The “text sets” approach to balanced literacy instruction

A range of readings, selected with purpose, can help to provide students with the literacy experience they need.


  1. Fake reading is a problem, and
  2. Students need independent and shared texts, but
  3. Novels are not the easy answer, then…

How do we organize our literacy instruction?

Working backwards from the goals of volume, range, and complexity for students’ reading, this post describes the mental model that has shaped my planning over the past few months.

I’ll call it the text sets approach.

Text sets include 1-3 shared, short texts.  These are for scaffolded reading lessons. The class can read these in their entirety, together during class time. They offer value in their content, craft, and conventions.  Many students in the class would struggle to carefully analyze these texts independently. With the right instruction, though, students succeed in reading these texts in the classroom setting.

Text sets include other short pieces that can be read in one sitting.  These may be articles, essays, short stories, poems, infographics, picture books, excerpts from longer works.  While also challenging for students to read independently, this range of texts offers students and teachers options. These are likely thematically connected to the shared texts, yet varied in their genre, topic, and complexity. So, they offer teachers a means for differentiating collaborative learning, or simply mixing up the perspectives that students draw from during class discussions.

Text sets include thematically related novels.  This portion could also include full-length nonfiction books or plays that students can read independently.  Every student may have their own, unique selection here or students may select the same book as other students and read in groups.  I restrict the amount of “work” that students do with this reading. These selections are reading for it’s own sake and maybe a chance for students to explore our unit themes and skills at their own pace.  This year, students are writing literacy letters as they read these books.

Text sets are based on big questions. An essential piece of these units is a list of authentic questions that students want to answer. These are problems that students want to solve and things they want to discover about life and the world.

An example of the text-set approach:

The shared texts were engaging.  Students read* “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson and “The Unwilling Witness” by Abdulrazzaq Al-Saiedi.  “The Lottery” is a classic story about a town with a shocking, grimm tradition, while “The Unwilling Witness” is about an Iraqi-American reporter who joins in on the desecration of American security guards in order to protect his life while reporting in Fallujah.

The questions were simple and approachable.  Throughout the unit, students discussed these questions, which build on each other, are easy to understand, yet open up into many deep, nuanced sub-questions:

  • What shapes us?
  • Should we follow?
  • Why stand up?

The independent reading choices were diverse, personalized, and plentiful.  Students spent a day in the library browsing five “streets” of independent reading books displayed on tops of the book shelves. The books were organized by genre and had thematic connections to our unit texts and questions.  Students selected a book from this display (or another that they wanted to read) and exchanged literacy letters with me and their classmates.

Students browse the book selections compiled by awesome HHS colleagues Amy, Courtney, Julie, and Kristin.


The assessment was challenging but authentic.  After reading both unit texts, writing about the essential questions, and discussing them in small groups, students held fishbowl discussions about the essential questions and how they related to the texts.  We practiced PVLEGS.  Some students drifted from the topics and texts.  Many students who were visibly nervous pushed themselves to participate anyway.

Students reflected on their performance in short videos using Recap, which is probably the only tech tool I use besides the Google stuff now.

Why make the shared text a short one?

Well, it seems that in the quest to get kids both better at reading and committed to lifelong reading, teachers must pick their battles. Many teachers would love to plop a classic novel down on the desk of students 4-6 times a year, ask them to read it in a month, and slog through each chapter, quizzing and discussing and then writing a paper at the end of all that. But, generally, that makes students worse readers and disengaged readers.

By making the shared text a short one, it opens up the opportunity for students to do more reading, writing, speaking, listening and thinking.  The class is less centered around getting through the novel, and more about a range of literacy experiences that let students grapple with the unit questions.

Educators often swing the pendulum too far




This is the word that stands at the center of a reading and writing curriculum designed in the best interest of students.

Yes, students benefit from reading, discussing, and writing about shared texts. But, those benefits diminish if the students don’t actually read the shared texts or if the experience kills their love of reading.

Yes, students need to read independently, both for pleasure and to build their knowledge of interesting themes and topics.

Yes, I would argue that we are missing out on a big opportunity if we put independent reading in a vacuum and never integrate it with the rest of our courses.

And yes, I may eventually decide that it’s time to scrap this system and start over with something new.

How to design a no opt-out reading assessment

If we’re going to teach whole novels, let’s make the assessments engaging and meaningful.

The assessment, the test, is one of the quintessential aspects of American schooling. The experience of testing reminds me of these quotes:

“Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.”
“High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.”

Both of these come from Alexis Wiggins, daughter of the late, great Grant Wiggins, and high school learning coach.  She shared these two observations in a post she wrote after shadowing two students during a typical school day.

In her post, she says that her realizations were not a critique of any teachers but of our shared system of schooling. It is a system in which many students watch teachers or classmates do all the work. They may informally opt-out of their education yet still pass through their classes.

The literature classroom may be suspect number one in this discussion.

Do we allow students to intellectually “opt-out” during activities, discussions, or assessments of reading? Can students earn good grades even if they have not read? This is the culture of fake reading.

To address this problem, we can focus on the book, the reading, and the reader.  In this post, I’ll share a case from my sophomore honors English class as an example of an instance where I’ve tried to design an assessment that encourages opting into deeper reading instead of trying to avoid it.

The book for the unit was Lord of the Flies, selected because I thought all of the students could read it with little scaffolding, its content related to a curricular unit on geography and season in literature, and it begs some interesting questions about human nature.

The reading was based on Ariel Sacks’s Whole Novels approach. This means that:

  1. I introduced the novel, gave students a suggested reading schedule, and set a deadline for finishing the book.
  2. Students made responses throughout the book in the form of asking and proposing answers to their own questions. The topic of these questions was open-ended; they asked questions about topics of interest or connections to our work in class.
  3. We held off on discussing the book formally until students had read all of it. Which means that…
  4. During class, instead of stopping to dissect each chapter, we read supplemental nonfiction and poetry, and students did mini-projects to address literary elements from the book. One example was the character map, pictured below.

A character map created by four of my sophomore English students.

The readers had mixed reactions to the book but became more engaged for the final assessment. This was a mock trial in which William Golding was tried for libel against humanity. This activity that has been written about by other educators, including Jim Burke.

The assessment allowed students to practice these academic and social skills:

  • Collaborating with team members to solve a problem
  • Speaking like an expert in front of peers
  • Writing authentically

How this prevented “opt-out”

Students took roles as lawyers, the author, characters, or Enlightenment philosophers.  They prepared to ask or answer questions during the trial, so they had to anticipate the important moments in the book that lawyers might discuss.

Even if students had not fully engaged in their first draft reading of the book, they were compelled to revisit important parts of the text during their preparation.  Literacy teachers know that re-reading is a valuable strategy for a difficult text, so seeing this re-reading suggested to me that this assessment had value.

The results, teacher perspective

On the day of the trial, students were palpably nervous and excited.  We arranged the room to resemble a court, students read opening statements, and then the lawyers began calling witnesses to the stand.

As students answered unfamiliar questions, asked by their peers, about the novel, it became very clear to me which students had read the book and which hadn’t.

One of my main gripes with the focus on literary analysis in the high school ELA classrooms is that students are masters of completing the assignments without reading. For this assignment, though, students’ reading and comprehension of the text were both much more clear to me.

It’s harder to pretend that you’ve read a book when you are questioning every character about their motivations, asking a philosopher about his perspective on the plot, or acting as one of those aforementioned roles and interpreting the events of the novel.

The results, student perspective

I asked students to share the strengths and weaknesses of this assessment and to compare it to a typical project or test. Here is a selection of their responses:

One of the strengths in this type of assessment is that it allows a student to fully demonstrate their understanding of a book even if they lack knowing some parts.
we were not forced to stare at a paper for 55 minutes or a screen for 1 to 2 hours so it created a memorable experience where everyone was given an equal chance to speak and present their case and ideas. The strengths of a mock trial is that it is a different way of learning that is interactive which enhances an overall learning experience.
I feel like I prepared a lot more for the debate and was a lot more enthusiastic about the trial than I would be about a normal test or quiz.
For tests, many people memorize information but during the mock trial you had to understand the information to do well.
I feel that writing a paper on this topic would have been more effective because this would give each student a chance to share their ideas that they felt strongly about, but did not have a chance to express them when being asked questions right on the spot.
I feel that I learned more through the trial than if I would have written or paper or taken a test because the trial was not about merely restating what happened the book and analyzing its meaning, but rather about getting a full, deep understanding of the novel, and how there could be different interpretations of the text.

So, some students rightfully argued that they did not have as much of an open-ended opportunity to share their thinking about the text as they might have had if we wrote a paper on the novel. Other students suggested that the quality of the discussion of the book led to deeper learning than might have occurred otherwise.

The Takeaways

It was both a whole class reading of a novel and a whole class project, which doesn’t happen too often. Part of the benefits of a whole class text is the classroom community that it can help to build, and this project helped to further emphasize the community aspect of teaching the novel. It might be difficult, but not impossible, to replicate this kind of whole class project if the students had not all read the same novel.

With that said, next time I’d like to integrate a choice reading aspect to this unit. Students could’ve researched and read articles that demonstrate both the good and bad of human nature. That could’ve been an ongoing task throughout the unit for non-fiction independent reading. This would provide more of a balanced literacy experience for the students.

In the closing of her article, Alexis Wiggins says the following:

“I have a lot more respect and empathy for students after just one day of being one again. Teachers work hard, but I now think that conscientious students work harder.”

This experience reminds me that I should design student-centered assessments. Many students are working hard, so let’s have them work hard on things that matter.

The Book, The Reading, The Readers

My recent writing and professional reading is focused on one system: making required reading, and specifically novels, work for students and teachers.

This is an extension of Hacking Literacy, which included a system for creating the right environment for readers.  That book is the where and the why of a literacy classroom: It offers steps to create a place where a culture of readers can grow and arguments on why such a place is important.

Sticking with the 5Ws theme, the last few posts are focused on the what and the how of reading instruction. I’m trying to answer these questions:

  • What should we provide students to read so that they are challenged with volume, range, and complexity?
  • How do we provide students a balanced, them-centered literacy experienced while meeting the other mandates of our jobs?

This second bullet hints at a reality that must be acknowledged: Many teachers are compelled to teach specific texts to their students. These may be whole novels, short stories, nonfiction books, essays, poems, or plays.

One of the most common types of required reading at the secondary level is the whole class novel.  Unfortunately, teaching a whole class novel without intention is also one of the less effective things that literacy educators do.

We might benefit from a system for how to select, plan, and assess students’ whole class reading.

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call this system The Book, The Reading, and The Readers.

  1. The Book: There must be a compelling reason for students to read this specific book. Maybe you or your students have hand-picked this book. Maybe you are a first-year teacher who must keep her job, you are surrounded by veterans, and you have a curriculum mandate to teach a book. 
  2. The Reading: The reading process should mirror an adult’s reading of a novel as closely as possible. It has been argued by many literacy educators with more experience than me that dissecting every moment of a whole class novel will turn students off from reading and will likely not make them better readers, either. (See here and here.)
  3. The Readers: The assessment should not destroy the reading process for student readers but should extend it in a meaningful and exciting way. This third option is the subject of next week’s post.

It’s most likely the case that all three of these components cannot be optimized at all times, and it might be exhausting to try to achieve that.  However, if we strive towards care with The Book, The Reading, and The Readers, then we may succeed in selecting the right texts for our class and teaching them in a way that moves students forward.

How do you design whole class reading experiences?

My students ignored the reading homework. What should I do?

A reflection and how-to on asking students to read at home.

Just to clarify: this is not a hypothetical post. Not a thought experiment. This is about the other day in room 141, and yours truly walking around the room, slowly realizing that the lesson planned was nearly impossible because the students had not done the reading.

In that moment, what is there to do? Or more importantly, why did it happen in the first place?

I question whether assigning curricular texts for homework is valuable in the first place. Without a doubt, students need to read home if they are going to improve enough to meet those goals of volume, range, and complexity. But on the other hand, telling students to read a specific novel or story is a more delicate process. Students might fake read.  Students might cheat. Or students might not do it. This third option was most popular on this particular day.

What are the details? Let’s dive in…

The Assignment

I assigned students “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. As a first-draft reading task, I asked them to imagine that each page of the story was a chapter that they had to create a title for in a few words. The task was simple so that it didn’t bog students down from the main focus: the reading.  But when I circled around the room, fewer than half of the students had titles on the top of their pages. Some of those students appeared to have hastily scribbled words at the beginning of class.

The follow-up task planned for the day, intended as a short warm-up, asked students to compare the titles of their pages, select the most accurate titles for each page, and use the words/phrases of their titles to write a short retelling of the story. Then, the plan was, we would share these retellings, come to a consensus on the main ideas of the story, and move on to a guided reading of a few key scenes.  

Because of the low number of students who completed the reading, we never got past this retelling.

I assigned a focused tasks, and the students had three days to complete it (I’ll get back to that).  

So where did I go wrong?

Looking back, there were a few problems with my reading assignment…

The Roadblocks

Of course, the errors in our decision making are easier to spot in hindsight, but they are still a valuable discussion point. Teacher reflection is valuable. This is what I now realize may have contributed to my students lack of reading at home:

  1. The previous class period was a Friday and the the last period of the day. Teacher-student communication is strained during this time.
  2. The class traveled to the library for this period, in order to browse independent reading books and select one for later reading.
  3. I did very little framing or introduction of the story, aside from distributing the copies and explaining the assignment to students before we went to the library.
  4. I gave it to students to read over a three day weekend. Reading assignments, especially, are less likely to be completed over an extended break or weekend, my bias personal experience tells me.

There wee a few options for how to respond once I realized that very few students read. I believe I could either (A) press on with my lesson as planned, (B) read the story aloud or (C) both A and B. Yes, I opted for C. So, the students who did read moved on to creating their retellings of the story, while those who did not read spent the remaining time reading the story.  This was not the best case scenario, but I think it was a reasonable response to the situation.

How you can learn from my mistake

Here are a few questions to ask for when students didn’t read…or better yet…a few questions to ask before assigning reading:

  • Has this text been properly framed and introduced to the students? Does it feel “random”?
  • Do students have the knowledge and skills to read this text independently?
  • Do students have the stamina to read this text independently?
  • Have I created a reasonable, meaningful task for students to do with this reading?
  • Do students know how this text fits into our lesson, unit of study, and general year-long focus?
  • Is there any other logistical thing (tech access, a big school event, a long weekend) that might make it more or less likely that students will do the reading?

Now, it’s unreasonable for most teachers to stop and reflect on these questions in some kind of formal way.  But this list deserves some merit, even just to skim this once, and internalize some of these for the next time a situation like mine comes up.

It may be that you have a more hardline stance on required reading, and you would have pressed on with your lesson as planned. On the contrary, you may be against all required reading, and therefore much of this post is meaningless to you. Either way, I’d love to know: what do you think I should have done differently?

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When Two Reading Teachers Meet in the Middle (or SSR vs. Whole Novels)

Each side has lessons to share. What are they?

Our high school students are the closest to college. They are the closest to the voting booth. They are the closest to the work force, parenthood, and the driver’s seat. For all of these fast-approaching roles, reading well sure helps.

Yet as we move from elementary up to high school, students read less and less.  After working in a first grade class and twelfth grade class, I’m willing to make this claim about the problem: our teaching practices might be to blame.  Some of the common practices in the upper grades fail to make students better readers or engaged readers. See this article for more.

In the discussion of high school reading, one metric rules all: text complexity. Professors will ask students to read difficult texts, the argument goes, so teachers should get students as close to that college level of complexity as they can.

I suggest that this argument is used irresponsibly for two reasons. One, it ignores the other massive burden on college readers, which is reading volume. And two, it ignores that concept of starting where students are and working towards the desired end point.  See the gym class analogy for more.

These two challenges, text complexity and reading volume, manifest in the ends of the reading instruction spectrum: whole novels and programs like sustained silent reading (SSR). While each side has ardent supporters, we should embrace the lessons that both sides have to offer.  And by the way, everyone has tastes and preferences, but we can’t forget about reading a range of texts, either.

Here’s my thesis on complexityvolume, and range:

The only way to get students to read better (complexity) is to read more independently (volume) and to read widely with support (range).

Let’s see how we can get mediate the two opposing reading teachers to meet in the middle on this issue.

On one end of the spectrum is sustained silent reading.

I’m distinguishing sustained, silent reading (SSR) from other structures like reading workshop or independent reading because SSR is the most laissez-faire.  Let’s say that for SSR, the teacher gives students long, uninterrupted stretches of time to read books of their choice without any assessments or activities.

This is often part of a larger literacy curriculum but for the sake of this article, let’s examine it by itself.

There are some benefits to this approach.  For one, students are more likely to get into “the reading zone, which Nancie Atwell describes in her book of the same name. I suggest you read that book.  While Atwell does not run her classroom as a sustained silent reading program (it’s reading workshop as far as I can see), she does offer insight on the flow state that is possible when we give students time and choice for their reading:

“The only surefire way to induce a love of books is to invite students to select their own.”

And she says,

“A child sitting in a quiet room with a good book isn’t a flashy, or, more significantly, marketable teaching method. It’s just the only way that anyone ever grew up to become a reader.”

To become a reader. This is something that I want for my students. Not just because I want them to love books as I do, but because I’m convinced that strong literacy skills pave the path to a successful life by most measures.

So, two benefits of sustained silent reading are that students get the chance to achieve flow states, which we all need  in order to improve at a task, and students get the chance to develop reading tastes and preferences, which are part of the first steps towards a life-long reading habit.

This sounds excellent.  Are there any potential problems with the sustained silent reading approach, you ask? Here are some that come to mind:

  • Students miss out on the chance for large group discussions of ideas within a text
  • Students may be less likely to read something out of their comfort zone in genre or level 
  • Students might not receive as much instructional support if the teacher does not whole conferences
  • Students miss out on the scaffolded reading instruction that is possible with shared texts

Sustained silent reading helps students with the reading volume approach, and may help them develop tastes and preferences, which can be used as a baseline for addressing reading range. But complexity may be lacking here.

On the other end is whole class novel study.

Let’s say that whole class novel study is when students read one teacher-selected book at home and do activities and assessments during class.  The argument for this approach might be that these novels will push students to become better readers because the teacher often assigns challenging books. It’s the text complexity argument.

Want my full-length argument on why we teach (or don’t teach) whole novels? Read this post.

Ultimately, I think this arrangement works best for students who are reading at grade level and who have observable engagement with their school work.

To support the teaching of whole novels, some might say, “Isn’t it pandering to students’ laziness or holding them to a lower standard if we don’t make them read whole novels? Students who don’t read during college or in their knowledge work career will fail.”

If this practice helps to meet the instructional goal of getting students to read college level texts well, than that is a fair point.  So, will teaching novels help students to read more and read better so they are ready for college and workplace reading?

Education superhero Doug Fischer provided a lightbulb moment for me on this question with his article titled, “Farewell to Farewell to Arms: Deemphasizing the Whole Class Novel.”

Here’s Fischer, with the light bulb (emphasis mine):

“We know that students still struggling to read do not get better at reading from tackling difficult books…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. The bottom line is that, when teachers require all students to read the same book at the same time, English classes are neither standard-centered nor student-centered.”

Fischer suggests that we have to meet students where they are if we want to get them reading more and reading better. He goes on to introduce a potential solution to this conundrum:

“Class novels may actually limit or restrict the variety, depth, and quantity of students’ reading. We would argue that we can expand students’ reading by significantly increasing the number and variety of texts in English class rooms and by offering a greater number of creative opportunities to read in school.”

Here’s an unexpected, late-round comeback from the whole novels camp.  If they back off a bit on the 300-page classic and concede to short stories, poems, articles, graphic novels, and excerpts from longer texts, than they may achieve their goal of introducing more complex texts to students while also achieving another important objective: getting students to read widely.

So, following Fischer’s argument, shared texts (not necessarily whole novels) might be essential for meeting standards, as they allow the class to efficiently and effectively practice literacy skills. But whole class novels are likely neither an engaging nor an effective approach for helping students to meet those standards.  Additionally, by offering a range of short, shared texts of various genres and topics, we can not only (1) encourage reading complexity and (2) reading volume but also (3) reading range.

How do we sift through this burning pile of rubble?

Useful takeaways:

  • Students have to read a lot, and it is unlikely that they will do that unless we integrate choice reading 
  • Students have to read better and widely, and it is unlikely that they will do that unless we teach some shared texts 

Both of you teachers standing on the ends of the spectrum, refusing to budge to the middle: budge.  Do it in the best interest of your students.

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How to read, write, and think in our noisy teacher lives

Don’t rely on willpower to do your work. Block out noise, set priorities, and use systems to get work done.

This year, my students and I read an excerpt from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in which he lists all of the virtues that he believes will lead to a successful life. A common thread running throughout these virtues is moderation or self-control. And though Mr. Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence 240 years ago, controlling our impulses is still an essential skill for living a good life.

Ben Franklin had far fewer inputs battling for his attention, though. The modern teacher faces a daily war of mental energy and focus.

Here are a few habits I practice in order to teach English and write consistently without working much at night or on the weekends.

  1. Write out the six periods of the day and 1-3 words describing how I’ll spend that time. This can be a class period or a prep period. Even though I’ve already got my lesson plans written before the week begins, this list of six items helps me visualize the day and stay focused. It is especially useful for the prep periods, where I am prone to reading articles researching for stuff in the future that doesn’t need to be done now. If I had to choose just one item on the list to use, this would be it.
  2. Check email 2 scheduled times during the day. Get to inbox zero unless absolutely impossible. This one might feel uncomfortable because it seems that all sorts of important pieces of information will be missed if we’re not glued to our inboxes. For the most part, that’s just not true. The constant checking of email is a distraction from the work that is important but hard. We run towards a quick mental fix of checking email we so we can deal with someone else’s priorities instead of our own. You don’t have to check email as often as you think you do.
  3. Use Google Keep to capture the ideas, links, checklists and other text that is important but doesn’t have a specific place to go. I use Google Keep to write temporary checklists or long-term goals that I’d like to review every once in a while. Along with Clipboard History, Keep is a place to save comments that I use when providing feedback to students during class discussions or common types of writing. The notes can be colored-coded, exported to Google Docs, turned into dynamic, and shared like a Doc. Keep is the unsung hero of the Google Apps, and it’s probably the only “productivity app” that I need. 
  4. Take short walks during work times. During a prep period or when I’ve taught a few periods in a row, I’ll make sure to take a quick walk to get a drink of water, pop my head outside the door for a few seconds of fresh air, or even just do a lap to the end of the hallway and back. You need exercise to keep your brain stimulated.
  5. When I enter my room in the morning, I don’t turn the computer on first thing. Instead I walk around, straighten up the chairs, pick up anything that’s left on the floor or lost & found items, peruse my professional books or classroom library, then make my way over to my desk and computer. That’s where I write down the six blocks of time for my day.
  6. Do a “complete shutdown” at the end of the school day. Another idea that I’ve put into practice from Cal Newport’s Deep Work.  Newport’s logic, as far as I took it, is that we need our brains to devote intense focus to one task, and then we need to shut off that focus and leave the work behind, restoring our brains for the next work session. This cultivates a more balanced, present-state life.  The complete shutdown is a quick ritual to allow the brain to truly recharge when you leave your classroom or office. There are three parts to the work shut down: Scan the email inbox for the last time, ensuring there are no urgent messages, clean off the physical work area (the desk, for example), and review the task list to make a rough plan for tomorrow (I use Trello to keep track of upcoming tasks, it’s an incredibly powerful tool).


    A screenshot of my task list on Trello (tense errors and all).

  7. Review the excessive notes that I take during conversations, meetings, and readings. I may have a case of hypergraphia, and often times the notes and scribbles go unused. However, taking a few minutes out of the day for review helps me to keep track of the lesson ideas, connections, and other inspirations that cross my mind during the school day.
  8. Do a weekly teacher reflection. This is one that is more about the act of writing and less about reviewing or reading the text later. After I’ve built up a few years of these reflections in my Google Form, I’d love to look at the trends and patterns, but for now the act of reflecting at the end of the week is cathartic in itself. It reminds me of the positive and negative trends happening in my teaching and in my life, and helps me return all things back to the baseline and towards improvement. Here’s a link to a copy of the form       

Even though the word “habits” is mentioned above, it is a constant battle with my willpower to maintain each of these.  It’s like the meditator who notices his wandering mind and brings his attention back to his breath. I’ll notice myself leaving for the afternoon with a super messy desk or notice that I have no plan for a prep period and then correct for next time.

None of these individual tasks is a cure-all. Some of them won’t work for you, and some may. For me, these actions help to calm the mind, get more done, and read, write, and think in our noisy teacher lives.

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We should teach novels because…

Because we want students to have cultural knowledge.
We want students to have the experience of reading particular books. Shakespeare is likely the most common example here.

Because we want students to have shared intellectual experiences.
There are opportunities for small group and whole class conversations, close readings of importance scenes, and collaboration to push through obstacles. This is the stuff of good literacy teaching.

Because we want students to develop reading stamina.
If students are to succeed in college or their career, they must read complex texts independently. That is the most Common Core thing you will read all day. I don’t see much wrong with it, though, as one goal for our literacy instruction.

Because of tradition.
Many books hold a decades-long place in school curricula. Teachers have established projects that students do yearly. Veteran teachers share helpful resources with newer teachers on these long-held, canonical texts.

Because it is simpler than other reading class structures.
Reading workshop, literature circles, or book groups all require planning, organization, and a willingness to have things get messy. My classroom looks and sounds more organized when everyone reads the same novel at once.

And ultimately…

Because it is required.
Many teachers have a list of books that students must read. Students sit for midterms, finals and other shared assessments related to specific novels. Ideally, teachers compare results and practices in the pursuit of deeper student learning.

Wait a second. Go back to the top of this list. Begin with the headline. Now change each of those statements from “We should…” to “Should we…?”

Should we teach novels because we want students to have certain cultural knowledge?
Many argue that students should read Shakespeare and the Bible because so much in culture alludes to those texts. But as our society becomes more multicultural, will we broaden the list of canonical and classic literature to represent more diversity? Further, in a world where I can find other people online who share my exact literary or cultural obsessions (“The Howling Fantods” for you fellow DFW fans), is a “pop culture” knowledge of classic literature as important?

Should we teach novels because of tradition?
Tradition is neither a reason for or against change. Many teachers ask their students to read one teacher-selected novel at a time because their department, school or teacher prep program passed that practice down to them. In that case, examine the results. If there is a deficit in many students, a lack of engagement, or the potential for more challenging work, consider a reset.

Should we teach novels because it is required?
Even though teaching whole novels can often lead to fake reading, it is often a requirement. This doesn’t mean that students can’t or won’t read novels, but required does not equate to best practice. We can often fulfill the duties of our jobs and use our professional judgement to make requirements work for our students.

Should we teach novels because we want students to have a shared intellectual experience?
Sorry to answer a question with a question but…how valuable is the shared intellectual experience if many students have not read the book? Yes, a student-led intellectual discussion about a classic work of literature is a valuable experience if the students have  made meaning of the text first. This surface learning must happen through actual reading before we push for deep learning like thematic discussions.

Should we teach novels because we want students to develop reading stamina with complex texts?
Let’s use an analogy to P.E. class. All students are required to run one mile for time. Instead of taking the students down to the track, the teacher brings them to Planet Fitness. There, each student must hop on the treadmill, set the speed to 9.0, and click start. Now, the results:

  • Five kids walk away, realizing that the teacher is crazy and they’d prefer not to try.
  • Three kids honestly want to do it, but they don’t have the ability. They eventually hop off or get dropped off the back.
  • Six kids think they’re doing it, but they’re actually holding onto the handles and dragging their feet most of the time.
  • Four kids lowered the setting down to 6.0, but huffed and puffed so hard that the teacher never noticed.
  • Two kids felt that the pace was perfect for them.
  • Five kids from the track team jacked it up to 10.0 and finished before the teacher expected. They looked at their phones while the rest of the kids to finished.

Even with the important goal of getting students college ready, we must first meet them where they are.

Should we teach novels because it is easier to manage than other reading class structures?
Without proper resources, teachers can’t be expected to adapt new class structures. However, in resources like Book Love, In the Middle, Power and Portfolios, The Book Whisperer, Whole Novels for the Whole Class and in the stories of teachers like Gerilyn Lessing, Steve Ferguson, and others in Hacking Literacy, there are ideas for how to make it work.

Which question from the list above do you answer “yes” to? Let me know.

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The Causes and Symptoms of Our Fake Reading Problem

You’ve searched up your recent headache on WebMD with a terrifying diagnosis. Your latest freckle turns up grim results. Your new hangnail? A death sentence.  Sometimes, in our age of excessive information, playing doctor to ourselves can be a scary, if not, silly endeavor.

But what if we look at our reading classroom as a medical patient with its own set of symptoms, causes, and treatments?

In some cases, the diagnosis will be clear: we’ve got a fake reading problem on our hands.

A definition we can work from:

Fake reading

(/fāk ˈrēdiNG/)


  1. A student’s process of completing required assignments, including quizzes, essays, discussions, and other activities, in order to achieve a passing grade but without reading a required text
  2. The action of presenting one’s self as reading, when in reality, one is daydreaming, texting, or otherwise intellectually engaged
  3. A situation that teachers often ignore or deny that can be addressed and treated through the cultivation of an authentic culture of readers in the classroom

Some symptoms of fake reading:

Students write answers that may be factually correct but lack key details, page numbers, or quotations from the text.

Students who normally are successful at holding discussions or debates fail to maintain a conversation about the book beyond a rehashing of events.

Students scramble before class to complete an assignment, such as creating questions about a text, or answering a key question.

In conversation, a student moves to the big ideas, discussing them before they’ve really developed.  They’ve read an online analysis of the early chapters.

Students hold the book upside down in class, or they seem to aggressively swipe at the pages (clandestine iPhone use).

Students struggle to speak or write about the author’s craft .

Students’ writing about the text contains plagiarized excerpts from a site like Sparknotes.

Students choose a new independent reading book, sit down, turn to page 100 and begin reading.

Or, students tell you that they are not reading. They told Penny Kittle in this video.

While some of these are a bit facetious, hopefully, the point is clear: certain situations promote superficial thinking, rushed work, or even straight up pretending from our students. This means they are not developing the skills and content knowledge that are essential for our course.  The logical next step is to examine the factors in our control as teachers that may contribute to the symptoms above.

Some causes of fake reading:

These may exist in isolation or may co-occur:

Students fail to see relevance to their assigned reading outside of the pursuit of a good grade, if they are in that pursuit.

Students have no choice in their reading. Required reading can be a positive experience. I recommend Ariel Sacks’s book Whole Novels.

Students lack the adequate skills or background knowledge to make meaning of a text independently. They can’t read this book on their own.

Students lose interest because the pace is too slow.  Successful readers get into a “flow state.” If there are too many interruptions for quizzes or other activities, students lose interest. For the extended argument on this, read Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide.

Students feel that they have no time for reading. It’s our job to show them how successful adults with a busy schedule make time for reading.

Depending on the texts that students are required to read in your district or the texts that you have available for choice reading, some of these may feel more insurmountable than others. Notice that in many classrooms, especially high school English ones, the traditional process of developing curriculum around a handful of old classics, read in their entirety, by all students, mostly outside of class basically hits on every one of these causes. Here, some might argue that honors or AP level students have the adequate skills and background knowledge to read some classics, but that does not make them immune to fake reading. (see #2 below)

Two other observations

  1. It seems that, as a whole, fake readers are not a specific type of student, but instead can be any student when the conditions are present. A student who is actually reading this book at this time of the year because of this way we’re teaching may be the same student who is hearing his classmate offer him a 10,000-foot view summary of that other book during the morning of a class discussion during that other time of year.
  2. It seems that fake reading is not necessarily correlated with students’ reading level or overall academic capabilities. In fact, students who are more driven by grades may be more likely to take shortcuts when they see shortcuts available to them. This might lead higher achieving students to avoid reading when intrinsic factors do not compel them to do so.

Turn the obstacle into an opportunity

Framing this discussion in medical terms makes sense to me, if we think of our teaching in terms of the factors that we can and cannot control.

Instead of symptoms of fake reading leading us to get angry at a student, chastise her for not completing a reading, or implement some punitive grading, maybe we notice that there are multiple students exhibiting the same behavior. That’s quality feedback to use as a means of guiding instruction. Then, we can take a step back and look at where any of those potential causes of fake reading might be present in instruction. We can determine a treatment.

Here, teachers may make an argument: my curriculum outlines a series of texts that students must read throughout the year. This has been my thought throughout this school year, as my department’s 9-12 curriculum for college prep level students was re-written to include many more shared reading experiences.

But notice that, at least in this article, there is no cause of fake reading that says “students are required to read certain texts.” This can’t be where we turn up our palms, saying, we’ve got to get through these books.

Ultimately, we don’t teach texts. We teach students.

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The Three Part Lesson That Works with Every Text

Some of the best teaching is DRY.

“Dry” teaching? No, not your economics teachers with a hot overhead projector, blurry transparency, and squeaky vis-a-vis markers. Not that kind of dry.

DRY is an acronym in computer programming that stands for “don’t repeat yourself.” It is a reminder for programmers to write their code so that they do not type the same thing multiple times, but instead use variables and other abstractions to have the computer do more work for the programmer.  Think of making a photocopy as opposed to re-typing the same document from scratch every time you needed a new copy.

For teachers, the DRY concept can apply to the set of instructional strategies, lessons, or frameworks that work in a variety of contexts, with multiple texts, and for various objectives.

This post will share a DRY framework that has worked for me this year, with a narration of a lesson that actually happened, and another lesson that is hypothetical.

Three Levels of Thinking

One DRY lesson that works for me it is to lead students through a three-level reading of a text:

  • Literal (Summarizing key ideas)
  • Evaluative (Making observations and inferences)
  • Analytical (Making arguments and connections)


These levels of thinking seem to work with most texts, in most genres, with most students, as long as I’ve selected a text at an appropriate complexity level and of an engaging topic for students.

Doug Fischer and Nancy Frey offer three text-dependent questions that fit into these three levels of thinking. The questions are:

  • What does the text say? (Summarize it.)
  • How does the text work? (Discuss structure, style, word choice)
  • What does the text mean? (Analyze the argument, discuss the theme, make deep inferences)

[I often change the last question to “Why does the text matter?” to get students thinking about the “so what?” significance of our reading.]

These questions are simple but versatile, so I recommend giving them a try. Whether students are reading an independently chosen novel as part of your classroom culture of readers or if students are close reading a teacher-chosen excerpt for a timed writing, students can consider these questions and gain deeper understanding of their reading.

Fischer and Frey discuss this framework in an article on formative assessment, explaining the inextricable link between solid instructional frameworks and formative assessment plans:

“A formative assessment system is only as good as the instructional framework on which it rests. No formative assessment system can compensate for poor instruction. Neither does simply having an instructional framework ensure that students will learn; both a framework and a system are required.”

One of my favorite things about Fischer’s & Frey’s questions is that, with careful planning and practice, they are both a formative assessment system and an instructional plan. The possibilities for modeling, collaboration, independent practice and assessment are endless when applying the questions to specific texts and objectives.

Here’s a reading lesson from my academic (college prep) English class of 24 sophomore students.

A sample lesson

The students had come to a long aside in Act I of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Miller explores a character’s background and comments on the moral and political reasons for writing the play in these excerpts. These are dense readings, and often inaccessible for students. But, they are essential for making meaning of the play. So, I applied Fischer and Frey’s three levels of questioning to a lesson on an aside about Reverend Hale and the role of the devil in society.

1. Begin with the three questions displayed on the board.

What does the text say?

How does the text work?

Why does the text matter?

Me: Please copy each of these questions in your notebook. To the right of each question, explain, in 5 words or less, what the question is asking you to do. What mental task is required for you to answer the question?

Ask students to turn and talk to a partner, then generate possibilities as a whole class. Lastly, I reveal my ideas about the purpose of each question to help the class come to a consensus.

2. Me: So, in yesterday’s read aloud, we stopped right at a big, scary-looking set of paragraphs that interrupt the dialogue. This is, as we’ve discussed before, called an aside. Today we’re going to apply those three questions to this excerpt as means of understanding why Arthur Miller would interrupt our reading of the dialogue between characters with this huge chunk of information.

I distribute copies of the excerpt. On our initial read aloud, I ask students to mark any place in the text that catches their attention. No annotations, no underlines, just a check. Students turn and talk to a partner, then share as a whole class.

Me: So, ladies and gentleman, what did you notice?

[As students share, I’m thinking: Are they literal-level responses or are they more inferential and analytical level responses? This determines the pace of the lesson.]

Me: Ok, thank you to everyone who shared their reactions.

3. Me: So, before I can really discuss this passage, or make an argument about why Arthur Miller includes it, I have to understand it at a literal level. Take your colored pencil and follow along with me as I think aloud. I’m going to start by circling words and phrases that appear meaningful as I re-read the text.

I circle three to four phrases, explaining my choices aloud.  Choices include: “ascertain witchcraft,” “pondering the invisible world,” and “Lucifer’s many-faced lieutenants.” I paraphrase these statements in the margins, making comments like “he’s trying to find the witches,” “he spends time thinking about spirits and religion,” “he believes that the Devil has helpers.”

Students do the same with a partner, then share their choices with the whole class. Students pick out phrases including “view of cosmology,” “man’s worthlessness until redeemed,” and “God’s beard and the devil’s horns.” Students use their circled phrases to make some literal level annotations.

4. For this level of the lesson, we never get to the “you do it independently” level of gradual release, because I’d like to keep things more structured as students are gaining an understanding of the text.

With that said, this was the check for understanding:

Me:  So, you have 5-10 phrases circled. I’d like to check to see how well you can work together to make some meaning out of our annotations. Work with a partner, or at most two people, to write a one paragraph summary of the aside about Reverend Hale. Use at least 5 keywords and phrases in your summary.

5. To close, a few students share their summaries, and we compile a “master summary” together, using the ELMO.

In subsequent class periods, I reduced the teacher modeling and increased the collaborative and independent portions. Students analyzed Miller’s word choice and tone, and his use of plural first person to speak to the audience. Eventually, the class conducted short discussions about Miller’s reasoning for including this excerpt in the play. While not all students were precisely accurate, the depth of thinking, I’d argue, was possible because students gained a strong foundational understanding of the text through answering “What does the text say?” and working up from there.

It’s a framework, not a formula

In other situations, a complete reversal of the lesson above might make more sense. Let’s say, for example, that students read a poem that initially appears simple, like William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheel Barrow,” which I’ll reproduce below because it is in the public domain:

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


For a close reading lesson on this poem, a more appropriate series of events might be to begin with the “you do” portion and gradually work towards the whole-class, teacher-led portion:

  1. Have students answer “What does the text say?” entirely independently, circling key words and writing a short summary.
  2. Ask students to collaborate with a partner and answer “How does the text work?” as they revisit the poem, perhaps with a new colored pencil, using brackets, arrows, circles and lines to make visible their thinking about the style and structure of the poem.
  3. Lastly I might pass out copies of these analyses of the poem, doing the “Why does the text matter?” question for the students, but allowing them to see models of the deeper thinking that a reader can do about a text.
  4. To bring the work back to a personal response to students, I might ask students to rank the interpretations on the photo copy on a scale based on how much they agree with the literary critics, then have the students justify their choice in writing or discussion.

The next step: Student-generated questions

The best questions in our classes are those asked by students, not the teacher. Jim Burke shares a “Types of Questions” handout in his book What’s the big idea?  And the three types of questions he suggests having students ask closely align with Fischer and Frey’s three levels of thinking for text-dependent questions.

Burke’s three questions are:

  • Factual questions: these are the questions that we can answer by pointing to a specific line in the text. (“What was Reverend Hale’s past experience with witchcraft?”)
  • Inductive questions: these require making inferences, and often rely on multiple pieces of evidence. (“What are Abigail’s motivations for her actions on page 46?”)
  • Analytical questions: these asks students to have a deep understand of a text, and connect ideas in the text to other texts or concepts. (“How is The Crucible timeless? How is it dated?”)

Notice that these are three very similar levels of thinking, but now students are doing a bit more of work, as they are required to ask and answer the questions.

The power in these lessons for me is in their elegance, in the scientific sense. They are simple solutions to the complex problem of how do we get kids to read a complex text?

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How we read digital texts

Last time, we looked at the specific features of digital texts. This is akin to examining the structure of a poem, in my opinion. It’s something we have to do in order to fully make meaning of any text we read.

Even when reading a plain article that has been published online, that’s a different experience than reading that same article on paper.  We have to be aware of those differences in our experience as readers. Increasingly, it seems that we need to explicitly acknowledge those differences with our students, and assess whether or not they have the specific skills required of reading a text on a device.

First, let’s acknowledge that the term digital text is just about as specific as the term novel.  We have to dive into the specifics in order to make progress in understanding this type of reading.

Kinds of digital texts

Here are the types of digital texts I’ve identified in my own reading, ordered from simplest to most complex:

  • The Plain Article: a simple text-based article, which could easily appear in a paper format, but is published online
  • The Hyperlinked Article: this could or might be published in a paper format, too, but the article is enhanced with hyperlinks that point to source material or references. Most of the articles on this blog
  • The Multimedia Article: Building on the hyperlinked article with images and video. Here is an engaging example, an article about the death of Fidel Castro.
  • The Digital Story: This is more of an immersive experience created by a writer, usually with a mixture of media and some other coding or design applied. This is an awesome example.

Why reading a digital text is hard

All of the skills required to read a paper text are also required of a digital text (except, perhaps the ability to avoid paper cuts). In addition, though, there are a certain set of skills and habits that we need in order to read digital texts successfully:

  • We have to be mindful of the urge to skim the text, especially when reading on mobile devices where swiping is so easy
  • We have to make decisions about what additional media (links, images, videos) to consume, and then determine how those additional media contribute to our understanding of the text
  • We have to consider the source, as it is hard to avoid straight up fake news or just bad news, well-hidden bias, or our own self-created intellectual echo chambers
  • We can interact with other readers through comments and social media, and our understanding of the text may be swayed, challenged, or undermined by these readers’ comments
  • We have to remain focused on reading the text and avoid creating attention residue. Depending on the device that we are using, our reading might be interrupted by notifications, pop-ups, comments, and advertisements that are specifically designed to distract us from our reading.

Observe your digital reading

Observe the experience that you’ve had reading this article, an email or a book on your Kindle.  Here are a few things you might pay attention to:

  • How easy it is to quickly swipe down, skimming a text
  • The immediacy of tapping the screen to turn the page on an e-reader
  • The tendency of your eyes to immediately start scanning the page instead of reading every word and sentence

If we can begin to observe the features of digital texts and the challenges of digital reading, we can recognize the skills required for successful digital reading and teach those skills to our students.

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