I’ll never forget the first writing assessment I was asked to do with my class. They had an extract from The Railway Children by E. Nesbit and had to answer questions about the text.
It was hard work. The prose was difficult, and they didn’t know the characters. They hadn’t read the beginning of the story to know what had happened before. The results were poor, lacklustre answers that lacked depth. Worst of all, the students hated it.
Teaching extracts is easier to manage and cheaper than teaching whole texts, with no investment in books needed. But is it best for our students?
Let’s look at why teaching complete novels is more effective and share seven ideas to help you use this approach in your classroom.
What’s Wrong with Using Text Extracts?
Let’s be clear. There’s nothing wrong with an extract. But if it’s your students’ only experience of reading, they miss so much.
Think about a carefully crafted murder mystery. Imagine only reading the ending scene where the detective masterfully reveals the culprit. You miss out on the clever plotting, slow building of tension, and twists and turns.
Extracts are fantastic when used to examine particular elements of writing, such as:
- genre indicators
- character descriptions
- story openings
They’re perfect for one-off lessons and starter activities.
But, if you want your students to enjoy reading and invest in the story, it’s time to teach the whole novel.
The Benefits of Teaching Complete Texts
We want students to experience the feeling of hoping the book will never end. They just won’t get that same emotional connection from a series of extracts. It makes reading a chore and boring, something they’ll never return to.
Reading a novel is an experience. By reading a novel start to finish, students get a deep understanding of characters and how they change over time. They become invested and want to find out what happens next.
It exposes them to clever plotting and the links between openings and endings that they consistently struggle to create in their own writing. They have the chance to explore different time settings and cultures. It is also a gentler way to introduce new vocabulary, with the words made clear by their contextual use.
7 Tips for Teaching Whole Novels in Your Classroom
So how can you teach whole novels effectively with your class? Here are seven ideas to get you started.
1: Make reading an experience
Create an immersive experience using sound effects, props, and different voices. Use drama and role playing to bring situations to life.
It’s great fun but also helps your students become deeply immersed in the story line. You’ll notice increased engagement and reflective answers to your questions.
2: Keep your students waiting
You’re not being mean; you’re being clever if you stop reading at a suitably dramatic moment. Your students will hate you for it, but they’ll be desperate for your next lesson to find out what happens next.
When students read alone, they naturally keep reading at these dramatic points. Stopping them brings attention to the craft of the author and will help them create the same effect in their own writing.
3: Make reading comfortable
Where do you like to read a book? There’s nothing better than curling up in a comfy chair or lying in bed to read. So why do you expect your students to sit up at tables?
Get them comfortable to make reading enjoyable. Let them sit on soft chairs or go outside. Students could lie on the floor or even go under their tables. Be creative and make it different from normal lessons.
Many students struggle to sit still for long periods of time, so let them stand up whilst you read. Find a new location like your library to offer them variety. You could even let them eat snacks, if they can do it quietly!
4: Help your students keep up with the story
Start lessons with recaps of what you read last lesson. Students could answer comprehension questions, take a quiz, write a summary, or play a game. This is especially useful for older students who may have long gaps between each class.
Ideally, every student needs the book you’re reading. Looking at an electronic copy on the board doesn’t give them the same feeling of being a reader.
Add in visuals for dual coding with pictures of characters, family trees, cartoon strips, and symbols for key events. Display this on your classroom wall or provide students with a copy for their exercise books.
5: Read for longer
You don’t sit down to read a novel for five minutes. That’s more suited to factual reading, like newspaper articles and magazines. Instead, we like to curl up with a good book for far longer. So why do we make our students read novels in small sections?
Dedicate blocks of your lesson to just reading. This can feel strange at first. We train teachers to add in activities and games or create writing tasks based on what they have read. We worry that there’s little evidence in exercise books. But we risk planning activities for activities’ sake.
What about scrapping tasks and using highly targeted questioning instead? You can check comprehension and create discussions without the need to write anything down. That leaves more time for students to get immersed in the story.
6: Treat all your students as readers
Reading an entire book takes time. To speed things up, we watch video clips or add in summaries to skip sections altogether. Lower-achieving students often aren’t expected to read whole texts, instead relying on abridged versions and extracts.
Every student needs to see they are a reader. If we deliver the novel well, there’s no reason every child can’t read along or listen to whole texts without the need to simplify them.
Just choose your books wisely. Most eleven-year-olds will be bored by War and Peace! You can find countless lists online of age-appropriate novels, often helpfully sorted into themes. Organise these for different year groups so students experience whole novels every year.
7: Don’t take turns reading
Think back to when you were at school. What are your memories of reading? For most, it’s the hatred of standing up in turn to read aloud to the class. Lessons spent dreading your turn coming, struggling to hear a quiet student, and reading ahead when a slow reader had their turn.
Listening to peers read aloud is embarrassing and boring. Even the most able readers feel the pressure.
Students don’t need to read to the class. Instead, make that your job. You can add in the actions and voices that bring the book to life. For the first few lessons they’ll often ask when it’s their turn to read, but before long they’ll enjoy it too much to care who’s talking.
We want our students to read for pleasure. It increases progress in many subjects and can even improve outcomes in later life.
When you teach complete novels, for some students it will be the first "real" books they’ve ever read. They’ll talk about the characters as if they know them. They’ll vividly remember key events. Often, you’ll find them relating new learning back to the novels you’ve shared.
Whilst using extracts has an important place in the classroom, it’s time to embrace the power of teaching whole novels. You’ll never look back!