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3 Powerful Ways to Hook Your Students at the Beginning of a Play or Novel Unit

Novel units are the bread and butter of the high school English experience, but introducing a new novel or play can be met with trepidation or groans from students who carry the baggage of struggling with reading. That’s why using a powerful pre-reading activity to hook your students can actually get them excited about the unit you’re going to dive into. Check out these 3 student-tested strategies.

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The Importance of Setting the Tone at the Beginning of a Play or Novel Unit

Although teaching a play or novel has its challenges, it’s still worth the time and energy to construct a meaningful experience for your students. 

Pre-reading activities can help set the right tone from the beginning, and with the right tone, the whole unit will go better. With these hooks, you can:

  • lay the groundwork for the topics and themes to be addressed in the play or novel
  • convey your own enthusiasm which will intrigue students
  • pique their interest with background information or plot snippets
  • get students asking questions and eager to find out more!

Before you distribute the next set of class paperbacks, consider using one of these 3 activities to connect students to the text in interactive ways. These activities can work with any text used for whole-class book study.

1.) Use Choice Boards To Start Your Novel or Play Unit

Endless research supports the element of student choice in the learning process. Robert Marzano has long been a leading voice for student choice in multiple areas including choice of “tasks to perform” and choice of ways to report their learning.

Choice boards are an excellent way to build in freedom for students to explore different parts of the topic that are interesting to them from the very beginning of the unit. This tool is typically a type of grid arrangement that can involve options for tasks, processes, or products. Teachers can provide criteria on how many activities to complete or if students should choose from a particular row or category.

pull out quote that says that choice boards are an excellent way to allow freedom for students to choose the different topic that they are interested in.

Add a student handout or response form if you like. Include options to work independently or with small groups! You can also include options to have each student in a small group complete different activities and then report their findings back to the group.

Choice Board Example from Romeo and Juliet Unit

When beginning any play or novel unit, it is often necessary upfront to build extra background knowledge. (Especially if the text is from past decades or centuries!) Students need a working knowledge of the particular historical period or cultural setting without spending weeks of instructional English time on the topics. 

For instance, when introducing Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a choice board is an excellent tool to build the necessary historical background in an engaging way. In the English Teacher Vault, this choice board establishes key knowledge of the Elizabethan era, iambic pentameter, and the role of the theater. 

picture of a computer with a choice board for the Shakespeare unit

As you can see here, when you share the choice board with students, they’ll be able to navigate the interactive links, videos, and articles on their own. This gives them different ways to learn the information. 

In the membership, find this choice board ready to link to your online platforms, AND a fully editable version to download! Use it for your own Romeo and Juliet unit or take and tweak it for any upcoming text. 

Explore more ways to use choice boards in the secondary ELA classroom here!

2. Use Stations To Hook Your Students

A second option for hooking your students that works great are stations. Nearly any classroom activity could be divided into segmented portions that work in a station model. They can be as simple or as detailed as you like!

Similar to choice boards, stations can provide short mini-lessons and structured activities for students to complete independently or in small groups. Students might explore key vocabulary for an upcoming play or novel or engage in background research about the author. Effective station activities will allow for some flexible time that allows students to engage with a wide range of skills and topics.

The English Teacher Vault includes several stations activities for different units, and you can get instant access to all of those resources with our $1 trial. Check it out below.

link to english teacher vault $1 trial
ETV $1 trial gives you instant access to over 250 resources!

Example Stations from 12 Angry Men Unit

The Vault includes a detailed lesson plan with station activities for the play 12 Angry Men. These stations are designed to get students interested in the jury system through reading and analyzing a variety of instructional texts with hands-on comprehension activities. Here are just a few of the station activities in the unit:

  • Sorting jury duty selection cards
  • Analyzing the disadvantages of a judge vs. jury trial
  • Personal responses to the expectations of jury duty

Teachers often share that a roadblock to organizing stations is the material prep involved ahead of time. In the Vault, teachers have access to a lesson plan, slides, and all the student materials for 5 mini-stations to be completed in one typical class period. Simply print-and-go!

Tip: As you consider using stations for your next play or novel unit, keep in mind that the stations should not be completed in sequential order. This allows all your student groups to rotate throughout the class period! Lastly, build in a little extra flex time for transitions between stations.

3. Use Anticipation Guides

Anticipation guides are another pre-reading activity that can instantly get students thinking and talking! These typically involve the least amount of time which can work well if you also want to include additional introductory activities at the beginning of a unit.

Anticipation guides generally provide a statement that is topically or thematically related to the text to generate questions or intriguing discussion. Students respond to the statements with either a “yes or no” answer or from a scale of response options. They can even free-write a short response to explain their thinking.

To extend anticipation guide activities: 

  • have students think-pair-share with a partner
  • complete a whole class philosophical chairs activity, or 
  • share responses digitally on an online whiteboard or response tool.

Example Anticipation Guide for Just Mercy Unit

Grab our free anticipation guide for our Just Mercy unit to check out exactly how you can set these up! The guide activates students’ prior knowledge about justice, mercy, and punishment for crimes. 

With the provided anticipation guide handout, students will rate their levels of agreement with the statements and explain their thinking. The detailed teacher notes outline ways to vary the use of this handout with discussion and movement in the classroom. You can learn more about this entire project-based learning here: How To Implement Project-Based Learning in Just Mercy Unit Plan.

picture of the just mercy anticipation guiede

More Play and Novel Unit Resources for Secondary English Teachers

Are you looking for even more engaging resources to keep your students actively learning from start to finish? Vault members can download complete units for each example mentioned along with pacing guides, presentations, student handouts, and more! Each unit provides detailed teacher notes and plenty of options to customize for specific class needs.

Check out more resources for English teachers in literary, writing, or grammar units by trying the English Teacher Vault today! When you sign up for a trial membership, you will receive access to the entire membership for 7 days!

link to english teacher vault $1 trial

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