Unlock the power of book study and novel study guides to teach reading. Use award-winning literature to build vocabulary and more.
“My school took all the bookshelves out of our classrooms,” a teacher I had just met at the library told me.
Horror snaked up my spine. A classroom without bookshelves? “What do you mean? Where will you keep all your books?”
“That’s just it,” she told me. “We aren’t allowed to read anything to the students other than what’s in the assigned curriculum.”
I glanced at her book bag, bulging with picture books and chapter books.
“I shove these into a tub under my desk at night when I leave the classroom.” She explained. “During the day, we read books. I haven’t gotten caught.” Then, after a short pause, “Yet.”
This encounter and conversation are not made up. Bookshelves disappeared from the classrooms in a school near my home. I was devastated. Didn’t the administrators know how important books and novels are to our children?
Why Choose to Teach Reading with a Book Study Guide?
Some administrators are of the opinion that it’s too time-consuming and displaces the core curriculum. Whenever I meet teachers who have been told this, I feel sadness at the loss of the rich experience of novel reading in our classrooms. I’m an advocate of teaching with authentic and engaging reading materials. So here are just a few of the benefits of using a book study or novel study guide to teach reading and writing. I can think of so many more, but then this post would be a novel in itself!
Novel Studies Build Classroom Community
My favorite reason to use a book study or novel study guide with my class is that it creates a classroom community. There’s something magical about coming together around the shared experience of a great book.
Novel studies provide opportunities for students to share thoughts, ask questions, and share reactions to the events in the book.
These conversations foster a sense of community and collaboration within the classroom. It’s wonderful to have those “book club” conversations with your students.
You Can Teach and Strengthen Literary Analysis Skills
Let me just say it. Teaching theme is difficult to do. Students in upper elementary still take literature at face value. It’s at this stage in their development that they begin to analyze messages, morals, and themes in books and novels.
Through novel study guides, students learn to develop the critical thinking skill of identifying theme.
I usually start with a short picture book to introduce theme. Once students understand it, we look for themes in the novels we read together.
With longer books and novels, your students can begin to analyze character. This goes beyond character traits to include character arc. Students examine the characters’ actions and determine how they’ve changed and why. This deeper analysis transfers over to the real world. It’s an active way for students to understand that people change, and begin to develop empathy for them.
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Teach Figurative Language and Literary Devices Using Novel Studies
Every author has a different writing style. Depending on the topic and theme of the book or novel, they’ll use different literary devices and figurative language. Novel studies are the perfect way to slow down, dive deep into descriptive language and discover why the author chose to use it.
In the novel study guide for Wish, by Barbara O’Connor, there are several instances of rural colloquialisms. Since the setting of the novel is in a rural area, you can talk about why certain idioms and phrases work for a story like it and why the author chose them. It’s important for students to understand that authors make deliberate choices in which figurative language and literary devices to use.
Learning about figurative language helps students use it in their own writing. These snippets of language are perfect for using in a mentor text routine in which students analyze and define the language the author chose to use.
Novels Are the Best Way to Expand Vocabulary
We all know that extensive reading = extensive vocabulary. The more you read, the more you know. It’s an integral part of the Science of Reading. I dive deeper into that connection in the post, The Powerful Connection Between the Science of Reading and Teaching Writing.
Reading novels exposes students to a rich variety of words and phrases, helping to expand their vocabulary and improve their language skills.
However, it doesn’t happen by accident. Most students will skim over a word they don’t know, rather than try to decipher the meaning through context or use a dictionary.
My answer to that is to preread a section of a book or novel and choose the words with which students might be unfamiliar. I choose Tier II words, which is to say words that appear in written text, and sometimes in conversation, but are frequently used. Students can expect to see and hear Tier II words often enough to make it worthwhile to learn the meaning.
Use Conversations for Informal Vocabulary Development
When reading aloud, you might come across a word and in the moment realize your students don’t know it. Take a minute to paraphrase it so they can understand it.
Another practice when reading together, is to stop after one or two pages and ask your students, “Did you see or hear a word you don’t know?” If they say yes, simply explain the meaning to them. Don’t make them do extra work, or they won’t raise their hand to tell you if they don’t understand something. Who wants extra work, right?
Novels Provide Writing Models to Use As Mentor Texts
Studying novels as mentor texts provides students with models of effective writing techniques, including descriptive language, dialogue, and narrative structure, which they can apply to their own writing.
The key here is to not overwhelm them with too much material. Choose one paragraph or even one or two well-written sentences.
Choose well-crafted sentences, varied sentence structures, and sophisticated language, that are at the higher end of their zone of proximal development. Students can analyze the writing, and then create well-written imitations of the same style.
If you’ve never used mentor text routines, you’re in for a treat once you start. Your students will gain proficiency in writing so quickly when they “copy the masters.” If you want to learn more, I’ve listed two blog posts to read about using mentor texts in the classroom.
Novel Study Guides Boost Reading Comprehension
A well-designed book study or novel study will guide students into active engagement with the text. It will encourage them to ask questions and make predictions.
After a few chapters of reading, ask your students to summarize the key information. It can be a written assignment. However, it can also be part of a small group conversation during a literacy center or writing conference. Either way it will strengthen their reading comprehension skills.
If you’re asking students to create an opinion about something in the text, you can have them support their ideas and arguments with textual evidence, improving their ability to analyze and make claims based on the text.
Reading Novels Builds Empathy and Cultural Awareness
Reading novels allows students to explore different characters’ experiences. Depending on the experiences of the characters, it can build empathy and help them develop an understanding of diverse perspectives. I loved reading Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech to my fifth-grade students for this reason.
Novels often explore different cultures, historical periods, and social issues. Be prepared to have discussions about diversity and inclusivity when you read novels with your class.
If you’re experiencing a particular issue in your school or community, you can probably find a book that addresses that issue and can help students understand multiple perspectives about it.
For example, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate is perfect to help students learn how our perspective on animal rights has changed over the years.
Personal Growth Through Reading
In these days of social media reels and streaming videos and live feeds, reading is sometimes left to chance. However, in my opinion, there is nothing quite like reading novels to offer opportunities for personal growth and self-reflection. As students connect with characters and storylines, they may discover a way to relate them to their own lives.
Novels explore universal themes that resonate with everyone in different ways.
Have you read The Reading List, by Sara Nisha Adams? It’s about a reading list circulating in a small town and the effects the books have on the lives of the people reading them. It’s a fabulous read!
I can think of so many books that resonated with me when I was growing up, and the lessons I learned from them. That’s something that will never change as long as we have literature to read.
Foster a Love for Reading
By providing engaging and enjoyable reading experiences, novel study guides can foster a love for reading in students. Consider reading award-winning books and novels to your students. However, if you want to encourage them to continue reading independently, you might choose to read the first book in a popular series with them.
My hope is that you never have to resort to hiding books under your desk so that you can expand the reading horizons of your students. Whenever I think of that teacher at the beginning of this post, my heart melts a little.
May you always have bookshelves in your classroom.
Your Turn to Share!
What are some of your favorite novels to read with your students? Tell me in the comments below!