Sadly, this dispute of philosophy begins to ignore the canon of research and slip slides its way into the classroom, appearing as very heated English department debates, Twitter battles, and blog rants (maybe a bit feisty like this one!) that call for either more rigor that whole-class novels provide or bemoan the disparity of voluminous reading that only choice novels can offer.  Teachers question whether novels should be shared as a whole-class texts or if students should freely chose novels according to their own interests and plans for growth, when instead these stakeholders should be discussing ways to find balance between them.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I want to expand the conversation about whole-class novels and choice-only reading. I’m going to do my best in this blog series to share and translate the vast body of research on both “sides” of this debate.

In a dispute that has very loud voices on either end,  it may be unpopular to ask stakeholders to “chill out” and just seek some balance, but I encourage you to share the research you’ve read and experiences you’ve collected in your own classroom.

There’s no need for the literacy pendulum to keep swinging when there is still so much work for us to do.

I look forward to engaging with you in this important goal. Either respond here in the comments section or tag me on Twitter (@B10LovesBooks) using the hashtag #seekbalance. Thank you.

11 thoughts on “Whole-Class Novels vs. Choice-Only Reading: Part One

  1. This is burning bush material. I love it. Keep it up, Erica. In the words of a dusty old “classic” my students enjoy each year, “hang up philosophy.” The most frightening thing to me about this debate is that a vast majority of the discussers confuse philosophy with research, and they also confuse theory with practice.

    Here’s to your post and the conversations it will start amongst people who are tired of the nonsensical philosophy wars. Sorry Friar, but Romeo was right. Hang it up.

    • Stu, you’re so right. It is such muddy water of philosophy and research mixing together with theory and practice!

      Like that burning bush, teachers get fired up about their own philosophies and theories, trying to ignite others with their same passion; but instead, they get consumed by those beliefs and ignore the best-practice research methods.

      Thanks for getting the convo rollin’ by tossing out the wise and valuable words of one of those “lousy” whole-class books. 😉

  2. Awesome post that addresses not just the “self-proclaimed, literacy professional literature junkie” but a much larger body of educators. Far too often, education in general follows the swinging pendulum just as you said. Problem is, a swinging pendulum is only swinging because it was first placed out of balance and is thus forced to try and return to a balanced state, but over-swings instead.

    The same type of movement has happened in the mathematics domain also (for instance, the Back to Basics movement or the original publication of the Core Plus materials).

    Take your graphic, insert any two competing philosophies at top and bottom and enlarge “Seek Balance” and I think you have a winner.

    • Yes! Painter, thank you for highlighting that this issue goes far beyond the realm of literacy. You’re totally right! It extends across education into other content areas and —Gasp! Dare I say— originates into politics. Teachers certainly don’t need to be learning dance moves from those pendulum-swinging partisans.

      I want to hear more about this false dichotomy in math and what you rational math educators are doing to seek balance. We all can learn from and with each other. Even if this particular post is framed around the notion of books, I really appreciate you jumping into the conversation with a broader perspective.

      You rock, my friend! 🙂

  3. I totally second all of these emotions. What we really need are year-long and unit plans that will help us put this balance into practice. Unless there’s a plan to allot time for each, one is going to suffer. Maybe we can shift the conversation from “whether” to “how”.

    At my school, we have a 25 minute period just for choice reading– formerly called “Independent Reading” and now called “College Prep”. This frees up our Reading I and English I classes to focus on whole-class texts, close reading, argument, and the like. However, not all schools will have the flexibility to allow this in the schedule. Also, given the spotty engagement, I’m not sure we’ve done our part to continuously and thoroughly invest our kids in the joy they should be feeling during that choice reading time.

    What are other people trying?

    • Lynsay, what a cool concept your school is trying with the 25 minute reading period! Is it supposed to be a straight-up, SSR period for all students across the school?

      I imagine that depending on the teacher and the access to choice-reading books (i.e. varying classroom libraries) this could either be a genuinely powerful reading block for students or just another homework/texting/playing-Clash-of-Clans-under-the-desk free period.

      Seven years ago, we tried to have an end-of-the-day “seminar” period for students to receive time for tutoring, homework, or recreational reading; however, it fell to the wayside when not all teachers were engaged in the research behind it. Unfortunately, a few teachers allowed their own conflicting philosophies about best literacy practices and at-risk interventions to ultimately undermine the system.

      In terms of this specific debate, I love how you make the call for balance by creating year-long plans. Like you, I’ve also seen the scale tip too heavy in either direction. That’s why it is so important, as we’re building the scope and sequence of our curriculum, to include both whole-class and choice reading.

      Thanks so much for your wise insight, Lynsay! 🙂

  4. Excellent thoughts Erica! It is interesting how much of a debate reading can cause for educators. Sometimes one is even looked at as being sub-par if they don’t land on the right side. I have a respected colleague tell me classes should never read whole class novels anymore and that I was doing a disservice to kids by doing it. I look forward to reading in this series what others are thinking. I am currently on our district’s materials adoption for Language Arts and I am sure this discussion will be prevalent.

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