Can We Discuss the Whole Class Novel For a Moment?

I have been pondering the idea of the repeated whole class novel; a bastion of English classes everywhere.  I have been pondering why this practice seems to flourish in English classes everywhere despite what it seems to be doing to some students’ love of reading.  Frankly, I am starting to get upset about it, after all, it is hard not to when my incredible niece who seems to inhale books told me today that since she keeps being assigned books in school she hasn’t really been reading much else.  Which means her grand total of books this year is about 10.  Rather than the 50 or 60 she usually reads.  From 50 to 10.  Let that sink in.  She also told me the only reason it’s so high is because over the holidays she read a few books of her own choice, ones she had been waiting to read and finally felt she had the energy to.  But 10 books is not very high, not for her at least, so there seems to be a problem here.  Her English class seems to be killing her joy of reading.

As someone who has not used whole class books for several years, I am trying to see the need for them.  I am trying to take this post and turn it into a discussion, rather than a rant.  Yet I keep returning to the question of why we continue to force students to read certain books when that is the number one thing ALL of my students report kill their love of reading?

I see reasons for assigning the classics, in her 8th grade class a few of the titles this year have been Johnny TremainAnimal Farm,  and The Diary of Anne Frank, but wonder why it has to be all classics all year?  I also wonder who determines the books being read, when does a book become a classic, and does that list ever get updated?  I read Animal Farm and The Dairy of Anne Frank in school as well and that was 20 years ago in another country.  Are there really no new classics that can take their place?

I see reasons for having a shared text to discuss, analyze, and work with, but wonder if it can be done through a read aloud rather than an individual read?  Or could it be just one part of the year rather than every unit and every book?

I see reasons for presenting students with great book choices but wonder if they all need to be reading the same one at the same time?  Can the teaching purpose be reached in a different way?

What is the grand purpose that is eluding me?  Why does this tradition continue?  Why is something that is inherently harming some children’s love of reading being continued in so many schools?  It is just me that worries?  Is it a rite of passage that all readers have to go though and we hope they just make it out alive, reading love still somewhat intact?  Am I overreacting?

PS:  You know what is incredible though; my niece still loves her English teacher.  She doesn’t see the curriculum as a flake in that teacher’s ability, which says a whole lot about that teacher and their ability to connect with students.  So while she longs for the days where reading was just fun, she doesn’t hold it against the teacher.  And bottom line, that matters too.

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA but originally from Denmark,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  The second edition of my first book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” will be published by Routledge in the fall.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Join our Passionate Learners community on Facebook and follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

52 thoughts on “Can We Discuss the Whole Class Novel For a Moment?

  1. As a high school English teacher, I feel there is tremendous value in the whole class novel. There are some books that are important from a shared experience point of view. I truly feel that all students should read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” because of their profound impact on our society. There are some texts that are so important that all students need to read them. Common texts that a majority of people in a society have read can address important historical aspects of our country and connect them to current events. The teacher’s job is to make these texts engaging and relevant to students. There is always going to be a time when older classics are replaced with newer ones. At one point, Mockingbird was not taught in class. It had to replace something that was considered important for all students to read. That time might be coming soon, but it is not here yet.

    There is also value in letting students choose books on their own to explore. We want students to love reading and explore the options out there. Combining the two is a great way to bridge the gap. One of those, “If you liked that, you might like…” could be a good way to have a whole class novel and then encourage students to find texts they like that connect to what was read in class.

    I’m not sure if you are overreacting. It is a legitimate concern that is always good to discuss. I hope I added something for you to consider.

    Nick

    • I love your thoughtful response but am still left with questions; who decides which books have had a profound impact on society? How do you pick because it seems t come down to teacher preference. Could it be done as a choice unit instead, where the focus was; novels that have impacted society? And if whole class novel is used most years in high school and even middle school, when do we allow students choice?

      • I teach reading and American History together in 5th grade, and like to use historical fiction classroom novels to bring the history to life. For the past two years, I have also used Tuck Everlasting as a class novel to teach figurative language. I find that many students may never have chosen this novel on their own. My kids love it, and will even log into Your Next Read to find a similar book. We read all of the novels together in class and there are several chapters reserved for me to read – my favorite!!! I love to see the shock and surprise on their faces. My students also have an outside reading requirement of their choice. I do find that outside reading greatly declines after they leave my class. My concern is labeling the “classroom novel” as antiquated and bad for students. I also believe that teachers have to be passionate about the novels they teach. I can’t imagine someone else choosing all of my novels for me to teach. I love your Twitter feed, thanks for the conversation.

      • Every district has different rules. In mine, we have a curriculum that was created with teacher guidance. We met and decided on the texts we thought were important for students. We also offer courses for students to choose their own books and explore. I love student choice, but it cannot be everywhere all the time.

        If students are passionate about reading, they will read no matter what the class is doing. For those that are not happy with the course reading, it is something they are going to need to do. It is not a perfect system, but that is why it is up to the teacher to make the texts accessible and the lessons engaging.
        I think there is a place for independent reading in the classroom and it should be explored. As a teacher of 13 years, I feel comfortable choosing texts for my students to read based on their value to them and to society. Huck Finn is part of our American fabric. Students would not choose it on their own. That is a shame. The same can be said for most Shakespeare and almost anything older than a couple of decades. I still get kids groaning over black and white video.

        Maybe this is one of the few areas where I’m jaded or have not come around to yet, but students cannot choose every single part of their education process. There needs to be some streamlining. IDK. I wish there was a simple solution.

      • It’s interesting what you say about your daughter not holding it against the English teacher. I was the same. We read whole-class novels pretty much exclusively and my teachers were lovely, professional, supportive and did all they could to make the books interesting… it wasn’t until after graduation that I realized how foreign simply reading for pleasure felt to me. It’s energy sapping concentrating on books that don’t light a fire! I’d done well in English class… great marks in all the novel critique essays etc. but I honestly left school thinking all classics were dull and with little hope of finding writing that I’d excitedly share with friends. Took me a few years to get back on track and truly enjoy reading like I did before the group sessions. This article is a good call! This needs to be said. Thanks Pernille!

      • Penniless, you have it exactly right. I am a literacy coach and I watch teachers kill kids love of reading year after year. When I ask them why they do class novels they only say it’s because they like the book and the kids need to be exposed to it. No mention is ever given to igniting a passion for reading or the skills and strategies that need to be taught. It is extremely depressing.

    • When we choose to do a class novel we are assuming many things: 1. All kids will be highly interested in the book/subject matter/genre 2. That book is at everyone’s appropriate reading level 3. We are reading it at a pace that is comfortable for all students.
      What I have noticed is that by doing class novels, more advanced readers get bored and struggling readers get frustrated. Plus, why would we do all the heavy lifting for kids by doing the reading for them in class? Unfortunately many teachers love class novels because it is an easy way to lesson plan. Teachers can follow the same unit plans they have used for years instead of being responsive to the students in front of them.

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  3. About 6 years ago I ended the school year and felt deflated that my students were just not into reading (grade 7). I evaluated what I had been doing, what seemed to work and what wasn’t. I also thought about what I loved about reading. I realised that I was killing their love of reading with work and with offering little choice. I put myself in their shoes and thought about how I would feel if I was reading a book I enjoyed and had to stop all the time to add stickey notes, write connections, turn and talk etc. what I loved was getting into a book and going into the “reading zone” as Nancie Atwell calls it. I also realized that having all students read the same book, even though I was trying to make choices that would grab as many of their interests as possible, was dragging them down.

    The next year I dropped the class sets and began sharing books I loved through book talks, we took trips to the local book store and chose books together for our class library, the students began conducting their own book talks and we spoke a lot about finding books we love, why we love them, the rich characters, detailed settings etc. They were natural and engaging conversations.

    Not only did the number of books each student read that year fly through the roof, they learned how to talk about great literature. Because they were choosing their own books, given freedom to abandon books they didn’t like and were even allowed to re-read ones they loved, my students became avid readers who supported each other and developed a very powerful reading community.

    I haven’t turned back. Another change I made was offering a variety of books within a theme. For example, I teach a unit on the Holocaust most years. Previously we would all have read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Now, I have a selection of books about the Holocaust (The Book Theif, Diary of Ann Frank, Number the Stars, Maus, Night, etc) and I do book talks and students choose which book they would like to read. As I include a variety of books at different levels, including graphic novels, each student can see themselves in the selection. I usually have a few copies of each. If a student finishes a book before others, they can easily choose another from the collection. We have amazing conversations about the themes and how they are represented in their books. The students begin to see patterns and find common experiences between the characters. Additionally, they are more invested in their final assignments as they have had choice. I follow a similar plan with themes of acceptance, heroism etc.
    I do see value in shared reading of common novels, but I have realised that for my own teaching style and our class reading community this is the model that works for me!
    I encourage you to check out Nancie Atwell’s book, The Reading Zone. It has helped me on my journey.

    Thanks for the great discussion!

    Vicki

    • I adore The Reading Zone and it has affirmed and solidified many of the reading practices in my own 7th grade classroom. I also love her chapter discussing much the same thing I am wondering about here, the one addressed to high school teachers. I love your unit ideas around a theme.

      • I usually pass my copy of The Reading Zone on each year to beginning or new teachers to our school (and hope to get it back at the end of the year 😉
        I should also say, that for the first time in a few years I did a whole class read aloud this year…with the Global Read Aloud! We read One for the Murphys and my students LOVED it…every single one of them. It has become one of my favourite youth fiction novels. Thanks for introducing us.

    • Using a common theme and offering choice in what book to read (like your holocaust unit) is very interesting to me! Do you find kids enjoy that process??

      • Not the OP but I’ve used this format for literature circles for a few years now and the kids seem to like it a lot. They’re reading a text they’ve selected (from a list I provided, so there’s some control) but we get to talk about a lot in whole group. My most successful theme has been about bullying.

      • Like Brianna mentioned below, I also think literature circles (or a similar set up) is able to achieve very much for both the whole group experience and individual interests. Students get a choice, but they also have the support of a small group discussion, and using a unifying theme ties everything together on the whole class level.

      • Yes, I do find that my students enjoy the process. They REALLY like the book talk day and choosing their books. I give them slips of paper and they jot down ones they want to read as I introduce the novels. I then get them to rank them 1, 2, 3. I collect the slips and then assign books to each student. They are generally so excited to find out which book they are getting. As I mentioned, they often get to read their other choices as well if they finish up before others. I’ve had some students read 3 or 4 books within a themed unit. And some read just one, but that is great too.

    • Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle have both written several books about incorporating a reading/writing workshop at a high school level. I am a firm believer in book choice for my students and after seeing the results, would never go back.

    • Vicki,
      It is so refreshing to hear there are teachers like you out there. I am a literacy coach and desperately trying to get teachers on board with this. No small task. Keep up the awesome work. You are doing great things for kids.

  4. Lately, I too have been thinking about this exact dilemma. Bit different from your teaching Pernille , as I teach Year 5.

    I simply asked my kids if I should choose the books they read in small groups ( ability levels – guided reading) or let them choose? Overwhelming response!

    They wanted:
    To choose their books and their groups.
    To create a class bookclub.
    To share and discuss their books.
    before, during and after reading.
    Review their books on our class’ blog.
    Create book trailers.
    Set their own home reading within the group.
    Create their own questions for each group member.

    Kids animatedly discuss their books and reading at home is happening! Reluctant readers are reading!

    Book club has become a part of our reading program. However, we continue to do the small group guided sessions where we focus on specific literacy skills. Students are suggesting ways to make these sessions more student and less teacher centred.
    Any ideas?

    • Yes, teach the skill using a short article or picture book (or even the class read aloud) and then have them apply it in their own books. I urges students to pick books where they can practice and also allows them to see it in their “real” reading. I started doing this two years and continue to do so today, it is amazing how much more invested the students are when they get to learn in their own books rather than the ones I had selected.

  5. Here in New Zealand we generally look at one novel a year at secondary school. Students study this closely and use it for a range of ‘internal’ assessments throughout the year, and finally an essay in the ‘external’ exam at the end of the year. Two assessments that encourage the students to embark on their own path of discovery are the personal response project, where they engage with a range of personally selected texts and respond to them on a personal level, and a ‘making connections’ project where they select four texts and discuss how they are similar and how they contrast. I feel that this is a good model for enabling the kind of in depth discussion that Nick advocates, while also encouraging autonomy and pushing students to develop their own tastes and passions. Fantastic and thought provoking post!

  6. I’m extremely fortunate to be in a tiny school where I’m a part of teaching reading to elementary, middle and high school students. We left this notion several years ago and now may read one or two books as a class in the high school, ones that support the history curriculum usually, like The Jungle or Two Old Women. In middle school, we read more together, but in smaller groups and with student input most of the time. For elementary, I use short passages and stories for direct instruction. What is woven into all of our classes is that students are also required to read books of their own choosing for book talks and presentations, as well as almost daily sustained silent reading time. Our non-readers aren’t cranking out a great volume of books finished, but they are reading more than if we told them, here’s what you get to read whether you like it or not. It is important to support them and their choices of reading material if we want them to actually read.

  7. This was a great post and I have enjoyed reading all the comments to it. I think this would be great to have as a round table discussion! I teach American literature in 5 months (one semester). It is super hard to squeeze a novel into that amount of time. In the last four years the novel we have read was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But, the students DREAD it – possibly because they’ve heard it is hard to read, perhaps it is because it is a big novel – I’m not necessarily certain. I just always feel bummed because of the kids’ reactions. This year I am going to try something different. We are reading a lot of short stories from American literature – – fiction, nonfiction – – studying writer’s technique and style as well as how literature is a reflection of the time period. Then the last several weeks of the semester, the kids will pick their own American literature novel to read and apply what they’ve learned throughout the semester to this novel. I am still trying to work out the details but we will see how it goes.

    I feel bad, though, because there are some incredible books to read that I know the kids will not touch because they are scared of what’s inside – anything that requires a bit of effort (dialect, sentence length, multiple plots, etc). I don’t know how to get them past that. We work on it in class – they have the skills – they just run the opposite direction when the choice is theirs.

    • The same thing happened to me, Angie! Kids wouldn’t choose books because they were freaked out by the ‘size’ of the book.

      I taught The Book Thief as a whole class novel to freshman. In the beginning, they were completely undone by the size of the novel. By the end, they were proud. After all, if they could read a 550 page novel–they felt like they could do anything!

  8. I think the whole class read aloud is remarkably different than the whole class novel. I abandoned the addition of assignments to The Giver by Lois Lowry and simply read it aloud and discussed it with my 8th grade readers. The change was immense. The experience was telling. I think about my life as an adult reader who has “missed” reading some of the canonized texts: I’m still okay. The idea that there is one set of books that defines the human experience ignores what’s true about us. We are constantly creating, and we can’t possibly contain that all on any syllabus. I can pick up Moby Dick if and when I choose because I am a confident reader. I think we need to discuss why humans tend to need to confine reading and literature to a distinct set, as we do with spoken language which grows and evolves with time. Wouldn’t it be better to teach students how to find and read and decide for themselves how to judge what reflects their experiences? I also want my students to search for quiet and marginalized voices in print, which can’t be done if I’m the only one choosing.

  9. This is a thought provoking post. As a former MS and HS language arts teacher I taught whole class novels because that’s what I had AVAILABLE to me. In this time of severe budget cuts, most of us are using what we currently have in our closets to teach.

    I think it is amazing what a kid discovers he can do when choices are offered and he has a choice in what he is learning. The same goes for teachers.

    I currently am teaching first grade and again must use the resources I have available to me. Fortunately, I have an excellent librarian who is generous in her purchasing of multiple copies of books for me to use in my classroom.

  10. In my own life as a student, some of the best books I read were assigned by a teacher. I would never have read them otherwise. Choice can be offered in different ways- for example choosing how to show understanding by offering a variety of assessment choices. As a kid I was intimidated by the “choice aspect” in reading. I didn’t have the confidence, and honestly there were times I failed as a reader because of it. I believe there should be both experiences in the classroom to help all students.

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  12. First I believe that one approach is to turn your English class into a book club in which teachers and students can make recommendations of books they read and like, including Twain and others. Of course this means being a risk taker in that students will suggest books that a teacher deems of value, though vlaue to who. Also, because students are in the same class does not mean they are at the same level. I rcall a teache telling me that one quarter of his class did not understand the common class book, which begs the question what are these students doing and gaining from reading the asme book. Specific guidlelines can be offered but thid does mean giving freedom to choose. Focus should be on reading as a transactional activity (see Rosenblatt). It’s how students negotiate meaning in a book they chose. Of course one could argue practically it’s easier to order a class set of a book but practicality is a danger to pedagogy.

  13. The class read aloud is one of the most valuable aspects of my teaching. I teach in a MS where the whole idea of independent reading is frowned upon. My skill teaching, historical importance and book analysis all come through the read aloud. Along with that are genre book clubs (right now, I have a classics BC using Little Women, Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island and Fahrenheit 451) and an independent reading challenge. Kids have learned that reading, either assigned or choice, is enjoyable…they read happily.

    • Independent reading is frowned upon? Perhaps some of the frowners should read a little bit about their chosen profession because the research about IR is pretty clear. I hope things change in your district – good for you for finding a way to make happy readers.

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  15. Have you read Ariel Sack’s blogs? I like what she says about education, and I get the sense that you and she would agree on a lot about teaching. I also know she does work with whole novels in her classes and has written a book on how she does it. She might be a good one to connect with. I’m not normally a big fan of whole novels, but I expect that whatever she’s doing in her classes is done really thoughtfully and really well.

  16. Yes. There are a lot of questions about whole-class novels. It’s all about balance, isn’t it? Getting the right book to each child takes on many forms. One book we all read together in our 7th grade classes is THE OUTSIDERS. This book has hooked many reluctant readers. Yes, teachers chose it for students. And yes, it has hooked reluctant readers. I remember one student in particular. I found RUMBLE FISH at a garage sale soon after we read THE OUTSIDERS together. I brought it to him and his eyes lit up so much I had to just give the darn book to him. He came back to visit last year (he’s a junior in HS now) and thanked me for the TWO books he read in middle school. Sad, but true. Of course I also recommended (and read the beginnings of) many other books for him, to no avail.

    We have changed our reading of THE OUTSIDERS as a class the last two years, thanks to Ariel Sack’s book – WHOLE NOVELS FOR THE WHOLE CLASS. The students love the freedom and choice that come with reading in this fashion. (We just have to have them pinky swear that they won’t give anything away when they read ahead of the rest of us!) Ariel Sacks has a lot of great ideas should you have to teach a novel with the entire class. We had an #elachat with her as our moderator after we did a book study.

    My curriculum is such that I do have some leeway. I do, however, have to read entire pieces of text with the entire class so we can learn from each other. Much like teachers doing a book study, we all help each other get more meaning from the same words. There are still a lot of questions, and we must keep talking about the text we are using. Student feedback is still valuable, and I know many students won’t like the idea, but many students will benefit from it, as well. Keep the conversations going, Pernille!

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  19. I feel the interactive read-a loud is a tool that is so overlooked. I teach 5th grade and I teach a lot of my mini lessons through my read a loud. I make sure I use books that will totally envelope every kid and books that can interact with other parts of my day and lessons. We also do book clubs with a theme base. Students blog, have book discussions, and have interactive websites to go with their books. I use sections of the Classics to teach my close reading lessons. I am so passionate about reading and I also found that in high school, the “Classics” helped to kill that love. I am also passionate about history and understand why we should use some books but feel they could be used in a different way. History repeats itself and it is amazing how many newer books have repeated themes in them that students would find much more interesting. Could you make it a game to see what themes connect to what parts of history??

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  21. I also use whole class reading and my students love it. Their favorite book is Feed by MT Anderson which I use in 10th grade. I also use Sold by Patricia McCormick. I pair both of these books with similarly themed films like In Time and Holly (for Feed)

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  23. Hi, I agree with the article on whole class novel studies and am interested in knowing if anyone has found any research out there on this issue. I am the curriculum director at my school and we still have a few teachers at our school who just do whole class novel studies year after year for their entire literacy program and I am trying to convince them to move away from that idea but have not been able to find any decent research on this topic to convince them on the lack of effectivenss. Although I ageee that there are many fantastic books out there that all kids should read, how can we simply choose one or two? I am much more inclined to believe choosing 5 or 6 great books and allowing the students to choose one for their book study. This is what I did this year (gr. 6) and invited the parents to read the books along the kids and had invited them into the discussion about the books. The students were much more engaged in the process.

  24. Okay, I am a mom, not a teacher. My comment is based purely on my experience with my three, entirely different, children.

    Child one: This child only wanted to read non-fiction for years! He hated the classroom novel reviews (felt they were outdated, boring, and most of the time below his level). That was until his fifth grade teacher. She was AMAZING! She had the children read novels, of their choice, based on the genre selection for that month. The kids had to read one novel a month. The difference was that this teacher helped the kids pick books in each genre based on their likes. She sat with each student and asked what types of T.V. shows they enjoyed, or movies they preferred. What they wanted to do in life. Basically, she really got to know each student, before helping them select a book to read. Before fifth grade my child would fight all his teachers, and me, when it came to reading fiction. After entering fifth grade, with his teachers help, he actually found a fictional series that he came to love. There were only three novels in the series, and he read all of them in one week! This teacher also, in the fourth quarter, after getting the kids used to reading at least one novel a month, did an in-classroom novel study. The kids and the teacher read the novel together, then annotated each section. The type of annotating that is done in high school honors classrooms. **This son is on his way to becoming a Nuclear Engineer and Physicist. A complete math and science student, that thanks to his fifth grade teacher, loves reading.**

    Child two: A completely normal boy. Did all his homework and reading as quickly as possible in order to get outside and play. He didn’t hate reading, yet would pick shorter books to get done faster. He prefers fiction over non-fiction. This child also went to the same elementary school, and had to read three novels a quarter with most of his teachers. At the time he went through school, most teachers had the students read three novels, of different genres (one having to be non-fiction) each quarter. Once again, he didn’t truly enjoy reading until getting the same fifth grade teacher as the previous child. This son is on his way to becoming a museum curator or history professor. His fifth grade teacher showed him historical fiction, and he’s hooked for life.

    Child three: Right off the bat she has had a love of reading. As I am an avid reader, and she has seen her brothers and father — often with books in hand — she is simply doing what her family does: read. An A+ English student, yet very picky about her books, she quickly became bored with the books available at her age level. Prompting her in first grade to write her own. As she put it, “if the book doesn’t make me laugh on every page; it isn’t worth my time.” Yes, this child enjoys comedy. She asked her first grade teacher if she could write her own book; instead of reading one for her second quarter book report. Thankfully her teacher said yes (third and fourth quarter she had to go back to reading other’s works, but the experience of writing her own and sharing it in a book report format will forever stay with her). She is just now entering third grade with a strong mastery of language arts skills.

    Watching these three kids of mine — all different intellectual levels — I have to say that the most important thing a teacher can do is to find out what the individual student enjoys, and to have a large enough knowledge of books available from reading themselves. Help each student find good choices, at their level, in different genres based on their likes. We, parents and educators, must first instill a LOVE of reading. Once that goal is achieved, everything else will fall in place. Suddenly, in classroom novels (even the ones the kids dislike) will no longer seem an uphill battle. Nor will getting the children to read after school.

  25. Think it’s about finding a good balance of reading in your classroom.

    Agree that it is so important to tap into students’ personsal interests for personal reading as in the case of Audrey’s children who were fortunate enough to have s teacher who ‘knew her stuff’ and was able to make a difference.

    Sharing picture books and sharing a whole class novel can be a special shared time of listening, discussing, analysing, synthesising, connecting, reflecting, enriching vocabulary etc etc…. all the rich ingredients that fall under the literacy umbrella.

    Think it’s all about how the teacher goes about getting her students to develop a love of reading.

    Pernille, think you could turn a ‘blank paged
    book’ into something magical – it’s all about passion!

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