Plays, Novels, and In-class Reading

In a stack of papers called Instruction.

  • Nov
  • 04
  • 2005

My English 3 class just finished dealing with The Scarlet Letter, ready to begin reading The Crucible. My English 4 class finished reading Oedipus the King a while ago, just read The Metamorphosis, with Hamlet calmly waiting his turn standing next to the turkey. This is only to say that, in both sections of English I am teaching right now, we are reading narrative stories and plays. I noticed something about my approach to these two different types of literature that is probably true about most English teachers’ approach to these two different types of literature.

When reading a play for class, English teachers tend to keep most, if not all, of the reading of that literature in class. Students will read parts aloud and emotional readings will be encouraged. On occasion, sections of the literature will be “read” multiple times, with one read being just for meaning in the form of students reading while sitting in their seats. Further readings taking place with different groups performing scenes for the class or for a group of readers to render dramatic readings in a kind of forum in front of the class. Since plays are typically shorter than novels, more time is spent on understanding the events in the play and class discussion revolves around a collective reading of the text since everyone is at the same spot in the story and there’s no need to summarize to make sure everyone is caught up on the plot.

Novels are typically read outside of class at a rate of 20 pages per night or more. Class discussion is predicated on the idea that all students read what was assigned the previous night, although that is frequently not the case. Teachers acknowledge this disconnect and will likely spend time making sure everyone is at the same place in terms of plot, devoting some chunk of class discussion to the task. While time is certainly spent on understanding the events in the novel, I’d venture to guess that quite often that understanding takes the form of simply catching most of the class up on the events since not everyone read.

Watching the movie of the play (if there is one) is something I’m certainly more likely to do for a play than a novel or short story; I’m sure there are plenty of other teachers just like me, though I’m not really sure of my rationale for that decision.

Why do we take time to read plays almost exclusively in class and expect novels and short stories to be read individually? Is there something about the narrative structure that we expect students to handle much better on their own in novels than plays? If that’s what we think, we have it backwards. The play is easier to read than the novel for most students since the play is free of seemingly superfluous information like setting, internal monologue, and exposition. Character development takes place through the discussions that character has, not through the author writing about how that character feels and why. The play is a streamlined version of the story, with only the essential component (dialogue) present.

And it’s the dialogue that’s easier for students to understand. While reading The Scarlet Letter, my students reported that chapters with heavy dialogue (chapters 4, 10, 14, etc.) were much easier to read and understand than chapters that were solid exposition (chapters 2, 11, 13, etc.). Students regularly need help through the extra stuff to make sense of the story. Elements of storytelling like foreshadowing, omniscient narration, authorial intrusion, social commentary, expository character development, all of those things that we English teachers love about literature and the things that M.H. Abrams has seemingly devoted his publishing life to, are the very things many students have a difficult time grasping. Yet we set them adrift each day to suffer those chapters alone for homework, prefectly content in keeping the reading of a play in the classroom.

It struck me today that the novels and short stories are the things to be read almost exclusively in class, with plays left to individual reading outside of class. I don’t know that I can make that happen immediately, that I can give over that much time, or that this is even the correct way of going about it. Something just hit me as odd today that the more cognitively demanding text is the novel and that’s something that most students experience alone. The less cognitively demanding text, the play, tends to be a group experience. I’d bet that my The Scarlet Letter unit would have gone much better if I had more involvement in what they read, how much they read, and when they stopped to reflect.

I’m thinking to my The Crucible unit and considering leaving 10 pages of the play to be read for homework. The next day starts with a basic check quiz to facilitate summarizing the previous night’s reading and to give incentive to those who need it. After that, we carry on reading aloud for the day. I could easily get through my goal of an act per week and still have time for valuable class discussion if class time was freed up from reading aloud.

Maybe it’s the short stories I should allow time for reading of in class. What do you think? Do you find that you make these same decisions to read plays aloud in class and to leave novels and short stories to be read at home?


1. Tim Fredrick says:

[11/16/2005 - 4:43 am]

A very thoughtful reflection on why we ELA teachers do what we do. Your assessment is correct. I often wonder why English teachers have students read such difficult texts independently – texts like the Scarlet Letter that even average adults have trouble with. It seems like those texts are the ones that need the most support.

2. brian gulino says:

[11/16/2005 - 2:51 pm]

Reading out loud puts me to sleep.

The material goes by too slowly. In the time that it takes you to read something aloud, many of the kids could read the material two or three times.


Divide the class in half. Make the ones who still move their lips when they read, read aloud. Let the rest of the class read to themselves.

Assign the cliff notes and have the kids read the cliff notes, then read the book.

What you are doing is mind-numbingly, criminally boring to at least half the class, sitting and waiting their turn to read a paragraph, getting marked down, if they lose the place.

Please understand me. I love to read. As an English teacher I hope you like to read. If you told me I had to read a book 20 pages a night, then listen to it read out loud, I would hate to read. Wouldn’t you?

3. Mike says:

[11/16/2005 - 8:00 pm]

My kids, and I suspect they’re not much different than kids anywhere, tend to very much be non-readers, even the AP/GT kids. We always act out plays in class, particularly Shakespeare, and while there are deeply pedagogical reasons for this, a large part of it is kids need visual and physical stimulation and this is helpful in maintaining interest and keeping attention.

But we also often read novels, particularly shorter novels such as “Of Mice and Men” and “A Christmas Carol” aloud in class. While we don’t act them out, and I’d love to have the kids read at home and spend class time for stimulating, in depth discussions of the texts, the simple fact is that wheever I assign reading, as much as 90% of the kids simply won’t do it in whole or in part. The only way to ensure that they have at least some exposure to literature is to do it in class. A shame? Of course, but that’s reality.

We do little literature these days anyway as we must spend so much time teaching to a variety of high stakes, mandatory tests.

And I do sometimes show corresponding videos, but always after the book is done, and primarily as a means of comparison and enlargment, rather than as a substitute for the literature. Interestingly, most of the kids get the idea that the book is almost always superior to the movie. Little victories, little victories.

4. Todd says:

[11/17/2005 - 12:29 pm]

“If you told me I had to read a book 20 pages a night, then listen to it read out loud, I would hate to read. Wouldn’t you?” Of course, but that’s not what I suggested. A play is much easier to read on your own than a novel. I don’t know what the answer is (“mind-numbing” and “criminal” are terms a bit harsh for something that I don’t actually do, don’t you think?), but I hope there’s a better way to address challenging text through in-class support.

Yeah, TSL tends to be quite challenging and I call it the most challenging text in our English 3 curriculum.

I’d say 90% not reading is fairly accurate on a bad day, 40% on a good day. So what do we do to increase the rate of students reading, particularly when we are regularly locked into certain books due to a limited bookroom or a mandatory list?

5. Brian Gulino says:

[11/24/2005 - 11:43 am]

Sorry for the overwrought language. Comes from years of being read to and now, having to watch the same thing happen to my own kids.

Some other observations.

I used to work with a very smart man, much smarter than me. He didn’t like to read, avoided it whenever he could. Graduated college majoring in physics. All of physics can be compressed to a few hundred pages, although it may take months to understand a single page.

Your class can be divided into three groups: 1) kids who like to read and are going to read no matter what you do. 2) Kids who don’t like to read and won’t like it no matter what you do. 3)Kids who don’t like to read but can learn to like it.

Best thing to do with group 1 is leave them alone. Let them read on their own. Group 2 kids are like my friend. They need to find ways of learning what they need to learn with a minimum of reading. They can do this. If they are smart they will do it on their own. If not, help them. My friend highlighted things he needed to know at work and used indexes much more than I did. I never highlight anything. I need to look up something I re-read the whole chapter.

It seems that our whole educational system is geared to group 3, those that can learn to like to read. This bores all the kids who already like to read, and causes resentment in the kids who will never like to read. A key policy question is, do we have many kids in group 3, only lacking a good teacher to spark their love of reading?

6. bent says:

[9/8/2006 - 2:59 am]

I have enjoyed reading the remarks concerning reading. I have implemented the three groups in my classroom for the last six years. It really does work if you have room to separate the students, which I have. However, I am now facing the testing monster. I teach 8th grade language arts (reading, writing, listening, and speaking–which used to be a reading class and an English class—then a block class—now…) all in a class period of basically 55 minutes. Time is now my enemy. To read a novel, there needs to be at least three days a week of reading/discussion to be able to complete the novel, but I have to also teach relucant students to write. Writing requires time for thought. Most of my students think they hate writing, but in reality, they have not had time to write and about 85% will not write if the assignment is given outside of class. Any suggestions?


7. kansas teacher says:

[10/3/2007 - 9:10 am]

My 9th graders read 10 major works per year. I choose the ones we read in class based on difficulty. For instance, the students read Of Mice and Men on their own and did quite well, but when we get to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we will read it aloud in class, discussing as we go. For those students who cannot stand to listen to reading aloud (I personally was one of those as a student), they are allowed to go off in a corner by themselves and read on their own. This works beautifully. I agree that just because a piece is a play, doesn’t mean that it should be read aloud. I have my students read The Glass Menagerie on their own, but Merchant of Venice, we read together. Like everything else, we need to look at individual students/ works of literature/ class demographics and see what works best, being flexible to be the best teacher.

8. teaching in watts says:

[10/18/2009 - 12:40 pm]

What an interesting discussion-
I teach in the inner city. I have 10th graders that are far below grade level and we will probably read about 4 novels together this year. 99% would not read on their own and I cannot give them novels to take home because we would never see them again. Some of my students do get bored with reading aloud in class but I cannot let them just go to a corner because there would be safety issues/distraction issues. We listen to recordings of the books because few of my students read fluently but my students are dying of boredom and it takes about 35 minutes of a 100 minute block to simply read an average chapter. We too need time to write and process, but that doesn’t happen when we focus on reading for so long.