After a few years, I was able to get the whole class to be silent during the reading period, but I realized that not all of the students were actually reading—and that my reading program was anything but a success.
A few summers ago, I read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, and it made me rethink everything I did when it came to choice reading. Now, not only do I have far fewer students “fake reading” but I’ve had several students tell me that they’ve read their first book ever by themselves in my class.
While I’m still constantly on the lookout for better ways to help my students find books they love and develop a habit of reading, I’ve put together a toolbox of concrete ways to make choice reading work in my class.
5 TIPS TO GET STUDENTS REALLY READING
1. Make time for what’s important: One crucial understanding I gleaned from Miller is that real readers read every day. Of course I knew this from my own reading life, but somehow I had failed to realize that I was ignoring this essential fact when it came to my students. I meet with my students for 54 minutes every day, and every last second of instructional time is precious. But making the decision to give my students 10 to 15 minutes a day to read choice books was easy once I thought about my priorities for learning.
Without a love of reading and the opportunity to practice reading skills, nothing else in my curriculum matters, and choice reading every day is one of the most effective ways I’ve found to support students in developing these skills.
2. Give students ready access to books: There’s something powerful about having a good book immediately available to hand a student. I’m constantly on the lookout for books from yard sales, thrift stores, used bookstores, and student donations, but last year I discovered DonorsChoose.org, and it has vastly improved the health and appeal of my classroom collection of books.
I asked my students to list books they’d like to read on my classroom whiteboard and tapped into the young adult book recommendations of my teacher friends on social media. In less than half an hour, I set up a DonorsChoose project, and with a little bit of social media sharing and the help of some generous donors, I had boxes of crisp, new books for my students to open with great anticipation.
3. Make reading visible: Students don’t always see the reading that’s going on all around them, so I’ve made it my mission this year to make reading more immediately visible.
At the back of my room, there’s a whiteboard labeled “Books We’ve Read” that’s divided into four sections. There’s one each for the three periods of sophomores I teach, and one for the teachers—me, my student teacher, and the resource teacher who assists in one of my classes. Everyone adds the titles of books as they finish them.
Recently, a student from one of my two sections of AP English asked me why their class wasn’t up on the board. These more advanced classes don’t have as many struggling readers as my sophomore classes, but it’s just as important to celebrate reading with them, so I’ll be adding two more sections to my board.
At the start of each month, I take a picture of the previous month’s books and then clear the board to begin again. Students are getting a little competitive—even though I’ve told them we all win in this scenario—and they’re very interested in what my co-teachers and I are reading.
They’re also fascinated with a bulletin board in my room covered in pictures of educators on our campus holding some of their favorite books, from the shop teacher with his copy of Catcher in the Rye to the vice principal holding Stephen King’s Christine.
4. Talk about books: Another way to make students aware of the reading all around them is to talk about it in the classroom. In addition to regular book talks, I make it a habit every day to ask the class, “How many people finished a book last night?” and “How many people read their choice books yesterday?” Although I know this isn’t a scientific measure of growth in my classroom, it does give students a quick, daily opportunity to see the reading happening among their classmates, and it’s a reminder of how much we value reading.
I’ve also started conferencing individually with students about their reading. Before we start our daily reading, I ask students to tell me what page they’re on in their book. Since I write this down each day, I can quickly assess which students may want to discuss a book they’ve just finished and which students aren’t making much progress in their reading—we’ll discuss their thinking about their book, and if necessary I can suggest another that might better engage them.
I meet with approximately two to four students per day during our reading time. These discussions not only help students enjoy their reading more but also help me develop stronger relationships with them.
5. Be patient and relentless: The most valuable realization I’ve had in this decades-long endeavor to help my students learn to love reading is to just keep trying. There are so many brilliant teachers out there with so many good ideas for making things better in our classrooms, and if we stay connected and keep suggesting new books, talking about books, and trying different techniques—both new and old—our students will respond.