True confessions: I don’t really like teaching a whole class novel

For years and years I taught whole class novels. I taught them because I thought I had to…I mean reading is soooooo good for language acquisition. And there are great CI novels out there. And what a great way to talk about our target culture…. And I could go on and on… but…. secretly I never really liked teaching whole class novels.

Yeah, we would act out exciting scenes and I’d really ham up the cliff hanger chapter ending by telling kids not to go home and watch the movie on Netflix. (And the next class 5 or 6 kids would inform me that the novel isn’t actually on Netflix- and I respond, Oh really? They must have just taken it off! Ha!) I’d play the perfect YouTube video for the appropriate background music and I even dressed up like characters…but most days I felt like a ringmaster trying to get everyone on the same literal and metaphorical page…Chris I need you following along with us. We all need to chorally translate out loud at the same time… Samantha, open your eyes please…We’re on page 5…show your partner where we are on the page… It was like no matter how excited I was, no matter how much energy I poured into it, no matter which novel I tried, it felt like we were just slogging through. I felt like I was dragging along my low readers  while at the same time holding back my high flyers. And there was always that nagging feeling…we’ve got to hurry up and finish the novel before Christmas break or Spring break or whatever.

Don’t get me wrong…I believe that reading is a critical component to our classes and the richest way we can load our little darlings up with comprehensible input, I was just deeply dissatisfied with the one-size-fits-all approach. So last year, I decided to stop teaching class novels and to beef up my Free Reading program instead. I wanted my kiddos to read a book that was comprehensible for them. I wanted my low readers to experience “easy reading”  and I wanted my high flyers to soar.  It was an experiment and I wasn’t sure how it would go. In the end I loved it and I’m not going back.(well….disclaimer: I am still planning on reading one all class novel with my Spanish 1s during first semester….they don’t have enough language yet to be turned loose for free reading. And I’m super excited for my class set of Bart quiere un gato to arrive because the “choose your own adventure” sounds like it will be fun. But that’s it, I’m just doing one class novel and only in my level one class! Everyone else is Free Reading their little hearts out!)

Some unexpected benefits for concentrating all our reading efforts in Free Reading:

  • Holy cow! Their Spanish got good! Not everyone…but dang my high flyers’ writing at the end of the year really impressed me. I swear, I had one Spanish 2 girl who read nearly every single upper level CI novel that was writing in subjunctive without realizing it! I heard kids using words spontaneously that I never taught them! It made me realize that I was putting a ceiling on my kiddos’ acquisition. For years and years I was really concerned that everything I said (and they read) was comprehensible and without realizing it, I was limiting their language potential. When I talk to the class, I’m still careful to make myself comprehensible to everyone, but free reading is where my high flyers have the freedom to go as deep as they can.
  • Reading in class doesn’t feel like a chore anymore. There’s no the pressure to finish the chapter before class ends or finish the book before the report cards are due. I don’t have to keep track of who missed reading and who needs to make it up (although I had a pretty good system!) Now my little darlings read their own novels most every class. It’s such a relaxing way to start each period and  ease their brains into Spanish mode. And I’m not running around like a maniac trying to hold their gnat-like attention spans…I’m reading right along with them. We’re all a lot happier and calmer now  because reading for pleasure is…well, pleasurable!
  • My biggest concern was about culture. How on earth would I teach culture if we weren’t all reading the same book?! It turns out that I’m able to bring up a lot more culture by chatting with them about their books informally. After my class reads 10-15 minutes, we debrief. I ask kids about what they’re reading (in English, I know, gasp! I’m gauging comprehension AND I want to pique other students’ interest!)  I’m able to take whatever culture is in their novels (I’ve read nearly all of them…because I’m free reading while they’re free reading, remember?!) and explain it to the class in slow, comprehensible Spanish. Your book is set in Sevilla. Class, do you know where Sevilla is? It’s in Spain…let’s go to Sevilla on google maps! In your book, the character wants to go to the Tomatina? You guys have to see this festival in Spanish. Let’s find a short YouTube video. I call them Cultural Detours and I’ve got plenty more to say about them here!


Yes, it takes a bigger investment to get a Free Reading library started than buying a class set of novels…the whole idea about free reading is they need choice, they have to choose, they need options. We’ve been very blessed at our school to have a healthy World Language budget and a Department Chair who spends nearly every penny on books for us. (Thanks Becca!)  Here are the all titles in my classroom library AND where to buy them.  You don’t need tons of books to start…just enough so that everyone can pick a book and still have extras on the shelf so they can abandon ship and pick a new book if they’re not digging their book.  If your school isn’t generously buying you books, don’t despair!  Brett Chonko has a great parent letter on his blog asking for book donations….try it! I think it’s brilliant and you might just get some sweet moolah to get your library started.  Or I’ve heard of lots of teachers having success with DonorsChoose or local education grants.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way!  

If you love teaching class novels, keep doing it! If teaching class novels is working for you and your kiddos, do it! If you’re all about free reading and that’s your jam,  do it! If you’ve been trying something and it’s not your cup of tea, try something else! At the end of the day, we’ve all got to figure how the best way we can to load up our little darlings with comprehensible input. And your best way is probably different than my best way and that’s awesome! Whatever it is, you’ve got the freedom to do what works best for you and your kiddos. And for us, that’s putting all our eggs in the Free Reading Basket. 




  1. How often do you do free reading and for how long? Is there any sort of accountability for the reading? I currently do lots of whole class reading because it provides the structure I like, but I connect with all of the things you say above regarding the “downfalls.” I just worry that some tune out way too much and the whole class novels give me a bit more control. I currently do free reading three times a week for 10 minutes with no accountability. Looking for alternatives. Thank you!


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