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I've said it once, and I'll say it again (and again and again and again):


Big, bold, and/or text-dependent novel study activities that require heavy printing, crafting, and/or planning can be both wonderful and necessary. There's a time and place for them, no doubt. Additionally, students of all ages need consistent opportunities to flex their analytical muscles with literature circles, book clubs, and/or independent reads. I am NOT going to argue against any of this! I'm also NOT going to argue that discussion-based novel studies shouldn't also include text-dependent written responses and activities. My favorite novel studies included student response choice boards and journal prompts that were designed to COMPLEMENT, not drive, our discussions. What I am going to do, however, is give my 5 favorite reasons why simple, discussion-driven, whole-group novel analyses are also wonderful, necessary, and 100% worth your time.

Before I dive in, I'd like to clarify some things to avoid confusion. For the sake of this post:

1. "Novel" refers to any lower or upper middle grade novel suitable for ages 7-12.

2. "Students" refers to those in grades 1-5.

3. "Analysis" refers to study, unit, or read aloud.

4. "Whole Group" refers to an entire class, no one excluded.

Additionally, I don't claim to know your specific instructional, student, or content needs. The reasons below that I see as being strengths in support of simplified, discussion-based novel studies may not be realistic in all situations. With that said, I also know that much of what I'm about to say is common knowledge and embraced by many already. If you fall into either of these categories, I hope you're still able to glean some encouragement or insight from this post!

5 reasons why discussion based whole group novel studies are worth your time



...In addition to any other skill or strategy needed to effectively comprehend, analyze, and evaluate literary text. I LOVE setting aside at least the first novel read of the year as a whole-group study for this exact reason. By shifting the focus away from the sole use of text-dependent questions, packets, and activities, we have substantial time to dissect the text in a way that emphasizes the techniques used by the author AND allows us to follow students' growing and entangling analytical thoughts right when they have them. From there, we can use think alouds to help model how to effectively think about and respond to text. This sets the stage for our expectations while increasing student engagement and confidence with analysis.



This is, quite possibly, my favorite thing about simple, discussion-based, whole-group novel analyses. You see, there's this beautiful freedom that comes when you allow your novel study to be driven by student discussion as opposed to chapter-by-chapter questions on characters, settings, and summaries. As I said before, these questions are essential; however, they can just as easily be included your discussions (and even assessed in other ways, if needed). All good literary texts are filled with intricate, masterfully woven threads of language, characterizations, themes, and symbols that can be easily missed by our students if we don't take the time and effort to pull them out and follow their paths. Students need to be guided if expected to reach these depths on their own.



Simply put, the novels we choose for classroom reads require student discussions to occur in order to be adequately understood, and our students require them for the multitude of reasons that you likely don't need me to list here. Novel studies, when implemented whole-group with a focus on collaborative discussions over written responses, give our students prime opportunities to engage in debate, accountable talk, and oral dialogue. Not only can these skills help lead our students to deeper textual understandings, they also heighten our students' social skills through communication, self-management, self and social-awareness, and responsibility. Of course students in literature circles are engaging in discussions and reciprocal teaching within their small groups; however, they need to see it modeled heavily whole-group prior to their gradual release into small group practice. Plus, it's no secret that many kids LOVE to talk. Why not give them a chance to do so in a structured manner (that just so happens to dramatically boost engagement)?!



Let's be real, novel study packets (or any type of supplemental written activity) involve something we're all just wishing we had a little more of - TIME! It's really not realistic to assume that we can review and assess all student responses for the day's reading in time for the next day's reading, while also having time to adapt our instruction, if needed, based on assessment/response results. Straight read throughs (with little to no stopping for deeper discussion), followed by independent work time for students to answer text-dependent questions can be an unpopular choice for two reasons: First, it decreases the opportunities students have to grasp the depth and complexity presented in the novel. Second, it devalues the opportunities we have to hold students accountable to and assess such learning. Apply this to literature circles wherein students are working independent from you and that just takes all of this to a whole other level!



Our instruction should always be driven by assessment results - be it formal or informal, summative or formative. Novel studies, however we design and implement them, are heavy and time-consuming. When we structure and pace them in line with student needs rather than chapter-by-chapter text-dependent questions, we give ourselves additional flexibility to rewind, pause, or shift organically without veering off of a predetermined course, thereby allowing us to meet those needs more effectively and efficiently. Again, there are always going to be exceptions to this as rewinding, pausing, and shifting can occur in any novel study format (whole or small-group, discussion or written text-dependent focused, etc.); however, it is usually easier to address our students' needs when our content is driven by them in the first place.

I love discussion-based, whole-group novel studies for all of these reasons and more, but mostly I love them for the opportunities they afford me to hone in on the author's words with the attentiveness required to grasp their depth and complexity. Furthermore, I love having the ability to cater that level of attentiveness to the needs of my students as they arise. Once I see that they have the skills needed to comprehend, analyze, synthesize, and discuss effectively, I release them into their independent and small group reads to practice, practice, practice!

DISCLAIMER: The ideas discussed below are rooted in my experiences. Every student is unique, as are classroom environments, school expectations, and teacher personalities. The approaches that worked for me and my students may not be best practice for you and your students.


She was the tiniest in the class, with thick glasses resting on the bridge of her nose and a smile that would wake up her dimples (thus earning her the nickname “Smiles”).

He was the tallest in the class, with glasses that always found themselves in the trash (via his lunch tray) and eyes that shone the kindness of his heart.

These two students, along with 24 of their classmates, were 2nd graders reading well below the 15th percentile.

In the beginning, that little girl’s dimples always seemed to be asleep, and the little boy’s glasses shielded his timid eyes.

When it was time for reading, the class was an unusual blend of quiet, cautious, and distracted. Many of them did not see themselves as readers, so they developed coping mechanisms to help get them through. Our room was an orchestra of bobbing feet, fiddling fingers, hair twisting and tucking, eye rubbing, and quiet hums.

For six years, I taught classrooms with high percentages of students reading below grade level. In the beginning, happy hearts and hugs in the morning would often turn to trouble and tears by afternoon. When I began to see this in my first class of struggling readers, something caught my attention. Despite the frustration and lack of motivation, there was hope. They still came to school happy. It’s no secret that classrooms require a strong and positive culture to maintain emotional safety and engagement. That realization sparked another realization – for many struggling readers, a positive classroom culture may be all they have. If they don’t see themselves as readers, than they’ll struggle to see themselves as learners. If they don’t see themselves as learners, then they’ll be more prone to checking out during instruction. If they check out during instruction, then all they’re left with may be relationships. They often crave them because they need them. So, if I was going to reach my struggling readers, I was going to have to do it from the heart.

Year after year, I poured my heart into my kids, trialing and erroring my way through struggles and successes. With the help of my teacher tribe and a paraprofessional who was the flap to my jack, we watched our students become readers. It was emotional, and it was exhilarating.

What I found worked best for us, from 2nd to 4th graders, in both homogeneous groups and diverse, were the following approaches. It was only by coincidence that they could be classified by “The 3 C’s”, I promise!

1. Establish Community

Students need to trust us, trust one another, and trust themselves. It’s not enough to build what we think is a safe environment. They need to feel safe and loved, and it’s our job to ensure this is happening.

…Through a Social Contract

At the beginning of each school year, we would designate a significant amount of time to forming our social contract. The schools I taught at required this, much to my gratitude. The students and I would discuss how we wanted to be treated and how we thought others wanted to be treated. They would agree upon a series of words, all positive actions, and sign their names. This contract would become the heart of the classroom, for it held us all responsible for treating one another the way we determined we wanted to be treated. Our contract building in 2nd grade always coincided with a reading of “Chrysanthemum” by Kevin Henkes. I would take a paper heart and slowly crinkle it as the story progressed, then attempt to flatten it out towards the end. The remaining crinkles on which we wrote our final contract and signed our names stood as a metaphoric symbol for our own hearts, and the power of our actions to potentially leave marks that may never fade. A social contract works, if modeled and embraced.

…Through Nicknames

This may not be a technique appreciated by all, especially if you’re more of an authoritarian. However, they worked for me. Nicknames would come naturally and would sometimes be as easy as an alternate version of the student’s name (B for Ben, Tay for Ataya). The students themselves would also unintentionally offer up a suggestion – a little boy called himself “dude”, so I did too. Another little girl once called me “lady”, so I called her lady back. I had one class that I referred to cumulatively as “The Cheesers”, each student bearing the “Cheeser” name proudly (it’s a long story). These nicknames, as simple as they may be, were a powerful tool in building connection and trust. They established familiarity.

…Through Smiling

Super simple, yet so powerful. Smiling lightens your face and softens your eyes, eases tension, and exudes reassurance. A simple smile, seen while struggling to sound out a word or turning to the first page of a picture-book, can silently offer the encouragement needed to push through a doubt or struggle.

…Through Celebrations

Celebrate often and celebrate well. No celebration is too small. We celebrated a word read phonetically, a comma used appropriately, and a kind word given freely. Positive classroom cultures function as a team – winning as a team, losing as a team, and celebrating as a team. For us, it was as simple as classroom cheers designed by the students, sharing good news in the mornings, stopping instruction to affirm a student modeling a social contract element, or having an air-popper on hand for impromptu popcorn parties. The smaller the celebration, the more frequent it should be.

…Through Kindness and Affirmations

This approach relates to social contract building, but it stands strongly on its own as one of the most important components of community formation. Through modeling and pre-established structures, I routinely communicated my expectations for how students were to treat one another. We made kindness the standard, from our words and manners to random acts. When students caught other students in an act of kindness, they were encouraged to affirm publicly (either aloud or written on an affirmations board we kept). We had conversations frequently about how people who are the least kind sometimes need it the most (I may have even led an impromptu mini-lesson on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs once to my 4th graders…). I’m sure you know from experience just how powerful a bit of kindness can be.

2. Build Confidence

Along with feeling safe in their environment, students need to feel secure in who they are and trust themselves to learn through mistakes. They require both cognitive and emotional confidence, as well as confidence in their materials. A daunting task, but essential in building motivated readers.

…By Praising Loud and Correcting Soft

Again, this is no surprise, as it’s fundamental to behaving with care and respect as a leader. Once students are secure in their environment and feel unconditionally loved and supported, then their confidence is sure to rise. The problem, however, is that a single snap or lapse in patience on our part can unravel weeks of carefully woven trust, in you and in their safe space. It all goes back to kindness. If I’m modeling kindness because it’s the expectation I set for the community, which I am a part of, then I need to monitor how and when I correct mistakes and redirect misbehavior. In the same respect, praise should be just as intentional, with the depth of praise extending beyond the classroom – parents, principals, specials teachers, and former teachers all have a vested interest in student achievement. Praising loud can also mean what’s “loud” to the student. Do they appreciate hand-written notes hidden in their desks, seeing their names written with washable marker on a window, or wearing special “brag tags” or “brain beads”? Who are we kidding, they like it all!

…By Believing in the Power of Private Conferences

Some of my most precious time with my students occurred when speaking to them one-on-one. I’d bring them close and speak to them as though they’re the only one in the room. Common practice, I know, and for good reason. This was my chance to really praise and scaffold strategically. For students, hearing their teacher tell them “You’ve got this” privately with a reassuring smile and strong, positive inflection can send them back to their seats with a lighter heart and more focused mind.

…By Not Stealing Their Struggles

My daughter, Mirei, loves puzzles. She loves the pieces and she loves the boards, but she hasn’t quite figured out how to connect the two. I could easily continue to model the placement of puzzle pieces on the board, taking it from her hands every time she’s wrong. As we know, however, that would be doing her such a disservice. She needs to try and fail and try again. With my students, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to simply correct them and move on, especially if running out of time (Time. Haha), but their struggles are theirs to be thought about, wrestled with, explored, and conquered. Each struggle conquered is another boost in confidence.

…By Offering Choice Followed by Praise

In helping to facilitate the growth of confidence in my kids, specifically in their materials, I always tried to give them opportunities to “flex their muscles” with free choice. The library, for example, was a perfect time to praise students for their choice in book, regardless of whether or not I thought it to be appropriate. When they chose a book, I wanted to see it so I could affirm their choice with specific feedback – complexity, topic, illustrations, etc. Letting them know that their choice impressed me was a quick and easy way to build them up as discerning readers.

…By Focusing on Pride

I learned to never underestimate a simple, “I’m so proud of you!” Powerful words, right there.

3. TransfeR Control

As students began to grow in confidence, we need to become more intentional with the opportunities we give them to read.

…With Tools for Engagement

To help ease unmotivated readers into independent reading, I gathered as many manipulative tools as I could. We’d use them a variety of ways depending on the tool, activity, and student behavior (whole group, small group, as incentives, etc.). Oriental Trading and I became close friends (over the course of many years, that is! A teacher’s salary is a teacher’s salary, after all). Below are some of our favorites (NOT an ad, just love):

- HARD HATS for hard work.

- FOAM FINGERS for word tracking.

- MAGNIFYING GLASSES for "close examination" during close reading.

- FLASHLIGHTS for fun (and Fridays)

- STAR SUNGLASSES for when students were "coming in hot" or "on fire".

- GOLDEN BEADS for golden thoughts.

- WHISPER PHONES for phonemic awareness.

…With Diverse Opportunities to Read

To get books in their hands, we would read in as many unique situations as we could. With high structure, we would carry books with us to specials, whole group bathroom breaks, and assemblies (remember, HIGH structure!).

Additionally, students were always aware of their reading level, and were taught to embrace it. Letters and colors were displayed with desk stickers, and students kept goal sheets and tracking graphs to document their progress. Moving up a letter or color involved the students placing their new stickers on top of their old (a moment we always celebrated with a cheer and note home), and shading in a new graph bar. Moving up in reading level also meant students got to pick from a new set of books for independent reading, which we worked into our schedule daily. Independent reading was separate from free choice reading – it was highly structured with differentiated reading activities and involved students reading books on their A-Z level while I worked with small groups and conferenced individually. I would even say that this daily activity, from goal setting and tracking to the actual reading and conferencing, was one of the most powerful in terms of building confidence, motivation, and skill.

Students were also encouraged to read to one another on their free time. One of my favorite moments was coming back from my lunch during an indoor recess day to find Smiles, the student I spoke of earlier, siting in my chair reading aloud to half the class on the floor in front of her. One student cheered, “It’s story time with Smiles!” Immediately getting her mother on the phone and hearing her reaction was another moment that lives with me. My heart.

…With Exposure to Quality Literature

Students should know when they’re reading something special. Books are awarded for a variety of things, from content and theme to illustrations. If a student was reading a book with high complexity, I made sure they knew it! We often discussed book awards, noting the difference between a New York Times Bestseller and the Newbery Medal, for example. There are books that were written to be entertaining, and there are books that were written to be enlightening. We tried to encourage a balance whenever possible, for while one is a huge motivator, the other is a potential skill builder. If a student picked up a book that has very little literary value yet is highly popular, I praised them for their choice. However, we frequently discussed what quality literature looks like through our own analyses of both illustrated text and novels (regardless of whether or not it won an award). Through this exposure (and my own giddiness at encountering a thick, juicy text), students often became intrigued by the challenge and grew as engaged, discerning readers.

…With Multi-Disciplinary Infusion

In addition to reading “deep”, students should be given opportunities to read “wide”. We know that there are a variety of partner texts for every subject and every topic – from fiction, non-fiction, reader’s theater, and short stories to magazine and news articles. Additionally, weekly curriculum texts and novel units provide opportunities to expose students to other literary and non-fiction connections. Why not bring them in to intensify the depth and complexity of our lessons? Students will go in the direction we guide them. If the goal is to develop independent readers, then we need to model the components of independent reading, including welcoming a variety of texts.

…With a Culminating Activity

Lastly, towards the end of the year, (as with most classrooms), we designed, promoted, prepared for, and hosted a “culminating activity”. For us, it was typically a Poetry Slam or a Literature Café. Students would spearhead the event by brainstorming how they wanted it scheduled, special touches for guests, who to invite and how to advertise, and the ambiance from decorations to music and treats. Each year’s Slam or Café usually featured a student-designed stage, twinkle lights, programs, soft music, special invitations, a microphone, and the ability to dress the part. Students would either write their own poetry or choose a literary piece (a poem or excerpt) to present. This is a fairly common practice in classrooms; however, giving the students the reigns really seems to give them a sense of ownership and pride in their public readings (a task that is potentially quite difficult for the struggling reader). Instead of it being a teacher-designed and highly structured activity that is forced upon them, it becomes an event that showcases their ideas (that just happens to be centered around reading!).


There are so many approaches out there, each having different impacts. The approaches I used and how I used them tended to change from year to year depending on the social, emotional, and cognitive needs of my students. Having some perspective, a plan, and some intentional tools in my back pocket definitely helped! What approaches have you used to establish community, build confidence, and transfer control to struggling readers? I’d love to hear them!

I most definitely did not set out to write a book. A book. Seriously? Nope.

Except, yep. I’m writing a book. A novel. A middle grade literary novel, actually. My reasoning, tangled in years of teaching little minds, is as complex as I hope the novel to be. Yikes.

You see, years ago I taught a very special group of 2nd graders. These little humans, teeny tiny on the outside with great big hearts on the inside, were primarily reading below the 50th percentile. For many of them, books were associated with failure, which meant avoidance. Novels were a novelty – something to admire but never attempt. Students would want to check out the thickest novel from the library because that’s what they understood – lots of words = tough book, and tough book = cool. They didn’t yet grasp the idea that even the thinnest book could be the deepest, and it is often depth, not width, that makes a book truly special, and it was my job to teach them this. Best. Job. Ever.

We analyzed and dissected our way through 2nd grade alongside wiley wolves, timid lions, sneaky pigs, courageous princesses, and forgiving sisters. By the end of the year, they weren’t simply readers. They were READERS, you know what I mean? They craved the written word, not only because they could finally engage with it, but because they grew to understand its power. It gave them confidence, and that gave them courage.

Two years later, I had the honor of teaching those same little humans as 4th graders. My heart. They had grown as readers. They had grown as learners. They had grown to see themselves differently within their own separate worlds. No longer were they the itty bitty littles that were unable to connect with words in print. Now, they were teeny tiny big people that made dirty jokes, crushed on one another, used sarcasm (WHAT?!), and desperately desired responsibility, freedom, and choice. Oh, MY HEART.

Once upon a time my goals were to grow their confidence, their fluency, and their comprehension (among many other things, of course). Now, my goals shifted to providing new perspectives, strengthening their critical thinking, developing their speaking and listening skills, and engaging them in higher text complexities. Despite the time gap, I knew my kids. I knew their collective love for literature – a love I once helped instill. I knew that one of the best ways to reach them, in multiple facets, was through literature.

Months of reading and dissecting and discussing and debating went by and, by February, I was pregnant with my first little nugget. Maybe it was the hormones, or maybe it was my little Cheesers (as I so affectionately referred to my students), but something sparked in me that never quite died out.

I want to write a book, but not just any book. I want to write a book that I would want to read and analyze with those kids. Relevant and rich with the kind of depth and complexity that both hooks them in and helps shape their growing minds. I know the power that these novels can have in the lives of kids. I want to help harness that power, drawing on my own experiences, to create something special. A passion project, if you will, in honor of my students. All of my students. But then I packed up my classroom, quit my job to be home with my baby, went into labor 9 weeks early, and returned to an entirely different reality.

So, one fall afternoon while my 4 pound little bean napped in her swing, I sat down and cried as a deep longing for my classroom and students swept over me. I looked at her, peacefully rocking back and forth to music that still makes me all gooey inside, and that same little spark shook me back into myself. I not only could do this, I needed to.

Once the researching, brainstorming, color coding, and plotting began, it didn’t stop. Apparently I’m what’s called a “Plotting Pantser”…I like having a rough outline that guides my ideas and ensures I’m hitting my more intentional techniques, but I write by the seat of my pants, never quite sure what my characters will say or do.

Plotting Pantser. Pretty accurate! I have no idea what will come of this novel, but I do know how I want to get there, and more importantly, WHY.

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