Teachers at all grade levels struggle to engage students with required reading. In the younger grades, teachers might encounter students who are still struggling to read basic sentences, much less pick up on literary elements. In the older grades, teachers battle against surly students who claim they don’t like reading and don’t want to do the work.
Can you make literature fun for these students? Yes.
Here are a few ideas for rethinking your lesson plans to make them more effective and engaging. If you can get students to bite into an interesting story, you can ask them to dig deeper into the author’s meaning.
Consider What You Are Teaching
It’s easy to mistake the forest for the trees when you have a pile of core curriculum books to cover through the year. Many of these books aren’t optional and you need to prove to your district that your students have a basic understanding of the plot lines. However, make sure you take a step back and consider why students are reading these books and how they can benefit from each one.
“When teaching fiction, it is important to move past basic comprehension,” says teacher Marissa Despins, founder of Creative Classroom Core. “Instead of simply asking students what they are reading, they need to be asked to analyze the text. By looking closely at literary elements, students are able to dive deep into the text, looking at things like character motivation, theme, and conflict.”
Effective lesson plans will foster effective, critical readers who challenge the author (and potentially even you) on certain parts of the text.
“Critical reading asks students to not just absorb the words on the page but to interact with them and engage in a conversation with an author by asking questions, interrogating ideas, and dissecting arguments,” writes education writer Andrew Bauld at XQ Rethink Together.
For example, you might hear cries of “That’s not fair!” in your classroom when students read a passage from Dickens. They might engage with terrible villains that are cruel to the protagonist for seemingly no reason. These reactions can lead to reflections and additional questions.
“Literature is important for students because it helps them to develop their imagination and creativity, improves their language skills and also enables them to appreciate the arts,” writes the team at education platform Cudy. “It also helps in developing emotional sensitivity and gives them a taste of beauty.”
Let Students Become Storytellers
One way to make your literature lesson plans more engaging is to connect students with the different literary elements involved. Help students remember different strategies and tactics used by authors to enhance their stories.
“The best way to be able to recognize when an author is doing something with intent is when you’ve had experience doing it yourself,” writes Jackie, a high school teacher, in an article at The Secondary English Coffee Shop. “So I spend a lot of time in the early weeks of each semester doing activities and short assignments where students need to create meaning through word choice, sentence structure, etc.”
For example, having students write a two-paragraph metaphor or allegory as a warm-up can prepare them to read “Animal Farm” or pick up symbolism in future readings. They will be familiar with the concepts because they explored them first-hand.
Teacher Kasey Kiehl shares reading lesson plans at her blog, The Literacy Effect. She says she reviews the main types of conflict a character can face at the beginning of each story (person vs. self, person vs. person, person vs. society, and person vs. nature).
As students read different narratives, have them highlight different types of conflict. For added discussion, Kiehl then asks students to predict what the character will do to overcome the conflict versus what they should do.
With this process, students tell the story back to you and anticipate what should or could happen next.
Move Away From Traditional Methods
It’s not necessary to stick to traditional reading and writing methods if the goal of teaching literature is for students to develop a better appreciation for written arts while identifying key elements of a story. Consider looking for alternative ways to discuss these stories.
“Audiobooks are sometimes thought of as a scaffold for students with learning disabilities, but they work well for really any struggling reader,” writes the team at learning platform Albert. They recommend assigning audiobooks for homework so any student can engage in classroom discussions about theming, symbolism and other key literary concepts.
You can also tweak how you have classroom discussions or request reading journals from students. Consider creating lesson plans that tap into online trends or that use verbal and visual forms of communication.
“Turn your next classroom discussion into a podcast,” writes educator Brittany Washburn. “You can post your podcast on your class website (or blog) … You can also do podcasts as weekly classroom news broadcasts, to document a field trip, share book reviews or review curricular content.”
Another option is to use social media as a unique way for students to show you that they read and understood the material.
“Have students choose a character and create a social media account for them,” writes teacher Heidi at Windows into Literature. “Include a biography, posts, images, etc. Make a video as that character.” Students can also create an imaginary stream of text messages between two characters to discuss topics or reenact scenes with modern prose.
Your students already come into the classroom picking apart the details from the latest movie from the Marvel universe. Show that they can do the same thing with classic literature.
Take a Deep Dive Into Point of View
Point of view is a powerful concept related to social-emotional learning, literature and storytelling. Understanding the different points of view of characters can make students better readers while also building their emotional intelligence.
Jill Webb at Teaching Expertise lists several activities for teaching point of view to middle school students. One asks simple agree or disagree questions based on the point of view of different characters.
For example, if your students are currently reading “Romeo and Juliet,” you would ask whether from Romeo’s point of view he should be allowed to marry Juliet. For a more advanced activity, assign a character to each student and have them debate topics from their character’s point of view.
Point of view can be a useful tool to discuss different elements of the story too.
Samantha H. at her blog, Samantha in Secondary, says she uses different points of view to discuss the setting. For example, if the author describes the setting from the third-person point of view, have your students create setting descriptions from the first-person point of view of one of the characters. This can be done at a very basic level: How does the cat in “Cat in the Hat” describe a setting compared to the fish or the kids?
Develop a Curiosity About the Narrative
You will have to become the “hype” person for many of the books you introduce in your classroom — especially if you teach reluctant readers. Look for ways to make students excited and curious about different stories, which will increase the chances that they read them.
“If you have two minutes to search YouTube while sipping your morning coffee, then you have time to prep a creative lesson plan hook,” writes teacher Ashley Bible, founder of Building Book Love.
She says an ambient sound station can let you set the mood in your classroom and build curiosity with your students.
Alternatively, “simply having something novel projected on your board can create such a buzz around a new unit,” writes Bible. “Students will walk in and immediately start asking questions about what you are going to be doing in class.”
You can also bring students back to their younger years with read-alouds. Don’t underestimate the power of sitting with older students and reading a few pages of prose to them. If adults can enjoy audiobooks, then the teens in your classroom can enjoy being read to.
“Reading the first chapter aloud with students is critical for getting them over the hump and providing the context needed for improved comprehension during independent reading,” says high school teacher Ileana Sherry.
Teacher and creator of the blog Chomping At The Lit, Sam, says this concept has a name that teachers are starting to adopt: First Chapter Friday. Simply put, you read the first chapter of a book to your students in class on Friday and let their curiosity turn them into readers over the weekend.
This might increase the number of students who complete assigned readings because they are already familiar with the characters and conflict before they leave the classroom.
Let Students Choose Their Own Books
When possible, look for opportunities for students to take ownership of the literature they engage with. Rachael Moshman, an editor at Bored Teachers, highlights the growing popularity of “book tastings” in school classrooms.
Students get to explore a variety of different books, sampling plots and writing styles, before choosing the one they want to read. This creates an element of choice within the classroom. Students read books they want, not just books they are assigned.
Book tastings can be based on different themes. For example, you can pull a selection of books related to the civil rights movement, and your students can choose the stories that appeal to them. You can also pull books from specific eras. This allows you to hit your curriculum goals while giving students the power of choice.
Consider the books students chose as you plan your end-of-year lessons. Teacher Heather Cianci, creator of It’s Lit Teaching, encourages teachers to create lesson plans that help students reflect on what they read. They can leave reviews of their favorite books in writing or as a book trailer (like a movie trailer) for next year’s students. These activities are a great way to review what they read before they advance to the next grade.
Not every student will leave your classroom with a passion for Thoreau’s “Walden” or with a desire to read Joyce’s “Ulysses” in their spare time. However, these lesson plans will make the classics less intimidating while increasing the depth of reading students can enjoy when they pick up books on their own.