If you've been teaching with a reading textbook or basal reader, the idea of guiding your readers through an entire novel unit can be overwhelming at first. Add planning your first novel study to the mix, and it can be enough to dissuade even veteran educators. However, incorporating novels and chapter books into your reading instruction doesn't have to be scary or stressful.
Today I want to share the steps I use to plan my novel studies. I'll walk you through the process step-by-step and show you approachable strategies for getting started.
I'll also share a free novel study planning roadmap I created to help you plan for your novel study.
What is a novel study?
Before we dive into planning your first novel study, it is essential to make sure we're on the same page regarding what a novel study is…and isn't.
First off, a novel study is NOT a way to effectively teach phonics and decoding.
Younger or struggling readers will also need explicit, sequential phonics instruction to continue building their word attack and decoding skills.
In addition, a novel study is NOT teaching a book.
We aren't quizzing kids on what happened on page 54. We don't need them to just be able to regurgitate the text. A novel study is so much more than that.
The reality of the situation is we should always center our focus around the fact we teach kids. A novel study allows those kids to develop their reading comprehension and thinking skills through high-quality literature. It lets them practice and refine their skills related to the standards in a much more engaging format than the typical reading textbook.
A novel study is an opportunity to build a love of reading.
When done as a whole group, it can create a shared experience that builds communities and creates connections.
And with the right text, it can help the skills and strategies you've been teaching your readers become tangible.
What is the purpose of a novel study?
There is no single purpose for doing novel studies in the classroom. In fact, the purpose of the novel studies you do may differ across the year.
That being said, it is important to understand why novel studies are a common practice in many classrooms.
There are so many great benefits of using novel studies in your classroom. For starters, a literature-rich curriculum has been shown to improve reading and writing skills (Fook & Sidhu, 2010).
Novel studies can also serve to give students exposure to perspectives or experiences. They are a chance to help readers visualize and develop an understanding of things that they have never had happen in their lives. Even when a novel covers a familiar experience, it often offers a different perspective on it.
Having conversations about reading can also serve as a tool for building students' abilities to carry on an intellectual conversation with peers and develop social and communication skills.
That being said, novel studies take a significant amount of time. It's important to approach them with purpose and planning to make them successful.
Planning the Perfect Novel Study
Now that we're all on the same page with the background information, it's time to dig into the steps to planning a novel study.
I'll break down each step below, but here's the general overview:
- #1 – Set your purpose.
- #2 – Identify target standards.
- #3 – Pick a framework & texts.
- #4 – Determine your timeline.
- #5 – Map your unit.
If you're all about action, grab my Free Novel Study Planning Roadmap. That way, you can start working through the process right away!
Step 1: Set your purpose.
This step is really about making sure you're focused on backward design. When you started considering a novel study for your class, you had a purpose. If you aren't sure, consider asking yourself some questions –
- Why did you decide this might be the next logical step in your instruction?
- When you finish this unit, what are you expecting your students to know or be able to do?
- What are you hoping students will carry into the real world?
Sometimes this will relate to a few core comprehension standards. However, you'll often find that your novel study serves a larger purpose.
Maybe you're introducing students to the characteristics of a specific genre.
You might also use a novel study to introduce a historical period or event that you're discussing in social studies.
Regardless of whether your purpose has cross-curricular connections or is singularly focused on a specific reading component, you must begin with the end in mind by defining this goal.
Step 2: Identify target standards.
Now that you've identified why you're doing a novel study, it's time to focus on the standards.
This is where you'll begin the process of creating your plan of action, which you'll dive into throughout the next few steps.
One benefit of novel studies is the ability to touch upon multiple standards in a connected way. That being said, we all know that some standards could use some extra attention.
Summary, for example, often gives students a hard time, and it is also a great skill to address through the lens of a novel.
As you work through this step, look at your recent reading data and identify 2-3 standards that have been particularly troublesome for your class.
These will be the standards that you will aim to address 2-3 times throughout your text.
You'll also keep these steps in mind as you begin to think about the books you'll select and how you'll organize your student groups.
Step 3: Select your framework & text(s).
So far, you've focused on the big picture. You've considered your novel study's purpose, and you've outlined the core standards you need to give some extra attention to. With these things in mind, you're ready to start digging into the details.
It's time to pick your texts and identify the framework you'll use to organize the process. Depending on your preferences and needs, you may decide to focus on groupings first, or you may decide you need to start by picking a book or books for students to read. Either way works, but both must be done before you begin the next step.
Here's what I mean. If you're trying to build a shared background understanding of a historical period, you may want to do a whole class novel study with lots of conversation.
However, if you're exploring the nuances of friendships and how they change characters, book clubs might be a better option so that each student can bring their own perspective on the lessons they've learned from reading.
Or suppose your students are all at very different reading levels or need to focus on wildly different standards. In that case, a whole class novel study may not be the best opportunity to address these.
For the purpose of this post, let's start by focusing on the different ways you might organize your student groups.
Common Novel Study Formats in the Classroom
Not surprisingly, most novel studies are done in one of three formats. These are:
- Whole-Class or Whole-Group Novel Study
- Small-Group Novel Study – Literature Circles or Book Clubs
- Independent Novel Study
Each format offers positives and negatives, so you may find that your students end up experiencing all three across the course of a school year. The most important thing is that the format you select aligns with the purpose you've set and can be used to address the target standards.
Knowing that, let's break down each format and look at their advantages and disadvantages.
Whole-Class Novel Studies
In a whole-class novel study, the group reads the same text.
Each participant has a copy of the book and may volunteer to take turns reading. Unlike a read-aloud, which focuses students on listening and enjoying the text more than direct skill-building, a whole class novel study requires students to visually engage with the words on the page.
During the reading, the class may stop and have discussions. You might also find ways to use additional resources (like movie clips or articles from the news) to build more depth into the conversations or model think-aloud strategies.
At the end of the day's reading, the students may be asked to complete a response to literature or summaries of the text. If the text is long, may have independent reading time to finish the day's chapter.
The most common whole-group format tends to fall into a cyclical pattern of read, discuss, respond – where students read together before discussing as a group and then independently write a response that synthesizes their thinking.
The distinguishing feature of a whole-class novel study is that all students are exposed to the same standards, text, and supplementary materials.
Advantages of Whole-Class Novel Studies
- Builds community and provides a shared experience to hook later lessons upon
- Easier for the teacher to plan and monitor – makes it great for beginners
- Can serve as an invitation to help students discover a new series or genre of book.
- Provides opportunities for struggling or reluctant readers to engage in rigorous discussions about literature and access lessons on the same higher-level comprehension skills as peers.
- Allows all readers to access the same culturally relevant or meaningful texts.
Disadvantages of Whole-Class Novel Studies
- Easy to incorporate ineffective/harmful practices – like round-robin reading.
- Harder to encourage equal participation – reluctant learners may sit back and allow peers to dominate the discussion
- Too often becomes one-size-fits-all teaching without differentiation in the novel study activities
Small-Group Novel Studies – Literature Circles/ Book Clubs
If you've got children at a variety of different readiness levels or a large class, you may decide that small groups would work better for your novel study.
With a small group novel study, each group has its own text. They may be working on the same skill as other groups or a different set of skills.
The small group reads together and discusses daily reading. Roles are often used to help manage the group's time together.
After finishing, students may complete a reflection or respond to a question that connects to the discussion.
Advantages of Small Group Novel Studies
- Excellent for supporting social skills and student conversations
- Offers opportunities to explore a theme or idea from numerous perspectives.
- Allows students to have a text that is more accessible to them w/ peers at the same general reading level.
- Each group can have tasks tailored to their individual needs.
- Provides a semi-structured opportunity for students to take charge of their learning
Disadvantages of Small Group Novel Studies
- Groups can be a challenge to manage for teachers – not ideal for beginners.
- Requires planning for several novels and the ability to monitor and support different groups of learners simultaneously.
- Groups can quickly get off task or off-track in their discussions without an adult monitor.
- Missed teaching opportunities while circulating among groups.
- Difficult to unify pacing so all groups are ready to move on to a new unit at the same time.
Independent Novel Studies
In this format, students complete a novel study on their own or with some one-on-one instruction from a teacher or guide.
With an independent novel study, each student has a different text based on their own interests or needs. They read independently (or with the teacher) and then work to respond to literature.
Mini-lessons may be provided to small groups working on the same skill, but overall the student is working independently.
Advantages of Doing Independent Novel Studies
- Offers each student a chance to find a book that piques their interest.
- Great for classes with students with diverse interests or skill levels.
- Promotes independent study skills and puts students in control of their own learning.
- Great for advanced learners or as a way to engage early finishers in an extended project.
- Removes element of comparison between peers
- Can be done on a student-by-student basis to supplement the curriculum
- Offers students near mastery the opportunity to apply comprehension skills
Disadvantages of Independent Novel Studies
- Large amounts of planning & prep
- Requires the teacher to read and be familiar with multiple texts.
- Not for struggling, reluctant, or unmotivated learners unless done one-on-one.
- Not ideal for instruction – designed more for practice/skill application
Selecting Text for your Novel Study Activities
Since we've spent some time outlining the different frameworks you might select for your novel study, I'm going to use this section to outline how you'll pick your texts.
Please know that I advocate you read any novels you plan to use in classroom novel studies before you make your selections.
However, I know this isn't always feasible. Therefore, at a bare minimum, you should look at the synopsis and some reviews online to make sure you don't end up surprised by some unexpected content or language.
The last thing you want is to expose students to something they aren't ready to deal with an angry parent or administrator over your novel selection.
That being said, when it comes to picking your novels, you'll find lots of different ideas about the right way to make your decisions.
Quite honestly, much of the decision comes down to your goal and your classroom situation, and you'll likely find no two years are alike.
The great news is the novel study is meant for flexibility. For example, with the current status of online learning, you may want to select texts that are available digitally, such as those from platforms like Epic.
(Don't worry, I'll be sharing more about how to adjust a novel study for digital learning soon.)
For those of you doing in-person learning, you might also consider whether you've got enough copies of a book available on your campus before you select it. If you need ideas for places to find inexpensive class sets of books, check out my post about ways to build your classroom library on a budget.
You'll also want to consider your students and their current abilities. Selecting a book that is too difficult or too simple can lead students to disengage.
While there are many conversations about the importance of picking a book that's at the right level for your readers, the reading level is only a small piece of what you need to consider.
You'll also want to consider your students' background experiences, interests, and passions. Selecting a book about a group of teenage girls trying to make the dance team may not be the best choice for your football-loving pre-teen boys. You've got to consider the audience you're hoping to reach.
Research has shown students prefer books that reflect some aspect of their lived experience (Ghani, 2009). Texts that discuss the social and relationship issues that arise during youth also make great choices for building connections.
The appropriateness of the content is also critical. That being said, this can be a bit more challenging when you've got a young reader who has advanced skills or an older reader who struggles.
To help you get started, I've included a list of 100 popular novels in the free guide. Your school or local librarian can also be a great person to connect with to get suggestions.
Step 4: Create your timeline.
Now that you've got your foundation in place, you'll want to create a timeline and plan how you'll assess student understanding.
When I consider how long a novel study should take, I think about the amount of time I'll be able to devote to the book each day and any scheduling concerns (like extended breaks).
As a personal preference, I try to break the novel evenly into weeks to begin on a Monday and end on a Friday. While we may have pre-reading activities or post-reading activities that fall outside that window, I find that planning using a weekly calendar makes things easier to manage.
I've included a planning table in the free Novel Study Roadmap to help you as you begin planning.
I also like to consider the book or books I'm using in my novel study. Longer novels typically require longer units. I don't want to rush so much that we miss opportunities for conversation and learning. However, I also don't want to drag it out if the text is short.
By creating a general timeline, I can see how best to break the novel down into digestible chunks and where each of the standards I identified in step 2 would best fit.
Step 5: Map Your Unit Plan
We're finally here!! Mapping your unit is the final step you'll take before actually being ready to implement.
At this stage, you're digging into the meat of your novel study. You'll find that my approach to the mapping process may be a bit different from other novel study advocates. For me, there are two significant components to consider while mapping – comprehension skills and vocabulary.
I, personally, advocate that you focus on one comprehension skill each day.
As I said earlier, we teach kids, not books. There is no reason I'm asking a student to sit down and respond to 10 questions about the two chapters they read.
Instead, I'd prefer to ask them ONE question that really gets them to apply the comprehension strategy and their own thoughts and ideas to better understand the text.
When I conduct a novel study, this format allows me to provide more targeted instruction and focus on building mastery versus surface-level. My experience has been that it makes it easier for students to take that skill and apply it later.
I also recommend limiting the number of vocabulary words you dig into deeply. You'll want to cover both academic and text-based vocabulary, but I tend to stick with one word for in-depth study each day.
I'll dig into the specifics a bit more as we work through the mapping process, but since we've already spent some time talking about the comprehension standards you'll address, let's begin there.
Selecting Comprehension Skills
The great news is, you've already created a list of reading comprehension standards your students need to work on. (Typically, these are the higher-order thinking skills, like inferring and generating summaries, but it could be almost anything.)
You've also already read the book (or at least a good feel for it). That means you're ready to start matching the standards with the plot of your novel(s).
(Note that if you haven't read the text yet, you will likely need to do so as you work through the mapping process.)
As you start to read the novel, find natural breaking points that create approachable chunks of text for students to tackle in the time available. You'll also pay attention to where your target standards fit within the breakdown. You'll find that some parts of the book are better aligned to specific comprehension skills than others. This can be a huge help when planning your novel study activities.
For example, you may find that one day's reading has numerous examples of cause and effect relationships, so you can select that standard to go with the day's lesson.
As you begin to plug your target standards into your plan, you'll likely find some reading sections could be matched with nearly any standard. I recommend leaving these for last. That lets you determine what skills you may not have included or have not been given adequate time and assign them accordingly.
Once you've mapped out your target standards and filled in aligned skills for the remaining sections of the reading, you can take some time to write your daily comprehension focus in student-friendly language.
I add these to my calendar as the “Skill of the Day.”
From there, I also generate a deep thinking question connected to the daily skill. (Although sometimes I draft these as I'm reading the chapters and assigning skills, this is the stage where I polish the questions.)
For example, I could ask students to identify the narrator and point of view a story is told from. This would adequately cover the standard in many grade levels.
However, my goal is to get students thinking, talking, and writing about their reading, and listing the narrator and point of view is a simple one-sentence answer.
As an alternative, I might ask students to explain how the narrator's perspective impacts the reader's understanding of the story. By doing this, I've pushed my students to identify the narrator and point of view while encouraging them to think about impacting their experience as readers.
Whether you're working with children or adolescents, finding ways to build deep thinking and opportunities to share their own perspectives. At the same time, applying comprehension skills creates a richer, more meaningful, and much more engaging experience for learners.
Identifying Key Academic & Text-Based Vocabulary
After I've aligned all my comprehension skills, I like to take time to review the reading and select the text-based and academic vocabulary that will support y student's understanding.
Since vocabulary is a critical component of academic success and can serve as a barrier to struggling learners, I aim to go deep rather than wide. This means my students may be exposed to a number of new vocabulary words, but they are only expected to master a handful each week.
For each day, I select one text-based vocabulary word that we work to break down and master. These are the terms you'll explicitly teach as part of your novel study activities.
You may introduce context clues or dictionary skills. You may also teach students to analyze figurative language as part of vocabulary building.
Regardless of the strategies you teach, you'll also want to consider having students define the word in their own terms, create a nonlinguistic representation, and hook the term (via synonyms and antonyms) to words they already know.
The main thing is to keep vocabulary instruction short and to the point.
In about 10 minutes, you can teach and find ways to apply most vocabulary words beyond the text…because we teach kids, not books (see the theme here?).
Consider Pre-Reading Hooks and Post-Reading Culminating Activities
Finally, you'll want to consider how you'll introduce and wrap up your novel unit. You'll also want to consider any tech tools or websites that may help you do this.
Depending on students' familiarity with the book(s) or topics you've chosen, you may find it beneficial to do some pre-reading novel study activities to create links to background knowledge and activate schema. I've shared some of my favorite ideas here: Pre-Reading Activities for your Novel Unit.
For younger learners or books set in unfamiliar periods, this may include reading some nonfiction books or watching informational videos.
Adolescents may read related newspaper or journal articles to help them build the foundational understanding.
Regardless of what you select, be sure that the material offers a hook that students can connect to their reading and is a purposeful use of class time.
You may also want students to share their learning as a way to wrap up your novel unit. This can be especially powerful when students read different books than their peers.
Projects and group discussions are both common ways students are asked to share their experiences. However, many others exist and might be a better fit. Finding an engaging post-novel activity doesn't have to mean tons of prep or a boring book report. There are so many other great post-novel activities that your readers will actually enjoy!
No matter what you choose, be sure to consider how you'll differentiate and make sure you're using instructional time effectively.
Preparing to Teach Your Novel Study Unit
You've done it! Your novel study unit plan is complete. You've decided what you'll teach, how you'll structure the lessons, and how long it will take.
As you prepare to start teaching your unit, consider how often you'll review and score literature responses. You might also spend some time teaching students a specific strategy for constructed responses, like the RACE writing strategy.
Try to be realistic. If you don't truly feel you'll be able to read 25 journals every day, be sure your unit's effectiveness doesn't depend on you doing that. (Although it can help to take a quick look daily to ensure students are on the general right track or whether adjustments may be needed.)
Creating rubrics with key expectations can be a helpful tool to make the assessment process more objective and simplify things for students. You can customize these depending on the skill being addressed or find a consistent rubric that you may use throughout the novel study.
No matter what you decide to do, please NO WHOLE BOOK ASSESSMENTS!
Seriously, if we're really teaching KIDS, not books, there is no value in doing a test over the book.
Once you've got those things in place, you're ready to get started!
Get the Free Novel Unit Planning Roadmap
If you've made it this far and would like the templates to create your own novel unit, here's one more chance to do so!