A Step-By-Step Guide
Planning a novel study can seem like an overwhelming task. And when you’re just throwing things together (we’ve all been there), it totally can be. However, a novel study is a cornerstone in an ELA classroom. You might feel immense pressure to design a unit where students can finally let their foundational reading skills shine and even take them to the next level. Therefore, it’s imperative to create a novel study with intent and purpose. After reading this, you’ll be able to create one with a lot less stress too.
When planning a novel study for your classroom, you want to avoid planning as you go. (That’s my number one piece of advice.) Now, I’m not saying you can’t make adjustments along the way. You’ll likely find that it’s hard to make it through an entire novel without making a tweak here or there. However, having a plan will not only ease your stress but will ensure a meaningful and purpose-driven novel study for your students as well.
So, whether this is your first time planning a novel study for your students or you’re looking to clean up your process and planning, follow this step-by-step approach. Trust me; It’ll benefit both you and your students.
WHAT EXACTLY IS A NOVEL STUDY?
Let me start by clarifying what a novel study is not. A novel study does not mean simply studying a plot, and it’s more than quizzing students on what happened on a specific page of a particular book. It’s not just about who did what when. Planning and facilitating a novel study isn’t synonymous with teaching a book.
Teaching a novel study goes beyond the book. Instead, a novel study goes beyond the basics of reading words on a page. Now that your students have a strong foundation of phonics, fluency, and vocabulary, a novel study helps them dive into the next phase of their learning journey.
It’s teaching students how to engage with a book. It goes beyond the words on the page and helps students understand to read between the lines. A novel study helps students develop essential reading comprehension and critical thinking skills that they will continue to build upon throughout their educational journey and beyond.
A novel study is also an opportunity for students to be highly active participants in their learning experience. When done well, a novel study finds the balance between guidance and student-led analysis to develop, practice, and refine their reading comprehension and analysis skills. And perhaps one of the best potential outcomes of a novel study is creating a safe space where students can build a love and appreciation for reading. (What kind of English teacher wouldn’t want that?)
UNDERSTANDING THE BENEFITS.
Before you dive into planning your novel study, you might be wondering if it’s worth the hype. Afterall, if you’re going to take the time and effort to plan it out, you want to be sure your students will benefit. (Hint: They will.)
The purpose and benefits are going to vary from class to class, student to student. You may choose certain novels to hone in on specific skills, standards, and learning goals. The novel study might be part of a larger unit or may stand on its own. Regardless, there are many benefits to introducing a novel study to your classroom.
A novel study is a great way to check many boxes with one cohesive unit. For starters, novel studies provide plenty of room to address multiple learning goals and state standards within a single unit. I’ve found it’s much more enjoyable for myself and my students when learning goals flow seamlessly from one to another. Additionally, novel studies provide the perfect setting for bringing together reading and writing skills (an ELA teacher’s dream).
Perhaps one of the most significant student benefits of novel study is exposure. Novels provide students a portal to different experiences and perspectives. Our experiences often shape our lives, yet student experiences can be rather limited. So, whether you’re hoping to expose them to different cultures, historical periods, or circumstances and experiences outside their own, a well-planned and executed novel study can open the door to understanding and even lay the foundation for empathy.
Similarly, students gain skills beyond the book. Students might need to collaborate on activities or practice listening to the opinions of others, helping them develop essential interpersonal skills. So, they’ll gain a sense of perspective from reading and discussing the novel. Students will have many opportunities to understand that not everyone thinks and works in the same way.
Lastly, a novel study is a great opportunity to contextualize new vocabulary. While students might be used to spelling bees and weekly vocab lists, a novel study gives them a context for learning new words. Instead of learning new words for the sake of learning new words, vocabulary is contextualized for a more meaningful and authentic understanding. To this day, I cannot hear the word disillusionment without thinking of the great tragedy of The Great Gatsby and the American experience in the 1920s.
Now that you understand what a novel study is (and isn’t) and some of its greatest benefits, let’s get to planning!
Step 1: Know Your Purpose.
It all starts with a purpose. So, you want to begin planning your novel study with an idea of where you’re going and, ultimately, taking the students.
Consider asking yourself the following questions to get you thinking about the bigger picture:
- How does this novel study fit into your curriculum? Is it your approach to your next unit or a supplement to a larger unit?
- What do you want your students to gain from this novel study? Be sure to think beyond the novel, considering both transferable skills and broader knowledge.
Perhaps this novel study is meant to introduce students to a particular genre or literary element. Or maybe you’re honing in on a particular experience or culture. In other cases, especially in middle school, you may be looking to provide a deeper context into a historical event or period students are learning in social studies.
Regardless, novel studies are a great way to provide context and build a rich understanding. However, you must know what that purpose is so you can effectively fulfill it.
WHAT TO CONSIDER WHEN DEFINING YOUR PURPOSE FOR YOUR NOVEL STUDY.
- Essential question. As you define your purpose, consider any essential questions you are looking for your students to answer by the end of the novel study. These questions are usually big abstract questions attached to curriculum units. A question might be as abstract as, “What role does tradition play in society?” Or, it might be more literature-focused, such as, “How does character development help move a story forward?” or “How does setting impact a story?”
- Universal theme. Similar to an essential question, you might be planning your novel study around a universal theme such as “The American Dream,” “Identity,” or “Overcoming adversity.” Whatever the theme, it’s essential to understand its role in your purpose. It’s imperative to have this understanding before moving on to the next step.
- Standards. Remember, one of the benefits of facilitating a novel study is hitting multiple standards in a cohesive way. So, when planning your novel study, be sure to identify the target standards your study will cover. (This is especially important if you work in a district where you must submit unit plans that identify key targets.) Even if that doesn’t apply to you, it can help anchor your planning as you move forward. Stick to no more than three standards so you can be sure to touch upon each standard at least twice throughout the novel study. Any more than three standards and it will likely be hard to get beyond the surface level of the standards.
- Learning needs and goals. As you consider your purpose, look toward the specific needs of your class. Needs, and therefore goals, will differ from class to class. So, even if you’re revamping an existing novel study, be sure to revisit this component and adjust to your particular group of students.
Step 2: Choose Your Framework.
Once you have clarity around your purpose, the next step is to choose the framework for your novel study. There are three frameworks to consider:
- Whole-class novel study
- Small-group novel study
- Independent novel study
In a whole-class novel study, the whole group reads the same book. This approach creates a shared experience among the students as they engage in a particular text, supplemental materials, and assessments. Despite being a whole-class approach, you can implement various activities and reading techniques, including whole-class, partner, and independent reading.
In a small-group novel study, each group has a different text. You may decide to give students a say in which book they read, but ultimately, it’s imperative you match the students with the books that suit their abilities best. Depending on the needs of your classroom, the different groups may be working on similar or different skills and tasks. However, I recommend finding a unifying theme, essential question, or experience across all books if possible. That way, students can come together to engage in whole-class discussions.
Just as the name indicated, an independent novel study consists of each student reading their own text. This is a highly independent approach where you might offer mini-lessons throughout the unit, but students work on reading and responding to assignments independently. While some students thrive with this level of autonomy, I do not recommend this framework for struggling or reluctant readers. With that said, you might consider putting together an independent study for highly advanced readers despite a whole-class or small-group approach.
NOT SURE WHICH FRAMEWORK TO CHOOSE?
For this grade level, I recommend embarking on a whole-class or small-group novel study. However, if this is the first time the majority of your students are engaging in a novel study or if they require more direct instruction and guidance to achieve your desired goals, I suggest a whole class novel study. Typically speaking, this framework allows more room for redirection and adjustments on the fly.
If your classroom includes a wide range of needs and abilities, a small-group novel study might just be the best way to target particular groups of students. If you are overwhelmed by the idea, I suggest using a similar approach for each group, adjusting the specifics of the supplemental material as needed. For example, perhaps you expect one group to fill out a graphic organizer as a response. However, you may provide the organizer to another group while asking them to turn in a fully developed written response. Alternatively, you can begin the year with a whole-class novel study to lay the foundation, introducing students to the components and expectations of this type of unit. Then, follow up with a small-group novel study later in the year to accommodate varying needs or simply give students more autonomy.
Step 3: Choose Your Book
When you choose the book(s) for your novel study, you’ll want to consider what resources you have available to you. If you’re planning this unit far enough in advance and have a hefty book budget, you might have more choice than a teacher working from a pre-approved reading list or library resources.
Regardless, this is why this step comes after clarifying your purpose. Be sure to select a book that aligns with your purpose. For example, will the book help students gain perspective around a historical event or period? Will students be able to apply the book when answering an essential question? Does it fit within the scope of the unit theme?
The good news is novel studies have a lot of wiggle room. Unlike being confined to the content in a (potentially outdated) textbook, you have the freedom to select a novel that fits your goals and classroom needs. So, take advantage of the opportunity if you are able to.
HERE ARE A FEW THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN CHOOSING YOUR NOVEL STUDY TEXT:
- Difficulty. This is your Goldilocks moment. You don’t want to select a book that is too difficult or too easy and risk losing student engagement. Instead, seek out that book that is juuuust right. (Remember, if that seems like an impossible task due to a diverse group, consider setting up a small-group novel study.
- Appropriateness. You want to consider what is appropriate for your student’s age. Just because a protagonist is 15 doesn’t mean you need to disregard it as an option. However, you might want to steer clear of books with vulgar language or references to sex, violence, and drugs. When considering appropriateness, be sure to consider parent and district expectations as well to avoid any potential backlash.
- Interest. Your students will be spending anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months working with this text. So, while it might feel impossible to select a text that will pique everyone’s interests, consider the group as a whole. Will they find the story relatable or intriguing? Does it address a relatable theme or question? Even if you’re choosing (or required) to read a classic text, how can it be made relevant to modern society or students’ lives?
- Why? Again, be sure the text aligns with your purpose. This one is so important that, yes, I mentioned it twice.
Now, if you’ve chosen a book you haven’t yet read, your next step is to read the novel. Trust me; you don’t want to be surprised by inappropriate language or controversial topics. However, if you are crunched for time, I understand you may not have time to read an entire novel. At the very least, I suggest you read the synopsis and a handful of reviews to grasp the general storyline and identify any potential red flags in content. I also recommend doing a “finger walk” through the text to get a feel for the writing, including vocabulary and structure. Not everyone is looking to read a book written in diary format or verse. Alternatively, that might be exactly what you want!
WHILE YOU READ/REREAD
Let’s face it. Even as teachers, we might need a refresh and review on a novel we’ve read before. (Yes, even if we’ve taught it eight times.) So, as you read, consider paying attention to the following as you prepare to plan an entire novel study around the text:
- What from the text is relevant to the students’ lives? Modern society? Other areas they may be studying in other subjects?
- What themes and patterns are you finding? How do they fit into the overall goal of the novel study or overarching unit?
- What are you picking up on that you want your students to notice too?
- What literary elements do you want to teach or (at a minimum) point out in the story? (Things like parallel plot structure, character foils, monologue, extended metaphor, motif, static vs. dynamic characters, foreshadowing, etc.)
- What words might students need to know to build their vocabulary and/or enhance their understanding of the novel?
- How does the story unfold? How could it be broken up into manageable reading assignments for students?
- What parts of the story have a lot to unpack? Where do you feel students would benefit most from your input vs. independent reading?
From there, you can use your annotations to guide your focus when planning daily lessons, discussions, and assessments.
Step 4: Set Your Timeline.
When planning your novel study, you need to know how much time you plan to allot to this unit. In cases where you have limited time, you might need to flip-flop this step and the one prior.
Some novel studies move quicker than others. In some cases, you may only need four weeks, and in others, you may need an entire quarter. Your timeline will also depend on your daily schedule. Does your school operate on block scheduling? How long is each class period?
Regardless, when deciding which timeline is right for you and your students, consider how much work you’d like done in class vs. at home. How much whole class reading do you plan on doing? That always takes longer than independent reading. Are you sharing this unit with supplemental minilessons to provide historical context or teach writing strategies? These are all things you want to keep in mind as you determine your timeline.
As you’re setting up your timeline, you need to think beyond your novel study as well. I suggest marking off important dates to be mindful of as you plan your daily lessons. You don’t want to forget about half days or holidays– those could really throw off your plan if you’re not prepared. Additionally, it’s worth noting any days you know you will be out of the classroom for workshops, appointments, etc. I always recommend using those as independent workdays or “light” days. Mapping those out ahead of time can save you from stressfully shuffling things around for last minute adjustments.
Lastly, plan a buffer week. This extra week prepares you for the unexpected that is bound to come up. Maybe there was an unexpected school closure or an activity that took longer than expected. Whatever the interruption to your ideal timeline, it’s best to be prepared. Tacking on a buffer week to the end of your timeline will give you the wiggle room you need just in case. That way you don’t have to stress if you need to slow down or run into an unexpected obstacle.
In the rare event you end ahead of schedule (AKA on time)? Enjoy it. You can give the students an extra day or two on a final project, add in a fun activity that didn’t quite make the cut the first time around, or simply move on. (We all know that extra week will come in handy at some point down the line.)
I’m telling you, this buffer week is a teacher’s best-kept secret when it comes to planning a novel study.
ESTABLISH READING ASSIGNMENTS.
Once you establish your timeline, you have a foundation for determining your reading assignments. Use your timeline to help you determine how to best chunk out the novel. Account for both in-class and at-home reading, if applicable.
If you’re not sure how to chunk it out, divide the total number of pages in the book by the number of weeks you plan on dedicating to reading. (Remember, the first and last week might not involve reading, so be sure to double-check your plan.) Then divide that number by the number of days you plan on reading each week, in class or at home. You’ll likely have to adjust the number to match up with reasonable breaks in the text, like chapters, but it’s a dependable place to start.
Once you know how many pages will be covered each day, in class or at home, be sure to denote which days will be specific for in-class reading. Feel free to mark down which type of in-class reading you’d like to do, such as whole class or independent reading. While this might seem oddly specific, it will help you when it comes to filling in the accompanying lessons and activities.
Additionally, planning both in-class and at-home reading helps you stay on track. Worst case, students have less homework or have to tack on a few extra pages. But trust me. Having a general idea will come in handy when planning out the details.
Step 5: Choose Your Final Assessment.
Start at the end. No, I’m not speaking in riddles. I am, however, talking about Backward Design. So, before filling your schedule with mini-lessons, formative assessments, and fun activities, determine how you will summatively assess your students at the end of the novel study.
Remember, the purpose of a novel study is to go beyond the basics and get students interacting with a text to build a deeper understanding. It’s about comprehension and critical thinking, not regurgitation. Steer clear of static multiple-choice questions and short answer prompts with limiting right and wrong answers. While these can make for quick exit tickets and reading checks, the final assessment should move beyond basic comprehension.
To do this, you’ll need to revisit your purpose. What are the learning goals and standards you are trying to assess by the end of this unit? Then, you need to determine how you are going to assess student learning. Is it going to be through a formal writing assignment? A reflection? A multi-faceted project? A formal discussion or presentation? Will students have a choice?
Once you have the final assessment squared away, be sure to add it to your calendar, marking the final due date. Then, you can work backward to fill in imperative dates to prepare students for the final assessment as needed. For example, certain assessments might need time for workshop days, peer revisions, or presentations. However, plan all of these dates (including the final due date) before the buffer week.
And don’t worry yet if you don’t have the exact assessment or rubrics finalized. For now, stay focused on the plan.
Step 6: Work Backward to Fill in the Rest!
Now that you have your essential framework laid out, it’s time to fill in the blanks! Using your reading schedule and final assessment, work backward to fill out the remaining blocks. You’ll want to incorporate activities before, during, and after reading to round out your novel study.
INTRODUCE THE NOVEL.
Start by planning out how you are going to introduce the novel. Do students need any background information before they dive in? Would it be useful to learn about the novel’s author, setting, or historical context? You can add other pre-reading activities like analyzing the book’s cover or discussing a relevant issue that appears in the book. Have students complete an anticipation guide or play four corners to begin exploring themes and conflicts in the novel.
CHECKING FOR READING COMPREHENSION.
Reading comprehension is an essential component of any novel study. Therefore, incorporate lessons and activities that address areas of comprehension such as identifying themes, examining character development and plot structure, summarizing, and making inferences and connections. You can accomplish these comprehension checks through group discussions, independently written responses, and group activities.
When planning for reading comprehension activities, be sure to incorporate a variety of activities. Not all students will shine through writing, but that doesn’t mean they don’t understand the novel and its essential elements. Adding a variety to your unit study will ensure each student has the opportunity to shine and showcase their comprehension in one way or another.
You’ll also want to leave room for any minilessons you plan on teaching to aid student comprehension. Do you need to plan a 20-minute lesson reviewing the elements of plot? Do you need to teach a lesson about literary devices or explain how to effectively annotate a text? Leave room for teaching such lessons and completing activities throughout the novel study.
BEFORE THE FINAL ASSESSMENT.
If time permits, consider incorporating a post-reading assignment that serves more as a fun review before jumping into the final assessment. This is a great opportunity for student choice and group mini-projects. Students can put together collages, redesign the cover, create a timeline of events, write a book review, or make a character scrapbook to review the essential elements of the story. Give them as many or as few guidelines as you feel necessary.
However, keep these activities to one or two classes. You don’t want them to take away from prepping for the final assessment. However, it’s an excellent way for students to interact with the whole text, providing a refresher before embarking on a summative assessment.
A FINAL WORD.
A piece of advice? Be realistic when planning. If you know your students aren’t going to be able to read 20 pages, watch a video clip, participate in a discussion, and write a response, don’t set that expectation for a single class period. It only creates stress and interrupts your plan. Instead, feel free to have a bank of optional extension activities you can pull from if needed. Character diary entries, connection prompts, and comic strips are some student favorites.
You’re Ready to Go!
The best part? Once you have a well-mapped-out novel study, you can rinse and repeat with different novels or groups of students from year to year. That way, you won’t have to start from scratch each time. I’m willing to bet there’s already a lot on your plate, so I’d hate for you to reinvent the wheel when you don’t have to.
But, for now, happy planning! Psst… Feel free to save this post to return to as needed throughout your planning process.
If you’re pressed for time or still feel overwhelmed don’t fear. I’ve premade some novel study resources I know you’ll find useful. Check them out!