Teaching Novels in the Common Core Era

The teaching of literature, and novels in particular, has been a subject of some controversy and confusion since the advent of the Common Core.

The standards’ call for a greater percentage of informational text (increasing from an equal percentage of informational and literary in fourth grade, to 70% informational and 30% literary by grade 12) was seen as a sign the standards were trying to phase out literature. However, these percentages were cumulative across the whole school day and reflect reading that should be happening in content area classes, like science and social studies.

While the amount of informational text read in most ELA classrooms will increase, the introduction to the standards clearly states, “The ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction.”

In fact, the standards themselves contain an appendix of text exemplars that include many well-loved novels, ranging from classic to more contemporary. For instance, the grade 6-8 list includes everything from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. According to recent surveys, teachers still consider novels a central part of the curriculum. So how do teachers continue to teach novels while simultaneously making shifts, such as building knowledge through nonfiction and incorporating close reading into their instruction?

Use Novels as “Anchor Texts” for Larger Units

My previous blog talked about ways to support students in reading complex texts. One recommendation is to include them as part of larger units organized around a central understanding about content and framed by a focusing question. These units culminate in a writing assignment addressing the focusing question.

In such units, a novel can become an “anchor text” alongside other literary and informational text. According to Transformational Literacy, a book by Ron Berger and the Expeditionary Learning team, an anchor text is “the centerpiece of students’ reading,” a central text that is rich, complex, and engaging, that all students read and analyze to build knowledge and literacy skills. It is the “sun” that all other informational articles, poems, charts, or videos of a unit circle around. The additional texts all help students to arrive at the central understanding and answer the focusing question.

The free Engage NY curriculum modules include several examples of units designed in this way. In one 6th grade unit, the central understanding is the delicate balance between human needs and the needs of the natural world. The focusing question is, “Do the benefits outweigh the harmful consequences of DDT?” Students read the novel Frightful’s Mountain, which includes the perspective and  experiences of Frightful, a peregrine falcon threatened by human influence on the environment. Then they read several nonfiction articles and view videos about DDT. They learn about its benefits for humans as a pesticide which is meant to kill mosquitoes and prevent malaria, and the harm it causes the environment. By the end of the unit, they draw upon all these sources as evidence as they discuss their position with peers, and finally write an argumentative essay.

Using a novel as the anchor text helps students engage deeply with the central idea, while the additional readings on the same topic help them systematically build the background knowledge they need to be able to write and reason effectively. The featured lessons on the Achieve The Core website, and the Vermont Writing Collaborative’s instructional sequences, are great resources for units that are backwards designed from a central understanding, with focusing questions and culminating writing prompts.

Use Novels for Close Reading

When I was a student, reading a novel meant a reading assignment followed by a quiz the next day that was meant as a “gotcha,” with questions about obscure details. The message this sends to kids is that everything is equally important, and that is definitely not the case.

Rather than asking students to memorize facts or closely read everything, teachers should select a few turning points throughout the novel where the theme is addressed. Keep these short, no more than a handful of pages in length. Ask students to read these sections closely. This may mean having students read the section repeatedly, asking text-dependent questions and having students discuss, and including a brief writing prompt. The idea is to help students engage with text that is relevant to the central understanding. Notice and Note by Beers and Probst is a great approach for finding these turning points, with the eventual goal of helping students find them independently.

Choosing a few key points in the novel for close reading will set students up for success on their culminating writing task — they have already thought deeply about important evidence and begun to develop a perspective on the focusing question. The annotation, notes, and short written responses from these close reading experiences serve as the raw material for their argumentative essay draft. Having a focusing question gives students a lens to sift through all the information they encounter in the various texts and videos. With the focusing question in mind, they will know to pay less attention to information about a peregrine falcon’s markings or calls, and more about how the pesticide DDT causes the falcon’s shell to become brittle, devastating the birds’ population.

Has the way you’re using novels changed with the advent of the Common Core? What are some of your most successful units incorporating novels? Let’s discuss in the comment section below.

Ryan McCarty is a coach with Achievement Network, a nonprofit organization that helps school leaders support teaching that is grounded in standards, data, and the best practices of schools across the country. He partners with schools in Massachusetts. Prior to that, he was a literacy coordinator, instructional coach, and teacher in Chicago, IL. All views are his own. Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanP_McCarty.

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