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When you don't have time to read the whole novel...

Posted by Emily Guthrie on Oct 29, 2015 9:11:30 AM

We frequently get questions from teachers who want to teach novels, but simply do not have enough time to read entire books with their classes. While we generally advocate for reading novels in their entirety, we completely understand that this is not always possible for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to English language levels and school schedules, as well as state, school, and district mandates. Today we want to give you a few tips for picking out which novel excerpts to read with your class.

 

The Scarlet Letter is a good example for our purposes here.  If you are teaching a survey course or an American Literature course, Hawthorne is an author who offers a lot to the curriculum. His works are jam packed with beautiful language, historical context, and jumping off points for critical analysis. However, the novel in its entirety is a BEAST.  Even with advanced students, the novel takes quite a bit of scaffolding, time, and student motivation to complete.  Using The Scarlet Letter for example purposes, we've compiled a few tips for picking the right excerpt below.  You can generalize these tips to other novels, or leave comments in the comment section below about the novel you want to include so we can continue the discussion with your selection.

1. Check the reading level.  It is always good to know what you are getting into in terms of reading level. The Readability Test Tool at read-able.com is an easy way to test out the perspective excerpt as there can be quite a bit of variation even within the same novel. Here's a quick video to show how that works:

Readability Test Tool for Teachers

2. Work backward from the skills you want to teach. For example, if you needed to focus on allusions, you could check out the Simply Novel reading guide for The Scarlet Letter and see that the prepared materials on allusion focus on Chapters 1-3, which would save you a ton of time and prep.  All Simply Novel Reading Guides offer a variety of skill practices and assessments; The Scarlet Letter guide also pairs the novel with  motif, conflict, setting, symbolism, plot, theme, word roots, context clues, word parts, definitions, analogies, connotation, and more. With all this variety, you should be able to line up your favorite novels with the required skills. 

3. Consider the exposition.  Some novels have amazing first chapters that can serve as a great excerpt for close reading and an inspiration for motivated students to continue reading on their own.  For The Scarlet Letter example, I would suggest picking Chapter 1, "The Prison Door" and not "The Custom House" (introductory chapter) because Chapter 1 sets up all the suspense of Hester's sentencing while The Custom House is a challenging frame story that won't necessarily grab young readers.

4. Look for intensity or climax. An inciting moment, or climax, can also be a nice excerpt to pull out for close reading since it has emotional appeal and could again potentially prompt avid readers to find out what led up to the passage and how it was resolved.  For The Scarlet Letter, I would personally pick Chapter 12, "The Minister's Vigil," because it is a compelling look into Dimmesdale's tortured psyche.

5. Look more closely at beautiful language. Some passages lend themselves to a discussion of devices and aesthetics.  If you have a favorite beautiful passage, then by all means, choose that one!  If not, try googling "meaningful passages from {insert novel title}" and you are bound to come up with some great starting points. For The Scarlet Letter, I like this description of Pearl from Chapter 6: "Throughout all, however, there was a trait of passion, a certain depth of hue....The child could not be made amenable to rules....The mother's impassioned state had been the medium through which were transmitted to the unborn infant the rays of its moral life; and, however white and clear originally, they had taken the deep stains of crimson and gold, the fiery lustre, the black shadow, and the untempered light of the intervening substance. Above all, the warfare of Hester's spirit, at that epoch, was perpetuated in Pearl." I would pick a passage around that quote so that I could use it for discussion of analysis.

If Scarlet Letter is not your preference, here are a few other excerpts that I love:

  • The Grapes of Wrath, Ch 7: This intercalary chapter focuses on used car salesmen with colorful language and a message that I think is accessible to teens, yet provocative enough to facilitate critical thinking. Personally, I like this chapter much better than the Turtle, which always seems to make it into anthologies.
  • The Catcher in the Rye: You could pick almost any chapter to engage most students with the disgruntled youth, Holden Caufield.
  • The Lord of the Flies, Ch 1: Here you can find an intriguing exposition full of teachable skills in a close reading.  Some students are bound to wonder about the fate of these young boys.

How do you pick the novel excerpts that your class will read?  What are your favorites?   Are you looking for a great excerpt in a particular book that we could help with? Join the discussion in the comment section below!

Topics: Classroom Tech, Literary Analysis/Reading Strategies, Literature, novels, reading, tips

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