Teaching Novels

In my experience, the biggest value of novels is not in the reading of the novel itself but in the awesome spinouts possible at any given unplanned moment. Today I was working with the chapter in Brandon Brown (Quebec) where he didn’t want to get up. His mom walks into the room and says, “Brandon and Katie! It’s time to get up!”
So I just started asking questions of the kids:
“Does your mom wake you up?”
“Should a parent wake up a kid?”
“Should a kid wake up a parent?”
“Should an alarm clock wake up a kid?”
All of a sudden instead of a boring translation of a book (we didn’t create it so we didn’t have ownership of it like we do with stories) we were Jumping into the Space! (part of Reading Option A). They were outputting a lot of French. Why? Because it was a fun topic for them. (They were all so cute in defending the position that a parent MUST wake up a child.)
I quickly figured out that my NON PRE-PLANNED structures (structures don’t have to be planned) that fell into my lap in that moment of class were “should” and “alarm clock”. (I did not need get reps on “to wake up” because last week I got about 25 or 30 minutes of reps on that verb. It is one of the verbs that lend itself to easy questioning – “What time do you wake up?” etc.)
So if we think that novels are boring, because they are, we can bring them to life.
Caution: you’ve got to be able to let your freak flag fly a little when doing this. If you are like so many of the robotic teachers out there poisoning our kids concealed hope that one day they will be fluent in another language, you may think that a class discussing a novel would be all about questions like this:
“Does Brandon’s mother or father wake him up?” (WHO CARES?)
Loosen up! Think of questions outside the box. Get your kids involved. It is the personalized questions that make this work fun. Live a little. Go outside the box! The weather’s fine!



13 thoughts on “Teaching Novels”

  1. Personalization!!!
    My go-to move to make novels compelling is Reader’s Theater. After we read a chapter, kids get roles, I narrate, they act it out. It’s like TPR + storytelling. You can also add in a little storyasking and change some of the chapter’s details (e.g. mom went on a motorcycle instead of in a car). I have every chapter of RT of Brandon Brown by my 5th grade filmed. I often do this at the end of a MovieTalk as well.

  2. Haha, I do that spin-out thing so well that I hardly ever get through a whole novel. As a matter of fact, today (we’re reading “A car of his own”) we only managed one paragraph. Who cares, right?

  3. …I do that spin-out thing so well that I hardly ever get through a whole novel….
    New people should read what Brigitte said there again:
    …I do that spin-out thing so well that I hardly ever get through a whole novel….
    That is major for a new teacher. As soon as you get this little trick of spinning out discussion from a text into your teaching repertoire, you will experience at the end of class a big surge of confidence.
    Today as I described above I expanded on the “Who should wake up kids?” theme for such a long time (the targets – should and alarm clock – were placed on my shoulders by a small troupe of passing angels). When the class was really rolling I blurted out – “Now you are really learning French!” – I couldn’t help myself and then when the class was over I felt a surge of confidence. Like you Brigitte, I could care less about the book. The kids wanted to move further and kept saying, “We already read that!” and I said “But you don’t know it until you can talk about it!” And the discussion was so lively that I thought I could teach from one novel for an entire year. Oh but wait, if you new teachers buy into the concept of CI there’s more:
    Free Writes
    Reader’s Theatre
    Word Chunk Team Game
    Circling with Balls
    and about 30 more killer techniques. What a menu! Once it was all about “How do I fill these last 30 minutes of class?” Now it’s “Man! I’ve got too much to do and that clock keeps advancing toward the end of class. Dang it!”

  4. My favorite thing to do during novels is, after a sentence, just ask a ¿quién? question. For example, after reading “Brandon Brown quiere un perro inteligente,” I’ll ask, “¿Quién tiene un perro inteligente?” The hands of my middle-schoolers shot up for quién questions. I can take it further by asking more questions… “¿Quién tiene un perro estúpido?” and I can even go deeper in asking individual questions… “¿Por qué es tu perro estúpido?” Or, I can just ask the quién question and move on to the next sentence in the novel. The point of it is it brings engagement back and it’s simple.

    1. …the hands of my middle-schoolers shot up for quién questions….
      New people take note. If the text says that Brandon wants an intelligent dog, you start comparing/contrasting what is in the book with what your kids want/have/do while hammering the same verb, whatever naturally comes up in the flow of the interaction with the class.
      Reading about Brandon’s wishes around a dog gets them thinking about their own wishes around a dog and they naturally respond to your questions. This gets them focused on the message so that the language goes to their unconscious minds which is the only place where authentic language acquisition can happen. They are thinking about dogs, you are thinking about sneaking language past their conscious minds.
      Back and forth, back and forth, from the text to the students. Even if the “stories” part of TPRS had never been invented, we could teach proficiency through reading and discussing (TPRD). Without stories, we could still have a wealth of things to do with our kids just by going back and forth between the text and the class with simple written texts like the Brandon series, Isabella, etc.
      Why? Because stories and personalized discussion are both very compelling. Echoing something Blaine always says, if something other than stories and personalized discussion that is more compelling than those two things suddenly appeared in front of us as an activity, we would do it. It’s not the activity, its the fact that what we are doing is compelling to them, which kicks in the unconscious process described above.

  5. I never thought I’d get to this point with a group of kids, perhaps it’s all the SSR the kids are doing this year in class, but my Spanish 2 kids just prefer me to read the novel aloud (we’re reading Los Baker Van a Peru, together) at a pretty normal speed. I read the first couple chapters aloud at a slower pace and they got kind of annoyed by it. And they are following with the normal (how I’d read aloud in English) speed. If they don’t understand something, they stomp their feet. I find myself spinning PQA pretty infrequently with this group, but it still happens, needs to happen, and it is usually to expand on a cultural topic that comes up. This group has great buy-in, so that helps.

    1. Jim, that’s how i read novels with all my classes! 🙂 I do assign students to read for characters. I don’t care about the pronunciation. Silly voices make it more compelling.

    2. I have an idea for that kind of situation — where they really don’t want or need a lot of discussion about a chapter. (I’ve done this with groups that we did do a fair amount of discussion, though.) If you feel like they’d benefit from looking again at the text, here’s an idea. No prep needed other than having a camera:
      – They look again at some part of the chapter (half a page or a page?).
      – With a partner or group of 3 if you have bigger classes than I do, they choose a sentence they think is the most important from that section.
      – Ask for their ideas & guide a discussion to decide which one they like best.
      – You type it up or assign a student to write or type it. (I prefer to have it viewable on screen though.)
      – Some volunteers stage the scene with props & costumes to the degree you have them.
      – Then you or a student takes a photo of the scene.
      – Repeat for as many sections from the chapter as you want.
      I use the photos and sentences later on, but you wouldn’t have to. Just photo taking is really great. There are a lot of entertaining moments there.

      1. Oh also – I say “I have an idea” — meaning not necessarily that it originated with me, just that I’m enjoying it now. I think it’s more or less the same as Freeze Frames, which I heard from Martina Bex and Robert Harrell independently some time ago.

      2. Oh yes I like that idea Diane.
        Really, I think it’s great that they are fine as a group just letting me read at a steady pace without much interruption. Los Baker is a real fun novel too, so that helps. If we finish it real quickly, so be it I am happy they are into the story and we’ve got lots of other stuff to do and talk about before I lose them mid-January. But I can’t help show and tell my Peru slideshows, so that draws it out right there.
        We did RT the chapter where the family goes to the Price is Right… I love it when Nathaniel wipes the jelly off Bob Barker’s face!

  6. I think that Reader’s Theatre is under utilized. It’s probably because newer teachers think that it is a technique to prepare beforehand. Really it is an emergent thing that organically appears in the middle of a reading. After we teach a certain novel enough times we know where the “good scenes” like the one you mention above Jim are and then when we get to them we know we are going to have some fun. So much of this work, 95% of it, is about unexpected organic emergence of fun, and not about the serious business that, for too long, I thought school was. Plato associated learning with play. And his name sounds like Play-Dough, so there is something there.

  7. Eric I like it that you let the kids read dialogues. Traditional TPRSers would call that output and discourage it because it would fossilize bad accents or whatever. I like that here we talk about how to make TPRS really work in a classroom.

    1. Well, the traditional TPRSers who think that are WRONG – that would not fossilize bad accents.
      TPRSers have HUGELY misunderstood Krashen’s hypothesis that we only acquire from CI to mean that in class students should only listen. WRONG.
      Output is not making TPRS work in a classroom – it is enhancing CI in any context.

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