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Building Skills with Classroom Novels

by Mora da Silva

The idea of using novels in the ABE/ GED® classroom hit me in early 2014 as I came to know my passing students, who unanimously read for pleasure at home. Because at that time it took a 450 to pass any of the GED® subtests, it seemed only these, the most proficient readers, were going to make it; the others, well … what to do with the others? So I began a personal teaching journey to discover how I could create lifelong readers in my classes and how novels and short stories could be a part of this. A few years later I became lead teacher for Regions 13 and 14, and I now support instructors in the use of novels, short stories, and other longer texts in classroom book circles. The outcomes: students who participate in book circles show a permanent increase in reading scores and fluency. These students also show improved oral language skills, a love of reading, awareness of great literature, and transformed perspectives.

At the beginning of this project, of course, I needed low-cost, good books. Once I started looking, many opportunities arose. I needed texts to be not only free or low-cost, but also very interesting, available at various levels, and, where possible, connected to GED® social studies and science content (historical fiction works well for this). I mostly looked to First Book for low-cost and free titles through our local literacy organization, an approved member. First Book is now an eVA-approved vendor, but a literacy organization must also become an approved buyer through a registration process. I also found public-domain short stories through online research and discovered Logos Instructional Services’ 110 Great Short Stories with side-by-side annotation organizers on the Teachers Pay Teachers website. AwesomeStories has long, interesting texts related to historic and science content. I recently purchased multiple copies of low-cost award-winning books through my daughter’s elementary school’s Scholastic Book Fair online program. Teachers, too, can go to Scholastic’s warehouse sales.

The very first title I used in classes came from a case of books supplied by First Book and donated by our local literacy organization. Breaking Through is the memoir of a Mexican immigrant, Francisco Jimenex, who was the first person in his family to go to college. It is written at about a 750 Lexile level (grade level equivalency 4.9) and has 208 pages. On day one, I said to the class: “We are going to read this book.” I asked for volunteers to read aloud. Then I said, “So, do you want to read some more at home?” (Put control in the hands of the students.)

“Well, I don’t know if I’ll have time.”

“I can try. I don’t know if I’ll be able to read at home …”

I said, “How about two chapters by next class, and we’ll talk?” I gave each student a piece of paper to fold into sections. One section was for page numbers and difficult words. Another section was for page numbers of confusing parts. Another section was for page numbers of interesting parts. I recommend using stems from any part of this metacognitive bookmark. Although I chose the first few books, later, as I collected more titles, I could give the students choice over what book to read.

photo of books

I knew it was important to understand how to choose books that students would and could read. When possible, I used a leveling system, such as Lexile Leveling or the ATOS analyzer, to match books to readers’ TABE scores. I have created a list of Lexile to TABE correlations. At first, it is best to choose books that are at or slightly below students’ independent reading level. The endurance needed to read even a short book has to be developed over time. Teachers should model and guide students in using comprehension techniques at their independent reading level (where students are able to read at least 90-95% of the words accurately) before increasing the difficulty level of the reading. Additionally, teachers should consider the audience: how familiar is the subject matter and genre? have students read books of this length before? How much prior knowledge is necessary to understand the text? As an example, we have a large Amish population in our area, so the novel A World Away (5.0) was intriguing to all our students. Fantasy and science fiction were less popular. For excellent information on choosing books, I recommend the article “Designing Courses Using Books” by Glenda Phipps.

Equally important, I knew, would be effective questioning strategies. This proved relatively simple, since once a book gets started, questions that align with the CCRS reading anchors and GED® assessment targets usually come up naturally. I usually concentrated my questions on these elements: vocabulary, character, events/plot, climax, conflict, resolution, point of view, purpose, setting, theme, tone, figurative language, organizing ideas, drawing conclusions, making inferences, and evaluating evidence. Some novels allow reflections on connections between different social studies elements (people, events, places, processes). Often a quick internet search would provide ample study questions for a particular text, especially for award-winning and classic books. I recognized that as students added more novels to their reading logs, comparisons could be made between the texts. Activities could be developed around the books; for example, Jeanne Bendicks’ s Archimedes and the Door to Science (5-8) can accompany multiple engrossing science demonstrations.

Students who participate in book circles show a permanent increase in reading scores and fluency.

For a quick introduction to engaging learners in reading a longer text, use a Directed Reading Thinking Activity (DRTA); DRTA explicitly activates prior knowledge and creates meaningful stopping points for discussion. A simple summarizing graphic organizer that one of our teachers is using with her lower-skilled students is called the Somebody Wanted But So Then. For teachers who like to structure classes thematically, possibilities are endless. The subject of time travel in the short story “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury (6.0), for example, segues nicely into study of GED® earth science target ES.c.3: age of the earth, radiometrics, fossils, and landforms. Another option is teaching with movies. There are quite a few novels that have been turned into films. Watching the film version and making comparisons has been a culminating event in several classes. The Watsons Go to Birmingham (7.4) and A Raisin in the Sun (6.8) are two examples of book-to-film adaptations our instructors and I have used.

With preparation, novels make small grouping and evidence-based reading and writing uncomplicated. As Glenda Phipps states in “Designing Courses Using Books,” “When a teacher designs courses around books, discrete and sequential skill work is less likely to dominate classroom time. Skill work is an important part of instruction, but it can be integrated, for the most part, into real occasions for reading, writing, and speaking. The inclusion of whole books in the curriculum gives meaningful direction to classroom planning and activities. Students want to talk about the ideas in the books. Teachers can then use books as a way to organize instruction.” James Cannon reminds us in “What is Guided Reading?” that guided reading is not round-robin or popcorn reading; everyone is reading in guided reading, if whisper reading or reading silently.

With preparation, novels make small grouping and evidence-based reading and writing uncomplicated.

The instructor is there to scaffold learning. As I read each book, I kept next to me a copy of Text Dependent Question Stems and Frames Aligned to College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards handout and at each chapter wrote down a few questions for discussion. Often, I would type up a few of these questions to give to students so they could write their answers. Questions can be given to a group or pair to answer while the instructor works with another group/pair. At the minimum, I made sure to have a 20-30 minute discussion about the reading once a week. As a student from one of our classes said, “It was a good way to get to know each other. I got to know people’s names and their personalities from what we talked about.” I found attendance to be good in classes with book circles. Discussion became the carrot for coming to class.

Many teachers are apprehensive about initiating reading for homework. I have a few suggestions. When a new student enters the class, I would caution instructors to start with an easy short story and very little to no reading assigned at home. The same with novels: start with short easy reading in class with no assigned home reading. I never mention to new students that books will be read in the class, as this would unlock dread in some students, who might not return. Luckily, this attitude usually changes. Take, for instance, this quote from a student in one of our classes who recently finished The Watsons Go to Birmingham: “I don’t like to read, so I would never finish a book on my own. I like to read out loud and listen to people read.”

Students reading aloud can aid instruction. One of our instructors using Carl Hiassen’s Hoot said of her students, “They want to read aloud in class. This works for us as we are working on fluency and word attack. This way I can help them with phrasing or ‘scooping.’ I can also see what words they are mispronouncing and get them to break them into syllables and use context clues for the meanings. They enjoy the humor and informal conversations in the book and enjoy laughing together about the book.”

Some teachers have had success with students reading most of the books in class, both orally and silently. This sometimes leads to a shift in students’ thinking, where they complain it is going too slow, and they beg to take the book home … that is exactly where we want them! A teacher told me the story of a student who was finally allowed to take the book home, and she finished it in two days. Upon returning to class, she didn’t mind rereading passages. Her instructor said, “She is fine with rereading sections of it to work on oral reading fluency [and] word attack and then answering questions. She is working on an ongoing summary that she brings in each class for me to proofread and go over with her.”

Teachers who have not participated in book circles often ask, “With sporadic attendance, how can we finish a book?” I recommend waiting until one has a core group. Then start. Most of the time, at first, when I had a core group of attending students, I would choose the book to read. We’d start it in class with a preview—looking at the covers, reading any information on the back, reviewing the table of contents, and quickly skimming. Then I’d ask for volunteers to read aloud, or I might start the book, then ask for volunteers to read. We’d read a chapter in class. Then I’d ask, “How many chapters are in the book? We should have this finished in about a month. How many chapters do we need to read each week?” It usually came to about 2-3 chapters per week. Not much. This way we were reading three books per semester. Later, as my library grew, I allowed student groups to choose the book.

A teacher told me the story of a student who was finally allowed to take the book home, and finished it in two days. Upon returning to class, she didn’t mind re-reading passages.

The discussion, more than anything, is the reward. If a student had not finished the reading, I would not react punitively but allow the student to take the first half of class to read silently. These students, at first, have no habit of reading at home, so it takes time to build this foundation.

Another strategy to use with lower-level students is to offer an audio version of the book to read along. First Book sells “Playaway” portable audiobooks, which allow a student to change the narration speed, for several titles. Another option is to read short stories and make use of the narration option in accessibility tools. The Claro ScanPen is a smartphone app used to scan hard text and convert to a narrative form.

Some of my higher level students were harder to pin down (for discussions) as they would read a novel in a weekend, then ask for one more, and one more. One of my students read a 1000+ page novel! I had to politely ask another to please stop reading in class as he needed to get his math done.

Beginner readers, those learning to read, clearly need phonics-based texts with controlled vocabulary. Once students get to a second grade level, they are reading to learn, and appropriately chosen interesting whole texts can nurture a love of reading and expedite progress. Occasionally a student will ask to keep a book because of the personal transformation the book fostered. That’s when we know we’ve won.

Additional Recommended Resources

Learning to Love Reading“ by Donna Earl (Focus on Basics, May 1997)

Supporting Struggling Readers and Writers by Dorothy S. Strickland, Kathy Ganske, and Joanne K. Monroe (Stenhouse, 2000)

Mora da Silva holds an M.Ed. in reading education from the University of Virginia and has served as executive director of the Charlotte Adult Learning Center. Mora has been an adult education instructor for seven years and currently acts as a lead teacher in Southside Virginia Community College’s adult basic education programs.