One tradition in classrooms that many educators may need to re-think is the concept of reading whole books in classrooms.
There are so many factors that have influenced the fact that reading a whole book as a class can end up being painful – time constraints due to testing in schools, learning loss from the pandemic that has made reading, in general, a struggle, and general lack of motivation within our students. As opposed to reading a full book in the classroom, excerpts can serve as an opportunity to better engage students and expose them to readings that vary in length, style and complexity.
If you are about to start a new unit and preparing to read a full book, see if you can possibly keep the theme of what you’re teaching and use reading excerpts around that theme. First, let’s consider why reading excerpts are beneficial for students.
Students have limited attention spans
The biggest concern that teachers in the classroom have right now is engaging students due to their limited attention span. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep students engaged in an entire lesson without feeling like you (the teacher) have to literally put on a full performance with multiple moving parts in order to keep students’ attention.
While increasing student attention spans is an entirely different subject in itself and there is no one solution to that at this time, imagine the pain that a student feels when they are forced to read an entire book that they may not understand or just don’t connect to. At least if you incorporate reading excerpts, it’s likely that the next passage or reading may at least engage them if they weren’t super interested in the last one. Regardless, the alternation of different texts can allow them to take their attention off of one reading and know that there will be another one coming up soon.
It allows students to read different literature and author styles
Some students become unmotivated in reading not because they don’t know how to read but because they don’t find interest in what they’re being forced to read. I was that type of student myself. I still remember being miserable in high school when I was forced to read Beowulf. No matter what I did, I just couldn’t find an interest in the text. I managed to deal with the text in class and just did the best I could on the assignments and passed.
Years later, I tried to read Beowulf again just to see if I would feel different about the text as a college student. I still abhorred the text when I read it as an adult, and something clicked in me as a teacher. I realized that not all texts are appropriate for all people, even those that are readers. I think that all English teachers should keep this in mind. When we force all students to read the same text and read the whole book, you will likely still have several students that will be unmotivated simply because of a lack of interest in the text.
Reading excerpts of books allows the student to also read a variety of different writing styles, which accommodates different students. Some writers have a style that is easier to understand while some writers have a style that is more complex and more appropriate for strong readers. When using excerpts, it’s important to vary up the style of the passages to acknowledge both reluctant and avid readers.
It helps with test preparation
When possible, I still try to give students opportunities to improve their test-taking skills. While the pandemic surely helped with encouraging testing companies to give students less pressure on some college admissions tests, public school systems seem to be testing even more than before to catch up on the lack of testing that was done during the pandemic. Truthfully, we don’t know what they will do with the data on testing at this point, but as long as tests are still being administered to students, I like to err on the side of caution and provide them with opportunities to succeed on those tests.
From looking at the workbooks that I use on test prep and sample tests that are provided for my district’s standardized test, I’m seeing that the majority of the reading done on ELA standardized tests is passages and excerpts from literature. What better way to prepare students for the structure of standardized tests than by incorporating excerpts in your own lessons?
How To Do It Effectively
If you are considering teaching with excerpts and think that it would be beneficial to your students, try it out! However, there are some things to keep in mind so that your plans are coherent and have a thematic element. As I continue to describe how to effectively teach with passages, I’ll give more details on how I recently taught a Sci-fi unit with excerpts.
Keep a theme going
Frame your excerpts around the curricular theme you are focusing on. If you’re ready to write a narrative, a great way to incorporate excerpts is to have students read excerpts from different memoirs/narratives to help them also see authors’ different styles of writing. Keeping a theme helps you have consistency and a connection in your readings.
When I taught the Sci-Fi unit, I decided to focus on dystopian fiction since our focus was on helping the student make a connection between the real world and what happens in fictional texts. Dystopian novels (old and new) are often realistic to some extent and discuss the worst-case-scenario of what can happen when government control or technological advancements get taken too far.
Once I knew that their essay would require them to compare one of the themes of the fictional texts to a non-fiction reading, I decided to focus on dystopian passages that would show the student different worlds created in fiction literature. This way, they would also be able to have a choice in which theme they would focus on within the essay.
We read passages from Fahrenheit 451, Hunger Games, and Divergent. I had two more passages I would have liked to use, but we ran out of time as the school year came to an end. This, however, is why teaching with passages can be beneficial. If you run out of time, you can typically still get your objectives and goals met without feeling upset that you didn’t get to finish reading a particular book.
Include background context with the passage to start off
Depending on where your passage starts, give the students a brief introduction to the text and some context to help them understand what the passage is about. It’s also helpful to give them information such as the author and publication date in case students are interested in reading the full book at their own leisure. That’s another plus with excerpts: it encourages students to read by giving them a small “taste” of different books. You will be delightfully surprised to find that a few students will ask you about some passages they found interesting.
When teaching the Sci-fi unit, I made an introduction sheet that I included before the text of each passage. It included a picture of the book cover, the book’s author and publication date, the “back of the book summary” as well as a small amount of text to discuss what has happened so far in the book (for when we read a passage that wasn’t the beginning of the book).
This helps the students figure out not only details on the book that they can use if they want to check it out at the library or get their own copy of the book, but it also prepares them for what we’ll be reading and where we will begin.
Keep activities that help them tie the texts together
Finally, be sure to incorporate activities in the lesson plan that tie the texts together. Since you’re likely doing a thematic lesson, it shouldn’t be hard to do this. You can put students in groups and ask them general questions (based on figurative language, plot elements, dialogue) and let them choose which excerpt they would like to explore. You could also do this after each excerpt to ensure that students are going back to the reading and exploring deeper parts of the text to help gauge comprehension.
As we read our Sci-fi passages, we completed a range of activities in between the readings and continued to tie them together both through independent activities and group work. When we first read Fahrenheit 451, our first assignment was a group activity where students identified different figurative language and summarized specific parts of the excerpt we had read (since Fahrenheit can be considered a complex read). By the time we were done with the next two excerpts, we were able to start giving students choice on which passage they did work on, and we could start building on comparing and contrasting the different texts and different plots.
As you continue to do more passages, you can start having activities that somehow tie the texts together or continue to require students to go back to previous readings (to reinforce learning and prevent them from forgetting a passage that they read). If you have control over the type of essay or writing task that students will complete, consider having them write or complete a project that compares/contrasts the passages or ties them together in some way.
High School ELA
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