This year my priority is to encourage independent reading. We teachers can give students all the reading strategies, writing structures, and grammar rules we want, but aren’t students best served if we help them embark upon (or continue) a lifetime journey as readers?
Many of us have good intentions when we give up on independent reading programs. After all, we have so much to teach and not enough time to do it. I live that feeling every day. Still, I worry that we end up inadvertently teaching reading as test prep or reading as a way to find the answers to teacher-formulated questions. Reading as something done for school and that’s it. What if we turn off a whole generation of readers? I would rather quit right now.
As mentioned in previous posts, I was inspired by Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer and Penny Kittle’s Book Love. Also, Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide. These smart books gave me the research, the rationale, and the kick I needed to reinvigorate my reading program. After reading them, I felt I could no longer get away with simply telling my students reading is important. I needed to support them in real ways, even if it meant giving time to read in class and doing away with some of my precious time for direct instruction.
It’s been almost four months since the switch and I’m pleased with some of the successes I’ve had. There is no quick fix and not every student is reading as much as I’d like, but…it’s a go. Here are three strategies that have worked for me this year:
1) Give students time to read in class, even the “advanced” students. At my school, we don’t have extra time for reading break, so I have to sacrifice some of my regular class time for reading. We have 50-minute periods, and I start Monday, Wednesday, and Friday’s classes with 10 – 15 minutes of reading time. Yes, I know that is a lot of time, but it is critical. First, I am demonstrating to students that reading is important. I am reading with them, conferencing with them, and checking to make sure that everyone has a book. I am modeling what a reading life looks like. Honors students need this class time too, even though many already describe themselves as readers. They love talking to each other about books and the in-class reading time gives students a chance to decompress and refocus on the discipline of English. Sometimes they even beg me for more time to read.
2) Make the time for book chats. Tim Dewar, the director of The South Coast Writing Project, gave me the idea to change the name from the too-formal-sounding book conferences to the friendlier “book chats” label. Here’s what I do in my classroom: After I modeling reading with students for a few weeks, I start calling individual students to my desk for book chats. I think of them as informal checkups to see how a student’s reading life is progressing. I talk with each student for about 2 or 3 minutes, asking them questions from Penny Kittle’s Book Love. I find myself using these questions the most:
- What are you reading and how did you choose your book?
- What is on your “Next Reads” list?
- Do you find this book easy or challenging? How can you tell?
- Tell me about the characters. What are they like?
- (For more advanced students) What questions about life does this book address? What questions do you think the author is thinking about?
I change the questions depending on what I feel that student needs to talk about. Penny Kittle publishes a great list of questions to ask students during book chats. You can find that list here: Penny Kittle—Handouts
One unexpected bonus of this practice is that I have formed stronger relationships with students than usual. Because I am taking time to talk to students one on one and to listen to what they have to say, I am signaling to them that I care. The book chats are non-evaluative. I’m showing students that I am truly there to help them be better readers and learners, not to sit in judgment.
3) Keep Finding Ways for Students to Share Books With Each Other. Foster that Community of Reading. I have been experimenting with this part in two ways:
- Book Talks: Students give informal 30-second book talks on most days. This has been rather hit or miss because some students are very good at explaining why they like or do not like a book. Others fall into plot summary and need support in public speaking skills. However, isn’t that why I’m there? Those are skills I can help students learn. During the book talks, the student audience turns to the “My Next Reads” section of their notebooks to jot down any titles that may interest them.
- Digital Book Reviews: This is still a work in progress, but I created a Google Form for students to write short reviews based on books they read. Next, I publish the reviews in the form of a Google Spreadsheet. This isn’t the most visually appealing way to do it, but it is very easy for me because that’s how the results are published by Google anyway. Once I set up the spreadsheet to be published, all I have to do is cut and paste the reviews students checked for publication. In a perfect world, I would require the digital reviews, but currently students don’t have enough access to technology for me to mandate using it for this purpose. So, for now, some students choose to write their book reviews on paper, and some are using the Google Form.
Here is is a copy of the Google Form Book Review. Click here to open in a new window.
Here is what the published student responses end up looking like: