Why Should You Use Novel Studies in Your Classroom?




Funny thing about educational research is if you look hard enough you can usually find studies to support both sides of an issue. Very rarely do you find a straight yes or no answer to what is good or bad theory or practice. Generally, it boils down to the common sense of the teacher in regards to his/her individual students and the level of freedom the teacher is given from administration.

Sadly in today's standardized test-heavy climate teachers are given less and less freedom to choose what is best for their students. So many curriculum guidelines have become so rigid that teachers are not able to modify or enrich with their own lessons and materials.

I struggled with this myself while teaching 4th grade. I taught in a very high poverty, low scoring school. Most of my 4th graders could read at a 1st-2nd-grade level. Very few came to me over the years reading on grade level. The biggest challenge I had as a reading teacher was to get kids excited about reading. They saw it as such a challenge and our district used a basal series for reading instruction that was unrelatable and very boring! The students saw no reward for their challenge of getting through a story because the stories were so uninspiring and they had no emotional connection. I knew if I could "turn them on" to a book they would see more value in reading and see a "payback" so to speak.


Fortunately, I was blessed with a principal that valued my knowledge as a teacher and let me teach as I saw best for my students. I started with a read loud time where the kids would get comfortable and I would read to them. Kids in the upper elementary grades don't get read to enough in my opinion. It is reserved for the emergent readers of the primary grades. I chose high interest, generally humorous books that the kids could just enjoy. I didn't strive for any deep thinking for this activity. I just wanted the kids to experience reading as enjoyable. This turned into a favorite part of the school day for the students and for me.

Once I got my feet wet a bit in the classroom I started to develop novel studies for books where a short excerpt had been made in the basal. It is only common sense that reading the whole book is more enjoyable and leads to a much greater understanding by the student. Of course, I was careful to incorporate the skills taught in the basal in my units. I started teaching these novel units alongside the basal stories and the change between reading the basal versus the novel was amazing. I had kids who were reading at a 2nd-grade level actually focused and challenging themselves reading the chapter books that were at a 4th-grade reading level. They actually wanted to read them versus just getting through some worksheet assignment from the basal. More and more these lower level readers were chiming in on class discussions about the books and picking up age-appropriate books by choice in free time. As a teacher, I found it easier to use Bloom’s higher order questions using a novel instead of a short excerpt because you could really dive so much farther into the story and the characters.

I see similar experiences with my own children when they are allowed to read a "real" book vs. a text-based short story. They've never come home from school excited about something they read in a basal, but they have many times come home and we've had lengthy discussions about novels that they are reading!


As for the sought after test scores, I didn’t do any formal research on the subject but my student’s scores certainly did not drop but their love of reading soared! Sadly this is not a statistic that is looked at often enough.

Another huge benefit to novel study based reading instruction is the ability to really enhance the students' critical thinking skills by diving deep with character and plot development. Sadly, we are seeing less and less critical thinking focused activities in the current "test-prep" atmosphere in schools today.

Maybe the most beneficial reason of all to use novels in the classroom is to really tap into the empathy and awareness that books can bring to students. By reading books, like Wonder and El Deafo students can learn about different disabilities and how people learn to live with an excel despite the disability. Books such as Number the Stars and Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes can be a great introduction to the Holocaust and bombing of Hiroshima for elementary students. Hatchet and Esperanza Rising are great books to dive in with a character that faces and survives insurmountable odds. The One and Only Ivan helps students empathize and think about the impact that we humans have on the planet as a whole. These are just a few examples of how a novel can get students thinking deeply about issues which can motivate them to enact positive change in our world.


I really encourage you to give novel studies a try in your classroom. I promise you will not be disappointed and your students will thank you for it!



The Power of El Deafo!

A couple months ago I was partaking in a discussion on Facebook about the factuality of the novel Wonder.  Now, I love the book Wonder and feel it has a solid needed place in the classroom, but on the subject of hearing loss which is touched on in the book, I do have definite questions and concerns. I addressed this in my novel study by adding a non-fiction article to help portray the real side of hearing loss so that students reading the novel understand the mistakes made by the author. I understand that Ms. Palacio isn't someone who has walked in the shoes of hearing loss and she did her best and since the rest of the novel is so wonderful I am easily able to overlook it by adding in the non-fiction article while teaching.

While discussing my feelings on Facebook another person asked me if I had read the novel, El Deafo by Cece Bell. She was curious how real and factual it is to a person who walks in the shoes of hearing loss such as myself. She says her students overwhelmingly love the Newbery Honor-winning graphic novel.  I had never heard of the book before so I ordered it to read and I am so happy that I did!



I have been living with hearing loss for almost 25 years. It is a daily struggle to communicate with my family and the world. I have lost many things due to my hearing loss including my teaching career. El Deafo, is the autobiographical story of Cece Bell's struggles with hearing loss told in a graphic novel format that is perfect to get the true feelings across. The book highlights how Cece embraces these struggles and turns them into a superpower! Even though Cece is in elementary school in the book and I am a 46-year-old, I found myself shaking my head in agreement and relating to Cece like I never have before in any other story I have read. It's like so many of the things she was saying I have said or felt so many times!



The message that volume does not equal better hearing was strong in this book and it is a message that the hearing world really fails to understand and yet, really needs to! Talking louder, talking slower, talking more pronounced DOES NOT HELP! It makes it so much more difficult for those like Cece and myself who rely on lip reading to understand.  If the only message that people take away from this story is to not turn up the volume for those with hearing loss the world will be a better place!  That's not the only message though. There are so many I could relate to, the isolation, the feelings of shame, embarrassment, avoidance of situations, putting up with things and people only due to fear, and on and on.  Cece doesn't just focus on the negative though, she embraces some of her differences and turns them into a superpower that draws people to her. I just loved everything about this book.  I also truly believe that you don't have to have a hearing loss to relate to and love this book. It is such a wonderful read for ALL students.

Because I loved this book so much and feel it is important to get this into classrooms I created a novel study.  I have never created a study for a graphic novel before so it was a different process for me, especially with the lack of vocabulary activities. I also wanted to include as much real-world information so that the student walks away with a greater understanding of the factual side of hearing loss and so they can learn to better communicate with those that live with a hearing loss. There is so much great information out there on this subject so I thought  Web Quest activities would be a good way to address this portion of the novel study, especially in the ever more frequent digital classroom!  As with all of my other novel studies, these activities are also available in a Google Drive format for those in a paperless classroom.




If you haven't read this book please do so, even if you don't plan to do a novel study. I just cannot recommend this book enough for everyone!  I hope you will choose to use this in your classrooms to help get the knowledge out there for everyone who lives with a hearing loss or knows someone that does. Knowledge leads to understanding and understanding leads to inclusion and empathy. We never can have enough of that in this world!