3 Important reminders for novels with Upper Elementary Students

Have you been thinking about using novels in your elementary and middle school classes? You may read blogs and books and see videos all about using Comprehension-Based Readers from Fluency Matters and TPRS Books and wonder how to get started using them.

I have written here about my experiments with using novels in the classroom and what’s been successful. But even though I have had some success, there are ways that I can be even more successful. There have been all kinds of issues, problems, and speedbumps in my first year of using novels, but these have taught me some important lessons:

  • The students need to have
    1. Lots of time to comprehend while reading
    2. Lots of previous experience with the vocabulary (especially high-frequency verbs/phrases)
    3. Clear and consistent procedures for what they need to do with the information they read.

1. Go Slow…So slow it hurts

At ACTFL 2019, I saw La Maestra Loca, Annabelle Williamson, who said, “If you’re not bored out of your mind, you’re not going slow enough!” (She was talking about during clipchat, but it is applicable everywhere, especially with Elementary students in a CI setting). When I got back to school and started teaching again, I took video of myself. I used to think I spoke slowly in the classroom, but the video showed otherwise: As slow as I thought I was going, it wasn’t slow enough. I was talking way too fast for students to process everything. So I started going even slower.

And like a ton of bricks, common sense hit me right in the face: Forcing myself to slow down led to an increase in student comprehension, which led to an increase in participation, which is leading to more acquisition in the classroom.

But slowing down was not only for storytelling, clipchat, La Charla conversations, and/or any other interactive activities with the kids; I also slowed down my reading pace. It’s easy to think, “Well, the kids have the text, so if I’m going to quickly, they can just read on their own what they might not have heard.”

Yeah…That’s not what happens.

At the time (right before Christmas), I was finishing up Brandon Brown Quiere un Perro with 6th grade and working through a leyenda in Leyendas Impactantes with 7th grade. Up to that point, I had found success with most of the students and they were able to tell me basically what was going on in each chapter/legend. Some students needed a lot more guidance in comprehending what was going on, but I chalked that up to the students not being ready to read a full novel on their own. My first thought was not, “what can I do to help them understand better?” It was, “Why are they not able to understand more?” Instead of thinking about my own teaching methods, I blamed their lack of comprehension on them, not my own techniques and planning.

But then I started reading slower. I found that by adjusting my pace, all of my students, whether regardless of how much comprehension they could show before, were able to show comprehension of more details than ever before.

Simply reading at a slower pace, while difficult for me to do and awkward sounding, led to better comprehension. I had fewer questions about the meanings of words and more questions about the content of the story. The kids were processing more because the pace was slower.

Applying this to 4th and 5th is a no-brainer. And to prove it, students’ summaries of the content of each chapter in Edi el Elefante so far have been more detailed and show more understanding than they have in years past. Instead of summaries based on what the students are seeing in the pictures, the summaries are based on the text of the story, including details that weren’t included in years past.

2. A Different (for me) Approach to Pre-teaching Vocabulary

At the beginning of this year, I had the benefit of hindsight and a more concrete plan on how I was going to incorporate novels into my curriculum. As such, I could plan strategically with vocabulary and incorporate words and phrases that appear a lot in the novel as well as in the outside world.

Last year, I just jumped into the book with no background discussion about vocabulary or context. I put new words from the chapter on the board and pointed them out as we read. This year, I made a conscious effort to include them into other activities. For example, the phrase “quiere ser…” (wants to be) appears throughout the book. Knowing this, I made sure to include this phrase into unrelated OWI character creation activities. So now, instead of hearing it for the first time in the story, they have heard it and interacted with it and are closer to internalizing it than in years past. In other words, Incorporating vocabulary I know will appear later serves to pre-teach the vocabulary so students can focus more on content and less on decoding/translating in their minds.

3. Clear, Consistent (and strict) Expectations and Procedures

My first few times reading novels with middle school students, my assessment consisted of printed handouts from the teachers’ guides and summaries of each chapter. I would read aloud and students would read along, then they would write a summary in English (or Spanish, if they chose to, some always choose to do this), then the next class I would hand out the worksheet from the chapter we just read and students would complete it. Then the cycle would repeat again.

It wasn’t a terrible way to teach a novel. The students were able to summarize things pretty well and they could answer the questions from the teacher’s guide worksheets with close-to-complete accuracy. But when I really looked at student summaries, there wasn’t a lot to them. The majority got the gist but didn’t write any specific details that I wanted them to write (because they were important foreshadowing or because they were relevant to a conversation we would have later, etc).

And it wasn’t their fault. I didn’t tell them exactly what I wanted. I hoped they would do what I expected, but there was no guarantee. If there’s one thing I have learned as an elementary and middle school teacher, it’s that students will rise to the expectations of the teacher, but they have to be told exactly what the expectations are. The majority of them, just like me at their age (and at my current age), will do what they think is expected but not go above and beyond…Which makes sense, because if they don’t know where the ceiling is, how can they reach it or go above it?

The other ingredient to success with novels is, as it is in most recipes for successful classrooms, PROCEDURES! Procedures give students a map of exactly what to do at any given time during the activity. If students know what they should be doing, they will most likely do it.

Procedures for novel reading in my class

  1. Before we start reading
    1. Expose students to important vocabulary by targeting specific words and phrases from the start of the year. For example, since Edi el Elefante is all about animals, we always start with a discussion about animals. In anticipation of that, i try and include that vocabulary and content when we create owi characters through the beginning of the year.
    2. Explicitly go over procedures and expectations for while we read and for taking notes and completing activities (more about that ahead).
    3. The students “set up” their notebooks. To do this, they fold a page in their notebooks so that they have a built-in bookmark. This allows them to be able to keep all their novel summaries and written activities together in one spot and since it’s in their notebooks, there is a smaller likelihood that they will forget to bring it to class (like they would if it were a separate folder or binder).
  2. While we read
    1. No pens, pencils, or any other writing utensils! Students need to be fully present and focused on what we are reading. There is no need for taking notes while we read.
    2. Students may sit on the floor around the room. The students can’t lay down, but I allow them to sit anywhere around the room so that they can get comfortable. They are already being made to read a book in another language, why not allow them to get as comfy as possible so they really focus on what we’re talking about and enjoy it.
    3. Constant checks for comprehension. This includes questions about what is going on in the story in English or Spanish, cognate alerts, and asking about the meanings/translations/synonyms of individual words.
  3. After reading: students’ notes and post-chapter activities
    1. In their summaries, they must give a specific number of details about characters or plot. This depends on what happens in the chapter. For example, in the first chapter, they needed to provide 4 details about Edi (there are four specific adjectives the book uses to describe Edi). By telling them exactly what is expected, they can either meet the expectation or get help meeting it if they need it.
    2. In addition to written summaries, we have included other activities to help with comprehension and provide repetitions of the text. These include readers’ theater (with individual actors and with small groups)


Slow and steady, plan ahead, and make the procedures second nature: These are the keys to success when teaching novels in the Elementary (and Middle School) Classroom.