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One Size Does Not Fit All


My seventeen year-old-daughter is what we call here in Texas, “a long, tall drink of water." I, on the other hand, have a full-figured glass that has overflowed. When shopping, we laugh when we see clothes sporting tags that claim “one size fits all” remarking, “Not us!”

Stretch this t-shirt over the ubiquitous practice in reading classrooms of teaching whole-class novels, and you can see that it doesn't fit most readers.

Teachers build elaborate units of instruction around novels--breaking down a text into discreet concepts for closer study. As a new teacher, the best you can hope for as a means of survival is that some wiser teacher will share these Rosetta Stones that decipher how to teach reading, complete with all of the activities you need to get your students “through” a book.

Many school districts and schools create a list of required novels that all students in a grade level are supposed to read. These lists are revered as sacred law in spite of the fact that you cannot find a single state or national standard which requires students to read certain texts.

So what is the purpose of this practice? Many teachers claim that it is important to expose students to great works of literature. Students need to read The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn as part of their cultural heritage. I don’t disagree with this goal in theory; after all, I had to smile to myself when my daughter, after reading The Crucible, referred to Salem in a joke. But is the ability to generate a pithy literary reference all she got out of reading Miller’s play?

Teaching whole-class novel units does not create a society of literate people. Take a poll of friends and relatives (those who did not become teachers) and ask them how they feel about the books they read in high school. Now, ask them how much they still read. In the Phi Delta Kappan article, “Farewell to Farewell to Arms: Deconstructing the Whole Class Novel”, Douglas Fisher and Gay Ivey attest that, “…students are not reading more or reading better as a result of the whole-class novel. Instead, students are reading less and are less motivated, less engaged, and less likely to read in the future.” Teachers can always point to a few students who loved these books, but I doubt it was the majority or that any became future readers as a result.

When I have denounced teaching whole-class novels in past entries, the comments I received from readers spanned a range of emotions from hearty agreement to derision. I feel emotional about this topic, too, so let's take emotion out of the equation and face some truths:

No one piece of text can meet the needs of all readers. A typical heterogeneous classroom may have a range of readers that spans four or more grade levels. It is impossible to find a book that is at an instructional level for all of these students.

Reading a whole class novel often takes too long. Planning a month or more of instruction around one text replaces a lot of time students could be reading more books on a wider range of topics. It takes even a slow reader only a few weeks to read a book at their reading level. Do the math.

Laboring over a novel reduces comprehension and denies students the ability to fall into a story by breaking books into chapter-bites. No reader, outside of school, engages in this piecemeal method of reading.

Students’ interests in what they choose to read are ignored. Reading becomes an exercise in what the teacher expects you to get out of the book they chose for you, a surefire way to kill all motivation to read-- other than to complete assignments.

Many novel units are stuffed with what education gadfly, Michael Schmoker, calls, “Language Arts and Crafts”, extensions and fun activities which are meant to motivate students, but suck up days of time in which the students are NOT READING OR WRITING.

What about those students who have already read the book? Admittedly, this may be a small number of readers, but I have sixth graders who have read To Kill a Mockingbird or The Outsiders, two books I know are taught in future years. Are they going to be expected to read it again- for two months?

Finally, I am not convinced that these “event novels” even accomplish one of their primary claims- broadening students’ understanding of the complex themes of human experience. No one book can teach students everything they need to know about prejudice, friendship, or honor.

I personally believe that the widespread use of whole-class novel units is to provide teachers with a plan of attack, a method to objectively approach literary analysis which is a largely subjective endeavor.

Whoops, there I go, getting all emotional again…

I have some ideas, some compromises and alternatives, which I will share in next week’s entry.



I hope I can get this suggestion in before you draft next week's blog. I recall from your 3-part series prior to Christmas that you have genre requirements for your kids' self-selected books. Could you talk about how you manage this practically in tandem with reading instruction in the classroom? For example, if you are studying text features in non-fiction, are kids then all working in some type of self-selected non-fiction?

Also, could you clarify for readers that you do not teach whole-class novels, but that you do in fact READ (in no-pressure fun ways) whole-class novels?

One last question. I am enthralled with your take on reading but wonder (again)if your practical setup as a 6th grade teacher is significantly different from mine. As a 7th grade teacher I see my sections for 58 minutes a day, 3-4 times a week. How much time, at one pop, do you have to work with your kids?


My department has been exposed to the article to which you refer. As is the case in most education courses, there aren no practical suggestions of how to teach these concepts without using the whole novel.

I can listen to all the rhetoric in the world, but unless I see it in practice, it makes no sense to me. (Hum...sounds like a student, huh?)

How do other high schools approach this theory? Doesn't this leave students vulnerable when taking standardized tests like the SAT and ACT? Not to mention state-mandated tests?

If we are teaching concepts to which there is no application, are students "getting it"? What do high schools and middle schools do with their extensive novel collections?

I'm just wondering if this is just another of "theories of the moment" that, too, will pass.

Rather than telling teachers not to teach novels, it would be ideal if theorists would SHOW us how to apply that in the real world of high school language arts.

I teach college writing, not novels, but I vividly remember my own children getting in trouble in middle and high school for either reading ahead in the class novel, or reading a different book under their desks, because they were so bored with the piecemeal dissection of something they'd read weeks or years before. It's a wonder it didn't turn my daughters off from reading altogether; for my son, it did. All of them said they'd have learned more from choosing their own book--on a required theme, if need be--then discussing it in smaller groups. You are quite right--one size does not fit all. If we practice differentiated instruction in other areas of the curriculum, why would we think novel-reading is somehow different? We're trying to produce reflective, thinking kids--but they don't all have to reflect on the The Great Gatsby. If my college students can write clearly and interestingly on ANYTHING, including The Simpsons or graphic novels, I am thrilled. They produce much better work on self-chosen topics.
As for appearing to advantage on the ACT/SATs, kids who have actively engaged in discussing and writing about books that really interested them, should be able to demonstrate those thinking skills better than students who just showed up for class.

I did a whole class novel once and vowed to never repeat this disservice to my students. Instead, I choose a theme or a genre (clever thinking, survival, historical fiction, nonfiction etc.) Three books were presented to the whole class at three different reading levels which I revealed to them. They choose a book they wanted to read and then met with their small group to discuss. If a student really wanted to read a more difficult book I told them it was OK because I would help them achieve success. We spent from 4-6 weeks on each unit.

We met in whole groups to discuss theme, common voc., summarizing, reading strategies etc.

In small groups they used reciprocal teaching to plan a reading schedule, discuss their book and plan a presentation or a project (varied with each unit and choice was included). I really feel the commercial novel units are way too cutsey and ignore research-based practices. My students needed critical thinking skills and comprehension strategies.

They were also required to choose at least 2 other books independently in the same theme or genre and at their reading level. Easy books were OK, but read as extras. For an A they read 3 books. They read and responded to the books in their notebooks or in some other way. Thus they read from 3-4 books or more for each unit.

My 6th grade inner-city students grew in their love for reading. Their goal was to read 40 books, which many surpassed. The best was seeing their collaboration and spreading the word about good reads.

I believe choice is vital. Michael Smith in Reading Don't Fix No Chevies makes this clear.

Donalynn...I so enjoy reading your articles for Teacher Magazine...and am enjoying reading the comments from other readers, too. I have not taught a classroom novel for ages...for clarity I am working for BER right now and teaching teachers all around the country. My newest class is called "Best Books for Reluctant REaders" and I've used lots of your good advice in putting my handbook together and structuring the day for that class. Thanks so much for the wonderful service you provide for all of us who believe teaching reading is a calling and that the only way to teach it 'right' is to have kids read, read, read!

I don't like teaching whole-class novels either, so I've come up with two solutions.

When I do use only one novel, we don't read the entire book anymore. Whatever literary element I want them to grasp, I find the sections of the book that focus on that element. They can read the book on their own if they find it interesting.

Other times, when I'm covering an element or when I'm teaching a huge pattern, like the hero's journey, I'll let them get their own books and they have to show me how that book uses whatever we are studying. They have to prove to me that they understand the elements, that they can identify the elements, and that they can discuss or analyze the elements.

Another way to approach this is to teach with short stories. You can quickly cover elements and then set your students free later in the year to read their own books and be able to discuss whatever it is you have taught them.


I can't wait until your next entry to learn how you put your reading philosophy into practice. Your posts and Nancie Atwell's book, The Reading Zone, have given me a lot to think about.

Having just completed a somewhat unsuccessful "novel unit" on To Kill A Mockingbird (complete with those "Language Arts and Crafts" activities you mentioned), I am eager to try a fresh approach.

While I do make time for students to engage in self-selected reading, I am still reluctant to let go of the idea that students can benefit from the shared experience of reading a great work of literature. I am curious to know if there is any way to make whole-class reading work and how you approach it in your classroom.

I look forward to reading your next entry!

Hi Donalyn,

I came across you last year, but lost track till now (having just served on the Newbery Committee --- hope you like our choices!)

I'm late chiming in, but would like to offer a different perspective on this issue. I teach fourth grade and do a number of whole class book units. But the children are always reading their own books even as we do one together. I spend a lot of time helping them fine books, communicating with them in journals, etc. But I do want them to have some community experiences with single books. Some I read to them (they loved I Am Not Joey Pigza most recently), but some they read on their own. These are books I truly love and I think that it is useful for children to be part of that passion --- to see it, to understand it. And so I try through these whole class experiences communicate my passion for one book, help the children consider one book in different ways, and -yes- get to know a classic book firsthand.

We begin with an E.B. White unit, focusing all together on Charlotte's Web. This year we also did a remarkable unit with Shaun Tan's The Arrival. Our other two whole-class books involve other media. One is Alice in Wonderland which the kids have illustrated, performed, and will do as a comic this year. The other is The Wizard of Oz which is just fun, especially after knowing the movie. (They learn about Baum and about the movie which is a lot of fun.) I'm not able to write here what happens in detail, but invite anyone interested to either visit my blog where I've written about this a lot (and have links to my class and my students' blogs) and/or my publications on this. (I don't mean to flog these, but I realize I have a bit of an outlier perspective and hope that some of my writing help to explain it.)

I agree mostly with what you say and suspect even when it comes to the one book idea that we aren't as separated as may first appear.

Hmm..this got long! Anyway, hope you don't mind. I'm happy to have found you again and will now be a regular reader of this blog.


I grew up as a reluctant reader. Now I write action-adventures & mysteries, especially for boys 8 and up, that kids hate to put down. My web site is at http://www.maxbooks.9k.com and my Books for Boys blog is at http://booksandboys.blogspot.com
Ranked by Accelerated Reader

Max Elliot Anderson

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