By Morgan Taylor

One of the questions I am asked most at every Back to School Night and parent-teacher conference is, “My kid doesn’t like to read, what should I do?” While I feel that this is a multifaceted question that requires both the parents and teachers to work together to create an environment of positive experiences around reading, when asked that question, the parent is asking us, as teachers, for help. It is then up to us to shoulder a bit more to help the student get to a place of reading for fun, so that the parent can then facilitate that as well.

A few years back, I remember asking students how much they read outside of my classroom, and the answers ranged from zero minutes to many hours—it honestly depends on the kid! I understood then that it became my responsibility to incorporate more independent reading time in my classroom.

I sought to give reading opportunities to those students who were more focused on gaming, family, athletics, or other interests in their time after school. If at the very least, I could offer those kids one class period per week to read whatever they wanted and throw in some flexible seating, maybe I could have a positive impact on at least one student to become a reader.

As Malala Yousafzai once said, “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world,” and the more opportunities we give children to read, the more we can open their eyes to that wealth of possibility.

Setting a purpose

The problem here then becomes the age-old debate in schools, “But how do we hold the students accountable?”

Sometimes English teachers get a bad rap when someone walks past the classroom and sees 25 students silently sprawled across the room, noses in a book. “But then what is that teacher even teaching?” becomes the question. The answer is that reading is the essence of learning.

When we are teaching a love for reading, we are simultaneously teaching vocabulary, empathy, culture and more. Kids look for themselves in their reading, especially at the pivotal middle school age.

Renowned author Toni Morrison discussed the impact of reading and writing in her essay, “Memory, Creation, and Writing. She explained that literature is significant for students for a number of reasons, including “…that of being in the company of his own solitary imagination.”. As teachers and facilitators of learning, it is our responsibility to make sure that we allow students to be their imaginative selves.

It is important for educators to not conform to a type of schooling, but rather embrace student thinking and use creative measures to teach concepts and skills to help them grow into imaginative adults. Once you can see past the structured lesson that is centered on the teacher and can grasp the benefits of setting aside one class period for the greater good of the student as a whole, you’ll see the impact it will make on the learners in your classroom.

Accountability

In having a discussion of these issues with my supervisor, we devised an idea that allowed a release of control that also facilitated a semblance of accountability.

As most schools require, each day the teacher sets a purpose for learning; this may be in the form of a WALT (we are learning to) or SWBAT (students will be able to) or whatever other framework your objective takes. The goal of the class is by the end of the lesson and/or unit, the student can achieve that objective, through a culminating activity or test.

But what if we could do micro forms of that for independent reading? What if as the students read, they thought about all they had learned in that week and were able to apply that knowledge and make an independent connection to their chosen novel?

Framework

To give a bit of background, what follows is by no means the only way in which this should be done, but merely how I do this in my classroom. I set aside one Friday class period per week for independent reading exclusively. Even if there is a change in the weekly schedule that will have an impact on independent reading on Fridays, I prioritize this hour of reading and include it in the schedule regardless.

It is important for my students to see their independent reading period as just as important as any other class lesson. Having it fall by the wayside because we ran out of time in class sends the wrong message. For our reading period being on Fridays, my students would enter the classroom, find a comfy spot, and begin reading without any teacher direction.

Their only written task for the day was assigned at the end of class. Before they left, they had to fill out a quick Google Form. I’m fortunate that we have a device for every student, but this can be accomplished in a notebook, exit slip, or other format.

On the Google Form, I asked questions such as “What book are you reading?” “What is the author’s name?” and other similar basic questions. I also asked, “What pages did you read?” but it was not for me to count. Rather, the students used this as a virtual bookmark, so the following week they could look to see where they left off, since tangible bookmarks are apparently now a thing of the past. (I altered form settings so upon submission the student received a copy of what their responses were.)

Finally, I provide students three open-ended questions. The first was always the same: choose a signpost to respond to about their reading. Signposts come from Kylene Beers Notice and Note strategies. Signposts alert readers to significant moments based upon literary patterns in a text that encourage a closer read. The signposts are: 

  • Contrast and contradiction
  • Words of the wiser
  • Aha! moment
  • Again and again
  • Memory moment
  • Tough questions

The other two open-ended questions changed week to week and related to what we were learning in class. For instance, if we were doing a vocabulary study that week, one question may be “rewrite two sentences in your novel using one of our new vocabulary words” or if we were learning about characterization, a question may be “create a STEAL (Speech, Thoughts, Effects, Actions, Looks) chart for a character in your story.”

Here’s the most important piece: the students only respond to ONE open-ended question. They decide. This is to stress that the primary time in class should be spent on reading, not filling out Google Forms. Completing just one response gave me more than enough information. I could see their close reading skills, reinforce class objectives, and connect with students to see what they were reading.

We devised an idea that allowed a release of control that also facilitated a semblance of accountability.

Data-driven

This data afforded me multiple opportunities to assess student progress. I was able to look at the following things in just that one response:

  • The types of books the student chose to read: patterns in genre, author, etc.)
  • If they understood the course materials this week: Were they using the vocabulary correctly? Did they understand traits versus emotions for characters?
  • How “deeply” they were understanding the text by means of making connections to themselves and their world.

Using the Google Sheets extension FormMule, I used the data gleaned from the students’ response and wrote each student personal feedback about the above. Much of my feedback opened a dialogue about the books they were reading and talking about the connections they made to lessons in class.

FormMule allowed me to send a personal email to each student with my feedback, and I labeled the email the same heading as the form, so they could easily match the two. This was necessary because they automatically received a copy of their form submissions.

In lieu of technology, this can be accomplished through writing on the back of a notecard or in a reading journal. By having my feedback focus on connection, and by sharing my experiences with a novel, it becomes more of a conversation with the student than an assignment with a grade. This promotes engaged readers.

Student choice

One of the biggest challenges here is to be completely hands-off as the students read. Allow them to choose their novels. Some students will read graphic novels such as Manga, some will read chapter books, and some will walk in with magazines. The biggest mistake we as teachers can make is to regulate student reading choice, as children’s book writer and professor Michael Tunnell notes in the introduction to the textbook Children’s Literature Briefly, “When we already have an interest in what we read, engaged reading comes naturally.”

That is also why there is a choice of varied questions in the response options, so that no matter what students have chosen to read, they can find a connection to make and share.

Now of course, I have a list of “Ms. Taylor’s favorite novels” broken down by genre to share with the students, but I have also been blessed with donations to my classroom library and have stumbled across a few good Scholastic warehouse sales.

Tunnell later goes on to state that problematic learning “comes when students are given a good story to read but the primary goal is not involvement with that story…” That is why the key here is having open-ended questions meant to be answered in brief responses that should reaffirm learning and allow for a sharing of ideas.

I am sure many of us have found after reading something truly interesting, the first thing we want to do is to talk with someone about it! This ties in with natural reading as well. It is hard not to be dismayed when a student chooses a graphic novel or even a magazine as their choice of reading for the week, but as Daniel Willingham notes, “reading attitudes are emotional.” In the modern age, as we have read from educator greats such as Gloria Ladson Billings, to be culturally responsive is to understand that literature is no longer a canon—it involves tweets and micro-texts. So, the question becomes: would you rather a nonreader or a student who is reading a different type of text?

Teacher role

It goes without saying that the most significant thing you can do as a teacher is to model those kinds of positive reading behaviors and conversations. I think the read-aloud should not be exclusive to the younger grades. At a few points during the year I have peppered in read-alouds.

For example, I have read aloud What Do You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamada before our passion project unit or the ever-classic The Lorax when teaching symbolism. Seventh-grade students are just as excited as those in younger grades. When driving home a point, it is easier for students to grasp the concept of metacognition through teacher example than by teacher explanation.

“Independent reading time and teacher read-alouds made [students] want to read more,” write Douglas Fisher, James Flood, Diane Lapp and Nancy Frey in “Interactive read-alouds: Is there a common set of implementation practices?” that they penned for The Reading Teacher.

By doing small read-alouds with texts we can model the thinking we want our students to have as they independently read. Are they making connections? Are they inferring the meaning of unknown vocabulary words? Are they understanding the different symbols and motifs in a text? When we model this aloud for our kids, we are showing them how to immerse themselves in reading.

If you want to go the extra mile, your students should see YOU reading during the allotted independent reading time. As a coach, you don’t just tell the player, “When you step up to the plate, widen your stance, bend your front knee and load with your hips.” You demonstrate and show. The same practices should work for readers.

If we want the students to come in and be excited to read, then we should be too. We should allow ourselves to get comfy—our desk isn’t that comfy a space—and show ourselves to be engaged readers. Park yourself on the floor, for example. Open up a book and show your students that it is okay to relax and read, show them that reading transcends age as a timeless activity both students, teachers, and all adults can take part in.

References

The author relied on the following to develop her classroom practices around independent reading and in drafting this article. If you wish to learn more about how to access these resources, email Morgan Taylor at mpt2136@tc.columbia.edu.

Fisher, D., Flood, J., Lapp, D., and Frey, N. (2004). Interactive read-alouds: Is there a common set of implementation practices? The Reading Teacher, 58(1), 8-17.

Morrison, Toni (1984). Memory, Creation, and Writing. Thought: Fordham University Quarterly 59 (4):385-390.

Tunnell, M.O., Jacobs, J.S, Young, T, & Bryan, G. (2015). Why read? Children’s Literature Briefly (6th ed.) (pp. 1-8). Columbus, OH: Pearson Education/Merrill.

Willingham, D. (2017). Becoming a reader. The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads (pp. 135-158). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Morgan Taylor is an English language arts teacher at Woodrow Wilson Middle School in Edison Township. Taylor is working toward her master’s degree in the teaching of English at Teachers College, Columbia University. She can be reached at mpt2136@tc.columbia.edu.

 

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