More on Reading Novels to Teens

  • 30 April, 2017

Blast from the Past: This blog entry first posted 30 April 2017 and was reposted on 19 November 2022. Recently, I’ve received numerous questions about the value of reading novels to high school and middle school students (letters usually from annoyed colleagues). My replies have typically included the following:  “Teaching someone to read without having them read it is a neat trick, but not one likely to be effective. I assume those teachers also avoid writing requirements since their students can already talk, and  If I hope they’ll be willing to accompany those kids to college, so the kids will have someone to do the reading for them – the same deal they are getting in high school.” I could add Carol Jago’s wise response to similar queries on Twitter: “When we read the whole novel aloud to high school students, the only person in the room becoming a better reader is the teacher.” (Carol is a former President of the National Council of Teachers of English). Given the renewed interest in the topic, I am reposting this blog. 

Recently, I received a letter from a middle school teacher who was being pressured to read novels to his students. He questioned the appropriateness of the practice given the great amount of time that takes and the learning needs of his students. He wanted to get my opinion or to find out what research had to say about the practice.

In response, I explained that there were definitely some benefits to be derived from reading to kids; though in fairness almost all of that research has been done with preschoolers (with a handful of additional studies conducted in the primary grades). That means we are going to generalize from studies of 4-year-olds to determine the appropriate instruction for 14-year-olds. However, even with that, none of those studies have ever reported that reading to kids improves the kids’ reading ability (though such shared reading does improve vocabulary—at least when measured with the kinds of vocabulary tests that are not particularly related to reading).

I didn’t rule out the practice of reading to teens altogether, including doing so sometimes “just for fun,” but I did suggest that the time could be better spent, and that reading to teens should be kept brief and targeted (that is, purposeful).

There was much heated and opinionated response to that research-informed advice. So much so, that I thought it would be worth a little further analysis.

How long does it take to read a novel to students? Obviously there are a lot of factors that would determine the time, but given that adults typically read aloud between 150-175 words per minute, a good estimate might be that it would take roughly 16 hours of class time. I estimated that with the idea that the book would be about the length and challenge level of The Scarlett Letter (kind of an average length).

The teacher had asked about “novels,” so let’s say he meant two… then it would take 32 hours of class time to read those two books to the students. Of course, many of the angry responses pointed out that kids enjoyed being read to and that reading novels to them is a good way to get engagement. Fair enough, but I suspect that would mean it would take the teacher somewhat longer to read these novels than I have estimated, since an engaging presentation of the texts would require added teacher explanation and student discussion. My time estimates then are a bit short since they only count the reading itself. But, for the sake of argument, let’s stay with what I’ve come up with so far, as conservative as it is.

Some of the respondents pointed out that it wasn’t just reading to kids that engaged them, but having them reading self-selected texts on their own was important, too. None of them gave any time estimates for that activity, but over the years what I think is most commonly recommended is about 20 minutes of this kind of reading 3-5 times per week. Let’s go with the low end of this suggestion… which would mean kids would be doing their “on your own” independent reading for about one hour per week (or 36 in a school year) in the classroom.

English classes vary in length, but I’ll do my calculations on the basis of a 45 minute English class—longer than some, shorter than others. Plugging all these estimates into this schedule, you end up with kids spending 42 days per year doing nothing but listening to teacher reading, and another 48 days per year doing their home reading at school.

Where does that get us? It leaves teachers with only 67.5 hours per year to teach reading comprehension and literary interpretation, composition, grammar/usage/mechanics/spelling, literature, and oral language. Not much!

For those who complained about my unwillingness to devote roughly 25% of the English program to reading novels to secondary students (heck, 4-year-olds who are read to do better on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test), I would point out a few facts:

  • The National Assessment of Educational Progress estimates that about 1/3 of American high school students are prepared to do college reading by the time they graduate high school
  • That 60% of students entering college require remedial coursework
  • And, that 80% of the professors who teach freshmen and sophomores indicate that those students are unable to read the complex texts required.

It might be easier—it might even be more fun—to read to kids than to have them trying to make sense of a novel through their own reading efforts, but don’t confuse that kind of reading to kids with teaching them to read. (And, sending them off during class time to do self-selected reading, instead of the typically-more-demanding reading of texts in the English curriculum with the scaffolding and accountability a good teacher brings to the mix, won’t get the job done either).

A less pleasant way to think about the implications of this issue: Kids who are reading self-selected texts on their own need books and safe, quiet places to sit, but they don’t need teachers. And, these days there are spectacular recordings available of novels read by skilled actors with trained voices. No need for certificated teachers to hit the on/off switch on recorded books. If this is what English teaching has devolved to, then these calcuations suggest that we could easily employ 50% fewer English teachers (since those are arguing so vociferously for 50% less English instruction than districts have budgeted).

Teaching matters. Even with the cacophony of responses, I still can’t think of any reason why a secondary teacher would read a complete novel to his/her students, and I have given many reasons for not doing so. In the original posting, I explained that there were places for reading to kids within the secondary curriculum, but they should be brief and they should be targeted. After considerable additional thought, I agree with myself.   


See what others have to say about this topic.

Debby Briscoe Apr 30, 2017 09:48 PM

I am commenting from the perspective of an "older" teacher who treasures memories of sixth and seventh grades.
In the early 1970's, I attended school in Central Virginia, near Longwood University. I had a "fresh out of college" teacher who was young and enthusiastic. Most of the teachers were beginners as it was quite rural, and I'm sure the pay was well below average. Those teachers - Miss Byrnes- in particular changed my life.
The teachers developed stations after lunch. A student could visit Teacher X's room to study art, including art appreciation, drawing, pottery, etc. Teacher Y might have a physical fitness station, etc. Miss Byrnes had "read aloud" area.
I was an avid reader. I read every book in the library in our small town. However, I always attended "read aloud" because I loved it. I listened to her read 80 Days Around the World, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Far from the Madding Crowd, Jane Eyre, and the book I loved the most ( and still love to this day) - Island of the Blue Dolphins.
Of course I learned math, science, social studies, and took multiple standardized tests. But I remember the read alouds more than anything else.
I recently ran into a restaurant manager who had been in my 7th grade class. The first thing she said was, "I remember when you read Ghost Cadet to us. I loved that book so much. When my brother went to VMI, I walked all over the campus hoping to see him (the Confederate ghost)."
Many of our students aren't exposed to literacy at home or are not motivated to deeply explore books, libraries, or any type of reading material. Teachers can open the doors.
Test results and getting the job done efficiently are super important- but sometimes it's just as important to "stop and smell the roses" and remember why we become literate in the first place.

Timothy Shanahan May 01, 2017 06:55 AM

Thanks, Debby. Beautiful story, and what you describe is idyllic; great for the kids who are really good at literacy in the first place... not so wonderful for those who may love being read to, but who can't read very well for themselves. Of course, literacy levels didn't matter much in the 1970s in central Virginia because there were lots of jobs that didn't require literacy or college, and if kids struggled, perhaps they could join the military. A teacher who read to kids instead of teaching them to read wasn't necessarily putting them at a disadvantage. Very different from today's situation. Schools were just getting desegregated in Virginia during those years, so the school experiences of African American kids probably weren't much like what you describe and immigration was just starting to perk up--but not so much in your part of the country. Thus, the schools had a fairly narrow responsibility when you were at school. It might be important to stop and smell the roses, but I fear that if we continue to maintain 1970 literacy levels in the U.S., it won't be roses that our kids are smelling.


Faith Gerber May 05, 2017 02:06 AM

It seems like the principle you describe is similar to one I've heard about fishing: "Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for one day. Teach a man to fish, and he'll feed himself for many days to come." The same can be said of reading. If we only read for our students, they will never need to do it for themselves. It is FAR more work on the teacher's part to teach them to grapple with complex text (this is where short stories are very useful), but in the end they will be able to read for themselves. The students with significant reading difficulties can access the audio-books and keep up with everyone else.

I taught grades 3-8 for twenty years before going back to school for my Master's degree in literacy. I have changed my nostalgic views on the hours I spent reading aloud (especially to my middle school students). While it does provide plenty of material to reminisce about later, it provides very little opportunity for improving students' reading skills. It is the literary equivalent of feeding a teenager from a jar of Gerber baby food (and not ONE of them would tolerate that insult!). I was also a huge supporter of having students read at their "instructional level"--another conviction that has been slain by current research. We must provide the necessary scaffolding and guide them deep into that "Zone of Proximal Development" (Vygotsky) beyond their comfort zone, where they can grow into truly independent readers.

Lewis Apr 05, 2018 05:47 PM

I have mixed feelings on all of this. I think a teacher I had in high school worked through this in a way I felt appropriate at the time. We would read some together to discuss the beginning of the chapter (we really were reading The Scarlet Letter) and then we would read the rest as homework for discussion the next day. This lead to a mix of reading the novel to us, yet not taking up 30+ hours of class time for that sole purpose. While I don’t think that reading aloud to older students can hurt, it also is not something that should take up so much class time that is impedes learning and discussion of the content being read. Like said in the post, I don’t see this as a way to improve reading, but to bring the class together and initiate discussions/foster comprehension. I will begin my first year as a middle school language arts teacher and have thought for many hours how to incorporate reading together without using popcorn reading and other methods of that nature. I think this can be a fun way to read as a class without humiliating students. I would also ask that they may follow along, what do you think? Of course all of these methods rely on the fact that all students have their own copy of the novel. Thank you for this information.

Melissa Hostetter Nov 19, 2022 05:56 PM

I teach 5th grade. Our curriculum calls for self selected reading. No surprise when I realized that none of my students had finished an entire book over a 7 week period. So, I chose a whole class novel. Just started it. Good readers are reading. Mediocre readers are refusing/pretending. I should mention that the mid readers have the fluency skills for this book. We are discussing the book and have written one response. Not sure where to go with this. Anyone else speak from experience?

Timothy Shanahan Nov 19, 2022 06:19 PM


What guidance or scaffolding are you providing for the students so they can read the text successfully? Just saying, "read it," is not sufficient.


Catherine Evans Nov 19, 2022 06:43 PM

We do all of it. Our students have plenty of scaffolded opportunities for reading - four hours of taught English a week in which they have teacher-directed reading time. They're also read to for an hour a week (over three sessions) and read independently for two sessions, with the weakest readers guided towards Hi-Lo texts.

I don't see the problem with allowing students to hear fluent reading and encounter unfamiliar vocabulary, as long as understanding of the vocab and overall comprehension is checked and supported. Lunch breaks have been scaled right back to reduce challenging behaviour, so no teaching time is lost. It means everyone gets to experience literature for pleasure even if they would struggle to read it independently.

Sarah Blue Nov 19, 2022 06:57 PM

Hello Tim,

I appreciate this blog post. I’m a new teacher and I feel like I did not receive enough guidance on this topic during the credential program. I was wondering a few things:

1. It sounds like you are suggesting that students complete the reading independently with some guidance. Is that correct?

2. What kind of scaffolding do you suggest? Are targeted questions and vocabulary support enough?

3. How would you structure your time when teaching a novel?

Timothy Shanahan Nov 19, 2022 07:19 PM


The support kids need will depend upon the level of the text and the level of the kids. For some kids, some questions and vocabulary support may be enough... other kids, may need the text broken into smaller pieces -- taking on smaller chunks at a time, guidance in making sense of complex sentences or of connecting ideas across the text or in dealing with the text structure or in connecting their own background to the text or in making sense of literary devices. The key to any of these is not just in directing kids' attention to them, but teaching them to carry those reading behaviors/routines from one text to another to increase their possibility of becoming independent readers.


Timothy Shanahan Nov 19, 2022 07:31 PM


My problem is that such a larger percentage of kids are leaving high school unable to read literature well enough to do freshman English work in college. It is great that you expose kids to text for that 1 hour per week by reading to them and you have them read relatively easy text on their own for what sounds like another 40 minutes per week, but those activities usually have rather low payoffs in terms of student learning. You might want to consider evaluating what you are doing and adjust accordingly. For instance, what if you identified some of the vocabulary that you expose them to (and early in the year, test whether the kids know those words already and then test them again at the end to see how much they have improved in the vocabulary from the texts you are reading to the kids -- how much is it expanding their vocabulary?) You might try something similar with regard to identification and use of literary devices or genre features. Perhaps there is a real payoff to those activities, but if not, that would free up more than 40 hours of instructional time for engaging kids in reading and writing experiences more likely to increase learning.


Elizabeth Clemens Nov 19, 2022 07:51 PM

We have let this go on too long. When will parents in K-12 ask "at what grade is my child reading?" K-12 has been pushing these students through to Hign School without teaching them. Parents have put up with it, because parenting is too hard, or they would be asking for results on standardized testinging. Teachers won't ask because they're afraid they'll be held accountable. Reading is a skill that must be taught. If you don't know that, find out. Data is a teacher tool. If you wait for parents to ask, you'll be too late. Not all universities have a Shanahan on campus.

Amy Nov 19, 2022 08:34 PM

Could not agree more. Unfortunately, read alouds often are necessary so that high schools can obscure failed, uninformed early literacy instruction and push students through the system. If students were genuinely taught to read using evidence based methods in elementary school, then approximately 95% of students could read novels on their own and not waste class time for middle & high school read alouds. There would be no need for this discussion. As a parent, I am always frustrated that novels (not plays) are read aloud during class as well as independent reading reading. It's a waste of student's educational time and tax- and/or tuition-payers' money, but I suppose it's better than when teachers play a movie, in lieu of assigning the reading.

Jeanne Nov 20, 2022 12:43 AM

The rationalizing given for reading aloud to high school students is either knowingly or obliviously helping to mask the fact that they simply cannot read. The reason they cannot read is most likely that they were taught reading by methods that advocated looking at pictures and guessing what a text might say by using context clues. A sort of charade of reading, that is. A pantomime of literacy.
We are bull$hit!tting ourselves into becoming a third world country.
Do yourself a favor. Listen to the Emily Hanford podcast from APM called Sold a Story. It'll help you recognize the ways that our schools (including universities) have discarded any interest or responsibility in regard to literacy in the USA. And how the public has gullibly gone along with it.

Mark Nov 20, 2022 07:41 AM

As a recently retired secondary reading specialist and English teacher at both middle and high school levels, I’ve used your same arguments regarding the use of instructional minutes reading novels and the reductive results of not having time to teach reading comp, vocabulary, grammar, etc. I’m afraid our arguments fall on deaf ears for two reasons:

1. Ask a middle school teacher, “What do you teach? The answer is almost always, “The Outsiders, Walk Two Moons, and The Diary of Anne Frank.” The same type of response is given by high school teachers: “Romeo and Juliet, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird.” In other words, secondary English teachers see the novels as content… things to be learned. Akin to studying the Civil War or DNA. Few would answer, “State Standards” or English skill development. Some would give a nod to teaching writing, but not teaching reading.

2. Secondary teachers buy into “Elementary is learning to read, but secondary is reading to learn.” Now, this should be true to a degree, but secondary English teachers spin this maxim to mean, “It’s not my job to teach students how to improve their reading skills. I wasn’t trained in how to teach reading. I accommodate varying reading levels by reading out loud. Student just will not read on their own.”

I’ve sometimes wondered out loud if we would be better off eliminating secondary English altogether. More time for history, science, math. Plus, wouldn’t it be better for a history teacher to have students read “Night” or “The Scarlet Letter” in the context of solid background knowledge? Or replaced with a daily reading skills class….

Michelle Nov 21, 2022 11:50 PM

A lot of times it's not that kids "can't" read the novel, it's that they WON'T. Getting kids to read chapters as "homework" seems pointless as most just won't do it. So, if you are going to get them to read the novel, you need to do it in class. Then it makes sense to have the teacher read a large chunk of the text, with students' eyes on their own copies as it's being read, stopping here and there to emphasize teaching points, and then inviting students to read sections independently IN class as they try to apply practiced skills to their own reading.


Andrea Morton Nov 22, 2022 02:02 AM

Hi Dr. Shanahan, I agree that teaching students to read and grapple with complex text themselves with scaffolding is essential. I came across this small study in England called "‘Just reading’: the impact of a faster pace of reading narratives on the comprehension of poorer adolescent readers in English classrooms" and was fascinated by the findings. The teachers read aloud to the students and the students also read within groups with the emphasis being on getting through the texts quickly. It seems to indicate that reading at a fast pace to students, without taking arduous amounts of time to dissect and analyze everything could have some benefit. Have you come across this study or studies like it? What do you make of them?

Ziggy Nov 23, 2022 11:48 AM

Just wondering what an idea unit on a shared text would look like, considering that such a unit would likely need 1) comprehension and vocab work 2) discussion and analysis and 3) writing from a skills perspective, but also acquisition of the 'content' of the shared novel for something like the AP Exam or some international exams. How best to balance this with older students?

Timothy Shanahan Nov 24, 2022 04:37 PM

I've had that happen to me during teaching demonstrations... Not too long ago, I assigned reading to be done as we sit there, then after a reasonable amount of time I shifted to the discussion phase of the lesson, only to find that the students haven't done the reading. Apparently, these kids were used to doing that in their regular classes and teachers just knuckled under and stopped working with text or read the text to them. I didn't know any better so I told the kids they had made a big mistake and directed them to try again. On the second go around, the smart alecky stuff was gone and the students read the text. After the demo, the teachers told me they were amazed that I insisted on the students doing the reading -- they were surprised that the kids did it.

My advice: keep the sections short (at least initially) and insist on it. If kids don't do the reading, have them do it again. It matters that they do it (in terms of their learning), I'm there not just to get them through the text, but to teach them some ways of reading that will increase their power and access -- they won't get that if they don't do the reading. It might help if all the teachers in your school agree to insist on the reading (and enforce it). The key is the teaching however -- if all you are doing is going through the text and asking kids questions about it -- not aiming your instruction at increasing what they kids can do, you are going to fight that battle.


Timothy Shanahan Nov 24, 2022 07:06 PM

That study has some serious design problems which likely explain the results. I certainly believe that students can feel bogged down by some of the ways that teachers go through, but I don't think the solution is to go through text quickly and shallowly. I'd like to think that education tempers youthful impatience and focuses students on what really matters.


Timothy Shanahan Nov 24, 2022 07:33 PM

I have no idea. Sorry.


Andrea Nov 27, 2022 10:13 PM

Thank you Dr. Shanahan. I appreciate your insight on that study.

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