Reflections on my first novel studies

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My year elevens finished reading The House on Mango Street (NZ Link | US Link) last week, and my year twelves are close to the end of Lord of the Flies (NZ Link | US Link). I might add to this post as the rest of the term goes on, as we’ll be doing work related to the text for assessment this term. I’m hoping I’ll remember this post is here when I (hopefully) teach these texts again next year.

Text choice

Several teachers that I talked to during my masters research said that they used to teach Lord of the Flies, but that students didn’t find it engaging any more. I found this strange – it’s an adventure story about a bunch of kids stranded on an island with no adult supervision, what’s not to love? I’d say my response has now been supported by the reactions of my year twelves. They’ve been really engaged in the story and the characters, and keen to find out what happens next. While they have struggled to make sense of the long, descriptive passages at time, one student (who often struggles with the class) commented that the author was “really good at describing stuff.” They’ve now had some practice reading more complex language than they would usually encounter. The novel has plenty of interesting ideas that we will continue to dig into, and the meanings in the text are many-layered. It provides ample opportunities to talk about key disciplinary concepts like symbolism and character, which also means it ties in well to the assessments we’ll be doing. It’s also a classic which is frequently referenced in contemporary culture, providing useful background knowledge for future texts. All in all, Lord of the Flies rates highly on the four criteria I used in my masters’ thesis: student interest, suitability for assessment (although we’ll have to wait and see how their actual work turns out), linguistic complexity, and literary quality.

House on Mango Street is a little shakier, although I’m sure a lot of that is due to my teaching of it, discussed more below. I think my students are still unsure what the point of reading the book was, although I cleared up that up for myself a bit when I finally wrote a unit plan. The vignette structure was a major barrier, but could have been a major asset – learning to tie the different parts of the story together would prepare students for other non-linear text types in the future. Unfortunately, I didn’t recognise how jarring this structure would be for them, and didn’t put enough time into it. It’s important to recognise that this is an issue with teaching, rather than text selection – teaching complex texts is good, but students need to be taught how to deal with that complexity. HoMS met my criteria for complexity, but I didn’t provide enough scaffolding to make use of this. Student interest was lower than I thought it would be – I helped them think about links to their own experience, but perhaps I didn’t make these clear enough, or perhaps they just thought that Esperanza’s everyday life is as boring as she is. I think it would have helped to lean on the gender themes a bit more, as they definitely were a bit upset by the sexism displayed by some of the characters, and that might have boosted interest as well as given us a way into deeper exploration of the themes in the text, which we never really got far with. Basically, I think that this text still has a lot of potential, and ought to be accessible to this age group (it’s often taught much younger), but I need to put a lot of thought into how I’ll improve my teaching of it next year.

Getting the reading done

Both classes relied a lot on the text being read to them. There was no silent/independent reading, and little oral reading by students. This allowed me to model what good, expressive reading sounds like, but probably reduced the amount of actual reading that students did and limited their chances to really build their reading skills. This article suggests that my ‘just reading model’ is beneficial, especially for struggling readers. It also suggests strategies that can make it more effective.

For The House on Mango Street, I read the majority of the text aloud, and had a few students participate in readers’ theatre for some of the vignettes with lots of dialogue. Some students asked if they could just read it on their own, and in retrospect with this group I probably could have done that, provided I had some tasks afterwards that made them accountable for doing the reading. I still would have needed to give them the time to do this reading in class, as I doubt they would have done any homework reading. Most students did not like doing the readers’ theatre reading, although one student got into it and this helped get the rest engaged in listening more closely than usual. I think this process would have helped more with comprehension if I had had the participating students standing together at the front of the room and acting as if they were actually having a conversation with one another, not just reading deadpan from random places in the room. However, I think I would have encountered a lot more resistance if I had tried to make this happen. For the most part, students were quiet while I read and most of them seemed to be following along in their own books, although a few persistently refused to do this. Jasmine Lane mentions having students write down answers to ‘stop-and-jot TDQs’ as a way of keeping students engaged while listening to someone else read, although I’m not sure my students would find the need to answer a question all that compelling. The vignette structure was difficult to navigate in terms of getting through the text, because you can’t stop and have a discussion about every chapter like you could with a text with fewer sections. Many vignettes were simply read without comment, which certainly didn’t help students make links between them.

I started off by reading Lord of the Flies aloud, and once had each student read a bit aloud (some were good at this, but some struggled a lot and could not read aloud and comprehend at the same time), but we quickly transitioned to listening to the audiobook. This worked well as the narrator used distinctive voices for each character and modeled excellent fluent reading of the text – better than I could have pulled off myself. Plus, since I was also reading HoMS, it saved my voice. One student, who is still learning English, found the audiobook too fast, and sometimes slowed down to read at her own pace. She definitely missed out on some of the text because of this, and the complexity of the language may have been outside of her ZPD. Another student often lost his place in the text, but this was manageable. Still, particularly at year twelve, I think it would have been a good idea to have them do some reading independently. Next time, I think I’ll go through the text and work out what passages should be read aloud, but give much more time for students to read the text themselves, with regular checkpoints. To make this happen, I would need to spend more time helping students learn strategies for dealing with the complex language in the text.

Teaching Lord of the Flies

My main strategy with Lord of the Flies was to assign each student one character and one symbol to track throughout the novel. I would pause the audiobook frequently and guide each student through working out what needed to be written down for their character/symbol from what we had just read. I felt like I was providing more direction here than I would have liked to – year twelve students should be able to work out for themselves what to write down, to a significant extent – but given that this kind of work is new to them, I knew that such direction would be necessary. I do think some students became too focused on their own character and symbol and zoned out when we were talking about others, and I didn’t push back against that tendency enough. I think some additional tasks that require a broader view would be good, although we have struggled a lot to get through the text fast enough. We did a couple of scattered paragraph exercises, but it would be good to work more of these into the unit. We focused on the characters more than the symbols, and some work on symbolism up front would probably have helped with this. We will be doing more symbolism work for the static image assessment, in any case.

Next year, I think I will narrow the range of focus characters to just Jack, Ralph, Piggy, and Simon, as Roger and Samneric don’t get much attention until later. In a larger class, students could be put into groups for this work, and that could open up the path to some other tasks. Reducing the assessment in the novel-study term would open up space for more discussion exercises and written tasks, as we could slow down a bit.

Perhaps the area where this unit needs the most work is supporting students to make sense of complex language. I mostly just explained what students didn’t understand, which isn’t the worst thing I could have done, but it didn’t prepare them for reading independently. Regular vocabulary work would have been helpful here, I think. Next year, I’ll put together a list of words and do a pre-test before we start to work out what we need to focus on. Then we can spend time learning the words chapter-by-chapter, and reviewing previous words.

The other thing that could help students learn to cope with the language would be doing some think-alouds/close readings of some of the descriptive passages. I think it would be helpful for students to see how I pick apart each sentence to work out what’s going on – for instance, the scene where the first fire gets out of control. Modelling that might help students slow down when they get to these tricky passages. Paying close attention to the type of language used in these passages will also demonstrate that the language is used for effect, not just to be confusing.

Takeaways for next year:

  • More independent reading
  • Reduce the number of focus characters
  • More discussion activities
  • More written work (e.g. TDQs, paragraphs) requiring students to focus on more than their focus character and symbol
  • Include explicit vocabulary teaching, beginning with a pre-test
  • Regular think-alouds/close readings of difficult passages

Teaching The House on Mango Street

As I’ve said, this unit wasn’t as successful as Lord of the Flies. I didn’t anticipate how challenging students would find a text that doesn’t have a linear structure and a clear narrative. I left too much to chance, reading the text aloud and then jumping straight into paragraph exercises that my students weren’t ready for. I still believe this could be a good text for year eleven, but I need to make big changes to how I taught it so I can be more successful with it next year. Here’s what I’m thinking.

  • More embedded non-fiction. I opened with an article about what it’s like being a young Latinx person now, but that was the last bit of non-fiction we looked at, even though I had tracked down a newspaper article and a video that would both have helped my students understand the setting. I’ll put more focus on getting students to understand Esperanza’s world early on in the unit next year.
  • I had students write summaries of each vignette, but many of these summaries missed the main point, or went unfinished. We never used the summaries for anything, which probably made them a bit pointless. I think it would be better to start off by modelling how to write these summaries for the first several vignettes, then shift to having discussions that culminate in the written summary on the board, then just have the discussion and have them write their own summary, and perhaps eventually not do the discussion for every vignette. Of course, the issue here is time. Stopping after every vignette would have made the book take much longer and would also have probably felt more arduous, although perhaps that would be offset by greater engagement born of greater understanding. Writing these summaries, done right, could have been the core of the unit. Alternatively, I could have given students one or two questions to answer about each vignette, pointing them towards what’s important in each one.
  • We needed to latch onto theme and symbol much earlier, and keep tracking these as we went. I think I’ll go for a much more direct approach next year. The first time a theme comes up in the text, I’ll explicitly tell students that it’s an important theme. Maybe we should have a tracking sheet for each theme where students can write down important quotes and their understanding of them.
  • Making links between the vignettes is crucial, as this was the biggest barrier for students this year. The theme work mentioned above will help, as will writing better vignette summaries. I think that reminding students of who characters are when they reappear – “Remember, Tito was the kid who sold them the bike back in “Our Good Day” – will also help, as there are a lot to keep track of.

I think it’s clear from this that I’m still not really sure how to teach this book. I can try to pull more from a couple of online unit plans, but I think I leaned on those too much this term without digging deep enough into the specifics. I think I need to reread the book well before I start teaching it again next year, and annotate the hell out of it, and maybe do some outside reading to figure out the details of what I want students to know in terms of character, theme, etc.


I’ve mentioned this throughout, but timing was definitely a big concern with these units. Next year, I’ll try to arrange my year plan to include just one assessment in the novel-study term. Ideally we would make this work by replacing an internal with the exam, but I’d say we’re a long way off making that leap. There is an issue with dragging the story out over too much time and students getting bored, of course. LotF sort of takes care of itself in the sense that the story gets more exciting in the second half, but it’s an issue for Mango.

My thoughts on the NCEA changes

I deliberately haven’t looked too much at what others have said about the NCEA changes that were announced today; I wanted to get my own thoughts straight first. Of course, that means that by the time you’ve read this I’ll probably have changed my perspective on some things, if only a little. I’m only going to write about the new literacy and numeracy requirements and the increased emphasis on external exams, because those are what I know the most about. I have no way of knowing whether the changes to SAC will have a positive or negative effect on students who need them, for instance. The literacy and exams issues, on the other hand, are ones that I’ve been thinking about for some time, and broadly speaking I think these changes are a step in the right direction.

Literacy & Numeracy Package

The plan here is that students will need to earn a package of 20 externally-assessed literacy and numeracy credits as a prerequisite to any NCEA certificate. This is a big shift from the current approach, where students can meet literacy and numeracy requirements through a very wide range of standards that are considered to require the levels of literacy and numeracy represented by the qualification.

This change is a response to the wide range of literacy levels seen in those who have these qualifications. When your literacy credits can come from so many different kinds of work, it’s not surprising that there’s a wide spread of actual literacy skills represented by the qualification. Only a few of the accepted literacy standards are actually explicitly marked on correct spelling and grammar, for instance. Restricting literacy to a specific set of standards should make the standard of literacy students are expected to develop more uniform across schools, which I think is a good thing. My hope is that it might also cause schools to shift their focus towards improving struggling students’ literacy skills, rather than hunting for alternative ways for them to get the literacy credits they need when students aren’t successful in mainstream pathways (the English achievement standards, for instance).

We’ve been told that the literacy and numeracy standards will be externally assessed (to avoid adding to teacher workload and to further ensure that a uniform standard is set), but not whether they will be exams or a portfolio approach. I wouldn’t be surprised to see NZQA go for a portfolio-based approach here, given (a) the complaints being lobbed at them so far about not being ‘innovative’ enough in their assessment practices, and (b) the claim that these standards will be available to students when they are ready for them, including as young as year seven.

It seems like there’s a good chance a literacy and numeracy portfolio might become a focus of the junior school, perhaps up into year eleven, especially for those schools that opt out of level one. This could be a good thing, making years nine and ten less of an aimless muddle (schools may have clear ideas of what they are trying to achieve in these years, of course, but it’s commonly accepted among most students I’ve talked to that no one does anything much in these years). But it could also narrow the curriculum in the same way National Standards did in primary schools.

This raises the problem of how NZQA plan to assess literacy if it is not connected to any particular discipline. You can’t demonstrate your ability to read and write about something, and background and content knowledge make a huge contribution to comprehension and writing. Students can’t show that they can communicate complex ideas if they haven’t been taught about complex topics. All of this raises the question of exactly where the “common benchmark” for literacy will be set – is it at “can fill in a form without embarrassing yourself”, or “able to write an essay?”

External Exams

Another key change is balancing out internal and external standards in each subject. Most subjects now have a large number of internally-assessed standards, so that it’s possible for students to gain a qualification without sitting a single exam. While this in itself might not be a problem, it does mean that courses can end up crammed with internals, to the point where there’s very little time for any work that doesn’t contribute directly to a summative assessment. There’s almost no time for practice, for learning content, for building skills over time and reaching a new standard by the end of the year. Students end up being assessed on what they can already do, rather than learning new things and being assessed on that new learning. If a student’s not already pretty close to the standard, there’s no time for them to learn – it’s more efficient to find a different standard that they’re already ready for. Saving up 50% of the assessment for a course until the end of the year means that teachers can help students build the knowledge and skills they need over the course of the year. It creates breathing space for courses to spend more time on learning rather than assessment, which ought to improve outcomes for both internal and external assessment.

I also don’t think that narrowing the range of standards available for each subject is a bad thing. It’s currently possible to complete a full NCEA English course without studying a written text. This is ridiculous. When assessment outcomes are high-stakes and you’re talking about a job that involves convincing teenagers to do things, you have to assume that the easiest pathway to a qualification is the one that most people will end up taking. This will disproportionately affect those students who are already the most disadvantaged, leaving them with qualifications that don’t represent the knowledge and skills needed to fully participate in our society.

Narrowing the options levels the playing field – provided that schools and students are given the resources they need to meet the new standards. Our goal for equity in education needs to be around the knowledge and skills students develop in school – qualifications are a proxy for this, not the end goal. If these changes result in increased disparities in terms of students gaining qualifications, it will be because we’re still not providing low-SES and Māori/Pasifika students with the knowledge and skills that they need. Changing the assessment system isn’t going to fix this problem, but it might help us see it more clearly.