Independent reading? Whole class novels? The best of both!
I have trouble maintaining enthusiasm for a whole class novel. Even if we start well, I am quickly reminded of Donalyn Miller´s critique of the practice: a circus of lovingly-prepared scaffolding activities limits time for actual reading. Actual reading is what accounts for the incredible gains in language acquisition, not the skill-building activities surrounding the reading. Perhaps TPRS teachers who choose to teach whole class novel units (often structured by teachers guides) fear that the novel will not be comprehensible to students without their guidance. But look at it this way: in order to read a novel that is above their students reading ability, teachers are dramatically decreasing the time available to read in class. The irony is that students who are fed a diet of incredibly easy reading in level 1 can eventually take on the level 3 novels easily, on their own.
I wanted an approach to reading whole class novels that would allow my students to read at their own pace, but also provide the kind of scaffolding that is the hallmark of the whole class novel. I wanted my students who finish their class novel to be able to go on to an FVR selection so that everyone is maximizing the reading time we have available. I wanted a minimum of class time spent explaining the novel. In the past, when I taught whole class novels that students struggled with, I did not sense that my lessons teaching them how to read advanced texts does not make them into readers. Instead it prepares students to confront complex texts, each year more and more difficult. On the other hand easy pleasure reading, losing yourself in the action of a story and not having to stop to complete a written analysis… that is what hooks a student on reading.
If you want to spend less time explaining novels and more time actually reading them then it is crucial that you choose easy to read novels. Struggling through one novel is far less effective for students than breezing through ten easy ones. Choose easy easy easy novels. I just finished reading my own TPRS novel, Superburguesas, with my Spanish 1 students (second semester). Several expert TPRS teachers with whom I have consulted place my novel within the reading abilities of 2nd semester Spanish 1 to 1st semester of Spanish 2. That means that Spanish 3 students can read it too, easily. We used many of the free activities that I have posted on this blog, but not in a traditional sequence. Although this teaching sequence took 5 weeks and 3 days to complete, we dedicated only seven days of class time to explaining the novel. Here is a description of how I did it.
On a Wednesday I introduced chapter zero, reading and using the activities to thoroughly understand this very short chapter. We also dedicated Thursday and Friday to whole class reading of chapter 1. After those first three days reading chapters 0 and 1 together I then let students enjoy the rest of the novel on their own during SSR/FVR time. Students finished at their own pace; the fast readers were able to choose new novels once they were finished but there was no effort to hurry anyone along. I wanted the first pass through the novel to be as low-stress and self-directed as possible. In the meantime I offered a voluntary reading group once a week after school for kids that felt like they needed more structure. I had five regular participants, all kids who had transferred into our class midyear from non-TPRS schools. Together we explicitly translated and I would ask circling questions based on what was on a particular page that we were reading.
On most days we started our class session with 10 minutes of FVR. After three weeks of FVR most students had chosen a new book, so I spent the fourth week using the Superburguesas comprehension quizzes and crossword puzzles as brief warm-ups after FVR. During this fourth week some students picked up Superburguesas again during FVR because those warm-ups must have made them realize that they needed to read the book a little closer. The warm-ups were just for a few minutes a day before our normally scheduled class (we frequently PQA about students lives, we also did several story-asking sessions, quite a few random movie talks and we have been watching episode 3 of El Internado). At the end of the fourth week I gave students this chronology quiz, click here for a PDF or click here for .docx in which students have to label each sentence in the order that it happened in the book. I entered this grade into my online grade book so that all stakeholders (myself, parents and each student) would be well-aware of who needed special attention during the next week. I also attached a note to the assignment indicating that there would be a retake the following Friday and the highest of the two grades would become the permanent grade.
The next four days were dedicated largely to discussing and acting out scenes from a book that students had already read. Suspending FVR for the week, we started each class session looking at the word cloud for the chapter we were going to review. When a student pointed to a word I (1) established meaning, (2) explained how it showed up in the chapter and (3) immediately connected the word to the students world.
For example, when a student pointed at devolver I wrote on the board devolver = to return a thing, like a book. En capítulo 9, I said, señor Marzo quiere que Rodney devuelva la pintura. No quiere matarlo, solo quiere que devuelva la pintura. ¿Quién necesita devolver la pintura? Rodney, claro. ¿Y quién quiere que la devuelva? Señor Marzo. And then I asked what other things are often returned: kids called out libros, ropa, comida mala. ¿Adónde voy para devolver un libro?, I asked.
After looking at the word cloud I asked students to help create an oral summary of the chapter. I chose my favorite parts of the chapter for students to act out without having to hammer down every sentence. This was a whole class activity that led to a summary of the chapter written on the board. Students copied each chapter summary into their notebooks. We did 2-3 chapters per day and were finished by Thursday. On Friday students took this fill in the blank assessment, here in .PDF or click here to download it as a .docx. I provide the .docx so you can change it… all it takes is one google search for students to find this page!
The last four days of instruction were intensive days of review, but most of this unit was characterized by easy pleasure reading at the pace of the student. I saw kids smiling while reading, but even more so once they were allowed to choose their reading and could immerse themselves into their own interests. Yet I still had specific feedback on specific structures from the class novel, and I had time to make sure that they have been acquired. I much prefer story-asking and FVR, but if I have to do a whole class novel I think that this is a good approach.