What to do when a novel is failing

scott benedict studentsRecently there was a post on the iFLT/ NTPRS/ CI Teaching Facebook page (join us there if you are not already a member! Great discussion!) on the topic of “failing novels.” The scenario was…a teacher is 2/3 of the way through a novel with his students. They seem bored, and some of them seem to be not understanding. He was wondering if he should keep going with the novel or just quit and move on to something else. Oftentimes, teachers are really perplexed when a novel that other teachers have recommended and had success with seems to fall flat with their own students. Sometimes even a novel that the same teacher has taught previously with success won’t work with a different group of students. What to do? Carrie Toth, Martina Bex, and Kristy Placido are here to share our opinions and experience in case you should run into the same dilemma.

PROBLEM:

You’re going too slow #1: You are pre-teaching vocab before each chapter instead of before starting the novel

*How do I prepare for a chapter?

*How many words should I pre-teach per chapter?

 

Kristy:

When I teach Spanish 1, my first few weeks are dedicated to teaching high-frequency vocabulary in a personalized way through TPRS. I know that in my classes, students will begin with the novel “El Nuevo Houdini” by Carol Gaab. I purposefully look through that novel to gather structures that I can incorporate into my introductory unit. I don’t want to have to do a lot of stopping between chapters to pre-teach, because that makes us lose momentum.

Personally I would pre-teach no more than 5-6 new structures between each chapter, and 2-3 is even better.

 

Carrie:

Much like Kristy, I try to pre-teach vocabulary in the context of a unit BEFORE we read the novel.  For example, in Spanish 3 we will be reading Vida y Muerte en la Mara Salvatrucha in a couple of weeks.  I have been working for two weeks through a study of the El Salvador Civil War to build up words like gang, shooting, violence, kidnapping, to join… When we read the novel, I want them to encounter LOTS of words they already know so they are confident to sight read the ones they don’t yet!

 

Martina:

I think 2-3 also. It’s easy to introduce students to the themes of the chapter/build interest in the chapter through PQA and discussion based activities that target 2-3 structures. If you are trying to do more than that, you need to do a bunch of different activities (each one targeting 2-3 structures) in order to get enough reps of each one, and it ends up disconnecting from the novel. Some examples from the Yucatan guide are

-Teaching students about CENOTES before they read the chapter with the cenote. As you explain to students what a cenote is, you can teach them ‘nada’ (swims) and ‘hace calor’ (is hot), which are new structures in that chapter.

-Parallel story: In Chapter 3, Brandon is looking for his family and starts to feel afraid when he encounters the novel’s villain for the first time. New vocab includes “looks for” and “is afraid”. Do a parallel TPRS® story  in which the main character is looking for something and gets scared because of something that s/he encounters while searching.

-What would you do? discussion activity: This one takes a little more prep if you have to develop it on your own. New vocab for Chapter 5 include “makes a noise”, “is surprised”, and “cries”. Write up a bunch of ‘surprising’ situations that include those words, and then ask students which of two ways they would most likely react. Then, discuss! If you use 10 situations, you don’t even have to work ALL of the target structures into EVERY situation.

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fail 2
CAN THIS PROBLEM BE SOLVED WITHOUT ABANDONING THE NOVEL? HOW?

If you’re already in the middle of a novel that requires you to pre-teach 5+ target structures between each chapter, you chose a novel that is too incomprehensible to use for a whole class novel. We recommend that you stop reading it, focus on acquiring language, and then you can come back to the novel once your students have acquired enough of the target structures to be able to move through it at a reasonable pace.

 

PROBLEM:

You’re going too slow #2: You are doing too many activities for each chapter

*How to pick and choose when there are SO MANY great activities?

*How do I know how many is too many?

 

Kristy:

Select additional activities based on how much they will help students with those difficult-to-acquire structures and based on how much fun comprehensible input they will provide. If students know a chapter really well, don’t beat it to death with a bunch of comprehension activities. If it is a chapter that is fun or exciting, add to that with reader’s theater, but don’t act out EVERY chapter. And definitely don’t act out the ENTIRE chapter! Select a handful of really fun vignettes from the entire novel to act out.

 

Carrie:

Again, I agree with Kristy!  Nothing turns my kids away from the novels faster than overdoing the worksheets and comprehension activities!  They want to read and love the story.  I’m reading Girl in Translation at home right now and I certainly don’t want my husband to stop me and ask me to answer comprehension questions after every chapter!

I try to read a chapter in class (unless it is long because I want to make sure they have plenty of time to understand what we are reading) and do a little activity as we read.  Sometimes we sketch note… Draw pictures of what we are reading and write little excerpts that represent the most important moments from the text.  Other times, we talk about a particular character by drawing the person on the board and adding more and more descriptions as we read them.  It allows me to point out important chapter information without them feeling like it is a worksheet or homework assignment.  Those are pretty much instant killers of enthusiasm!

 

Martina:

Agreed! I avoid straight-up comprehension activities because they feel like work (worksheets that require students to answer questions about the text). Most activities will give you insight into students’ comprehension of the text, even if not explicitly so, so choose the activities that will connect students to the text. Like Carrie said, drawing the character on the board (or having a student lie down on a piece of butcher paper…um…is there a better term for that?…and tracing him/her) and describing that character is fun and demonstrates comprehension of the text. As you discuss it, ask personalized questions that help your students relate to the character. So, we know that Makenna has a sister in college that she misses. Can any of your students relate to that? Do they have siblings that are in college or living far away? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? You know that you’re doing too many activities for each chapter when you catch students grabbing the novel to continue reading instead of participating in the activities, when they groan when you tell them that you aren’t reading the next chapter of the book today…

 

CAN THIS PROBLEM BE SOLVED WITHOUT ABANDONING THE NOVEL? HOW?

 

YES! Look at your plans for the rest of the novel, and pitch one or more activities that you’ve planned for each chapter!

 

PROBLEM:

You’re going too slow #3: You are circling or otherwise spending too much time on language that students have already acquired–it’s easy for them, so keep moving!

*If the language isn’t new for students, focus activities on the CONTENT, not the vocab
Kristy:

Don’t waste time circling language they already know. If the novel is pretty easy for them, bump up the level of the discussion. Ask “what if?” and “how would you have done this?” types of questions. Also if the novel is super easy, students can be reading independently!

 

CAN THIS PROBLEM BE SOLVED WITHOUT ABANDONING THE NOVEL? HOW?

Yes! Get those kids reading on their own and do a fast read of this novel! They don’t need all those extra activities!

 

PROBLEM: The novel is too hard

*The content might be over students’ heads and needs to be pre-taught

*Too many words are incomprehensible

 

Martina:

My inner-city, middle school students knew nothing about unions, strikes, etc. for Esperanza, so I needed to spend a lot of class time teaching them about those concepts. Now I know that I should do those things BEFORE beginning the novel because doing it during the novel made us go too slow.

 

Carrie:

Intermediate level students with prior experience reading novels may be able to read with a lower percentage of comprehensibility (80-90%) but I have found that only the ones who really LOVE language will power through those novels when they feel lost.  To be inclusive to all in my class, I try to keep it above 90 for the intermediates and above 95 for novices!  If we are reading authentic literature, it is usually a short story and therefore doesn’t require quite as much fortitude to sit through parts that are semi-incomprehensible!  They know the end is coming! 🙂

 

CAN THIS PROBLEM BE SOLVED WITHOUT ABANDONING THE NOVEL? HOW?

Carrie:

I completely agree with Martina!  As language teachers, we have a vast prior cultural knowledge that our students do not!  If we assume that they understand what a union is or that they can see how scary it would be to grow up in the middle of a gang infested neighborhood, we may lose them just because they can’t visualize life in the characters’ shoes.  Hooks are the perfect way to build just a taste of prior knowledge that can help students connect with the material on a personal level and understand what the cultural side of the novel is really trying to teach them.

Martina:

If the novel is too hard for content or linguistic reasons, I think that you need to stop and work on building prior knowledge or language. After you’ve done that, you may choose to finish the novel or not. Struggling through the rest of the novel just to finish it is not going to benefit anyone. It will be discouraging for you and the students, and you will sour their attitudes toward reading, which will damage future attempts at reading the novel!

 

PROBLEM:

You haven’t connected students to the content

*How can we connect students to the content?
Kristy:

Look for “hooks” that can pique students’ interest in the chapter.

Reader’s Theater can add lots of intrigue, especially if you incorporate props, costumes, music, backgrounds, and have good actors.

Parallel stories about your students in similar situations can really help increase interest AND allow more repetitions of key structures.

Connect to music or pop culture. Is there a song that comes to mind? Can you compare something in the novel to popular movies, celebrities, TV shows, youtube hits, or viral memes?

Above all, remember that you are teaching STUDENTS, not curriculum. Relax, have fun, get to know things about the students, make fun of the silly things in the novel, over-dramatize. Don’t focus on chapters or pages or test dates. Focus first on the kids and having a nice time using the language together.

 

Martina:

Consider both internal and external conflicts. Often, the external conflicts that characters experience are harder for students to relate to. In Calaca Alegre, for example, Carlos’ mother mysteriously disappeared. It is unlikely that your students will have experienced this. It is likely, though, that your students would have experienced being in a situation in which everyone else seems to know what’s going on, but no one will talk to them about it. How did they go about trying to figure it out? To what extremes would they go? Would they eavesdrop on conversations? Sneak into someone’s room or house? Check text messages? Ask around?

From a global competency perspective, it’s important to relate students’ culture to the target culture. In Llorona, for example, students might think it’s crazy that people actually believe that La Llorona exists. How do you bring them from “crazy” thinking to understanding the perspective? Chapter 11 presents the legend of Llorona and relates it to the boogeyman in the US, so the work has been started for you. At iFLT 15, Cari Johnson and I talked about a planning model that could be used to accomplish this. If La Llorona is a “product” of the target culture, what is a similar product in our culture? (the boogeyman, for example). How does the existence of the legend affect the actions (practice) of people in the target culture? Does it really serve to encourage women to make good decisions in their relationships? To avoid men that are ‘bad for them’? What does the legend of the ‘boogeyman’ in the US teach/encourage people to do or not do? What’s the perspective? Is using fear a good way to get people to do what is “good for them”, at least in your opinion? What are some ways that we use fear to get people to do what we want them to do?

fail CJ

CAN THIS PROBLEM BE SOLVED WITHOUT ABANDONING THE NOVEL? HOW?

Yes, take a look back at what has been covered and find 2-3 themes that students are going to relate to best. Show them how this novel relates to their own lives! Then, be cognizant of opportunities to further explore those connections and create new ones as you move forward in the novel.

 

PROBLEM:

You sucked the life out of the novel

You’re doing the same activities over and over / You’re doing boring activities. / You’ve made it WORK to read.

 

Carrie:

SCOUR PINTEREST!  There are so many great ideas for teaching novels on pinterest.  Take an English class idea and adapt it to what your students proficiency allows in the language classroom!  It keeps the study fresh and keeps the novel fun!

 

Martina:

Agreed! Check out the TPRS Publishing Pinterest account https://www.pinterest.com/tprspublishing/ (work in progress!) to see what we’ve posted, and search the title of the novel in a general pinterest search. You will be amazed at what you find!

CAN THIS PROBLEM BE SOLVED WITHOUT ABANDONING THE NOVEL? HOW?

Yes. Stop doing boring activities. Stop doing the same activities. Have FUN with what’s left!

 

PROBLEM:

You have lost momentum

*What is the ‘best’ way to teach a novel? In one solid chunk, at the beginning of class each day until it’s done, or once a week on Fridays…?

 

Carrie:

I teach novels like I read them.  One solid chunk!  Each day until it is done!  It helps keep students engaged and involved in the story!

 

Kristy:

I agree with Carrie that it is better to read straight through. If you allow too much time between chapters, students forget details and the interest wanes.

 

Martina:

Yup. If you are doing it as a class novel, work through it until it’s done.

 

CAN THIS PROBLEM BE SOLVED WITHOUT ABANDONING THE NOVEL? HOW?

Martina:

Yes, hollow out a chunk of time in your lesson planning and finish the novel. You can finish the other content that you were working on later!

 

Carrie:

I love, love using novels in the classroom but there is definitely an art to doing it and doing it successfully!  If I move too slowly, less than a chapter a day or several days between chapters, my students lose interest.  If I myself am not fully invested in the novel, my students don’t buy in!  If I overdo comprehension questions and worksheets, it becomes less an act of love to read and more a chore!  It is a constant tightrope!  I can see why some decide to give up on novel studies… but DON’T do it!  There is hope! Choosing the right activities and the right times for them may be different for each classroom but every teacher knows his/her students and with a little trial and error can figure out the ratio!

 

TOO MANY PROBLEMS? BAIL! (GRACEFULLY)

If you have made the decision to “bail” (abandon the novel), how can you do it gracefully?

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Authors of this post:

Martina Bex martinabex.com

Carrie Toth somewheretoshare.com

Kristy Placido kplacido.com

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