Benefits of Teaching, Magic of Reading Whole Novels

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Standardized tests, Shortcuts – are they Short-changing Students?

Teachers are doing their best – but, outside of independent private schools, they don’t always have the luxury of teaching in ways that inspire a lifelong love for the subject. High-stakes testing translates into “no time.” No time for deep, life changing reflection. As for cultivating meaningful learning communities – an impossible ideal; no time for that, either.

The latest casualty of the undue focus on standardized testing? The Novel. At least – the Whole Novel.

Here, HS literature teacher Tricia Dowler weighs in on the hot topic of Whole Novel vs Excerpt.

No Time for Novels

In today’s education system, teachers often focus on excerpts from books in class and tend to shy away from teaching a novel in its entirety. Because of the importance placed on standardized testing, some school administrators are even entirely restricting teachers who want to teach whole novels from doing so!

The rationale? Success on standardized tests.
The argument is that students need to be able to read and understand a short piece of literature in a time pressure situation to do well on standardized tests.

The goal is to equip students with the ability to skim a passage, quickly identify the elements of literature, and be able to answer multiple choice questions about the piece.

Soaking in Masterpieces, finding Treasures and Beauty    

What this strategy ignores is the benefits that only come from reading a novel from cover to cover.

I teach my students elements of literature, and they, too, treasure-hunt for metaphors and foreshadowing. However, when they read a complete work, they don’t just pick out and label figurative language; they soak it in and observe how those poetic choices sculpt the mood and meaning of the whole, intricate and overarching story.

The author of the novel labored over each page of his or her masterpiece and that beauty is discovered by the reader when the story is read in its unabridged state.

 Sharing the Fictional Hero’s Journey, building Empathy

Students who read full novels travel along with the fictional hero’s journey, allowing them to evolve and develop just as the characters in the book. They get to imagine what it is like to be from a different background, culture, social or economic group.

Scientific research shows reading novels builds empathy and understanding in students as they vicariously experience the lives of the people in the stories they read.

Neural Changes in the Brains of Novel-reading Teens

This growth alongside a character challenges a reader’s views and causes the student to think critically about his or her position which sparks self-reflection. High school is a time when a young person’s worldview is being formed.

A study done by Emory University showed neural changes in students’ brains every day while reading a novel and for five days after they had finished it.  MRIs revealed a heightened connectivity in the part of the brain that is associated with language development.

A student engaged in a full novel learns how to decipher the nuances of multiple interpretations while reading, which leads to their evaluations being more critical and thoughtful, while also helping in brain development.

Building Confidence, Stamina – even in Reluctant Readers

Furthermore, reading a whole novel creates confidence in a reluctant reader and builds stamina and analytical skills even in an accomplished reader. It also teaches the students patience.

For example, sometimes a book seems to slow down in the middle, but the author is using those pages as a foundation that will eventually impact the ending (and the reader) immensely. This revelation is taken away from students when they only read excerpts. I’ve had many students tell me, “I’m so glad I stuck with that book!”

Through reading, young people learn to invest their time and energy into the story. It teaches them endurance and rewards perseverance.

A jigsaw puzzle with only one corner finished instead of the entire puzzle will never show the whole picture. The same goes for a student who only reads an excerpt of a narrative.

Creating Community, Sustaining Conversations    

In addition, sharing the experience of reading a novel with other class members creates community. The school bell ringing right as we reach a cliffhanger in class often fills the room with a groan followed by me telling them they can’t read ahead!

This engagement in the story sparks conversations between my students that I often overhear even months down the road. These discussions are valuable because they teach students to express their opinions and support them when others disagree.

Studies have also shown that reading aloud together is beneficial in and of itself.  The process of reading aloud and the conversations that follow increase students’ engagement, comprehension, and pronunciation of new words.

A Place for Teaching Excerpts (sometimes)

I don’t want to give the idea that I am against teaching excerpts: there is room for both. I teach whole-class novels, short stories, excerpts, and sometimes allow students to choose novels to read independently.

It’s not wrong to read one chapter of a book, but it can be detrimental to only read chunks of stories and never read any long works in their entirety.

When reading only a chapter or excerpt from a book, I think of it as a tasting. It’s a bite of a bigger meal. I use this bite to serve as an introduction to a genre or author. Often after students have a bite, they are intrigued with the story and want to read the entire novel.

The Lifelong Gift of Loving Literature

The bigger picture goes beyond formal education. I desire to instill in my students a love of literature. If students never read a whole novel while they are young, what are the chances they will pick one up for leisure as an adult?

In a society where our entertainment is based on memes and soundbites, students often find a story of 500 pages intimidating.

But I want the next generation to be excited when they see those pages -because they think of the immersive adventure they are about to begin!

There is magic in reading a whole book.

Tricia Dowler teaches American Literature, British Literature, and AP Literature and Composition. Her philosophy is that a granola bar and a cup of lemonade makes almost everything better (except maybe timed AP essays).

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