Add Rigor and Engagement to your Next Novel Unit

Cover of the book "Wonder".

Use CommonLit’s Book Pairings to push your students’ thinking

English standards from around the country demand a lot of teachers. For example:

  • Texas says that middle schoolers should “read and understand a wide variety of literary and informational texts.”
  • Florida says, “Literacy involves the integration of reading and writing, along with speaking, listening, viewing and critical thinking in a variety of contexts and for a variety of purposes.”
  • The Common Core says that teachers should focus on diverse and rigorous texts such as “classic myths and stories from around the world, America’s founding documents, foundational American literature, and Shakespeare.”

Wow, this is really demanding! Teaching one text already feels complex. How can you connect all of these seemingly disparate texts and genres within the same year or even within the same unit?

Our team at CommonLit thinks a lot about this problem, which is why we offer Book Pairings. The goal of our Book Pairings feature is to help you meet the rigor that your state-standards demand, while also helping to build student engagement during your novel units. If you’re new to the Book Pairings feature, you may want to check out the video below. It’s an awesome primer!

As of right now, we have created book pairings for over 90 popular texts. This includes To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, and The House on Mango Street, to name a few. However, for this post, I’ll explain how I would use the Book Pairings feature to build a novel study of Wonder, an amazing book that I read with my 6th graders a few years ago. Wonder is the story of a ten year-old boy named Auggie, who has a profound facial deformity caused by Treacher Collins Syndrome. When he attends school for the first time as a 5th grader, he is bullied and ostracized.

Now, a teacher could conceivably have students just read Wonder and never use any supplemental texts from the CommonLit library. The book is exciting and engaging, and I’m certain your kids would love the story. However, I’d argue that this would be a missed opportunity to make your unit more engaging, rigorous, and accessible for students through supplemental texts. Using some of CommonLit’s texts throughout the unit will ensure that students are exposed to different genres, and it could even give your students the opportunity to gain practice on the type of writing prompts that they’ll see on your state’s summative assessment.

Cover of the book "Wonder".
“Wonder by R.J. Palacio” by cuprikorn is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

While this sounds great, you may be wondering if and how this will work. Will it make the unit way too long? The answer to that question is “no.” Below, I’ll show you some ways to seamlessly and strategically weave CommonLit texts into a unit on Wonder. Hopefully these examples will help you think of new ways to incorporate CommonLit texts into your novel units.

Building Background Knowledge

Wonder begins with Auggie vaguely describing his condition. In the text, Auggie gives the reader many clues about his life, and he tells us that he gets “stared at” and that kids make rude comments about him. At the end of the first chapter he says, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” This first chapter is very engaging, but it can also be a little confusing for students who haven’t inferred that Auggie has a facial deformity. To help students make this essential connection, you can assign them the CommonLit text entitled “About Treacher Collins Syndrome.” This text will provide students with the essential background information they need, and give you the chance to teach informational text standards.

Cross-Genre Analysis

Later in the first section of the novel, Auggie recounts his first day at his new school. Kids purposefully avoid him in his first few classes and he is then forced to go to lunch. Once he gets to the cafeteria, he sees many kids talking about him and several other kids refuse to let him sit at their table. As a result, Auggie must sit by himself. This is a great place to assign the CommonLit text entitled “Herd Behavior.” This informational text explains the psychological principle behind why people often blindly follow the crowd even when it leads to harm. This text is a perfect pairing because it allows students to do cross-textual analysis and use psychological principles to explain the kids’ behavior in the cafeteria. This type of cross-text analysis aligns almost perfectly with the vast majority of the high-stakes tests your students will be taking at the end of the school year. It’s also a great way to spark a lively classroom discussion or debate.

The goal of our Book Pairings feature is to help you meet the rigor that your state-standards demand, while also helping to build engagement during your novel units.

Expanding Literary Analysis

While there are many different examples I can draw upon from Wonder, I’ll share just one more. Towards the end of the novel, Auggie’s sister Via is initially too embarrassed to have Auggie come to her school’s play. She wants to create her own identity and doesn’t want her new classmates to think of her as the girl with the disabled brother. Teachers can choose to pair this portion of the text with Amy Tan’s short story, “Fish Cheeks.” In “Fish Cheeks,” Amy experiences a lot of the same emotions as Via but for different reasons. When students reach this part of Wonder, teachers might ask kids to compare and contrast Via’s and Amy’s perspectives and motivations.

A fish on a cutting board.
“IMG_6871” by ais3n is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

These are some best practices for using CommonLit’s Book Pairings feature with your students. While our team has recommended eight different supplemental texts to teach alongside Wonder, don’t feel compelled to use them all. Pick a handful that will help you meet all of your standards, engage your students, and help them to think in a new way.

Next time you use the CommonLit to teach a novel, try incorporating this strategy to engage and challenge your students.