My Two-Handed Opinion on Teaching with Novels

  • 20 April, 2019

Teacher question:

I've been thinking a lot about a response to teachers who only want to teach whole-class novels. When I say whole-class novels, what I see most often is the traditional approach most high school teachers take. Reading at home, lectures, comparative reading (but with very little instructional support). Also, what do you offer as a suggestion for teachers who are willing to rethink their novel practice (so long as they still get to teach novels)?

Shanahan response:

Lyndon Johnson used to talk about “two-handed economists.” He’d ask economists for their advice, and their responses were always, “Well on the one hand… but on the other hand….”

Your question makes me feel like a “two-handed” reading specialist.

There is no research that evaluates the specifics of your question. No one, as far as I can tell, has asked empirical questions like: How effective is novel teaching? How does novel teaching do when compared with other literature instruction? Are there more effective ways to teach novels? 

That leaves me with nothing but opinion; informed opinion one hopes, but I value opinion (even my own) about as much as Emily Post does eating with your elbows on the table.

On the one hand, there are some great novels out there for adolescents, and in my experience English teachers tend to do a pretty good job of selecting the ones to teach (not counting my own too-painful-to-discuss experience with Silas Marner).

When I look at the literature education standards established by most states, I can find few such standards that can’t satisfactorily be addressed through working with one novel or another (and those tend to be items tied to poetry and plays).

Another plus is the possibility that experiences reading novels will help students develop reading stamina. Having to maintain attention for several weeks and sustaining the memory demands required of reading an entire book should be good for kids. There may be no research on this, but it is a possibility.

There is some research (we’re still on the one hand) showing that fifth-graders preferred reading novels to basal reader selections (Smith, 1998). That suggests that there might be some potential motivational benefits, too.

Yeah, there are definitely some reasons for reading novels in the middle school and high school.

And, yet…. I can think of a lot of reasons NOT to read novels. You know, the “other hand.” One of the purposes of an English curriculum is to ensure that students gain a significant relationship with the Western canon (whatever that is). One goal is to make sure that students gain a relationship with a plethora of authors across racial, ethnic, gender, and historical contexts. Let’s be honest… there are only so many novels that kids can read. Excerpts and short stories magnify the possibilities here.

Likewise, while I can introduce metaphor, characterization, plot structure, mood, and so on through novels, I can never provide the breadth of experience possible when exposing students to shorter works. You might have kids introduce characterization through Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but in the same time period, I can easily explore characterization through works by Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, and Tobias Wolfe (and Cormac McCarthy).

Of course, I’ve had this argument with novel-teaching teachers who tell me that I just don’t understand. I’m simply not literary enough for their tastes. They’re certain that I get how to teach phonics and other reading stuff, but they know literature and how to develop a sophisticated reading among adolescents. In other words, if I was truly “woke” I’d get why novels are superior for teaching literature than excerpts ever could be.

I’m more than willing to accept that they’re wise and I’m an idiot, but then I think about some library research that I did. I found that both Robert Frost and Toni Morrison have taught literature. I tracked down their syllabi. They both taught literature using excerpts. I get that these novel-teachers understand literature better than I do, but better than Frost and Morrison? Perhaps they don’t appreciate literature as much as they think they do. (When they can write a novel as good as Beloved, I’ll accept their holier than thou  approach.)

This is one of those times when I think we ought to be splitting differences… balancing the needs for sustained attention and stamina and the possibility of exposing kids to some really great novels against exposing kids to a broader and more varied experience with elements of literature, literary works, and racial, ethnic, and gender sources.

I’d suggest one novel or a couple of novellas each year in high school, balanced against a more aggressive and intentional use of excerpts and shorter works.

Of course, those are issues of curriculum—what we teach. What about how these things are taught?

I only found one actual research study on teaching novels—and that with college students. The study found that students learned more when they read novels in chunks and shared their responses with the professor and other students; that is there was a measurable power in shared response (Courtland, et al, 1998).

Definitely when teachers have kids reading novels—or a series of shorter literary works—there still should be instruction in vocabulary and practice with fluency (if the kids aren’t fully fluent yet). There should be opportunity for teacher lectures, but also for student discussion and writing about the texts (that shared response). The point is both to teach students a particular work or set of literary works, while building an ability and inclination to engage in literary reading in the future.

Often when teachers are unwilling to change, it is less about what is best for kids and more about how much work the change entails. I think you’re more likely to get a teacher to back off of a long-used set of lesson plans by getting a group of teachers to develop the new lessons together… shared response is not only powerful with students.

This is one of those times that being two-handed is a really good idea. Your teachers shouldn’t drop novels, but they definitely should reduce this reliance.


See what others have to say about this topic.

April Hughes Apr 24, 2019 12:25 PM

I totally agree that there is a place for both and novel, short stories, and poetry need to be utilized in secondary English classes

Katy Apr 24, 2019 07:40 PM

Yep. For years I taught everything through novels- and not always good one. I'm not having my students read on-level, high interest texts for homework and SSR. In class I teach skills through excerpts of classic literature pieces - but which also happen to be high interest. It is through them that the majority of the writing responses happen. But I definitely don't think teaching whole classic texts are the way to go anymore.

Christine Apr 25, 2019 01:29 PM

I agree. There is definitely value in having a shared experience with a text, which can be done via a novel or a short story, and also providing exposure to a story arc over a sustained period of time. Students should be exposed to both short stories and novels each year with very specific literacy goals around each experience. But a shared experience doesn't mean an identical one. While all of the strategies outlined above, such as responding in writing, discussion etc. all help students to understand and process what they are reading, different students will need varying levels of support throughout the process.

Martha S. Lyon May 03, 2019 10:10 PM

Given that the author and those who wrote comments are all involved in literacy and the teaching of English, I'm very disappointed in the quality of their writing, which doesn't rise above mediocre, and the apparent absence of proofreading. Examples of this are all over the Internet and not surprising given the U.S. has had an inadequate K-12 education system for the last 50+ years. I guess I had hoped that by now those educated after 1966 would have realized that (1) an inadequate system results in adverse consequences, (2) they may have gaps in their learning and skill development as a result of those consequences, and (3) that having incurred one or more of those gaps means they have a responsibility to themselves, their employers, their children and their community to devote as much time and effort as is necessary to determine which gaps affect each of them personally and fill them in with additional education.

This article refers only to using novels "to introduce metaphor, characterization, plot structure, mood, and so on," but it's unclear as to whether that's about teaching writing or how to read a novel or what's happening in the particular novel being read by the class. This leaves the reader unclear as to what "teaching with novels" refers.

In addition, the article ignores the life lessons and infinite wisdom that students are exposed to when reading literature, especially the classics. So, when commenter, Katy, writes "But I definitely don't think teaching whole classic texts are the way to go anymore," I immediately question whether she even knows what she's talking about. Remember, she may very well have been a recipient of that inadequate education. If so, should she and others in her position be given any authority or discretion as to what today's students should and should not be reading?

One reason this article is confusing to more advanced readers is the writing. For instance, the author states he "can think of a lot of reasons [for] NOT [reading] novels," but, since there really aren't any reasons not to read novels as a student, maybe he actually means there are reasons for not having a curriculum focused exclusively on novels.

Martha S. Lyon May 04, 2019 12:29 AM

Hi again: I was called away, so I had to post my comment before finishing and proofing it.

As to the teacher's question posed at the beginning, when I read "when I say whole-class novels," I expected this teacher to explain what he/she means by "whole-class novels." Maybe I wouldn't be asking what is meant by "whole-class novels" had I not been away from classroom teaching for awhile, but the phrase is not exactly self-explanatory.

If it refers to novels that are read by the entire class together, how else would a book be assigned and covered in class? I mean what are the benefits of every student reading a different book when so much of the learning and understanding is achieved through class discussions --- teacher-student and student-student interaction?

This teacher also refers to "teachers who only want to teach whole-class novels." As opposed to what? Don't all secondary English teachers teach a number of topcs, including writing, vocabulary and punctuation? Does the question refer to teaching writing using only novels as opposed to using a variety of writing genres, such as the novella, short story, essay and article, poetry, memoir, nonfiction and creative nonfiction, and/or excerpts from any of these?

In the end, it sounds as though the answer to whatever dilemma this teacher seems to think exists is common sense --- a balanced exposure to many writing genres. As a reader, though, I would have appreciated it if the information provided in the article had been more precise and concise. What's interesting is that when I was in school, the reading we were assigned --- Huck Finn, Tale of Two Cities, Moby Dick, Silas Marner, Edgar Allen Poe, Shakespeare, poetry, Beowulf, Dante's Inferno, Canterbury Tales, etc. --- was about exposing us to literary works we would never otherwise read. A lot of different aspects were discussed, but I don't remember any of this text being tied to "teaching the novel" or the teaching of writing, but, then, these were English classes, not creative writing classes.

Christopher Reider Jun 08, 2019 01:01 PM

I would agree that the author’s perspectives on this “debate” could have been delivered more specially so as to better articulate the expected outcomes of using novels; but he does hint at literature standards, and cultural objectives, such as helping students identify a “relationship with a plethora of authors across racial, ethnic, gender, and historical contexts” (par.11). I’m unclear as to why the previous commenter felt inclined to hurl insults at responders who are educators (and obviously interested in literacy discussions or they wouldn’t be here, reading this blog!) Explain to me, please, what good does that do? Interacting with each other on topics of literacy is an important virtue we should encourage, for students and colleagues. Civil responses with academic opinions, engagement and interactivity with new literacies, such as the ones found on this blog, and respect for one another in the process models the type of online behavior we should be encouraging. Your critique of the people who were bold enough to comment is impertinent and the very example of deficit theory education that overemphasizes grammar and mechanics and uses writing as a tool of marginalization. Why do you think kids feel mocked and belittled, growing up to be citizens who have a negative view of English and literature, and in some cases, teachers? You had the audacity to point to the people on this site as unworthy of having a voice because you scanned their writing and found mechanical errors. You recognized those errors as evidence of a failed educational system. Do you not see that critique of their writing as symbolic for the way it has been for far too long in writing instruction?

We should be modeling this level of interaction and encouraging responses, and we should stop this linguistic terrorism that bullies people into silence for fear of misplacing a comma! I am a college professor who teaches English and Education courses, and I will be shaping the future of education by encouraging my students to collaborate, experiment, write, respond, interact, and do it all boldly — never fearing the curmudgeons from past generations who might use the identification of grammatical flaws as a weapon.

Christopher Reider Jun 20, 2019 01:55 AM

I wrote “specially” in the first line and should have written “specifically”... my apologies.

I’m sure that will yield some venom from the previous commenter.


Lara Feb 18, 2020 06:06 PM

This piece of research supports the argument for teaching whole novels (by reading them aloud to the class):
Westbrook, Jo, Sutherland, Julia, Oakhill, Jane and Sullivan, Susan (2019) 'Just reading': increasing pace and volume of reading whole narratives on the comprehension of poorer adolescent readers in English classrooms. Literacy, 53 (2). pp. 60-68.

Brooke Stembridge Dec 14, 2022 02:09 PM

What do you think about assessments that are about the particulars of that novel they have just spent weeks picking apart? My concern is not so much about using novels, but the fact that instruction becomes about the novel and not the strategies and standards. If the assessment is about the novel which teachers have read and discussed at length, then the assessment winds up being about how well the students paid attention in class. Ok, use the novel, but see if they are applying the strategies and understandings in a different text.

Timothy Shanahan Dec 14, 2022 09:24 PM


We really should pay attention to both those skills and strategies that we intend for students to generalize to all texts and to students' developing knowledge of the world based upon the texts that we teach. English teachers should want to increase kids' language skills to the point where they can take on harder and harder texts independently as they go -- but they also should be developing a body of knowledge about our literary heritage as well as insights to human emotions. Testing to find out if students can remember particular authors, plots, or characters does have a place (maybe not immediately after reading, but over time). Obviously, testing to identify the levels of texts that students can handle independently, vocabulary knowledge, ability to identify and use text structure, etc. are quite a different thing and they definitely should be tested.


Amie Hoover Jun 05, 2024 11:47 AM

Hello. I’m wondering if you have any updated thoughts related to this topic and if there’s any new research. Specifically in intermediate grades 4-6 and with development of new curriculum “aligned” to the science of reading with different approaches and the focus on knowledge building. Some of these curriculums take a novel centered approach in the intermediate grades, where each unit has a core novel study and then some paired short stories and informational text (such as Wit & Wisdom), while others only use shorter texts including authentic picture book stories, informational text or articles, excerpts from grade appropriate novels, etc. (such as Wonders 2023).

Timothy Shanahan Jun 05, 2024 12:17 PM

No, there is no research on this. sorry.


What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

My Two-Handed Opinion on Teaching with Novels


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.