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!


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

WholeClassChoiceOnlySurvey.jpgOops! I’ve got to start by apologizing. I initiated this series and then took an end-of-the-school-year blogging hiatus.  You all know how quickly April turns into June in the classroom, so I appreciate your understanding of the whirlwind that is third trimester.

Like I said back in my last post, I want this community to expand the conversation about both whole-class novels and choice reading. We’ve got to ask stakeholders to “chill out” and just seek some balance. They’ve created this false dichotomy that has pushed the pendulum back and forth for too long.

The Trend

Unfortunately, I think it’s—dare I say—“trendy” to only  talk about choice reading right now. Whether this pendulum-swinging trend is caused by something extreme, like some reactionary protests to the CCSS, or it’s a heck of a lot less melodramatic, like maybe it just feels good (and easy) to only talk about choice, we have to step back and get real. Most teachers and students value some whole-class novels when they’re done right, and they value some autonomy when it’s supported appropriately.

Please don’t take this argument as me bashing those voices that are calling for more choice reading. Not only am I a fan and a disciple of those voices, but I am one of them!

The thing is, somehow the concept of “Whole-Class Novels vs. Choice-Only Reading” has turned into yet another needless battle in education. These omnipresent false dichotomies weigh on us as educators. They weaken our collaboration within our departments and schools by turning us into philosophical competitors. (Hhhmm… Sounds a lot like our current political landscape! And seriously, who needs any more partisanship right now?)

Let’s all just take a deep breath and admit that complex issues beg for balance.

Big News?

You may have heard recently that Kelly Gallagher, one of my favorite literacy gurus, made big news at the International Reading Association’s 2014 conference when he announced his shift from a 50/50 approach to a 25/75 approach with less whole-class shared texts and more independent choice reading.

I would have LOVED to have been in New Orleans this year to hear him speak more about this shift, but—while I anxiously wait for his next book whenever that happens to be released—I have to say that I don’t think we need a magic number declaring the right balance for every classroom and every student. I doubt that Gallagher would falsely hold out some “promise of a simple, ‘magic bullet’ solution to the literacy failure of millions of children” [1], but it certainly feels that way.

Especially if, like me, most teachers and administrators only got to follow along with the #IRA14 hashtag and were left to interpret  Gallagher’s big 25/75 announcement rather than hear how he made this decision for his specific students. Unfortunately, like so much of the other research and anecdotal evidence out there, there are already ELA decision-makers waving this magic number over all teachers and all kids.

Survey Says?

Now that the school year is over (for most of you), I want to step back and hear what’s happening in YOUR classrooms and schools. Take a minute to fill out the survey below. Share it with your teacher friends and colleagues, so we can get a broad perspective of what balance looks like across our schools.

Thanks for your participation as we continue this conversation!


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.

Tip for Sparking Conversation on Reading: Table Topic Cards

If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to spark conversation in your classroom around books, I love using Table Topics Cubes: Book Club Edition.  These people seriously should start paying me for all the times I’ve recommended them or given them as teacher gifts.

Whether it’s choice reading or a shared class novels, these cards work wonders for igniting informal book chats.  You can make either a slight investment of either your time—in creating question cards on your own—or with your school funds—however insufficient they might be to purchase the cards yourself.


Sometimes I have my students pick up a couple cards as they’re transitioning out of silent reading.  From there, we slide in to an informal book chat  with our small groups or writing prompt discussing our individual choice reading books.


If we’re sharing a whole class novel at that time, I have the students pick up a couple cards to use as “back up” during our whole-class/small-group discussions.  I always ask that the students come prepared with questions from the reading; however, we keep these back-ups as an arsenal in case someone else already asked our question and we need to keep the convo moving.