Novel Studies in the Upper Grades

When I moved to upper elementary,  I most instantly fell in love with the novels and literature you cover with those "bigger" kids.  I've always loved sharing a good book with a friend (and I frequently make my husband and/or children read ones that I've REALLY loved) so sharing with fifth graders came naturally.

While we have many modes of ELA instruction, I enjoy novel studies the most.  It's likely that everyone does them just a little differently but this is how we runs ours (and it works really well!).

In our district, we do novel studies on books that have been board approved.  Over the years, I've done quite a few but the ones in my top rotations are: Call It Courage, Among the Hidden, Maniac Magee (though I have some issues with this one and haven't taught it in a few years), The Tiger Rising, and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.

These are our think sheets; sometimes I bind but sometimes I just copy and staple as packets.
I have two big points to make here, before I go any further.

One, every student has a copy of the text.  How?  I use Scholastic points (Call It Courage was $1/book several years ago), I get copies from our district auxiliary, I ask for parent donations, or our school buys them.  If a student brings in their own copy, they can write in it but otherwise, we use sticky notes or think sheets (keep reading for that).  Otherwise, to me at least, it's an interactive read aloud (which I also love but serves a different purpose).

My second thing comes up frequently and I'm going to share my thoughts on it.  Reading levels.  I get asked a lot, "Well, isn't that book above their reading level?" or, "Isn't that book way below their level?"

I know they're well-intentioned questions but they drive me nuts.  I will not live and die by reading levels because reading is SO much more than levels.  SO MUCH MORE.  Yes, a novel may be above or it may be below but the discussion is rich no matter what. 

When do we do a novel study, we STUDY the novel.  I read a bit out loud and then I pause.  My kids know to either raise their hand or just share out, conversation style (a strategy that has to be taught but is SO valuable).  They may not be able to comprehend it independently but with the scaffolding and discussion that follows, they grow immensely as readers and thinkers.  And conversely, if they read "higher" than the selected novel, the discussion pushes them to think more deeply and often challenges them in new ways.

Because the emphasis is so heavy on stopping to discuss, there's no way to say how many chapters or pages get completed in a day.  Our ELA block for text reading (vocabulary/language and writing have their own blocks) is about 60 minutes.  Depending on the novel, we can sometimes get through three chapters or maybe we can't even complete one in a given day. 

My typical routine is that they get out their books, their sticky notes, and their pencils.  If it's a book they can write in, we will also get out highlighters.

We love all things depth and complexity icons.  I've found that they are SUCH a powerful way to push thinking for ALL learners.
Again, it is discussion heavy so we review what we read previously, just conversation style.  I love, love, love using the prompts of the depth and complexity icons and we use these 100% of the time.  You can read more about them HERE.

Sometimes, if we are starting a new chapter, there might be vocabulary words to go over.  We do this WHOLE class and they record (keep reading and I'll share how).

Then, I begin.  I read and they're tracking.  They are ALWAYS tracking with their eyes because it shows me that they're matching up the print with the spoken word and following along.  Again, this is a skill that is taught and practiced.

I stop after every few paragraphs but I also keep my ears open for any gasps or "hmm" sounds or really any reaction at all.  I jump at that and have them share out.

Of course, you will always have students who do not like to share out their thoughts.  I was one of those students in school so I do NOT force or pressure kids to talk.  As a student, that would have stressed me out and shut me down.

We always share these out and I collect usually once a week to review.
To maintain accountability, we use things I've coined as "think sheets."  These are guided tools that match with novels and help both students and me, as I can (and do) collect them to assess learning.

These one pagers (I do one page per chapter) start with vocabulary and always end with a stop and jot question.  Sometimes, I give students time during our ELA block to work on these or sometimes the assignment becomes a must do (for example, Tiger Rising Chapters 3 & 4 think sheets due Friday).  I RARELY (if ever) send home as homework and I actually encourage them to at least check in with their reading partner as they work on these.

While I've been using these for YEARS, it's only recently that I've been getting them ready for TPT.  You can click HERE for Charlotte Doyle and HERE for Tiger Rising.  As I continue to add, I'll continue to update.

I also believe it is important to have students writing more formally about the book.  I do NOT have them do this work with their independent novels of choice because I build in that work here.
We use a RACE format of writing and I often have them use four colors to code their responses.  It helps the visually distinguish between the different requirements.
Depending on the book, I have them do text responses after every few chapters.  We use all of the resources HERE to guide us through that and it is an excellent skill to develop writing skills.  It's also good practice for what they're expected to do on the state test.  This is also a great place where I will add in differentiation, modifying questions as my students need.

And again, depending on the book, I'll throw in some quizzes or tests, but those are typically all multiple choice.

I try and cover a variety of learning strategies and skills throughout the experience.

Once we finish a novel, they DO count it toward their 40 Book Challenge (of course!) and there's always a project.  I like to do choice boards or partnership projects because this is the point where they ALWAYS want to talk about the ending or the characters or just their general reactions!

I try to keep my novels studies between four and eight weeks, from start to finish.  Some go more quickly (Tiger Rising, for example), while some require more time (such as Charlotte Doyle).  I honestly don't plan beyond the week because there are days when we read a little more or talk a little more or read a little less or talk a little less.  I try to be responsive to them and where they're at and what skills I'm aiming to cover.

Speaking of which, novel studies can cover practically every reading standard known to man.  We have running discussions of theme throughout each, as well as character analysis.  Student-directed anchor charts grow throughout the unit and we use think sheets to track skills such as comparing/contrasting, predicting, summarizing, ect.

Whew!  I clearly have a lot to say about novel studies!  I find them to be so valuable and I'm thankful that we are able to share literature in this fashion.  It's a really memorable experience; my students have seen me cry over books and hopefully, they've always felt safe to to experience it however they want, too.

Any questions?  Leave a comment and I'll happily address it!


  1. I love novel studies. We just finished Esperanza Rising. So beautiful and we listened to it on audible which adds an extra layer of awesome.

  2. Do you do read aloud text studies each day? When do you squeeze in Independent Reading and individual assessment of kids?

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  5. Do you have your students take notes or stop and jots as you are reading or even during conversation time? Or is it pencils down time?

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  16. How many novel studies do you do a year?

  17. Among the Hidden has some pretty mature topics. Do you ever get pushback from families on that one? I teach at a very small school with a lot of conservative families, so I haven’t done that one yet.

  18. I'd love more details about your choice boards and partner projects to wrap up your novel studies. How do you come up with enough ideas? I love doing novel studies with my kids, but I sometimes feel I could be doing more with them. I always feel pressed for time! Do you have any blog posts about what a typical day looks like in your classroom? I'd love to see how you break down your schedule.

  19. My kids and I absolutely LOVE, LOVE, LOVED Charlotte Doyle. They now want to read more mysteries by Avi. I did have a parent complain that the violence was a bit too graphic but she eventually backed off.