Subscribe to The Horn Book

Teaching difficult novels

greatliterature_243x300Ideally, students would stop judging books by their covers and at least try to read what they are given.  Yet more often than not, I am faced with the question, “How do I get students to love the amazing books I love, or at least tolerate the books we are assigned since they’re the only remaining ones in a full class set?”

Here’s how I handle this situation.

Well, first things first.  I make sure students can read the book. Only when my students are able to fluently read the book (meaning the student does not have to look up more than 3 or 4 vocabulary words per page and can relate to you the basic plot after an individual reading) will they be able to take that comprehension into the next level of questioning and analysis. Granted, this happens most often with classics published for adults, but it can happen with trade books for children as well.

If the administration says, “Phooey to your research-based suggestion! Teach this work of literature — it will challenge the students to rise!” Then, I work to create two or three clear, attainable objectives for the book.

My students are not only 8th graders, but all of them come from a different language background and a little under 50% are still English Language Learners.  I am not denying my students’ tenacity, but I also don’t want to set them up for defeat.

So, in order to tackle this beast, I focus on just three goals.  I want students to (1) know and connect with the basic plot, (2) use the story to apply their skills to a specific element of literature, and (3) identify and connect story elements to whichever major themes I have for that book.

I know it feels oversimplified, but with these three goals, I am able to prune the extraneous.  With stronger readers, I can assign deeper prompts connected to my three goals and with weaker readers, I can create cloze exercises, chapter summaries, and other supports to scaffold their mastery of these three goals.  Anything outside these goals, I nix!  Sure, I would love to hit every theme, motif, character motivation, and symbol in these novels — I’m a lit major!  Yet, for my eighth graders, I know that the best way to have lasting impact — to get pieces to stick to their ribs — is not to spread the story shallow, but to give them tools to dig deep.

Some would argue that I am not doing the book justice, and I admit that it is a risk.  Yet I am hoping that by creating manageable objectives for my students now, they will not be turned off by the books that they most likely will reencounter in their future education.

So now tell us, how do all of you handle this situation?

Junia Kim About Junia Kim

Junia Kim is a middle school teacher in Oakland, CA. Her favorite genre is YA, her favorite author is CS Lewis, and her favorite YA book is Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion.



  1. Lauren Adams says:

    Junia–I love your approach of scaffolding to make good literature accessible to students at different skill levels; much better to make good texts available than to write them off as too difficult (and effectively write the students off as well.) I teach ELLs also (at the high school level), and generally go with the 5-finger vocabulary rule for choosing independent reading books (if you tag more than 5 unfamiliar words per page, it’s not a good fit). However, for class-wide, teacher-led reading, I agree we can aim higher. Comprehension questions for each chapter can foster a solid grasp of the plot and build reader confidence, and structured discussions can lead students to their own discoveries and insights. And, as for all readers, there’s nothing wrong with reading a book at different times and ages, and gleaning different things on each reading. I also believe there is value for students to build cultural currency by having some “touchstone” books, e.g. To Kill a Mockingbird, in their back pockets as they move through high school and beyond. That said, I have also enjoyed truly rich discussions in my high school ELL classes of The Giver and Tuck Everlasting–two books that have more accessible vocabulary but offer literature skill-building opportunities in analysis of theme, character development, and figurative language.
    Keep up the great work!

  2. Teaching foreign-language students English novels is not a easy job. Thanks Junia sharing her thoughts!

  3. For a different kind of “difficult,” here’s Christina Chant Sullivan’s Horn Book Magazine article “Disturbing (or Not?) Young Adult Fiction”

  4. Hi Lauren,
    YES! It’s definitely a triumph when you can find those books that are accessible but lead to higher order thinking. It’s interesting because I began my students with that philosophy, and now, I think we’re able to build to other ways of differentiating and more independent reading strategies *because* I scaffolded so heavily and kept my objectives simple in the beginning.

    Thanks for reading!

  5. Thanks for sharing, Elissa. It was definitely an interesting read. It’s actually related to my upcoming posts that include various mini-reviews on books with heavy subject material.

  6. The pleasure is definitely mine. It’s amazing how you can utilize their previous language literacy in building their English literacy.

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind