Let them Read: Nurturing the Reading Lives of Our Students

I would say that there was a 5-6 year period during my teaching career where my students only read (or fake read) one novel a semester. We read a lot of other things: poems, articles, short stories, etc. However, I didn’t emphasize independent reading as much as I should have. I let other things distract me, but the truth remains. The only way to get better at reading is to read.

I see now that the lack of independent reading in my classes was really as a result of my low expectations. I believed my students were too tired, too busy, too stressed, too involved with their technology, too disengaged to read on their own. I try to be honest on this blog because I think exposing my misconceptions will help others reflect on their own, so I’ll share the worst of my faulty thinking. I believed that many of my students were too weak to read independently, and I didn’t think that I could get them interested in a book. For someone who loves books with a passion, I didn’t have enough faith in their power to engage.

Teachers do have the power to turn students into readers. I’ve seen it happen before my eyes- with students I doubted, with students who struggle to read, with students who told me that they “hate reading.” We can do it, but it is a lot of hard work and persistence.

Below you will find the strategies and techniques to encourage and develop the reading life of your students. I have curated this list from books, articles, and the teachers who invite me into their classrooms. I know this list is not exhaustive, so feel free to add your strategies in the comments. The number one resource I recommend for learning more about how to encourage/expect/demand that students read is Penny Kittle’s Book Love. This book brought about a dramatic shift in my practice and teaching philosophy. You will notice that I reference Kittle a lot throughout the recommendations below.

Don’t Make Students Write Every Time they Read.

I know this isn’t really a strategy, but it is the number one piece of advice I’ve come across when talking to teachers of successful independent reading programs. Think about your own reading life. How much would you read if you had to record every connection you made while reading, or if you had to stop after every 20 minutes of reading and write a summary? I guarantee that I would abandon my reading and watch Netflix instead. This is not to say that students shouldn’t write about their independent reading, but writing should not be the sole purpose of reading.

Book Talks

Many readers select their reading based on the recommendations of others. Personally, I’m an avid Goodreads user, and I take contests like Canada Reads very seriously (and sometimes a little too personally). Emerging readers have not developed these strategies to find books. They’ve often had the experience where their teacher takes them to the library and tells them to pick a book. They wander until their time is up at which point they snatch the book closest to them and then pretend to read for the next two weeks until they return to the library to start the cycle all over again.In a book talk the presenter (teacher/student/community member) gives a 2 min talk in which they explain the basic premise of the book and do one of the following:

  • Read a Passage.
  • Set the context for the book.
  • Talk about the main character.
  • End your talk by sharing your impression of the book as a whole.

Rules of Book Talk:

  • No Spoilers.
  • Only talk about books you’ve read.
  • Only talk about books you love.
  • Do it every day! Or at least routinely

Reading Lists
Students need to set goals for their reading, and reflect on the variety of books in their reading lives. Reading trackers are not reading journals. They are simply a place for students to set goals and later share those goals with their teacher during a reading conference. Try these reading trackers created by Stephanie Rotkas: Student Reading, Classroom Reading.

Students should also keep two different lists in their notebooks. They should keep a list of books they’ve read so that they can reflect on them at different points in the semester. They should also keep a “read next” list, so they never have to wander the library for 30-minutes library again! (Unless of course, they are wandering to add to their “read next” list!)

Reading Conferences

I try to have reading conferences with 3-4 students a week. Check out Penny Kittle ’s list of questions that you could ask readers at different stages. The list also includes a transcript of a reading conference with a student. 

Student Recommendations Shelf
Keep a shelf in your room reserved for student recommendations. Students will listen to their peers. Penny Kittle has students actually write recommendations for the book inside the front pages of the book itself!

During Independent Reading, Students Read What They Like
I had a student ask me if they could read a Manga novel the other day and I hesitated. Does Manga “count”?  It does.  It is where the student is at right now. Once he has enjoyed a couple of those, I may introduce him to some graphic novels that will expose him to the different genres within the graphic novel form. Think of a reading life as a roller coaster full of dips and heights. Students may try something complex and then return to something with less complexity. Our reading lives are not a permanent hike up a mountain where we increasingly read more complicated books until we conquer a “worthy” piece of literature.

Book Series

When trying to connect a reader to a book, consider recommending a series of books. Students become fans of a series are more likely to sustain their reading.Check out Goodreads list of YA Series here.

Teacher Reading

Encourage your colleagues to share what they are reading outside their classroom doors.Consider displaying three books at all times in your classroom: the book you just read, the book you are currently reading, and the book you will read next. Start a faculty book club and announce those meetings for the whole school to hear. Students need to see all the adults in their lives reading.

Reading Reflections

At a couple of points during the semester, stop and have your students reflect on their reading.First, have them rank the books they have read in order of complexity. Have them explain their thinking behind the ranking of their reading.Second, have them reflect on their growth as readers through an analysis of their reading. Take a look at Kittle’s analysis of her reading as an example.

Spine Poetry

Make poetry with books! This gives the library wander a purpose, and you never know what they will discover. You can find the process for spine poetry here.

Happy Reading!

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