In some teacher meetings yesterday the elementary teachers were asked about our independent reading program. How were we getting the students to read so much when it was akin to pulling teeth at the older grades? I’ve given this a lot of thought last night and today. I don’t think we have any magic answer – and I know after visiting many classrooms in our building that we all approach independent reading differently. However, I know what works in my classroom so that’s what I am choosing to focus on today.
To begin I have a disclaimer. I teach eleven-year-old kids. Not thirteen-year-olds. Not sixteen-year-olds. What I do works with this group. That being said, I have a feeling it will work with older groups as well, but I am speaking specifically about my group today.
I think there is a magic combination that leads to a high volume of reading in my classroom. And when I say high volume, I mean that the average amount of books read so far this year is 38 books. Some have read more, some have read less. Some have focused more on graphic novels; some read these huge fantasy tomes. But I think that is huge. The total books read so far this year by my sixty-eight fifth graders? 2,590. So, let’s get down to it. Why are they reading so much?
One, I am a reader, and a voracious one at that. Last year I read 507 books – one was a book for adults; probably 20 were for professional development. That leaves about 486 books that I read so that I would have titles to share with my students. So far this year I’ve read 60. Need to step up my game. I consider reading part of my job. I need to be able to recommend a new fantasy book to Jaxon because he flies through a title in the Eragon series once a week. I need to be able to think of a good novel that would be a bridge from graphic novels to novels for Matt, but one that won’t leave him feeling defeated. I need to be able to think of a title for Halee when she asks for another book “just like See You at Harry’s.” If I don’t know these books and know other books I can call to memory quickly, I cannot help my students continue to grow.
Two, I need to show what I value. If I value choice and independent reading, I have to find time for that in class. Donalyn Miller suggests at least 1/3 of the class time should be devoted to independent reading. She breaks up reading class time into her rule of 1/3s: 1/3 direct instruction & guided practice, 1/3 independent practice, 1/3 independent reading. Every reading class you can count on at least 15 minutes to read independently. That’s a given. I also have homework reduced so that the majority of nights the only assignment is to read for 20 minutes. I don’t do “language arts and crafts” to borrow another one of Donalyn’s phrases. Authentic responses – if I wouldn’t do something like it in my own reading, I don’t assign it. The only outside of class assignment is to write about what you read – once a week. Our focus remains on the volume. We need to read. And I practice what I preach. The kids know what I am reading because I share a new book that I book talk multiple times a week.
Three, the environment is critical. There is the physical environment – tables, couches, etc. I don’t think that is critical, but it is nice. There is the fact that we have a meeting spot, we gather together. There is the feeling of the classroom. It is ours, not mine (one of the reasons I got rid of my desk.) I aim for a feeling that everyone is welcome. I’m thrilled to see them when they come in. And then there is the environment of words. Quotes from authors surround us. Books are on every wall of the classroom. I have almost 3,000 books. That is a huge chunk of my salary. But how will they read if I don’t have a book to hand them? The school library is fabulous – and we use it a ton – but there is something about walking with the kids, browsing our selection.
Four – relationships. I think we have to make an effort to know every kid that walks in our classrooms. This was much easier when I was self-contained but still doable with three classes. I know middle school teachers and high school teachers who have more than 68 kids, but they still do an amazing job knowing who they are. It is by knowing my students that I can pick the magic book for them at the right time. That I can ladder them from one book to another. That I know when to push and when to pull back.
And five – choice. I alluded to it above but had to give it its own paragraph. I get it. I do. I used to teach whole class novels. Now that I don’t, I will never go back. You can do everything in a workshop format that you do with whole class novels and more. You can have discussions on comprehension, genre studies, skill-based lessons. You can work on close reading with a short piece of text. You can book talk. All of this can be in a mini-lesson. Fifteen minutes at the front of your class. And then what? Time to pull small groups if need be. Time to conference. Time to let them read. What are they reading? Whatever they want. There is no way a whole class novel reaches every kid. So they turn to Spark Notes. They ask a friend about it. They stay quiet in class. But choice? They can read. They get graphic novels, fantasy, informational text, whatever they are interested in. Do I let them reread? ABSOLUTELY! I do, why can’t they? Conferencing helps me ensure they actually are reading – not just “saying” they are rereading a book.
All of these elements are important but choice and time to read in class? Critical. It is the only way. The beauty of this? You create readers. It is magical. I love teaching reading. I love talking books. It is the best part of my day every day – day in, day out.
Need more? Check out this video from Penny Kittle. She teaches high school. To me this video speaks volumes.