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Thursday / August 17

Choice Reading and the Class Novel: The Cure for Fake Reading

The second time I spotted a cell phone tucked inside a copy of the class novel within one week, I knew I was not exactly witnessing a rare unicorn. Fake reading, even blatant Instagram swiping instead of Dickens analyzing, was no singular oddity. It was more like an invasive species. Working with middle and high school English teachers across the country and hearing so many bemoan this crisis, then seeing it over and over again myself, I pictured fake reading like rapidly spreading bacteria, damaging the health of students everywhere.

What can be done to stop the crisis of fake reading? And how do we honor the needs and desires of both teachers and students in the process?

The class novel is not working, and yet it doesn’t make sense to throw it out the window, either. English teachers want their students to know and understand classic literature. They aren’t comfortable abandoning their margin-filled, dog-eared copies of the class novel, even if many students aren’t reading them. Students deserve access to these books. English class is one of the last chances to expose them to rich literature. I understand it when teachers say knowing the classics is cultural capital, and that their students have a right to that knowledge.

But students aren’t gravitating toward or enjoying the class novels. They want to read books they’re interested in, with characters and problems they care about. They want books they can feel good at reading, too, not texts that confuse or intimidate them. Dickens, Hawthorne, and Chaucer are unlikely to lure in the non-reader. Not to mention, college will demand that students can read at high volumes. One book a marking period, even if students were reading them, isn’t enough to build the reading stamina they’ll need to succeed.

The answer is taking the best of class novels and choice reading.

Keep the rich literature. Just don’t expect students to read it cover to cover, which they weren’t doing anyway. Use excerpts to model the work of strong readers, thereby exposing students to the books teachers love and exposing how to navigate complex texts.

Then bring in choice reading. Let students try those same moves of skilled readers in books they want to read. Choice reading has the amazing ability to turn non-readers into readers. From schools where most students read well below grade level, to competitive schools of high-achievers, choice reading produces authentic readers.

I read much more because I am able to pick books I understand and connect to. Being able to choose has made me look forward to reading whereas before I dreaded it. Jolie Sheerin, high school student

When I do enjoy the book, I can finish it in a matter of days. And sometimes I’ll read it over and over again, just to be able to relive my favorite moments in the book. Adideb Nag, high school student

I discovered that I’m actually an avid reader. I just need to have a novel that I like to read. Suchita Kanala, high school student

I read more now that I choose an independent book. Now, I am more interested in the story. Before I would never be excited to pick up the class book because I wasn’t intrigued. Miranda Maley, high school student

The final and most important benefit of blending the class novel with choice reading is that students transfer reading skills to books they chose. After seeing the teacher model a reading skill in the class novel, such as determining theme or analyzing author’s craft, students apply that same skill to their own book. This transfer of skills—according to Hattie, Fisher, and Frey—is one of the highest levels of learning. Teachers don’t need a pop quiz or turnitin.com to figure out whether students are really reading or whether students can do the work of complex readers. The proof is right there, when students transfer skills and show the work in books they want to read.

We can all agree on this: we want students to put down the phone, to stop SparkNoting, and to start to read. We want them to appreciate literature and be able to do the work of skilled readers. But most of all, we want them to be readers. So keep that copy of Great Expectations, Things Fall Apart, The Outsiders, Their Eyes Were Watching God, or Night. Open up the door to choice reading. And hopefully, put an end to the invasive species of fake reading.

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Written by

Berit Gordon coaches teachers as they nurture lifelong readers and writers. Her path as an educator began in the classroom in the Dominican Republic before teaching in New York City public schools. She also taught at the Teachers College of Columbia University in English Education. She current works as a literacy consultant in grades 3-12 and lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and three children. She is the author of No More Fake Reading. You can find more information about Berit’s work on beritgordon.com.

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Latest comments

  • Choice is giving students the chance to expand and explore their current understanding of what it means to really enjoy what you read. When students are left out in picking what novel to read, educators run the risk of being fooled by fake reading and Google created summaries. The classics can be successfully introduced by providing scaffolding from what students want to read to include the stellar examples of what they should read. Berit’s work in my own high school English classes opened my students’ eyes about what they could do because they were interested in the text enough to try. Give Choice a Chance!

  • When I first started using the Workshop model, it quickly became apparent to me that the single most important thing my students needed to do was read. Providing them with time in class to read was essential, but just as important was providing them an abundance of choices so each one could be in a book that they loved at just the right level. Otherwise they would “Fake read” and accomplish nothing. It was hard for me to give up some class novels that I loved. But I had to realize that while I did love those books, all of my students did not and it was not about what I wanted them to read , but about what THEY wanted to read. I started using my favorite class novels as mentors texts for mini lessons and students who shared my love for a particular book did ask for it and did love it and some chose other things. More and more elementary schools are converting to Workshop as the framework for literacy instruction. I think the point Berit raises about high school reading (and perhaps middle school) is so important and timely. HS students pretending to read the assigned books accomplishes nothing. Plus, if students who’ve moved through – and learned – using Workshop reach high school and all of a sudden get forced to read books they don’t choose, we could be stifling reading rather than nurturing it..

  • I couldn’t agree more with this post! The way Gordon explains “fake reading” is spot on in my middle school classroom. I love seeing and hearing the excitement when a student has finished a book…. class novels take up too much time and my students get lost…. they don’t end up getting as much out of it as time I put into teaching it! Hoping this concept makes it into more classrooms and gives students the encouragement to pick and book and READ IT!!!!! Thanks for this!

  • As a classroom educator for 10 years, I could not agree more with this post. I started my career teaching English in NYC, where the workshop model encouraged us to ditch the classroom novel altogether. I taught a skill and modeled it for my students, then they were given silent reading time in their ‘independent reading books’ to practice the skill on their own. It took me a minute to get used to, as I, myself attended NYC public schools in the 1990’s, and we read class novels. Then, I transitioned to teaching in New Jersey, where students were not given a choice in their reading and had to read class novels. In the beginning, I liked this idea as it mirrored my own education. However, I could not ignore that my students were not engaged at the level that they were engaged when given a choice in their reading material. Berit Gordon’s blended approach is the key that students need to keep exposure to classics, while discovering the process of falling in love with reading. Once students form a positive outlook on reading (by choosing their own relevant literature), they will develop the stamina necessary to work through the challenges of higher-level classic texts (or boring books-as they would say). The most significant aspect to having students in independent reading books was that each student knew their own reading level. As such, they were accountable for their own learning. The stigma of being ‘behind’ in reading was something we expelled through classroom discussions and transparency. The I do- we do- you do model works with Berit Gordon’s suggestion. The ‘I do’ can be your own book that you share with your students. They can feel your excitement about your own independent reading book. You can use an excerpt from a classic for the ‘we do’ and the entire class can grasp the important themes presented in classic literature. Finally, students can strengthen their skills in their independent reading books. Kudos Berit! Thank you for a wonderful piece!

  • Berit Gordon’s approach to reading expertly balances what students should learn, with what students want to learn. Reading “Of Mice and Men” in my 9th grade English class can often be a struggle. Students have the stamina to get through a half a chapter a day. Some are interested in the plot. Others say they are bored by the content. As an English teacher, I can see the value of teaching classic novels and how important it is to reinforce valuable reading skills. But as a lifelong reader, I also want students to discover the joy of getting hooked on a great book. I have a classroom library full of high-interest novels for teens. I encourage students to pick books they like and to read them outside of class. After reading John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” one of my students wrote in a book report, “Overall, this has been one of the best books I have ever read. I barely read books, but this one caught my attention.” I have had other conversations with students who want to discuss characterization, plot development and themes in “The Hunger Games.” As Gordon says, when students start transferring skills taught in class novels to books they want to read, the proof is right there. I could not agree more!

  • I wish every parent and teacher could read Berit Gordon’s message. Thanks to my parents, I learned to love reading at a very early age–books that they offered, and that I chose! By the time English teachers tried force feeding me on the “hard books”, I was able to suffer through it without losing my passion for reading. Too bad they didn’t just reinforce the habit of reading for pleasure. I had to wait until after college English to fully resume what my parents started for me.

  • As a former English teacher at both the high school level, and the last 27 years at the college level, and as someone trained in the classics, I at first resisted the idea of self-chosen/choice reading–I felt that students should do as I did. Until I was honest with myself: as a ten-year-old immigrant girl from the Dominican Republic, a non-reader to be sure, I fell in love with reading first, reading books that were certainly not classics. I fell in love with reading first, so I stood a chance later of reading “the hard books,” the classics. (Full confession: I still LOVE to read a lot of books that are non-classics!) Berit Gordon’s approach totally captivated me as an educator and reader. We need to get students to read, period, teach them skills they need with the books they love, meanwhile alert them to the great books. This is such a smart and sensible approach that acknowledges what we all know: that we become readers by falling in love with a book or an author first–and it’s usually not a classic or canonical work of literature. This is the kind of inspiring support that educators need to address a crisis in reading in their classrooms as the school year approaches!

  • I love this whole concept. It’s so true that stamina doesn’t just naturally exist in kids, especially when it comes to reading, it needs to be grown and choice reading is such a great way for kids to discover how to develop that muscle. Instead of teachers inspiring their students to “get through” a book, they will be inspiring their kids to explore genres, authors, and what kinds of stories make them tick. In other words, to really be a reader.

  • I love this! These smartphones are the enemy of sustained concentration. It’s so vital that kids learn HOW to read a whole book; THEN they can tackle the canon. And maybe one day they’ll love reading the way I do. But for now, I just need them to finish a dang book. I’m trying so hard to make my teens read this summer and a blog like this puts some wind at my back. Thank you!

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