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Balancing Independent Reading with Class Novels

As the push for choice reading gains momentum, many teachers have been wondering about how to balance independent reading with class novels. Some wonder, is there still a place for whole-class reads? Others question the validity of giving students class time to read for pleasure.

To me, it’s all too valuable to leave anything out. In this post, I’m sharing what I do to combine the best of both worlds. It doesn’t mean it’s the “right” way to balance independent reading and whole-class novels. It’s just what works for me. If you’re open to experimenting or ready to change up what you do, maybe this post will help.

This is my approach, in brief. Every decision I make in terms of teaching reading revolves around one goal: Grow lifelong readers.

INDEPENDENT READING

Every day. It’s mandatory. A growing body of research supports the importance of independent reading time. Why? For one, success in reading is directly related to the amount of time a person spends reading (Krashen, The Power of Reading 2004). Independent reading is a powerful way to maximize time spent reading during class because it allows students to select books they enjoy. Interest is key.

How much time should teachers dedicate to reading during class? Educational researcher Richard Allington suggests ninety minutes of reading in school each day (What Really Matters for Struggling Readers 2012). Secondary teachers have clear challenges with reaching that goal because we just don’t have that many minutes available to us. Plus, we have a plethora of standards to address.

What I’ve found more successful than anything else I’ve tried is at least ten minutes of choice reading at the beginning of every class period. It’s a sacred time slot that doesn’t get cut.

The caveat? Researchers like Lucy Calkins and Mary Ehrenworth suggest that the increased volume of reading is most effective when students are engaged in high-success independent reading. To grow as readers, they need more time reading books with high levels of fluency, accuracy, and comprehension (A Guide to the Reading Workshop: Middle School Grades 2017).

In order to make daily reading time beneficial with older students, it’s important to make sure students know how to select books that are just right for them. For middle and high school students, levels aren’t usually helpful. Plus, they feel restricting. Instead, teach students to think about the book choices they are making. Use a reading ladder metaphor to heighten awareness and increase the likelihood that students will select good books for them.

BOOK CLUB

I run classroom book clubs all year as an extension of independent reading. Inspired by Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, students focus on a different genre each month. Ideally, you can use this time to study the characteristics of that genre, book talk novels that fall into that category, and make recommendations you think students will enjoy. As we study literature, I have tried to incorporate texts that fall into that month’s category. However, I don’t force a student to read a book from that genre if they don’t want to do so.

My book club format is fairly simple. Students complete their daily choice reading, and those are the books that they meet in groups to discuss monthly. Because students all have read a different book, they use generic yet high-interest discussion questions to guide their conversations. There is some accountability built in, but I haven’t needed much. Talking with students about books they enjoy reading works.

The reason I love book clubs is because it allows students the flexibility to read anything, but it still provides some structure to independent reading time. It also mimics the social nature of reading in real life. You can read all about my recommendations for running book clubs with unlimited reading choices in this series. If you’re looking for teaching materials to use during your own classroom book clubs, try these.

Tips for balancing whole-class novels and independent reading in middle and high school. How to make time for both. #independentreading #highschoolela

LITERATURE CIRCLES

Searching for a way to combine the benefits of independent reading and whole-class novels? Literature circles could be a good fit. At least once during every school year, I like to have students read a book with a group. These books often have overarching genres or essential questions.

For instance, my freshmen have read memoirs or biographies: The Glass Castle, A Long Way Gone, Three Little Words, Unbroken, or Night. I’ve had sophomores read books with social issues, such as Secret Life of Bees, We Beat the Street, The Help, and 13 Reasons Why.

With literature circles, I’ve found having a predictable schedule helps. Students have a class period to read. The next class period is spent on a mini lesson for reading skills. Afterward, students apply that comprehension or analysis skill to their book and prepare for the third day, which is a group discussion.

With literature circles, the teacher can join in on conversations and also help to facilitate larger class conversations that bridge the books’ similarities. Students still have choice. However, they also reap the benefits of the social nature of reading the same book as someone else.

If you already run literature circles but are looking for a fresh angle, I highly recommend the book Making Curriculum Pop: Developing Literacies in All Content Areas. This book has unique suggestions for how each student can contribute to class discussions. While I appreciate the traditional roles (e.g. literary luminary, word wizard, discussion director, etc.) commonly used with literature circles, I’ve found that they are not always engaging for students.

WHOLE-CLASS NOVELS

While some people are choosing to abandon whole-class novels entirely, I haven’t jumped on that boat. There’s value in studying a complex text as a class. Students need to know how to persevere through a classic novel. They need to learn approaches for annotating and dissecting books together. In the classroom, I have always made time for this at least once a year.

Sometimes, in life, we have to read something that we wouldn’t select for ourselves. Perhaps it’s a book study for work, a manual to fix our vehicle, a required college seminar, or a textbook to prepare for a certification exam. Students need to experience grappling with a book they haven’t chosen for themselves. They need to feel the satisfaction of finishing the book successfully and appreciating it.

But…scaffolding is essential.

However, whole-class novels fail when enough scaffolding is not provided. For this reason, whenever I teach The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, Lord of the Flies, or To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, we read much of it together in class.

We spend time developing students’ background knowledge through engaging hooks, video clips, images, and jigsaw activities. As we read during class, we discuss it together, and if students are expected to read more at home, I always make sure an audio version is available to them. We relate it to life (ex. – reading Lord of the Flies? Play a survivor game!). It’s essential to obtain students’ buy-in with whole-class novels. And, focusing on helping students effectively apply reading strategies to texts has always been helpful (Pressley and Afflerbach, Verbal Protocols of Reading 1995).

The other thing? Students don’t have to read the whole book. Try using excerpts of whole-class novels to complement independent reading units. They are perfect avenues for reading and writing mini lessons. I used to feel like I was cheating students when I did this, but after I saw how powerful it was, that guilt was quickly replaced with relief.

Keep in mind that explicit strategy instruction should teach students what the strategy is, when to use it, how to use it, and why it is worth using. Ultimately, the goal of teaching these strategies when reading complex whole-class novels should transcend comprehending that one particular text. The end result should be helping students develop the power to transfer those strategies to other texts and in other classes.

CONFERRING

Of course, the most important element of any form of classroom reading is conferring with students. Literacy expert Mary Howard suggests that the most important data we can collect to learn about our students as readers is right in front of us. Talk with them about what they are reading, and listen carefully to what they say.

Literacy consultant and author Jennifer Serravallo suggests that teachers consider where students are with certain reading skills on a progression (Understanding Texts and Readers 2018). For instance, ask students to tell you about the conflict in the story they are reading. Even if you haven’t read the text yourself, you’ll be able to tell if the student’s response is basic or complex.

Consider…maybe they only identify one basic problem. Or, perhaps they tell you multiple conflicts happening in the story (both internal and external) and are able to explain how those conflicts impact the theme. If we pay close attention to the complexity of a student’s response, we will be able to set goals to help them grow as readers.

Regardless of how you decide to balance independent reading and whole-class novels, the research is clear. Students need more time to practice reading with high-success books and meaningful, goal-driven feedback from teachers. I’ve always found it helpful to keep a healthy reading balance in check by asking myself two questions: Are students enjoying reading in my class right now? And secondly, am I positioning them to be successful?

Looking for a different perspective? Lauralee from Language Arts Classroom shares how she makes time for both independent reading and whole-class novels in this post.

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