As last week was the end of school, I began Monday by letting my students know that I had one final task that I wanted them to complete. Once the collective chorus of groans subsided and the last “Why do we have to do work the last week of school?” had been uttered, I explained to each of my classes their assignment: choose your favorite independent reading book from this year and provide a synopsis of the plot, major characters, theme(s) and your recommendation in the form of a song, rap, poster or brochure. Despite their initial complaining about the fact that they still had to perform school work, I KNEW that my students would thoroughly enjoy this assignment. As soon as I finished explaining the task and answering any follow-up questions, pencils immediately found their way to paper as they quickly became engrossed in how they wanted to present their favorite book of the year to their peers.
The finished projects formed a sea of colorful representations of some of the more popular books that they had read this year. They demonstrated the connection that my students had formed with the characters and themes within the various novels. As teachers, we experience a lot of immeasurable moments that remind us why we come into our schools and do what we do each and every day. THIS was one of those moments. We were a culture of readers. This is what I wanted us to be from the start, and here we were at the very end of the year fulfilling that aspiration.
But how did we get to this point? How did a group of students – over 70% of whom entered my class reading below grade level – develop more than just a reading habit, but a passion for reading?
This year marked my third consecutive year of using choice reading in the classroom on a daily basis. I read Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller several years ago, and that book inspired me to shift how my students read in my 7th grade English Language Arts classroom. I’ve taken what Miller did and adjusted it to meet the needs of my students. Below is a blueprint of how I set up the choice reading program in my classroom this year:
Cultivate your classroom library
As a Language Arts teacher, my classroom library speaks volumes. It communicates to my students from the moment they first set foot in my room how much I value literacy. A teacher’s classroom library should be full of engaging and diverse texts that represent the students in that room. Not only should students be presented with a wide array of choices within this library, but they should be able to see themselves in the characters and authors of these books. Teachers should take tremendous pride in their classroom libraries as they are essentially an extension of themselves.
Create a culture of reading
I read to my students every day for the first two weeks of school. Just to be clear, we regularly perform read alouds in my classroom throughout the year, where I am reading from our class novel out loud while my students follow along in their own texts. However, at the start of school, I read TO them. Each day, I pick a new novel, or one that was popular amongst students the previous year, and I perform a dramatic reading of the first chapter. All that I ask is that my students listen attentively. If you want to see a group of 7th graders revert back to their elementary school selves, read to them. They absolutely love it. Whenever I stop reading, I’m usually met with groans and “keep going”s. I generally have anywhere from three to four hands shoot up after each reading because students want to know if I have extra copies of that book. This experience of reading to my students helps to set the tone from the start of the year that in this class we are to going to read and celebrate reading on a daily basis.
Give the kids time to read
Our students are incredibly perceptive people. They are adept at reading their teacher’s verbal and nonverbal cues, and they can pick up on what their teachers consider to be valuable and worthy of instructional time. As Language Arts teachers, it is essential that we block out time in our classes for our students to read books of their own choice. If we want them to read and learn to explore different genres of books, then we have to provide them with the opportunity to do so. The previous two years, I usually set aside two to three work sessions (15 to 20 minute periods) a week which were dedicated to allowing students to read from their independent reading books.
However, this year I tried something different; all of my Language Arts classes started with 10 minutes of choice reading. After a year of trying this method, I cannot imagine I will ever have them read independently any other way. It’s an incredibly simple, yet meaningful, way for my students to start class, and it’s totally student-led as they are reading from something that they have selected for themselves. Plus, reading everyday not only helps our students to build up a reading habit, but it allows them to truly become invested in their books, which increases the likelihood of them reading those books to completion. I honestly believe my students read more this year than any year prior to it, and I attribute a lot of that to the “First 10 minutes” shift.
Conference with kids regularly
While my students are reading, I generally move around the room and try to talk with two to three students a period about the books that they are reading. I generally start with a simple question like, “How’s this book going?”, and then I will follow up with “What do you like about it?” I will ask another follow-up question based upon their response to my second question, and I may solicit a prediction as to what they think will happen next. And that’s usually it. The entire conference lasts for 3 to 4 minutes, tops. However, this quick check-in not only allows me to track my students’ progress through their books, but it helps me to gauge their level of engagement in what they are reading. Also, I gain valuable insight into the genre of books that a student prefers, which makes it easy for me to recommend another book to that student.
Celebrate when they finish a book
Whenever one of my students finishes a book or graphic novel, I generally call home to let a parent or grandparent know how proud I am of this accomplishment. For many of my students, finishing a 100- to 200-something page book on their own is something they have never done before. Getting students to see themselves as readers is paramount for me, so when they complete a novel, I want to not only communicate that to the student, but I want to make his or her family aware of how important this is as well. Sometimes I will get my principal to make “shout outs” over the announcements when several students finish books around the same time. If I have multiple students reading the same book across multiple classes, I will bring them together for a lunch period and order some pizzas so that we can enjoy talking about that book in a “book club” type atmosphere.
Today’s students don’t just need the time to read independently, they deserve it. Choice reading programs help teachers and students to break down the barriers to literacy that many of our kids face.