Why You Should Teach a Novel in Verse

Middle grade and young adult novels in verse have exploded in popularity in recent years. Books like Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo, and Closer to Nowhere by Ellen Hopkins have been game-changers for many readers. Novels in verse are engaging and powerful, and they’re often the books that truly hook students on reading. Many verse novels do not shy away from the tough stuff, tackling topics like grief in Me (Moth), the death penalty in Moonrise, and addiction in What About Will. Young readers appreciate this and gravitate to these raw, emotional, books.

There’s no question that these books deserve a spot on your classroom library shelves. But novels in verse deserve an official spot in your middle and high school ELA curriculum, too. Whether it’s Punching the Air, The Poet X, Before the Ever After, or House Arrest, verse novels are dripping with “teachability.” With their high-interest topics, rich language, and complex themes, these books demand to be taught. And many of our students are already reading and loving these books, so why not capitalize on the popularity of verse novels and teach all the standards too?

If you’re a fellow middle or high school ELA teacher who is determined to engage and challenge your students while helping them fall in love with reading at the same time, you’ll love teaching a novel in verse. And thanks to all of the incredible verse novels available for teens today, you’ll have no problem picking the perfect book for you and your students. 

Ready to start seriously thinking about teaching a novel in verse to your middle or high school students? Here are 10 reasons why a verse novel might be exactly what you’re looking for to mix up your curriculum and engage your students:

It’s time to add a novel in verse to your middle or high school English curriculum!

ACCESSIBLE FOR ALL

Novels in verse work well as whole-class novels because they are accessible and can help you reach a wide range of readers. Verse novels are not nearly as daunting for readers who may be below level, kids who claim to “hate” reading, or students who haven’t read a full book since Holes in 5th grade. We all know these readers–they often make up a majority of our classes. The right novel in verse can hook these readers, build their confidence, and help them find success in our classrooms. Finishing a book–no matter the format or length–is incredibly empowering, especially for students who are used to abandoning books, Spark-noting their way through whole class novels, or struggling through one tough book for over a month. A novel in verse unit can help your class feel confident, build community, and prepare students for more challenging texts! 

Novels in verse can help you win over those students who dislike or struggle with reading!

RAMP UP THE RIGOR

Novels in verse may be an accessible entry point to the world of literature for some readers, but they can also be the perfect playground for teachers who want to ramp up the rigor and challenge students who are ready for more. There are fewer words on each page, which means a few things:

  1. Each word is there for a reason, so you’ll never run out of word choice to analyze!
  2. There’s much more room for interpretation. This makes for some juicy literary analysis discussions!
  3. There are often layers upon layers of meaning. Some students can swim in the shallow end, while others can dive deep.

If you’re teaching a novel in verse, it’s much easier to differentiate and meet students where they are. Sure, some readers may stay focused on the plot while you nudge them toward more analysis. But other readers will be able to dive deep into all the layers of meaning and surprise you with what they can extract from the text. Novels in verse are magical because they allow you to meet readers where they are!

Novels in verse are full of depth, so you can easily ramp up the rigor for readers who are ready for more.

EXTRA ENGAGEMENT

Once students realize these books are more than a collection of poems, they love reading novels in verse. And once you hook students on a verse novel, you can trick them into a whole lot of learning! The fewer words, all the white space, and the “easy to read” factor might hook them, but the high-interest topics, authentic characters, and compelling stories will keep them around. For once, getting students to do their reading homework won’t feel like a chore. In fact, you just might have the opposite problem–students reading ahead and finishing the book at record speed! True story: When I facilitated a round of novel in verse book clubs last year (more on that in the next section), multiple groups asked to read two books instead of the required one. They were reading the books faster than my lesson plans accounted for! (Now that’s a good problem to have…)

Students love novels in verse, so you’ll have no problem engaging them during a novel study!

TEACH IT YOUR WAY

Novels in verse make perfect whole-class novels because they hit the sweet spot of being accessible and engaging, but still rigorous. But verse novels are also perfect for teaching via book clubs or literature circles: Small groups of students can read different novels in verse, such as What About Will, Three Things I Know Are True, Lifeboat 12, Starfish, or Long Way Down. Together, you can explore the format, structure, style, and language, focusing on the author’s choices as you answer the question: “Why write in verse?” You can also structure a book club unit by an essential question, curating a list of novels in verse that will allow you to dig deep into an issue. Similarly, you can create an independent reading unit where each student reads a novel in verse of their choice and you teach lessons that can be applied to any text.

Better yet, you can combine approaches to build a rich novel in verse unit that involves reading a whole-class anchor text before students branch out to read another text in small groups or independently. This is how I structured my novel in verse unit in 7th grade. Together, we read Before the Ever After as a whole class, and then students went on to read another novel in verse in small-group book clubs. In book clubs, students practiced all the skills I taught during our whole-class novel unit. You can read more about that unit and how I organize and facilitate book clubs in the following blog posts:

Novels in verse work well as whole-class novels, but they’re also fabulous options for book clubs/lit circles and independent reading units.

PERFECT FOR TEACHING POETRY

If your students are anything like mine, the word “poetry” is enough to scare them away. And honestly, if you’re anything like me, you might not ~love~ teaching poetry as much as other English teachers do. A novel in verse offers the perfect introduction to poetry, and it’s a great way to teach the same skills you’d teach with any collection of traditional poems. Once you ease into poetry with a novel in verse unit, it’s much easier to teach those classic poems, weave in spoken word poetry, and explore other forms of poetry. You can also teach excerpts from various novels in verse as “standalone” poems or mentor texts. You can even use novels in verse to help students experiment with writing their own poetry. Whatever way you structure it, a novel in verse can give both you and your students the confidence to tiptoe into the wonderful (but often overwhelming) world of poetry.

Introduce and teach poetry with a novel in verse before tackling more complex, classic poetry.

SHORT & SWEET

Novels in verse are short and sweet, a practical choice if you’re low on time, working with limited wiggle room in your curriculum, or looking for a novel study that won’t take 6-8 weeks to trudge through while you accidentally kill the joy of reading. (Been there, done that…do not recommend!)

You don’t need a whole month to teach a novel in verse that can be read in just a few hours. 2-3 weeks is usually perfect for a quick, focused unit, but you can certainly extend the unit with paired texts, extension activities, creative projects, and more. Novels in verse work especially well at the beginning of the year to build readers’ confidence, but they’re also perfect for the end of the year when you’ve finished testing and need to keep kids engaged until summer break. I also love teaching them during National Poetry Month! In other words, you can add a novel in verse to whatever part of the year has a gap to fill or whatever part of your curriculum needs a little extra love.

If you only have a few weeks to spare, a novel in verse unit is perfect!

PERFECT FOR PAIRING

Speaking of how easily you can squeeze a novel in verse into your existing curriculum, these books are perfect for pairing with your required texts or units. If you’re locked into teaching certain classics you don’t love, don’t be afraid to get creative and add a novel in verse to keep students engaged. You can easily pair novels in verse with nonfiction, short stories, and other whole-class novels. These kinds of purposeful pairings are perfect for comparing and contrasting texts in different formats or genres, analyzing the impact of structure on a poem’s meaning, comparing and contrasting the structure of texts, and analyzing an author’s structural choices, all 6-12 Common Core standards.

Here are a few ideas for pairing commonly taught prose novels with verse novels your students will love:

  • A Long Walk to Water & Home for the Brave
  • Refugee & Other Words for Home
  • The Outsiders & Long Way Down
  • Speak & Shout/All the Fighting Parts
  • Just Mercy & Punching the Air
Make the classics or other required texts more engaging by pairing a novel in verse.

MAKE ROOM FOR MORE

Because the text takes less time to read and teach, novels in verse naturally make room for more, inviting teachers to create diverse, thematic units that encourage creativity and critical thinking. This can be challenging when you’re slogging through a 300+ page classic like 1984, but totally doable–and incredibly empowering–when you’re teaching Long Way Down with an audiobook that clocks in at less than 2 hours. In this way, less = MORE. You can pull in thematically relevant nonfiction, author interviews, podcasts, short stories, poems, picture books, short films, documentaries, and more. The possibilities are truly endless! 

In my experience, teaching a novel in verse feels like getting “permission” to do the fun, creative things you’ve always wanted to do. For example, I had always wanted to incorporate picture books in my secondary ELA classes, but it wasn’t until I taught Before the Ever After that I finally found the inspiration and space to make it happen. I taught symbolism with The Giving Tree and it was magical. Students gathered around on our rug as I read the story aloud, we connected the story to our novel in verse, and we discussed and debated the meaning of this children’s classic! After this one lesson, I was full of ideas for using more picture books to teach author’s craft.

With novels in verse, LESS text = MORE room for the creative lessons you’ve always dreamed of teaching!

ANALYZE AUTHOR’S CRAFT

Novels in verse are a great way to teach author’s craft and dig deep into language. All of the standards about analyzing the impact of figurative language and word choice and how an author’s stylistic and structural choices impact the reader are challenging. Students are used to answering questions about WHAT a book is about, but they often struggle to dissect HOW a book is written, or WHY an author made specific choices. I’ve taught everything from 7th grade to 12th grade, and this is always one of the most challenging skills for students to master. 

Novels in verse make this literary analysis less intimidating and easier to scaffold! One way to do this is by focusing on this question: Why do you think the author chose verse to tell this story? You can pose this question at the beginning of the novel, entertain students’ guesses, closely read key sections where the verse works especially well, consider what might change if the story was written in prose, discuss this question during and after reading, and even read/listen to author interviews about writing in verse. Focusing on this question will help students realize that all authors have endless choices to make about HOW they write, and we can analyze the impact of the decisions they make to tell each story.

Novels in verse are perfect for teaching some of the most challenge literary analysis standards.

A PRACTICAL PLAN

If you’re dreaming of teaching a novel in verse, you can make it happen even if you don’t have a set of books. Hear me out: Because novels in verse are so short, you can read them entirely in class. You don’t need a book for every student or a class set of books. All you need is one copy of the book to read aloud, maybe an audiobook version to play sections in class, and an ebook version to display in class. You can get all of this from your public library and Overdrive/Libby for free. (Learn more about that HERE). It is totally possible to teach a novel in verse in this way, especially if you don’t mind being a little resourceful, creative, and adaptable.

Speaking from personal experience, a class set of texts is ideal if you can swing it. Again, use your resources: Contact your public library in advance and see if they can round up a class set of books for you. Many libraries have interlibrary loan programs where they can source copies from all over the state. If your local librarians are anything like mine, they want to help you!


I hope this post has given you the permission, inspiration, and confidence you need to finally try teaching a novel in verse! I hope you have added some books to your to-read list and you’re dreaming up ideas for a verse novel unit. If you’re ready to start planning, check out my Novel in Verse Unit for ANY Text. This jam-packed resource is full of editable activities, lessons, and graphic organizers that you can use as-is or tailor to any novel in verse out there. This collection of resources will help you save time, so you can actually enjoy teaching your new novel unit without all the extra stress that comes with teaching something for the first time. (Plus, it’s a resource you can use time and time again and tailor to different texts in the future!)

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