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My Two-Handed Opinion on Teaching with Novels


[I recommend] balancing the needs for sustained attention and stamina and the possibility of exposing kids to some really great novels against exposing kids to a broader and more varied experience with elements of literature, literary works, and racial, ethnic, and gender sources.

Teacher question

I’ve been thinking a lot about a response to teachers who only want to teach whole-class novels. When I say whole-class novels, what I see most often is the traditional approach most high school teachers take. Reading at home, lectures, comparative reading (but with very little instructional support). Also, what do you offer as a suggestion for teachers who are willing to rethink their novel practice (so long as they still get to teach novels)?

Shanahan’s response

Lyndon Johnson used to talk about “two-handed economists.” He’d ask economists for their advice, and their responses were always, “Well on the one hand… but on the other hand….”

Your question makes me feel like a “two-handed” reading specialist.

There is no research that evaluates the specifics of your question. No one, as far as I can tell, has asked empirical questions like: How effective is novel teaching? How does novel teaching do when compared with other literature instruction? Are there more effective ways to teach novels? 

That leaves me with nothing but opinion; informed opinion one hopes, but I value opinion (even my own) about as much as Emily Post does eating with your elbows on the table.

On the one hand, there are some great novels out there for adolescents, and in my experience English teachers tend to do a pretty good job of selecting the ones to teach (not counting my own too-painful-to-discuss experience with Silas Marner).

When I look at the literature education standards established by most states, I can find few such standards that can’t satisfactorily be addressed through working with one novel or another (and those tend to be items tied to poetry and plays).

Another plus is the possibility that experiences reading novels will help students develop reading stamina. Having to maintain attention for several weeks and sustaining the memory demands required of reading an entire book should be good for kids. There may be no research on this, but it is a possibility.

There is some research (we’re still on the one hand) showing that fifth-graders preferred reading novels to basal reader selections (Smith, 1998). That suggests that there might be some potential motivational benefits, too.

Yeah, there are definitely some reasons for reading novels in the middle school and high school.

And, yet…. I can think of a lot of reasons NOT to read novels. You know, the “other hand.” One of the purposes of an English curriculum is to ensure that students gain a significant relationship with the Western canon (whatever that is). One goal is to make sure that students gain a relationship with a plethora of authors across racial, ethnic, gender, and historical contexts. Let’s be honest… there are only so many novels that kids can read. Excerpts and short stories magnify the possibilities here.

Likewise, while I can introduce metaphor, characterization, plot structure, mood, and so on through novels, I can never provide the breadth of experience possible when exposing students to shorter works. You might have kids introduce characterization through Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but in the same time period, I can easily explore characterization through works by Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, and Tobias Wolfe (and Cormac McCarthy).

Of course, I’ve had this argument with novel-teaching teachers who tell me that I just don’t understand. I’m simply not literary enough for their tastes. They’re certain that I get how to teach phonics and other reading stuff, but they know literature and how to develop a sophisticated reading among adolescents. In other words, if I was truly “woke” I’d get why novels are superior for teaching literature than excerpts ever could be.

I’m more than willing to accept that they’re wise and I’m an idiot, but then I think about some library research that I did. I found that both Robert Frost and Toni Morrison have taught literature. I tracked down their syllabi. They both taught literature using excerpts. I get that these novel-teachers understand literature better than I do, but better than Frost and Morrison? Perhaps they don’t appreciate literature as much as they think they do. (When they can write a novel as good as Beloved, I’ll accept their holier than thou approach.)

This is one of those times when I think we ought to be splitting differences … balancing the needs for sustained attention and stamina and the possibility of exposing kids to some really great novels against exposing kids to a broader and more varied experience with elements of literature, literary works, and racial, ethnic, and gender sources.

I’d suggest one novel or a couple of novellas each year in high school, balanced against a more aggressive and intentional use of excerpts and shorter works.

Of course, those are issues of curriculum — what we teach. What about how these things are taught?

I only found one actual research study on teaching novels — and that with college students. The study found that students learned more when they read novels in chunks and shared their responses with the professor and other students; that is there was a measurable power in shared response (Courtland, et al, 1998).

Definitely when teachers have kids reading novels — or a series of shorter literary works — there still should be instruction in vocabulary and practice with fluency (if the kids aren’t fully fluent yet). There should be opportunity for teacher lectures, but also for student discussion and writing about the texts (that shared response). The point is both to teach students a particular work or set of literary works, while building an ability and inclination to engage in literary reading in the future.

Often when teachers are unwilling to change, it is less about what is best for kids and more about how much work the change entails. I think you’re more likely to get a teacher to back off of a long-used set of lesson plans by getting a group of teachers to develop the new lessons together… shared response is not only powerful with students.

This is one of those times that being two-handed is a really good idea. Your teachers shouldn’t drop novels, but they definitely should reduce this reliance.