Does your novel need a Teacher’s Guide?

One of my few fond memories of the junior high years occurred in seventh grade English class. Together we read Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne.

Our teacher seemed to have a lot of knowledge of the story, and she made it come alive. But I never noticed her referring to notes. She reviewed new vocabulary words with us and asked an occasional question to spark discussion, but otherwise we simply read. It didn’t feel like school at all! It was reading, something I did for pleasure at home when I had the opportunity to get books from the library. (My parents didn’t have the budget for purchasing books at the time.)


By eighth grade, my family moved. Organized reading at my new school consisted of the SRA Reading Laboratory.

Laboratory? That was enough to discourage me right there. It was a color-coded system of cards containing segments of stories, at least in its early stages when I encountered it.

And I hated it.

“Why can’t we read a real book?” I asked my teacher, and she ignored the question.

I’ll admit that the top reader in my class said she enjoyed using the system. (In case you’re unfamiliar with the SRA Reading Laboratory, it adjusts to students’ reading abilities by starting them at a color/level they’re capable of and allowing them to work through and upward into higher levels at their own speed.)

But back then I wondered if these dissected stories were real literature. At thirteen years old, I hadn’t been exposed to enough books, particularly the classics, to recognize them. And I wasn’t fond of having to stop reading after each segment/card to answer questions before I could continue. Talk about interrupting the flow of a story.

I’m sure the SRA Reading Lab has improved since my day, and if you or your child loves it, that’s great. If you’re a teacher, and it helps assess and place students at the appropriate reading level and encourages their reading, I think that’s wonderful.

But each time the teacher passed out her copies of Around the World in Eighty Days, I felt such a thrill. I couldn’t wait to get that book into my hands again, and I was sorry when we turned them in at the end of class. I would’ve been extra sorry if I’d known how rare an experience reading a good book together as a class would be. I never again experienced a group read in school.

Do entire classes ever read a book together nowadays? I hope so. (And I don’t mean each student reading the same book on a computer screen.)

To encourage teachers to bring more classic and new literature in paper form into their classrooms for a group reading project, more and more middle-grade and young-adult authors are creating teacher’s guides.

I’ve looked online and found a few I like for some of my favorite debut novels. One was on the author’s website, another on the publisher’s. Everyone seems to do something a little different, but these guides are not simply a list of several discussion questions, as for a book club. They include a variety of activities and questions covering a number of subjects, from the arts to the sciences.

My Teacher’s Guide for Bird Face is on my website,, listed under My Work on the home page as well as on others. It’s a reproducible PDF, so anyone is welcome to download and copy it as needed for use. It’s currently eight pages long, but each time I review it, I think of something I want to add.

I just came across a 45-page guide for using a novel to teach reading and language arts specifically: How to Teach a Novel. I wish I’d found it much earlier because it’s loaded with ideas for teaching any novel.

This is probably the longest post I’ve written for The Scriblerians, and there’s more I’d like to say about developing teacher’s guides! But I hope those of you who are familiar with them or who’ve begun creating one yourself will share some of your knowledge in the comments.

Thanks, happy reading, and happy teaching!

cynthia-toney Cynthia

22 thoughts on “Does your novel need a Teacher’s Guide?

  1. Word Sister! I remember those wretched SRA reading things. I thought the same thing, give me a book for crying out loud.


    • Oh, I’m so glad to hear from someone who felt the same way, Tim!


      • I was the first grader in the advance reader group that would finish the line of text some kid was struggling to read out loud, and then say out loud, “This isn’t that hard, what’s wrong with you?” Needless to say I would sit and either want to claw my eyes out or wound up with my own group of one, away from the others. Sigh


  2. I haven’t heard of SRA Reading Lab but it sounds interesting. Something that would have been torturous to me back them but I’m wondering if it would be a good tool for my dyslexic daughter. (Which is a challenge in & of itself – take someone to whom reading is akin to breathing and have them try to help someone with dyslexia.)

    I was homeschooled 6th grade and up but I have distinct memories of my 5th grade teacher reading to us every Friday. I would have loved it but she chose James & the Giant Peach – not one of my favorites. On a side note, I’m wondering if my daughter’s teacher would be adverse to me coming in weekly and reading to the kids? I might try to find a book that I could read throughout within a school year and ask about that. They already have Read Across America every year and schedule times all week for parents to come in and read.

    Also, from Oct-Dec my daughter and I participated in a Mother/Daughter book club at church. The book was great (FaithGirlz! Riley Mae and the Rock Shocker Trek) but there was no teacher guide, no book-club question list, no support whatsoever. It was awkward & unstructured and I think we’ll just continue reading the series on our own. I’m planning to write FaithGirlz about it.


    • Sparks, you may be the most involved parent in a child’s reading development I’ve heard of. 🙂 Your daughter is so fortunate. If you’re interested in learning more about the SRA reading lab, it’s easy to find on the internet. And you have a great idea there about offering to read to your child’s class. Best wishes.


    • SRA’s are bits of flash fiction or short articles of creative non-fiction. For the challenged reader, they supposedly helped them, but many publishers are doing books for the reluctant reader which are so much better than SRA. Capstone publishers out off Mankato offer such books. I highly recommend audio books in tandem with a book. This is where e-reader type devices can help. You can manipulate font size, contrast, and other things.


  3. We used to have to read books in fifth and sixth grade. We picked a novel and read it and answered questions for discussion. I fake read pretty much every one of them umm “improvising” answers for discussion time. I’ve gone back and read some of those novels “for real” and a couple are among my favorites, “Eight Cousins” and “A Wrinkle in Time”. So much more fun to read at my own pace without questions and vocabulary.
    Senior English was my favorite. We got to write essays on books we read as a class. I took the characters from post-nuclear holocaust “On the Beach” and compared them to the cast of Gilligan’s Island. It works. Trust me.


  4. Interesting, Gretchen. I haven’t read On the Beach, but I know Gilligan’s Island very well. 🙂 I want to read On the Beach now!


    • How creative! I had teachers that still read to the class in the 5th and 6th grade. I also used to make book recommendations to them too. Once in a while they would read my suggestions. There are a few of those books that are still with me after all those years. One is about a special needs teenager that runs away from home and takes up with an elderly man that lives in a shack. The man finds animals that were run over or killed by mistreatment and buries them. I wish I could remember the title. They even made a movie of it.


      • Tim, that plot line sounds familiar. I may have seen a description of or a part of that movie but thought it would be too sad for me as an animal lover.


      • Perhaps My Side of the Mountain? I don’t remember him being special needs or the roadkill part but they did make a movie out of it.

        I’m a member of the What’s the Name of This Book? Group on Goodreads – you’d be amazed at the books they sometimes figure out. 🙂


        • I was hoping you’d see this and comment, Sparks! I always look at your comments regarding What’s the Name of That Book that come across my Goodreads news feed. 🙂


          • Haha – I enjoy a challenge. 😉 My sister called me about a book the other day & I found it before she’d finished telling me everything. Newer books are fairly easy to find but older books can be a lot tougher. Living in the internet age is something else!


        • No sparks, though I did like that book a lot. This took place in England and the boy was heir to a large corporation. His mother was abused by the stepfather and may have died. The boy ran away from home. It was a good novel and my sixth grade class really loved. Exciting ending too. It was similar to ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL (not memoir by the vet either.)


        • Haha – I think I’d need more information to hunt for the book. (If you want me to. Just Facebook PM me everything you can remember.) An initial search is just turning up My Side of the Mountain or Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. 🙂


  5. Oh, dear! I loved SRA! But not for the reading choices. I hated nonfiction. If it was a short story, I was much happier. But it fed my sense of competition and PROGRESS! How soon could I graduate to the next color? Would I make it to the final color before the end of the school year? Was I ahead of my sixth grade nemesis? I would read anything to move through the ranks!

    In answer to your question, yes, many classrooms read novels these days. My fondest memories are teaching Derwood, Inc. I’ll have to look back in the archives. Have I already blogged about that book? If not, it’s on my list! Not only did my students love the book, they also learned how to write creatively using typical strategies for writing a good story.


  6. I love your posts about great kids’ books, Linda.


  7. I’ve never used an SRA reading lab, either as a student or a teacher. I know that in some of my previous schools, the teachers used a program called Accelerated Reading, but those were younger grades (fifth and below).

    I can’t speak for every school, but in the sixth grade at my middle school, we end the day with what we call an “Extended Learning Opportunity.” For some kids, this is time to get the extra reading or math help they need. For some of our gifted kids, this is a chance to do accelerated science work (since we don’t offer an official accelerated science class). For the rest of the kids, we have a “book club.” It’s twenty minutes a day in which I just read a book with the kids. I’ve been using David Lubar’s ‘Hidden Talents” for years now because it appeals so much to sixth grade mentality. Plus, it’s funny.

    So yes, I read whole books with the kids. In fact, I read five novels and a Shakespeare play with my gifted kids during reading class (plus a few short stories and a poetry unit). The regular reading students read two novels a year, plus a lot of short stories and the poetry unit.


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