Using Novels in Teaching English

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Notice, I said using novels teaching English, not Teaching novels in an English classroom. Many might say that they are one in the same. I tend to disagree.

When talking to English teachers, I find we tend to fall into two camps. Those who use novels in the classroom, and those who do not. There are a variations in each of those categories. For example, there are teachers who use novels only because they are forced to. There are also teachers who do not use novels, but wish they had the freedom to do so. A question arises, is there any valid purpose for using novels in the classroom?

The answer may seem obvious to most of us. Of course there is a place for novels in an English classroom. The issue, however, is not that most English teachers agree that novels have value, it is how the novels are used in the classroom. In order for the use of a novel to have the most value, it must be approached with purpose. It is not enough to simply read (or worse, play the audiobook version) a novel and expect the students to get the most from it. Instead, a teacher must read the novel, and really know the novel. We must know the ins and outs of it, the characters and their motivations, everything. We must spend time taking it in. Yes, that means we need to read it more than once. No, you can not do a novel justice by simply finding resources on the web and playing it by ear.

We must prepare for novel studies early. We can’t “wing it” and hope for the best. If we prepare high interest activities for our students, activities that are rigorous to challenge our students’ thinking. Additionally, we need to choose our texts carefully. It is not enough to simply choose a text that we love. We need to choose a text that allows us to teach/practice a variety of skills through the text.

So, back to the question that began this all, is there a difference between using novels to teach and teaching novels? Of course there is. One implies that we simply teach the content of a novel, the story. While this is well and good, we are missing the meat of the text. If we choose, instead, to teach English through the use of novels, we have the opportunity to use complex texts, allowing students to experience a wealth of new vocabulary. We have the chance to expose students to truly great literature, and more, our students will be encouraged to delve into the text. They will get to experience it, and thus, own it.

We can actually use high lexile level texts to teach, since we will provide in depth instruction as we proceed. This accomplishes the best of all possible situations. We get to teach great, high level literature. We get to teach the majority of our standards/objectives through the novel, and we have students engaged in rigorous work and grappling with difficult questioning… learning. Remember, we need to give students a reason to want to come to class. More than that, actually, we want students to want to run to class. Call that the #TLAP in me, but if we get students engaged enough to want to run to class, we have certainly created a great environment for learning.

So, as you go through this summer off, spend some time seeking complex texts for your students. Prepare units that push students’ thinking, and find texts that both you and your students will love working through. Spend the time now, and watch it pay dividends all year.

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