Time to drop the whole-class novel?

It’s time to stop teaching one novel to the whole class, argues Pam Allyn on Ed Week.

Sam, a 12-year-old struggling reader, can enjoy Horton Hears a Who! but can’t decode or comprehend the class book, To Kill a Mockingbird.

He faked his way through it. Ashamed, he did whatever he could to distract the teacher and his fellow students from recognizing his struggle, from fooling around while everyone was reading to acting goofy when the teacher asked a question.

Instead of trying to teach the same novel or story from a basal reader to all students, teachers should let students choose reading that fits their interests and abilities, Allyn argues. Boys, in particular, would benefit from a wider choice of readings.

If a student has found 16 blogs about boats, let him read those in school. And maybe that student will follow one of those blogs to a newspaper series about a regatta, or to Dove, Robin Lee Graham’s personal account of sailing around the world as a teenager. In these ways, our students will be exposed to a wider variety of genres than the whole-class novel ever allowed, and they will be more compelled to think critically across genres, as the common-core standards will require of them.

. . . By reading a lot and reading every day, our students ingest. And the more they ingest, the faster and smoother they read. Stamina is vastly underrated. Reading DK Readers or Harry Potter or game manuals or a thousand mobile texts all help children learn to read longer, stronger, and faster.

If a teacher thinks it’s important for every student to read a certain book, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, read it aloud in class, Allyn suggests.

She seems to be designing the whole reading program for the kids who can’t read very well. Some won’t be passionate readers of anything. Is there a middle ground?

About Joanne


  1. In other words, rather than put Sam in a class with students of equal ability level, let’s dumb down the class for those who need it.

  2. dangermom says:

    You know, I don’t really think that To Kill a Mockingbird is a great choice for a class of 12yo’s. I’d think it would be better suited to, I don’t know, maybe 15+? There is a lot of great middle-grade literature out there, there’s no need to rush.

    Anyway. That is a dilemma. If some kids can’t read well enough to participate in a class novel, and you can’t track them, what do you do? Audio books might help. Would it work to have pairs or groups of kids each read a book and give a little presentation about it? My sophomore English teacher had us do that–some of us read “The Good Earth,” others “Fahrenheit 451” or other books, there was a whole list. You could then assign books according to reading level and probable interest, and the whole class would at least learn about the existence of several good books.

  3. tim-10-ber says:

    Put the kids in reading groups according to their ability. Stop slowing down the middle and high achieving kids for the sped kids!! Please! We always read some part of the book out loud in high school but we all read the same book. ‘

    When will educators stop dumbing down education for those that are on grade level or well ahead? When?

    There is no middle ground…sadly. Ability grouping is needed in all subjects…

  4. tim-10-ber says:

    ok…vent made…deep breath taken…better question what happened in the student’s schools so that he could fake his way through not being able to read? Do schools not use AR or some other instrument that enables a teacher to be able to determine the grade level at which a student reads? What I don’t understand is why teachers cannot teach kids to read. What has happened? I assuming it is directly related to parental involvement and how prepared children are when they start school. What else?

  5. What I don’t understand is why teachers cannot teach kids to read.

    You think their record was perfect in the past? It’s hard to teach reading to people who don’t pick it up. We just never bothered trying in previous generations, and they worked very hard to pick up what they could. Now we try to help them and they are less likely to try.

  6. palisadesk says:

    What I don’t understand is why teachers cannot teach kids to read. What has happened?

    Don’t get me started, I could write a book about this. But, some brief points:

    –there never was a Golden Age where every kid could read. However, in the past, more got put in “dumb” classes (sped or not), kept at home, or pushed/dropped out.

    — in my own district,we did better in the past addressing the problems of kids who entered school and showed signs of incipient reading failure than we do now. We offered special reading classes, in-school reading clinics, special programs for language development. Those were shown by longitudinal data to be highly effective, but all fell to budget cuts. Now we offer “accommodations” instead (meaning, we give kids ways to get around the fact they can’t read, instead of teaching them to read).. Very few kids get individualized help, and what they get is frequently not intensive enough to fix the problem (yes, the problem is often fixable).

    — the emphasis on “higher level thinking” has pushed basic skills like decoding, spelling and grammar to the back burner or even out the back door. However, data show that over 80% of poor readers in middle school and up have problems at the word level, often decoding problems. These issues impact their fluency and, necessarily, their comprehension. If reading is painful and aversive, students will do very little of it — a negative spiral.

    — full inclusion has limited teachers’ ability to provide intensive instruction to remedial students. Many kids won’t do “baby stuff” in front of their peers. We should not expect them to. They can be served in a pullout situation — if trained staff are available. These could be paraprofessionals, but they need a good grip on effective reading intervention.

    Poor reading in the early grades is rarely IQ related. Basic decoding and literal comprehension are within the reach of almost every student. Textual analysis and literary criticism, not so much. But it sounds like the student referred to in Joanne’s post has decoding issues, and those COULD be fixed. But it tikes time, staff, money and commitment. For some students, learning to read will be the most difficult task they ever face in school. What percent? We don’t really know, but 5% is a not-unreasonable hypothesis, with another 10% who need more explicit and sequential teaching than is generally provided.

    For a good book on what can be done and how, see Mary Damer and Bill Bursuck’s book, Reading Instruction for Children Who Are At-Risk or Who Have Disabilities (I think that’s the title) — very grounded, explicit and practical. Many research links.

  7. Mockingbird isn’t really a middle school book, but regardless — yes, there is a middle ground. You can mix whole-class novels with choice. I typically structure a choice assignment once per semester. For classics, there are lots of audio versions and abridged or “modernized” versions that bring the reading level way down (I do this usually with Great Expectations), etc. so the student can still keep up with class work (if he or she so chooses).

    In middle school, I’d tip the other way, though, and do mostly choice with maybe one or two whole class novels.

  8. If you kill whole-class instruction, you kill literature instruction. Why? Because literature instruction demands focus. You can spend an entire class session on a sonnet or the opening paragraphs of As I Lay Dying or The Mayor of Casterbridge–without beating the work to death or anywhere close. Students need this experience of slowing down, looking at details, reading passages multiple times, considering them from different angles. If everyone is reading different works, or even if groups within a classroom are reading different works, you can’t “dig in” to the same degree.

    Now, something is very wrong when, within the same class, some students are reading Horton Hears a Who! and others are reading To Kill a Mockingbird. Yes, indeed, this makes whole-class instruction a difficult undertaking. Why not pull out the struggling students and give them intensive remedial help?

    Another thing: there seems to be a bit too much emphasis on novels, and then, because of the sheer volume of reading, this ends up getting dumbed down to easy novels, which give fiction a bad name. There is much to be said for reading shorter works slowly and closely–poems, essays, stories, plays, speeches. Both the advanced readers and struggling readers can benefit from this, provided the disparity isn’t too great. I don’t mean that novels should be eliminated–but they need not be the mainstay of literature instruction.

  9. I do see a middle ground and it comes from a balanced literacy approach. I teach 4th Grade in Arizona.

    1. Self-Selected Reading. Students are given time in the day to chose their own reading – whatsoever it may be. Other than giving suggestions this is a teacher hands-off time where students can learn to love a book.

    2. Small Group Reading. Students are given a book by a teacher that may or may not be something the students would read. Asking their preference, and making the book you choose fit into that mold makes the children more likely to give it a change. (Example, my highest readers -who hated every other book we’d read that night- wanted an ‘adventure’ and ‘mystery’. I had a limited selection and wanted them to read Esperanza Rising). I painted it as full of danger and adventure and they gave it a try. By the third chapter they were pushing to read ahead and recommended it to anyone. I was able to do every ounce of real teaching and push these kids ahead by challenging them with high-level questions. For the lowest group we read How To Eat Fried Worms. They were entranced. The smaller chapters allowed me to teach the kids how to look for answers in the text and inject simple thought questions. All of the kids grew.

    3. Short individual/partner reads. Short 2-3 page stories ON GRADE LEVEL with questions or an assignment gives the students exposure to reading they wouldn’t try themselves (For girls non-fiction, for boys, more varied fiction). It also allows you to assess their growth and how you can fit writing into a deeply steeped reading curriculum as well as inject cross curricular ideas (science, social studies, etc.)

    4. Read Aloud. Reading aloud gives them the contact with larger more complex novels that the school and basal has time for. All students love being read to and a good read aloud captures their attention and teaches fluency.

  10. Jamie’s solution is not middle ground. It’s identical to Pam Allyn’s. Did she even read it?

    And of course, as is the case with Allyn, it’s designed to hide the fact that some kids can’t read.

    This is the dogma you get when people start pushing heterogeneous classrooms.

    “Why of course you can teach challenging material to everyone! You just hide most of it and fudge the difference.”

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    Vocabulary is a problem, but not necessarily the problem. Languages written in an alphabet, as opposed to ideographic languages, allow the reader to replicate the sound of the spoken word. This is good, as long as the reader knows the spoken word in question.
    TKAM was written decades ago, presuming vocabulary of an educated person, one who, moreover, knew something of the inter-war South. At what point, explaining what a word means and possibly some of the history of why it means that, and what we should get from that, do we lose both momentum in story-telling and time to complete the task?
    I have recommended Rosemary Sutcliff’s YA novels here before. I gave a set of three to some friends whose kids are brilliant, eight and eleventh grade science olympiad competitors, etc. I had to write a short history of Roman England, discuss the conventions Sutcliff uses–centurions as commissioned officers coming from old military families and others–and what that meant, etc.
    And that’s a YA. That’s better, since I had the time and I’m not teaching a class in the subject, than stopping every other paragraph.
    And vocabulary must first be spoken.
    Cultures vary, as Thomas Sowell said, and differences have consequences.

  12. Homeschooling Granny says:

    I get the impression that reading is being taught earlier and earlier. I could be wrong about this because I don’t see what is going on in classrooms but I fear the consequences if reading is taught too young. Children who aren’t ready may conclude that they are stupid, that reading is boring, or both. Some kids come to school with vastly inferior vocabularies than others. Inferior vocabulary and limited knowledge are huge barriers to reading.
    All children benefit from listening. Teachers talk and read. Kindergartens have play areas for dress up, sand and water, kitchen, and cars and trucks. Field trips to fire houses, town hall and parks or zoos. Build more vocabulary and knowledge with videos. Then when more students have had a chance to mature enough, teach reading at the end of first grade or in second grade.
    Of my own three children, one learned before school from Sesame St and The Electric Company, one learned in school on schedule, and one couldn’t learn until about age 11. Not reading was no excuse for not learning and that child’s elementary years were not wasted. Now that they are adults, I defy anyone to tell which was which.
    Perhaps those who think content doesn’t matter because one can always look it up have forgotten that one can learn without reading. So my question is whether we exacerbate the problem by pushing reading too early and neglect other avenues of learning?

  13. This should not be done like for the slow ones lets make the complete thing according to them!
    I am not making any kind of differences.
    There are many ways of getting solutions for that. I likes the idea of making groups.
    teaching kids to read may be a tough task for teachers but planning their teaching wisely can help them a lot!

  14. Deirdre Mundy says:

    In upper elem. school (5+6 grade) we usually had one whole-class novel a year. Both times, the highest group found it too easy (and had usually already read it years before on their own) and the lowest group needed help. (5th grade it was ‘student partners’ for Dear Mr. Henshaw. The best readers were paired with the worst readers, the average readers got each other. blech. For sixth grade, the lowest group listened to the book on tape for Wrinkle in Time while the rest of us ‘read’ it. (Or got in trouble for having ‘looked ahead in the book’ when we’d all read it before.)

    By 7th/8th grade whole class novels were the norm because English was heavily tracked. It seems like you can either have tracking and whole class novels, or a mixed ability class and ‘reading groups,’ but not both. Personally, I lean towards tracking and whole-class-novels in the upper grades.

  15. Cranberry says:

    It’s not time to stop teaching one novel to the whole class, it’s time to stop pretending that teachers can differentiate across huge spans in ability. When the writer states, In no way was this book a refuge for him, or an inspiration. It did not help him learn to read, nor did it help him to become a lifelong lover of text. And he was alienated and isolated from his peers. That’s not an argument to modify lesson plans for one student. It’s an argument to use that student’s time better. He should not have been placed in that class. If he must remain with the same class, could the school not use that time for pull-out, targeted reading instruction with a trained therapist?

    The gap between Esperanza Rising (750 Lexile measure, ages 9 to 14), and How to Eat Fried Worms (650 Lexile measure, ages 9 to 12), is much smaller than the gap between To Kill a Mockingbird (870 Lexile measure), and Horton Hears a Who (490 Lexile measure, ages 5 to 8).

    It is not fair to the rest of the class to deny them the opportunity to discuss a grade-level book. I have read teachers assert that “all students love read alouds.” Really? How do you know? Any ambitious student will know not to anger the teacher by telling her that it’s boring. The lazy student will appreciate time to look out the window. The student struggling with reading will appreciate not having to read.

  16. dangermom says:

    “I have read teachers assert that “all students love read alouds.” ”

    I hated them. But sure enough, I didn’t tell my teacher that!

  17. Reading novels aloud should be only for specific purposes:
    1. Introducing primary-grade (maybe even grades 4 and 5) children to great
    childrens’ books that they can’t read yet.
    2. Reading aloud selected passages to show students how the language works.
    3. Dramatic reading of plays and poetry (but the readers should be the students,
    not the teacher).

  18. Ability/preparation grouping across the board, even if that means across grades, in small schools. Each kid should be taught – and challenged – at their level and have a full period of teacher attention every period. Having kids bored or clueless is not educating either group. Yes, there should be whole-class reads, but the class should be homogeneous.

    Why is it only in academics that there is the pretense that everyone has the same ability, preparation and motivation? It sure isn’t like that in sports or the arts. Even in rec-league sports with mandatory playing time, kids who are disruptive or miss practices/games can be given less time. Once outside of rec league, there are tryouts, playing time and position have to be earned, kids can be cut and disruptive kids aren’t tolerated. I once saw a (MS-age) kid tossed out of practice before his dad could park the car and he was ejected from the team shortly thereafter because he wouldn’t do the independent skills work and conditioning and he was routinely disruptive. Kids don’t join the HS band to learn how to play the trumpet, either.

    It’s long past time to stop the pretense.

  19. Teachers who think that “all kids love read alouds” are either clueless or they interact with too many non-readers. Some of us hated read alouds and I wouldn’t be surprised if the ones that hate them most are the kids who can actually, READ the material and would love to be left alone to do so. I’m also willing to bet that , by MS, many kids aren’t really listening but are daydreaming or drifting, because they don’t care or don’t understand.

    I didn’t have to endure read alouds after the primary years and was fortunate that the teachers in my small-town school let me read under my desk most of the time. They would even recommend more or deeper material relating to class content.

  20. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    I agree that students should be encourage to read material that suits their interests whenever possible…however, as a teacher, there is a canon of books each year that I want every student in my class to read based on my curriculum. I try to differentiate various assignments to accommodate the gamut from GATE to LD. Guess what…students of all reading levels are not going to like every single book they read. I’ve learned many things from books I’ve read in school, but didn’t necessarily “like” some of those books–to read, discuss and write about them was still valuable.

    I’m sick of pandering to the narcissistic, “feel good” current school culture…Tupac Shakur ain’t Shakespeare (he’s not even Richard Bach, LOL)

  21. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    Encourage..d (Sorry)

  22. Cranberry,

    Thanks for the Lexile measure info. That is helpful. Do you think it is accurate for today’s reader? I ask because we are reading the unabridged Swiss Family Robinson right now and the Lexile measure says ages 10-14. I would say it is harder than that based on what I see children reading in that age group today. It has a challenging vocabulary.

    G.A. Henty’s books rated ages 9-12 on their site as well. Again I would think children 12 and older would tackle his work. What do you think?


  23. Cranberry says:


    I found this on the Lexia site, about Lexile measures:

    A book, article or piece of text gets a Lexile text measure when it’s analyzed by MetaMetrics. For example, the first “Harry Potter” book measures 880L, so it’s called an 880 Lexile book. A Lexile text measure is based on two strong predictors of how difficult a text is to comprehend: word frequency and sentence length. Many other factors affect the relationship between a reader and a book, including its content, the age and interests of the reader, and the design of the actual book. The Lexile text measure is a good starting point in the book-selection process, with these other factors then being considered. Lexile text measures are rounded to the nearest 10L. Text measures at or below 0L are reported as BR for Beginning Reader.

    I think it could be a good starting point. http://Www.lexia.com claims that many states establish children’s lexile measures: http://www.lexile.com/about-lexile/How-to-get-lexile-measures/states/. I encourage my children to read whatever they like, so I don’t use the lexile measures to rule out books. There seems to be a current trend to select books which tackle emotionally complex issues for middle school assignments. The Lexile rating may be on grade level, but a child could find a book difficult to get through because he finds it disturbing. (for example, novels treating issues such as death, abandonment, etc.)

    The age ranges given for the books don’t seem to be derived from the lexile measures. Sorcerer of the North, by John Flanagan, has a lexile measure of 850L, but the age is listed as, “12 and up.” Harry Potter has a higher Lexile index, but its age range is “8 and up.” If a child likes a book, he’ll stick with it.

    On the side of each book’s page is a “lexile calculator” box. If you know your child’s lexile score, you can enter it in the box, and it will predict how much your child will comprehend. (I can’t vouch for its accuracy, as I don’t know my child’s lexile score.)

    There is a neat feature under “I don’t know my lexile measure.” Enter your grade level, select whether you find the books assigned in school easy or hard, then choose topics from the menu on the next page. The site will suggest books. I think, for a parent trying to suggest interesting books, that’s more useful than the lexia levels.

  24. SuperSub says:

    “There seems to be a current trend to select books which tackle emotionally complex issues for middle school assignments. The Lexile rating may be on grade level, but a child could find a book difficult to get through because he finds it disturbing. (for example, novels treating issues such as death, abandonment, etc.)”

    Amen. I had a 7th grade student this year who chose for their independent reading assignment a book from the middle school library a book with a teen protagonist who does drugs, is raped, beaten, and gets pregnant…and the events of the book are described in explicit detail. I looked over part of the book and felt horribly embarrassed… and I’m a science teacher who covers human reproduction without flinching.

    The student’s English teacher was shocked that the book was included in our library and asked the student to censor her class presentation to exclude the nastier details of the story. Luckily the student is mature, understood the situation, and respected the teacher’s request. Upon further investigation the English teacher found that the book is popular among middle school English teachers and librarians for its relevance to teen issues.

    The big problem? For all its ‘relevance’ and mature topic matter, the book had the literary sophistication of a book for preteens. Simply put – drugs=bad, sex=bad, rape and abuse=horrible and a reasonable result of mixing drugs and sex. The book was a sad mix of an 80’s after school special and a rapist’s fantasy.

    So, I’m a big fan of the whole-class novel. It allows the teacher to use their judgement to control and focus on what students are learning, and less on scrambling to become familiar with every book in the library.

  25. SuperSub says:

    Oops…after the “Amen” should read-
    “I had a 7th grade student this year who chose for their independent reading assignment a book from the middle school library that had a teen protagonist who does drugs, is raped, beaten, and gets pregnant…and the events of the book are described in explicit detail.”

  26. Richard Aubrey says:

    You ever get the feeling that some folks get off on deflowering young minds?

  27. SuperSub says:

    I think that’s a pathology that has existed, since, well, humans existed. The difference I’d say is that we now accept it in this world of accepting all differences and celebrating everything as ‘art.’

  28. Mark Roulo says:

    About Lexile …

    Lexile attempts to measure the complexity of a book’s grammar and vocabulary. It combines these two into a single number, and then tries to assign overlapping ranges of numbers to grade levels.

    It is not bad at this, but it also isn’t very good (although it also has no real competition … the problem is a hard one).

    *Most* of the Lexile score is based on grammatical complexity, and the grammatical complexity is mostly measured by average sentence length.

    So … because average sentence length is most of a Lexile measurement, books with longer average sentences tend to score as “harder” than you might guess. To pick two examples The Fellowship of the Ring comes in at 860L or 5th to 6th grade. The Hobbit comes in at 1000L, which would be 6th to 8th grade.

    No one who has read both The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring would claim that The Hobbit is the easier read. But The Hobbit has a longer average sentence length (16 words/sentence) than The Fellowship of the Ring (14 words/sentence), so it gets a higher Lexile rating.

    Additionally, Lexile doesn’t measure things like plot complexity. The Hobbit is pretty linear, for example, while The Fellowship of the Ring has multiple narrative streams (not too many as the big split comes in the followup book).

    Lexile is good as a starting point for “difficulty,” but it has some fairly serious limitations, too.

  29. Richard Aubrey says:

    Supersub, and some get to do it on my dime.

  30. Michael E. Lopez says:

    In other words, rather than put Sam in a class with students of equal ability level, let’s dumb down the class for those who need it.

    Best. Comment. In weeks.