Making independent reading a priority in the classroom

“This is your child’s lexile score. We’d like for them to be at this level by the end of the year. Make sure your child is reading for 20 to 30 minutes every night because that will help them improve their reading scores.”

I recited the aforementioned phrases to the parents, grandparents and guardians of every student that was in my homeroom during my first year of middle school Parent-Teacher conferences. As any teacher (or parent for that matter) knows, these biyearly conferences are primarily an opportunity for the school to pass along a plethora of documents regarding district initiatives, state testing and report cards, with a small window of time also set aside to discuss a child’s academic and behavioral progress. My three-sentence platitude about the importance of a child reading on their own each night was a blip on the radar of the overall meeting.

I discovered during that first year that telling my students about the importance of reading on a daily basis at home had about as much effect as if I were encouraging them to eat 4 servings of vegetables. The school where I work serves a student body in which over 92% of the population qualifies for free and reduced lunch. In many of my students’ homes, there isn’t extra money lying around to purchase books; a lot of kids do not have access to reliable transportation that could get them to the local library. I teach in a small college town with a population of about 150,000 people, and yet most of my students have never been to our county’s wonderful public library merely because it is located a little over 5 miles from where they live.

After reading Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer two years ago, I set out to create a culture of independent reading within my classroom. The first step for me was to develop an extensive and diverse classroom library. Once the books were in place, I had to figure out how to get my students to buy in to the idea of independent reading being a significant component of our time together. Here is how I prioritize independent reading in my classroom:

Build time into the week for independent reading

If I’m going to preach the values of reading independently to my students and actually mean it, then as the leader of the classroom I’ve got to walk the walk. When it comes to classroom expectations, no slogan could be more appropriate than “actions speak louder than words”. Unless we are engaged in a writer’s workshop or state-mandated standardized testing, my students have two to three days in which they get 20 to 25 minutes of unencumbered independent reading time with books of their own choosing. They are always focusing on a skill from the mini lesson (characterization, theme, identifying conflicts) and I typically have one-on-one discussions with each student as they read, but during this time they are sprawled out on the floor, under desks or up against the wall getting lost in their novels. Students are far better at making inferences than we sometimes give them credit. If you want the kids to read more, make it a priority in your classroom by setting aside dedicated instruction time for them to do so. Believe me, if you value this time, they will too.

Talk about books

This advice may seem simple, but it’s incredibly important to establishing a reading culture in the classroom. I give book talks to students at the beginning of the year to make them familiar with some of the more popular titles from a year ago so as to help guide them in their reading selections. I also read alongside them one day a week in order to model, and I always talk to my students about whatever book I am reading at the time. And guess what? They love it! I personally read The Girl on the Train this year, and several of my students in my 3rd period became so engrossed by the plot line that they were heartbroken to learn that our school library didn’t carry the title (truth: I dissuaded them from pursuing this book until they discussed its appropriateness with their parents). As students progress throughout the year and they become more confident as readers, these book club-esque discussions will start happening organically outside of class. I had several students in my homeroom this year that immediately retold to me significant events from what they had read out of their books the night before as soon as they walked into my room in the morning. Some of my students would discuss what they were reading with classmates at lunch, especially if they had both read the same novel. As teachers, we must afford students with the time to read on their own; but equally as important, we have to get them talking about what they are reading as well because that’s such an important part of the entire literary experience.

Celebrate their reading achievements

Whenever one of my students finishes a book, I always email our principal and ask her to include a special “shout out” to that student during either the morning or afternoon announcements. Middle schoolers are fickle young people whose moods can shift on a dime, but they love positive praise, even if they may not openly admit it. The announcements always include the title of the book along with the page count, just to highlight the weightiness of the achievement. Kymora, a student in my 1st period this year, beamed with pride as she heard the principal proclaiming how she had read all 336 pages of Copper Sun by Sharon Draper. Completing a book is a huge accomplishment for a student, and it should be treated as such. I try to call home and let a parent or guardian know about the feat as well in the hopes that it might spark up a book discussion within the family. Making a big deal out of students’ independent reading progress reminds them about the value of the endeavor.

Next week I will be discussing the tricky task of creating engaging assessments that can be used to monitor students’ independent reading.