Farewell to a Farewell to Arms: Deemphasizing the Whole-Class Novel; the Common Practice in English Language Arts Classes of Assigning All Students to Read the Same Book at the Same Time Is a Tradition, the Authors Believe, That Would Be More Honored in the Breach Than the Observance
Fisher, Douglas, Ivey, Gay, Phi Delta Kappan
ASK ANY group of adults ranging in age from their early twenties to late fifties what they remember about middle or high school reading, and you will no doubt hear an unenthusiastic and often bitter chorus of such titles as To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, and other classic novels long considered standard and acceptable fare in English classrooms. The younger set may chime in with Parrot in the Oven, Looking for Alaska, or some other young-adult novels that have become contemporary classics.
Not many adults have great memories of assigned reading from English class, yet the one-size-fits-all class novel persists as the centerpiece of instruction in many middle and high school classrooms. As teacher educators and former English and reading teachers, we also know that getting students to read these selections continues to be difficult, even in the best of circumstances. A high school memory sums up this situation for us. Gay recalls a nighttime bus ride back from a National Honor Society field trip to an amusement park near the end of her junior year. Nearly a third of the students clustered at the back of the bus with the CliffsNotes for The Scarlet Letter, not because they needed to read it by the following morning but because they had to read it and write a critical analysis of it by the following morning! Even for these high-achieving high-schoolers, the goal was just to get the assignment finished.
For struggling students, the choice is apt to be noncompliance. Often, the teacher notices that the students have not read the text and so reads it to them. We know that teacher read-alouds are a powerful tool for building vocabulary and background knowledge, but we worry that they are being used to supplant assigned readings. Read-alouds should extend students' thinking, not replace it.
As an alternative, in the hope that students can be coerced into reading a novel that they have been assigned, teachers often resort to testing their knowledge about it. Some teachers give oral summaries of the contents so that students who have not completed their assigned readings can "keep up." Others show the film version so that students have a sense of the content. Regardless of which alternative is selected, students are not reading more or reading better as a result of the whole-class novel. Instead, students are reading less and are less motivated, less engaged, and less likely to read in the future. Meanwhile, teachers continue their endless--and often fruitless--search for better ways to persuade students to read their assigned novel. (1)
Given this frustration and resistance, what is it about a "class set" of novels that captivates teachers so much that its use dominates English language arts instruction? We often hear that curriculum standards dictate the decision and require, for example, that all sixth-graders read The Giver or that all ninth-graders read Romeo and Juliet. (Of course, the latter is a play, not a novel, but it is typically assigned and taught in the same way.) But even a cursory review of content standards from several state departments of education reveals that specific texts and authors are not actually named. Rather, students are expected to learn how to read, write, and speak about a variety of texts, and the standards typically emphasize literary devices, reading comprehension skills, and writing strategies.
We also hear quite frequently that class novels are selected because they are "good for students." But we know that classics--and even award-winning contemporary classics--do not make the list of what adolescents prefer to read. (2) In addition, we know that students still struggling to read do not get better at reading from tackling difficult books. (3) It would be hard to locate one book that addresses the needs of all students in any given classroom. Life experiences that enable a reader to make sense of a book vary too greatly, and every class has students who read above or below their grade level. …