Whole-Class Novels vs. Choice-Only Reading: Part Three & Infographic

Responses to the “Whole-Class vs. Choice-Only Reading” survey are still rolling in. Thanks for all your help! If you haven’t responded or shared the survey yet, please do so. Even if you feel like your literacy approach is restricted based on the pressure of your department, district, or state standards, we’d love to have your voice included in the survey.

Interestingly—but rather unsurprisingly—when it comes to this “debate,” most of you B10LovesBooks readers find value in both sharing whole-class novels and promoting choice-reading. Theses voices calling for some balance—whatever our specific ratio might be for our classes—need to be present in the larger literacy community. 


I want to share some of the research on using both types of texts, but for now, it comes down to these big ideas:


1. Choice Reading encourages students to develop personal reader identities.

If a student can learn what types of texts he loves to read independently, the likelihood that he will develop long-term independent reading habits is so much greater than if he wasn’t provided any choice. Who we are as readers defines us beyond our years in school, so we need to help students understand this aspect of their individual development. From genre and topics to habits and unique choices, students need to figure out what they love and how they read best. This self-discovery not only helps them truly identify themselves, but it also invites an awareness to areas where can grow and might need support. 

2. Choice Reading encourages students to improve their stamina and fluency.

As with any passion that we’re developing, we need time to practice before we can be expected to do it with any ease or endurance. Malcolm Gladwell says that we need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert; therefore, to help our students’ stamina and fluency grow in the long-term, we need to get them reading as much as possible. My students and I always talk about developing these literacy skills within an analogy of marathon training. I can’t just expect to just show up ready to run the 26.2 with all the other racers without putting in miles and miles of training on my own, nor can I push myself as a runner to do hill sprints every day and think that rigor alone will prepare me for the big race or make want to even continue running when it’s all over.  In terms of this analogy, I don’t even need to get into the danger of skipping hills altogether for the sake of only doing “fun runs,” because, by now, even if you don’t follow #runteacherrun, you get the idea. 

3. Choice Reading encourages students to practice independent habits.

As adult readers, we know what it’s like be in the flow: to look up after we’ve read that last page, with tears still in our eyes, and notice that time has totally flown past us. As adult readers, we’ve developed habits independent of others in order to maintain (or at least attempt to control) our love of reading. Young readers are still learning how to manage their time, make plans for reading, engage in conversations with others, and find books on their own. Choice reading helps students develop these habits in the safe space of our classroom yet without the full on, high support of a shared text. 

4. Whole-Class books support students as they build a shared intellectual experience.

 When a learning community shares a text, they come together to share not just the plot and theme but a common, social experience.  With their unique skills and individual backgrounds, students can build a rich conversation and deep collective thinking that will move the community beyond the state of just a singular understanding to “Ah ha! I never thought about it that way!” Together, students and teachers can model their thinking and strategy use for one another all while navigating complexity within their larger, collective expertise. 

5. Whole-Class books support students meet the expectations of cultural literacy.

Outside of school, students will encounter all kinds of allusions to literature and references to informational texts. Already, in this post, I mentioned ideas from Gladwell’s Outliers. Now, if you’ve read this book yourself, you understand my reference on deeper level than those who haven’t yet it (Go and read! Seriously, see how geeked my kids were about it.) When we are in “the know” of cultural literacy, we can build deeper and wiser connections to each other and our world. Now, whether we share with our students texts that are “classics,” popular best-sellers, or otherwise, our students will have a richer, more fulfilling life if they are able to engage in conversations with others about the universal truths found in our society’s most valued books. Teachers can’t fool themselves and say that students will choose to read or understand these respected texts on their own. We need to share many of these important pieces with them in preparation for the rigors of college, career, and life beyond. 

6. Whole-Class books support students practice sustained engagement.

Within the Reader’s Bill of Rights, among other things, we have the freedom to abandon choice books. This is a liberty to celebrate certainly, but we all worry about that one student who doesn’t stick with a book long enough to maintain any real commitment. She floats from Sarah Dessen to Elizabeth Scott and Susane Colasanti and so on without reading more than 50 pages. She does this, because she doesn’t  have any the individual skills or teacher support that compels her to see it through to the end. In the same way, when teachers only share passages or excerpts of larger texts with their students, they remove opportunities to practice extended comprehension skills and examine fully developed literary craftsmanship. When we share whole-class texts with our students, together, we can focus on the content and examine the development of characters and craft over time.

7. Seeking balance supports students acquire character and non-cognitive skills.

If you’ve read any of my other posts in the last year, you know that I believe we need to help students develop their character and mindset in order to “promote long-term flourishing.” From the grit that it takes for my students to tackle Outliers in the fall to the self-control they need everyday (Lord, help them!) to cast aside their cell phones and delve into their choice books, we can use both choice reading and whole-class novels to present practice opportunities—or imaginary rehearsals—for students that go beyond literacy.

8. Seeking balance supports students broaden and deepen text exposure.

When we challenge our students with open-ended opportunities of choice reading, they can dig deeply into genres, authors, and topics of passion. Take Tristan for example: his “required genres” were all neatly colored in across the bottom of his Reading Invitation chart, but his haphazardly filled in Sci-Fi column towered up and over the backside of the paper, like a doomed Tetris game facing the end. At the same time though, I could help Tristan broaden what he thought was his only territory for reading by supporting him with whole-class texts. When we join our experiences around one shared piece, students are exposed again to genres, authors, and topics that they may not have consider alone but are willing to dive in with a strong community of readers.  

9. Seeking balance supports students learn with and from stronger readers.

In the world of disciplinary literacy,  all teachers must recognize that they are the best readers in the room, precisely because of our various subject backgrounds. As an ELA teacher, I cannot teach my sophomores to read a Bio lab report as well as their science teacher can. In the same way, I cannot expect to be the only “reading teacher” in my classroom. There becomes many expert readers in a class that has balanced approach of choice reading and whole-class novels. Yes, I can support my students understand craft and historical relevancy like no one else in the room,but I can’t do what many of my students can for one another: only Erich can speak widely with Austin about which WWII book more accurately describes the B-52 bombers, and Jaspar and Chaz are they only ones who can share how Columbine shifted their perspectives on mental health, and Gabby and Jakob could lead hour long lectures about the mythology allusions across Rick Riordan’s collection work. It when we come together and move apart on our own that our students can really flourish.

As I said, I want to break down each of these points further and connect you with some of the great research that supports these points, but I’m going to take a break from this series in order to share some work from my literacy roadtrip this week. So, if you’re new to B10LovesBooks and have found your way here thanks to nErD Camp or the Michigan Reading Association summer conference, welcome!


7 thoughts on “Whole-Class Novels vs. Choice-Only Reading: Part Three & Infographic

  1. Okay, so this morning I sat down with this post again with a fresh cup of coffee, and E, I am excited. Your thinking is exciting (can’t wait to read more), and your writing is gripping (those analogies! Tetris!). You’ve got all my gears turning here — this is the kind of thinking we need to see. It seems to me that, if ELA classrooms in particular can adopt this kind of approach, and if we can help our content-area colleagues out with simpler, clearer explanations of quality literacy instruction in their classrooms, then we will be on a track to kids having a coherent, literacy-rich school day.

    Question for you, E, because it’s been on my mind lately. How should choice reading shift and change as students progress from K-12? Allington, who (correct me if I am wrong) seems to write / speak mostly about the elementary level, talks a lot about choice, but even still his writing leaves room for teacher-selected texts. I guess my question is, by the time kids reach 6th or 7th grade, to me they are approaching post-secondary life — it is clearly on the horizon. When high school comes, it’s right there in front of them, and when they hit 11th and 12th grades, the only logical, long-term-flourishing-minded approach seems to be to significantly bridge to the demands post-secondary life will present them with.

    My thinking is sooooo rough draft here, but I guess I’m just wondering what you think about how the balance changes (if it even does) during a child’s K-12 progression.

    Sorry to thought-vom on you. 🙂

  2. Of course I agree with your passion for choices in reading, Erica. You know that.

    I think the balance question is new for many high school teachers, so many are still developing their thinking around it. New understandings are helping all of us think about our work as teachers of readers, not books. We should all continue to challenge our own thinking and revise our teaching in response. As Don Graves said in an important essay, “The Enemy is Orthodoxy.” When we become too enamored with our own practices, we’re in trouble. The way to combat it: listen to your students.

    In response to Dave: We have made the mistake in the past of looking at high school students as developed readers when many are still developing as readers or have become dormant, disengaged readers, so they need Allington’s understandings as well as all researchers (Krashen, Wilhelm, etc. etc.) who write about the teaching of reading. I’ve seen this same thinking happen with writing workshop–a model first used to move college writers. It is about differentiating teaching, not grade level specific research.

    My brother-in-law (Peter Kittle, Chico State University) and I have been talking this week about the frustration college professors feel at the lack of preparation students have for the literacy expectations in college. Students do not have the stamina for the volume of reading expected in college and they cannot independently develop and organize their thinking. We can and must change that.

    Engagement and independence… the only things that really matter in the end to me. Doesn’t matter which grade level, which ‘reading level’… if students aren’t engaged in reading, nothing important happens with that reading. In the end, if students don’t become empowered and independent, we have failed them.

  3. Wish I’d remembered Louise Rosenblatt when I wrote the above. If you don’t know Making Meaning with Texts–a collection of articles from 1936-1999–do read them. She researched high school readers with conclusions that echo exactly what we see today.

  4. I agree that HS teachers need to have Allington’s/Krashen’s/Wilhelm’s/etc etc’s understandings about reading that we might help developing and dormant/disengaged readers. We owe those kids just as much as we owe the kids who are on or ahead of pace for readiness.

    Totally get and respect and agree with that — however, it doesn’t address my concern.

    My concern lies in the fact that while high schoolers may be similar to elementary kids in terms of where they are / what they need as readers, they are dissimilar to them in one critical way: immediacy. Unlike elementary students, HSers have much less space between them and postecondary and/or career literacy demands. Should our approach not change significantly in light of this? I know we can create wonderful reading/writing workshops at the high school level, and that these may very well produce the engagement and independence that I, with you, find of critical importance.

    I would argue, though, that if students become empowered and independent but lack a developed understanding of and ability to grapple with postsecondary / career literacy demands, they are likely to be frustrated beyond their capacity to overcome. I believe a big part of my paycheck comes from helping kids engage with that challenge and develop independence in meeting it.

    So how do we adjust HS literacy instruction in light not just of where kids are at as readers, but where they are at in life (that is, very close to graduation)? Differentiation doesn’t seem to answer this question of immediacy.

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