For me, in teaching, the class novel is one of the most joyous parts of the day. 15 minutes of me reading a story to the class, bathing them in language and narrative and escapism and having them share the joy of books with me. Academically, it carries a lot of weight for them too – they hear good modelled reading aloud, correct pace and intonation etc, as well as being bathed in language and hearing how a reader accentuates the nuances of a story. You don’t need me to tell you the benefits are endless.
A stipulation for a class novel for me has to be that it is challenging. There is no point reading a class novel to a class who could sit and read that novel cover to cover. Challenge comes in two ways: our Year 3 children tend to read Charlotte’s Web as a class novel, which is challenging for them in terms of the vocabulary used, the syntax and some of the more over-arching themes: our Year 3 children for the most part could not read it cover to cover and take everything we would hope for them to take from it. On the other hand, you have thematic challenge – for example The Boy At The Back Of The Class – in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure, this is a very simple book and a good Year 2 could easily decode it; however, a good Year 2 would be unlikely to read it front to back and pick up the nuances and meanings around refugees and asylum – for this reason this is a good end of Year 4/beginning of Year 5 book.
So, a challenging book is the way in – and children often rise to the challenge. However, there are still children out there with lower working memory and retention and also with problems with concentration for extended periods of time. How do we ensure that these children get the most out of the class novel? That when we pick it up and start reading it, we aren’t just blowing air at them? The obvious answer is to study it often, but some people don’t want to and shouldn’t have to: I personally never link my class novel to writing because I think a) it’s a lot of cognitive load (think about how many characters and sub plots are in Holes) and b) I want the book to be purely enjoyed so never want it to be time to read it and have Ahmed in the corner think ‘god I’m gonna have to write about this later’. (Lots of people do link writing to their novel very well and more power to them.) I always think about reading the class novel in terms of watching a show that hasn’t been on for ages. Imagine it’s been 18 months since the last season of Ozark and the new ones about to come out. You’re going to do something to recap that previous season of Ozark before watching the new one, otherwise you’ll have forgotten characters and plot points. I think for some children, class novel on a Tuesday, then again on a Wednesday is like 18 months of no Ozark, especially with 5 other lessons sandwiched between them.
That said, here are two really quick things you can do to make your class novel more accessible and keep everyone abreast with what’s happening:
- Regular quizzes
Kids love a quiz. We all know it. Especially one they can get full marks on and that’s *exactly* what a good quiz about the class novel should be. If you find yourself with 5 spare minutes just do a quick, really basic pub quiz style quiz on it. I do one twice a week. The first question is always ‘what is the name of the main character?’. If they can’t answer that, you’re toast. There’s no point reading the novel today because they either don’t understand it, or you’ve got a behavioural/culture issue where no one’s actually listening to it. Then have the rest of the questions just the basic, surface level stuff that any child with trouble remembering stuff would need to remember to access the novel next time you need it. I’ll demonstrate a bit with Harry Potter cos everyone knows that:
- What is the name of the main character?
- What are the names of his two best friends?
- What does he find out is special about him?
- Where does he go to school?
- What is on his head?
- How did it get there?
- What is the name of the headteacher?
- What is the name if the potions master?
And so on and so forth. A lot of ‘who is this?’ and ‘where is this?’ but this is often the stuff that they need to get even the most basic understanding of the story. Imagine reading Harry Potter to a class and you’re halfway through and 1/3 of the children don’t know the majority of the answers above? It’d be an explicit waste of time.
You can also use a quiz to trigger important bits of plot point in the memory before reading the next part. Imagine if you’re reading Holes and you’re about to meet Madame Zeroni, but the likelihood is that some children have forgotten that Zero’s name is Hector Zeroni, ask them what his real name is and if they don’t know, tell them – equalise the opportunity for them to have the lightbulb moment that the majority of the class are going to have.
2. A class novel working wall
I have a love/hate relationship with working walls – I certainly prefer them to the generic ‘display’, but I find it hard to use them in a way that is meaningful. I think my biggest bug bear with them is that a lot of the time they mean that children don’t have to think very hard – for example if the times tables are up there all year, when does Sarah have to think hard about 8 x 8?
That being said, we don’t *need* the children to think hard about the class novel – it’s the ideal that they do, but we want them to to enjoy it. Thus, a very clean, simple working wall with character names, locations and major plot points can really help children recap the novel for themselves and help them embed key information over time – especially if you add to it every day post reading. I tend to have new character names ready for example before reading, then add them after and join these in a ‘web’ of information with a simple white line. It’s not flashy, or colourful, it’s just an organised list of things we have encountered in the novel. This is behind the children and I encourage them not to look at it when we do quizzes.
These are just really quick things we can do to make sure then when all children go home at 3ish on Friday they can talk at length with their parents or carers about their class novel. Maybe we’ll even heighten the chance that when they get to our age they will share it with their own kids because they will remember it well and I think that is a very good aim to have.