Build Rigor and Engagement with Book Pairings for Elementary Novels

Laptop showing CommonLit lesson on table.

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

Planning a novel study is a great opportunity to build students’ analysis skills and promote rich discussion. That’s why we’re excited to share CommonLit’s Book Pairings for grades 3–5!

The goal of our Book Pairings feature is to help you meet the rigor that your state standards demand, while also building student engagement during your novel units. These suggested text pairings for children’s novels help students build background knowledge, develop their understanding of themes, analyze authors’ craft, and more. Reading paired texts throughout the year also helps improve performance on state tests, many of which ask students to engage in cross-textual analysis.

CommonLit’s digital library includes over 20 book pairings for classic and contemporary upper elementary novels. These novels include Charlotte’s Web, Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tiger Rising, Number the Stars, and more.

In this post, I’ll explain how I would use the Book Pairings feature to build a novel study for Fish in a Tree, a moving novel that promotes students’ understanding of growth mindset. Fish in a Tree is the story of Ally, who has been hiding her inability to read for years by creating clever yet disruptive distractions in class. Ally’s new teacher and new friends help her build confidence and see that she is special in her own way.

Now, a teacher could read Fish in a Tree with students and never use any supplemental texts from the CommonLit library. The book is funny and meaningful, and upper elementary students would relate deeply to the story. However, integrating paired texts in a novel study can make the unit more engaging, rigorous, and accessible for students. Using CommonLit’s supplemental texts throughout the unit will ensure that students are exposed to different genres, and can even give students the opportunity to practice the type of writing prompts they will see on your state’s summative assessment.

The cover of "A Fish in a Tree."

Building Background Knowledge and Vocabulary

Fish in a Tree is all about how Ally begins to understand her dyslexia and recognize that there is more than one way to be a strong learner. Over the course of the story, Ally’s new teacher, Mr. Daniels, teaches her how to read and helps her develop a growth mindset. Before introducing the novel, our team recommends reading “Noticing Mistakes Boosts Learning” by Alison Pearce Stevens. In this informational text, the author discusses how learning from mistakes helps children bounce back and grow. This text provides students with essential background knowledge about growth mindset and gives you the chance to teach informational text standards.

Analyzing Authors’ Craft

In the beginning of the novel, Ally is overwhelmed by the terrible time she is having in school. She is embarrassed by her inability to read basic sentences and cruel classmates are bullying her. This is a great place to assign “The Test” by Shelby Ostergaard, a text about two young boys named Javon and Tyler who learn an important lesson about fairness after taking a difficult math test. This suggested text pairing gives students the opportunity to discuss authors’ craft. Students will compare the descriptions of Ally’s, Javon’s, and Tyler’s feelings to engage in a deep analysis of how word choice reveals characters’ perspectives. Reading “The Test” alongside Fish in a Tree is a great way to build rigor as students consider authors’ craft.

Making Cross-Textual Connections

Later in the novel, lonely Ally makes a new friend by standing up for her at a school concert. When Keisha plays with the flowers she is supposed to hold on stage, the music teacher takes away her bouquet. Ally, recognizing Keisha’s feelings of shame and embarrassment, divides her own bouquet in two and gives half to Keisha. This is a great spot to read “The Champion of Quiet” by Tracy Stewart, in which Maggie, who is often picked last in gym class, volunteers to be a team captain. The questions provided with this paired text suggestion ask students to analyze how Ally’s and Maggie’s actions over the course of the texts show how they change. Pairing Fish in a Tree and “The Champion of Quiet” provides students with a great opportunity to make cross-textual connections by comparing character development.

Synthesizing Learning and Explaining Relevant Evidence

After they finish reading Fish in a Tree, students will likely have a lot of ideas about the main themes, including perseverance, disability, and different kinds of strengths. Help students synthesize their learning and explain their thinking with evidence by reading “What a Pro Knows: Playing to Win” by Christine Louise Hohlbaum. This informational text describes the obstacles Tamika Catchings faced as a partially-deaf professional basketball player and how she overcame them. The cross-textual questions ask students to compare Ally’s and Tamika’s experiences with relevant evidence from both texts. Identifying and explaining evidence about themes is a critical standard for elementary students, and using paired texts to support this skill is a great way to build student engagement.

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

Next Steps

We hope you love our Book Pairings for 3rd-5th grade! Check out our full list of elementary Book Pairings:

Fish in a Tree by Linda Mullaley Hunt

The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

Frindle by Andrew Clements

My Name is María Isabel by Alma Flor Ada

Indian Shoes by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Dolphin Tale: The Junior Novel by Gabrielle Reyes

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

The BFG by Roald Dahl

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Stuart Little by E. B. White

Charlotte's Web by E. B. White

Love That Dog by Sharon Creech


If you would like to learn more about CommonLit’s full digital literacy program, join one of our upcoming webinars!