First, a love letter to reading:
I have always been in love with you. Ever since I was little, I loved everything that had to do with you — looking at colorful covers, opening brand-new books for the first time, cuddling under the covers, rereading pages over and over, going to the library, smelling the inside of the books (yasss!), and getting to know stories and learning about new things.
You sustained me through spurts of boredom, fights with friends, breakups with boyfriends. I could always pick up a book and escape whatever hurt I was feeling. You helped me get through high school and college and beyond. Now I turn to you whenever I need advice on how to raise my boys, or want to improve my classroom. You are there when I need to relax and have some alone time.
So thank you, for helping me to be the best version of me I can be. I owe so much of myself to you.
Ok, back to teacher shop talk.
Sometime last year, I had the realization that I was neglecting my students’ reading lives. I had been so focused on their writing that I had kind of forgotten the old wisdom that reading and writing go hand in hand. Not that my students weren’t reading, or having good discussions about stories, or analyzing text, or just generally being literary. But my room was not a place where people were writing love letters to reading, you know? And I don’t think they knew how much I absolutely love reading — I was treating it more as a means to an end.
Independent reading should be the lifeblood of an ELA classroom. If kids are reading on their own, and are excited about it, there are so many issues that get solved on both micro and macro levels. But how to get there?
I started researching independent reading tips, and came across Donalyn Miller, a language arts teacher who has written Reading in the Wild and The Book Whisperer. Her books gave me so many ideas and inspired a whole bunch of changes in my classroom, all of which have been for the better. Now that I’ve gone through a quarter of living this out, I thought I would share what I’ve been implementing that seems to be working:
1. Read Alouds
I actually started doing read alouds last year (and talked about them in this post), but I have continued this year and have found more of a rhythm with it. Read alouds can be something that is very easy to put off because it seems like there isn’t enough time for it. However, I strongly believe it is an activity that is necessary for inspiring love of reading and building classroom community, and should be a top priority for ELA teachers. The following things have helped me this year:
- Choose a book that none (or almost none) of the kids have read, and probably would not read unless you read it to them.
- Choose a book that has an especially interesting voice — like the author uses humor, or different slang from present day. The kids love listening to teachers do voices that are different from their usual. (Right now I’m reading The Outsiders, last year I read Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie.)
- Read as often as possible, even if it’s just a couple pages. Last year, I used to feel like if I couldn’t get a chapter or sizable chunk in, or if I couldn’t stop at a “natural” place, I shouldn’t read. That’s not true. Every bit counts. If you stop in the middle of something random, that just heightens the suspense!
- Do not tie any kind of academic work to it. Read alouds should be a time for students to relax. Also, it would be a pain to have to catch up absent students if they missed a reading. Sometimes I’ll tell them in general what happened, but I don’t have to worry about details.
- I allow students to do work quietly or organize their papers while I’m reading, if they so choose. I know there’s a lot of research against multi-tasking, but I think it’s fine to do quiet things while listening. Again, I want the time to be as relaxing as possible. A lot of the time, students choose to just sit and listen anyway.
2. Book Recommendations
It’s important for ELA teachers to be “experts” at reading and show their own love of reading, getting students pumped with books they’re excited about. I didn’t always make a point of doing this, but now I try to make recommendations with the whole class and individual students on a regular basis.
I don’t get to read during the year as much as I’d like, but over the summer, I tried to read as many current titles as I could because I know when it comes to making recommendations, I usually draw from what I know.
Even when I haven’t read a book, I’ve found that just holding up a book and commenting on the cover or reading the back is often enough to get some takers.
If students are reading a book that’s on my “to read” list, or I know that a lot of people are interested in the book, I will ask them to make sure and tell me how it is, and I can use their recommendation for others until I get to read it.
3. Building Up a Classroom Library
I inherited a few books when I moved to my present school, and I added books that I had growing up, and then other than a few gifts here and there, my classroom library basically sat stagnant for about four years.
Then my sister donated a ton of books over the summer, I culled my home library again, and I invested in a few newer or quality titles from Amazon, and a bunch of cheaper books from garage/yard sales. Now my library has more than doubled in size. The other middle school ELA teachers and I also requested some magazines for our classroom.
The more reading options in a classroom, the better. Money, of course, is the greatest limiting factor in this. I think it’s possible to get older books for free or very cheaply, but keeping up with newer and popular books is tough. I think it’s worth me spending my own money, and that is definitely not something I say lightly — but I make sure to choose books that I think will last for a long time in terms of interest level. I could ALWAYS use extra money for books.
4. Independent Reading Assessments
My school uses Accelerated Reader, which is very motivating for many students. If you are not familiar, it is a program where students take quizzes on books they’ve read, and then are awarded with a certain number of points based on the book level. Students have a certain point goal they must achieve each quarter.
I am a person who would have been motivated by Accelerated Reader as a student, because I like to read and tend to be pretty competitive with myself. It’s also a very orderly and predictable program, which is great for students who need more structure.
However, just like there is no one book or genre that fits everybody, there is also not one type of reading assessment that fits everybody, either. This year, in addition to AR, I was able to add the following options of how students can show they’ve read during the quarter:
- Book Talks (also called Book Commercials) — Students talk to the class about a book they’ve read, using guidelines I’ve given them.
- Book Reviews — Students post on a public forum (Google Classroom, Amazon, or Goodreads) using the same guidelines as the book talk, except they need to have people comment on their review and have general attention to proper grammar and writing.
- Your Choice — The sky is the limit here! I knew this would not be a very popular option in the beginning of the year, but I have already had students who did artistic representations of their book, a fashion slide show, an essay about the importance of setting, and One-Pagers. This quarter, the students are making soundtracks for the play version of The Diary of Anne Frank, so I will suggest that as another option, too.
5. Talk about Authors as Real People
My classroom is arranged in small groups, and I named each one after an author whose work we are going to read this year. That way, the students hear the authors’ names over and over.
We always read authors’ background info, and in the book talks and book reviews, I ask students to think about questions they would ask the author of their book, and how they might answer.
During discussions, I always make sure to point out authors’ style and techniques, and ask students why they think an author did something, or if they like their writing or not. I often take mentor sentences from the works we read in class.
When we have authors enter into our classroom as mentors and fellow human beings, the classroom environment will be much richer and then reading and writing will be much more inspiring yet approachable — and real.
If I did not have teacher aides and resource teachers helping me with conferences, I think I would be struggling mightily with this element, but luckily I do, and this is probably the single best thing that’s happened to my independent readers this year. It is so necessary and helpful to be able to check in with each student on a consistent and meaningful basis, and now that I’ve experienced it, I hope I would prioritize conferencing even if I didn’t have as much help.
I have almost 90 students, and I have to conference with them about their writing as well, so the ideal for me would be about three times a quarter for reading. I think this first quarter, it ended up being two times for everybody, three for some if I had concerns or needed to follow up on something.
It has been fun really getting to know my students as readers, and as a side effect, getting to see what else they’re interested in, how they think, and what makes them tick.
Ok, that ended up being a lot longer than I thought it was going to be. I am just SO EXCITED about independent reading in my classroom this year, and hope that if you are on the fence about any of the above, this post might help you make the jump into — reading aloud, conferencing, or reading books by Donalyn Miller.
Ultimately, I want my students to be able to write their own love letters for reading.
What are ways you get your students excited about reading?