How do you teach a novel you’ve never taught before?

When the new specifications changed, and texts like To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men were removed from the GCSE syllabus, I was pretty upset. Not because I felt that these texts were somehow ‘better’ than the ones set to replace them, not because I have a particular love for American literature, not because I thought the changes were unfair. I was upset because I knew how to teach them. Especially Of Mice and Men which I had taught for three consecutive years. Perhaps after 10 years I might feel slightly different, tired of this text and desperate for something new. But it took about three years for me to feel comfortable and confident teaching this text, and after three years I was still finding something new. Of Mice and Men kept giving.

Now I face a new challenge, preparing to teach novels that I’ve never taught before. Depending on my department’s choices, maybe even novels I’ve never read. Last term I faced a similar challenge, teaching Animal Farm for the first time. It’s been a chosen text of my department for years but through sheer coincidence (sharing  groups, set changes etc.) I’ve never taught it. What follows is the process I went through to teach this ‘new’ text. It’s by no means perfect, and I’ve probably missed loads, but It’s a process worth thinking about in preparation for next year.

1. Read the text

Perhaps an obvious statement, but it’s sometimes easier said than done. With time tight and workload burgeoning, actually sitting down and reading a text prior to teaching can be challenging. I’d read Animal Farm a couple of times before, once in my teens then again on my PGCE year. Maybe I could have winged it based on these memories, but my class would have suffered.

There are also a few logistical questions which can be worked through when reading, which help manage reading the text in class: How long does it take to read each chapter? How long roughly if I read it aloud? What if students are reading to themselves?

I was also motivated by this post by Katie Ashford: How Should we Read Texts in Lessons. I wanted to be able to make predictions, to explain to students how excited I was about each chapter. If someone gave an idea about a character, I wanted to be able to say with confidence “just you wait until chapter 5!”

2. Work out what students need to know

Whilst reading the text, my notepad was permanently open. I wanted to note down exactly what my students needed to know in order to have an in-depth knowledge of the text. I chose to do this through writing down between 8-12 ‘core questions’ for each chapter. If my students could confidently answer these questions,  then they would know enough about Animal Farm. These questions go deeper than understanding the plot, vary in difficulty and attempt to take include some of the central themes. For instance, here are a few of the questions I drafted for chapter one:

  • Who is Mr Jones?  
  • How is he first represented?
  • What was Old Major’s Dream?
  • How does Old Major represent Man?
  • What does ‘Beasts of England’ represent?

As well as helping define what I wanted my students to know, these questions also helped me plan individual lessons and identify key discussion points.

3. Work out the barriers

Through reading the text again, I was able to identify potential barriers to understanding. These could be places where the plot or story becomes difficult to follow, or places where characters and the differences between them become muddied. Primarily though, one of the major barriers might be vocabulary knowledge. So, alongside noting down my ‘core questions’, I also noted down any vocabulary my students might struggle with. These included concepts such as ‘liberty’ or ‘principles’ which could be tackled head on. Here’s my list from chapter one:

Ensconced, benevolent, comrade, abundance, tushes, tyranny.

I tried to tackle this vocabulary in a variety of ways. Firstly, I gave students a multiple choice quiz on the toughest 40 words from the first five chapters as a pre-reading activity and to give me an idea of what words would need most attention. The quiz was repeated after reading in class, and is saved for completion as a revision activity later in the year. Some of the words I tried to teach explicitly before reading them, and the rest I stopped to discuss when we read the word in context.

4. Understand the context

Whilst vocabulary knowledge might be a barrier to accessing the text, a lack contextual knowledge could well be the biggest barrier to a deep understanding, especially with such a politically charged text as Animal Farm. This was perhaps the most time-consuming aspect of preparing to teach the novel. I did a fair amount of research and trawled through the resources in the shared drive at school. After doing so, I prepared a week’s worth of pre-reading lessons with resources and activities all focused on developing contextual knowledge.

5. Talk to colleagues

The final part of the process, and definitely the most enlightening. Although I hadn’t taught the text before, my colleagues had. They could advise me on potential barriers, contextual knowledge and were able to question and add to my list of ‘core questions.’ Practically, it can be quite difficult to get a group of teachers together, so we met for one hour after school after a particularly ‘light’ day. Five of us met, discussed the text chapter by chapter, with one person typing. In that hour, we more or less completed a medium term plan, a working document to fit on one A3 page that we could add to and refine throughout the term.

Knowing that different teachers approach texts in different ways, we kept the plan simple. A table with one row for each chapter, and one column for each of these headings:

  • Core Questions (what do my students need to know about characters and themes)
  • Vocabulary (what might present a barrier)
  • Contextual Knowledge (to enhance understanding)
  • Assessment ideas (ideas for links to relevant past paper questions)
  • Key Resources (with directions to the shared space at school)

We also see this document as the beginnings of a knowledge organiser, which can be shared with parents and students as the course progresses.

So, how do you prepare to teach a new novel? I’m fairly happy with the process above, although there’s not a huge focus on assessment objectives and exam board rubrics. This will come later, when students revisit the text. If there’s anything I’ve missed, or you think is out of place, it’d be great to hear from you.


11 thoughts on “How do you teach a novel you’ve never taught before?

  1. Dave, once again a great piece. It’s made me think about how this process could be used in Mathematics (as well as in other subject areas). Simplicity.
    I look forward to seeing/hearing more from you.

  2. We made ‘Animal Farm’ one of our class texts last year for our Year 6 pupils. We were looking for an English text that would link with our theme on the 20th Century (overcoming some of the contextual barriers?). It gave me enormous pleasure just to read a text written by an author who knew how to use prose. The pupils thoroughly enjoyed it as it hit home on so many levels. Your suggested table reflects pretty much the way we approached it!

    • Yes, it’s a really fantastic book. Amazing to hear you studying it in year 6. It’s a shame we get to spend so little time seeing what goes on in Primary schools year 5/6. Sometimes wonder we’re not stretching them enough in year 7.

      Thanks for the comment.


      • Yes – our local secondary school English teachers came over for a ‘moderation’ visit and felt they needed to go back and revise their expectations in reading and writing terms. Funny how our old level 5 pupils would jump to a level 8 within a year! We did have some adults express surprise that we were reading it, but it turned out to be pretty perfect for that age group. At its heart, it’s a book about power, like many children’s books, and it also has animals that talk! They’re very accessible characters. However, it’s a great example of layered and implied meanings at several levels and in fact year 5 and 6 pupils really do love getting into that kind of thing. I thoroughly recommend greater liaison between the primary and secondary phases, too. I also wish we could do more of it.

  3. So useful. What a pity I found it on the last day of the summer holiday. Definitely will be implemented next time. Thank you.

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