By Bruce Hansen
When all students in the class are placed into the same high-interest literature—be it a poem, story, essay, novel, or play—magical things can happen in the classroom. More important, students will make rapid progress in reading and writing when in an emotionally safe and academically engaging classroom (Donaldson, 2019; Gallagher, 2011).
What follows is a how-to recipe for an impactive, rigorous whole-class literacy program using serious literature, author-imitation writing, and methods for doing this in a safe classroom that will allow students to grow academically and emotionally. As you read this, take note on how you might alter this to fit into your own instruction.
Also note how social and emotional development is integrated within literacy lessons. Social and emotional learning (SEL) can take up some instructional time, but studies show this is returned in academic gains (Hart et al., 2020; Herrenkohl et al., 2020).
A whole-class approach to literacy has four parts:
- Home Reading. The purpose of this first part is to boost the number of words read by students and involve their parents in the process.
- Story Time. This activity’s purpose is to bring positive feelings toward reading, to introduce new authors and genres to your students, and to reinforce earlier lessons.
- Sustained Silent Reading (SSR). This may beone of the most important parts of the approach. SSR will help boost the number of words your students read and give yourself a time to observe students reading self-selected materials. It’s essential that teachers make sure students are reading and not just flipping pages. Students who are far behind in reading will often choose nonfiction because they can get meaning from the pictures and avoid troublesome words. Fiction only should be the rule for most students during SSR.
- Literacy Instruction. The fourth component of a whole-class reading program is literacy instruction. Imagine how you would apply these ideas to lessons on short stories, poetry, drama, essays, and other literature. (See the sidebar “How Whole-Class Literature Looks in a Poetry Unit” for an example.)
There are several advantages of a whole-class reading program, including:
- It’s fun—both for the teacher and students.
- It’s easy to tell if a student is off task and then to provide redirection.
- Reading and writing instructions are integrated and wrapped around a theme. The entire class shares the same literacy vocabulary.
- Accommodations can and should be made for students with varied abilities. Developing readers can have assignments altered and be assigned buddies, volunteers, and/or cross-age tutors to help them achieve at the highest possible rate. Advanced readers can benefit from open-ended assignments and have unnecessary practice waived and offered alternative assignments.
- There’s no need for busywork.
Literacy Instruction Example: A Beverly Cleary Unit for My Fourth Grade Class
The goals of using a literary instruction example for this unit include:
- Foster a love of reading Beverly Cleary’s books. The more that students read and enjoy what they read, the more progress they will make as they work toward becoming lifelong readers. I want my fourth graders to read at least 3,000 words a day during this period.
- Examine the word choices and sentence types that Cleary uses and how they affect the reader. Establish rules for how she uses word choices and sentence types to manage the reader’s reactions.
- Determine how Cleary creates suspense and humor, and establish rules for creating these literary elements.
- Leverage the academic success of all students to assist in their SEL development (Denham & Brown, 2010).
Be sure to explain the following steps to students before beginning.
The lesson begins with a quick discussion of any advanced vocabulary and background concepts that need reviewing or that will come up in the day’s reading. The important words and concepts would go up on a word wall, which would be reviewed before future lessons.
I tell the students that today we will be doing a recorded drama reading with a partner. They will take turns reading aloud with expression to their partner, similar to what you would expect to hear in a recorded book. As we go through the day’s chapter, one of the students’ tasks is to decide how they will read the voices of the various characters. This will motivate students to pay attention as they follow along. In addition, when a student shows the emotions of a literary character when preparing to read aloud, the student is working on their empathy skills.
Always give students a reason to follow along with you as you read the day’s selection to them, and be sure they are doing it. You may find that emergent readers need a partner to help them track along when the teacher reads aloud.
Teacher Reads Aloud
I read the pages aloud to my students, and they follow along in their books. Because every student is on the same page, paragraph, and sentence, it is easy to monitor the students and assure on-task behavior.
A typical page in our book has about 600 words, so I’ll aim for about 3,600 words, or six pages. As we read, I’ll sometime pause and ask a question. For example, during one read-aloud, I said to my students, “Wait, everyone giggled at that last sentence. Why? What did Beverly Cleary write that tickled us?” After a brief discussion, I’ll write their observations on a poster I have hung entitled “How to Create Humor.” We will later refine these observations to establish rules for creating humor. Cleary used repetition to create the funny part in this case, and we added it to the poster.
When we’ve finished, I’ll ask students for observations on what we’ve read. For example, on the previous day, we had counted the words in the first 20 sentences and created a bar graph to study Cleary’s sentence lengths. As a result, many of the observations are centered on sentence fluency and their effect on the story.
Rereading: Preparing for Recorded-Book Partner Reading
The next step will have students read the same pages again, but this time they read it silently and with a time limit. Students know they will be reading aloud to a partner with expression and that this silent read will help prepare them for this. Note that advanced students can be given the option to read the pages again silently or read something else by the same author. They don’t need the practice, but some may want to rehearse their dramatic reading.
Giving a Heads-Up on the Writing Assignment
To maintain an SEL approach to teaching, provide students with time to prepare for a challenge. This time affords students a chance to exercise their efforts at responsibility. The class knows that a 20-minute writing assignment will follow after every reading activity. Reminding students about this assignment early will allow them to start processing the task and plan ahead for their writing. This greatly increases their chance of success and reduces the possibility of writer’s block.
Before the silent rereading in today’s activity I tell my students that the writing assignment will be to attempt to use repetition to create something humorous. The day before, they had to write something with sentence variations like those they had noticed in the sentence-length study. I know that when they start the assignment in which they use humor, their sentence variation will be strong.
Students reread the six pages and plan how they will read them to their partner. After they complete their rereading, they can either read the selection again, read ahead (if they promise not to tell anyone in the class what happens next), or read something else by the author.
Consider this: students have read the 3,600 words with me, they’ve read it silently, and now they’re going to read it twice with a partner. That’s a lot of words read. For the less capable readers, keep in mind that they will have heard me read the pages as they followed along, read it silently to themselves, followed along as their partner read, and then they will read it back to their partner.
Following these steps will give the less capable readers a higher rate of succeeding. In addition, when working with a peer as a leader or a helper, students are exercising SEL skills like assertive- ness, cooperation, and self-control.
I use a bell to signal when students should begin the partner reading. Partner A reads aloud to Partner B while Partner B follows along silently to help out with any difficult words. They then reverse roles. It’s important to have each partner play the role of the reader and of the helper. This type of collaborative activity can effectively scaffold literary and SEL development as students work together on a common, attainable goal.
While the students are reading in pairs, I roam the room, listening to each student. While A reads to B, I make brief notes on my clipboard to monitor their progress in fluency and comprehension, and note trouble spots for future instruction.
It takes about four minutes for me to hear half the class read. I ring the bell to signal them to switch roles, and then I walk the room and listen to the other half of the class. In eight minutes I will have notes on the whole class.
I stop the partner reading and allow them time to tell their partner what they plan to write using repetition to create humor. I call on a few students to share their ideas with the class before we move on to the writing portion of the activity.
Students take out their journals and prepare to write. Once I give the bell signal, they have 20 minutes to write. Everybody is expected to write. If they don’t know what to write, they can use one of the other students’ ideas they’ve heard or copy one out of the book. All students have pondered and discussed the assignment with their partner and have Beverly Cleary as a model.
When time is up, each student will count the number of words they have written and add it next to the date of the writing in their journal. Later, the student can graph the number of words to privately monitor their own progress in their fluency and it can then be shared at parent-teacher conferences. Students can see their progress graphically proven and supported by SEL conversations with teacher and parents.
If time permits, a few volunteers may share their humorous writing with the class. The culminating assignment for the Beverly Cleary unit is to write 100 words in her style using what they’ve learned about her word choices, sentence fluency, and techniques for creating humor and suspense. By the time we get to the final assignment, students’ journals will be full of self-written samples of all that they have studied.
The progress and results of this type of teaching are often stunning. Students feel good about themselves and confident in what they are learning. More important, they feel safe in a classroom where they know they’ll be successful (Riley, 2009).
Bruce Hansen has taught elementary school for 36 years and currently teaches at Lewis and Clark College Graduate School of Education and Counseling. He has published scores of articles in various magazines and journals, and he is the author of Teaching the Students of the 2020s (Mt. Hood Press, forthcoming fall 2022), Literature Based Writing: Creating Better Writers Using Models, Six Traits and Literature (Mt. Hood Press, 2006), and novels under the pen name Tyler Blackthorne