High schoolers aren’t reading like they used to.
However, most students remember a time when they enjoyed reading, going to the library, having a book read to them. But something happened, and reading was placed on the back burner. (For my readers, that Something tends to be middle school–when choice often goes down and requirements go up.) Addressing the part schools play in this decline, Kelly Gallagher (in his book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It), asks:
“Shouldn’t schools be the place where students interact with interesting books? Shouldn’t the faculty have an ongoing laser-like commitment to put good books in our students’ hands? Shouldn’t this be a front-burner issue at all times?”
My answer, of course, is yes, a thousand times yes!
Thankfully, my students are readers. The students I had ten years ago? Not so much. But now–with far more distractions in the midst (e.g., Netflix, cell phones, gaming), my students are actually reading again.
And when I’m asked what has changed, the answer is simple: me.
A mid-career crisis–fueled, in part, by the non-readers sitting in my classroom–forced me to upend everything I had done in my English classroom. And I saw firsthand what the research had been saying for decades: Choice for the win. The video below (which I share with my students and parents in September) articulates The Why behind the For the Love of Reading (#ftlor) Program.
While choice reading looks different in every classroom, here’s what has worked in Room 1227–after over five years of research, professional development, trial-and-error, and student and parent feedback. My For the Love of Reading program includes four steps: 1) Start with a plan; 2) Devote part of every class to reading; 3) Hold students accountable; and 4) Help them grow.
Our department requires students to read one full-length text per quarter. However, in order to build the stamina necessary for college (where they’ll be assigned up to 600 pages of reading per week!), I require my students to read one book per month. Many students end up far exceeding this, but most confess to thinking in September that Teacher-Lady was certifiable (which is probably the case) and that they’d simply Fake Read again all year.
Since many of my students wouldn’t be able to name ten books they’d like to read without consulting Google, they first complete a reading planner. (I’ve allowed students complete choice and controlled choice within monthly genres. Both work well, but I’ve found that the latter exposes my students to a variety of readings. We spend a few days in September exploring genres in groups–again genres that the students select, and each month starts with a group sharing their research in a slide deck like this one on the genre we’ll be exploring.) My learners are given class time to play in the Literary Sandbox, perusing sites like Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes & Noble, our school and town library database, and our classroom library database (of 2,600+ books!) through Booksource to find titles that interest them. Students who don’t know where to start are pointed toward sites like this 2019 Reading Challenge or this timeless Bingo-style one.
Having a plan in place means students always know what they’ll be reading next–which keeps the momentum going. And that’s half the battle. However, the beauty of the reading planner is its fluidity, as students’ tastes and skills change as the year progresses.
Since many of my students are still recovering from painful break-ups with reading, they often don’t know where to start. I encourage them to have an open mind and get themselves back out there.
I stress the importance of “dating” a book before fully committing to one, exploring titles within their potential careers, sampling the first book in a series, or trying a new-to-them genre.
But they are the captain of the ship, and this is what keeps them from getting stranded in the Sea of Fake Reading.
My students and I read for 10 minutes at the beginning of every 54-minute block and for 15 minutes at the beginning of every 74-minute long block. Every. Class.
All of the literacy experts agree: If we want students to read, we need to create time for it in class. How else do we demonstrate that reading is critical? In addition, students In her post “I’ve Got Research. Yes, I Do. I’ve Got Research. How About You?,” Donalyn Miller asks (immediately before unloading a slew of research on her readers), “Why must English teachers constantly defend the need for students to practice reading and writing in a class dedicated to reading and writing?” As tempting as it is to use those 10-15 minutes to take attendance or return papers, it’s important for our students to see us reading, too. And even more important? If we’re telling our students that lifelong reading is important, we need to model it. This is especially critical to help close the achievement gap between male and female learners.
So that I know students are making progress, the students and I update our reading every week on Goodreads. (See how I infuse Goodreads into my classroom here.)
And at the end of every month, students publish a book review (not summary) following these guidelines for a real-world audience of 90 million readers. That’s a whole lot more authentic than writing for Teacher-Lady.
I’m often asked, “What if students only read, say, John Green and Sarah Dessen?” I used to respond–as non-flippantly as possible, “So what?” They are reading. Study after study shows that I could distribute Macbeth in September, which is unarguably more challenging than, say, The Fault in Our Stars, but the same five students that read everything assigned will read Macbeth. The rest will fake-read. Whereas, 100% of the students that choose to read Green’s text will actually read it.
And rigorous or not, “a book isn’t rigorous if students aren’t reading it” (Penny Kittle in Book Love).
Like a toddler who, after being given full-range of the snack drawer, eventually begins to crave healthier food, my students–especially the ones I’ve had for two years–eventually move on from Green and Dessen to more rigorous texts. As Teri Lesesne champions in her book Reading Ladders: Leading Students from Where They Are to Where We’d Like Them To Be, I facilitate the process from the beginning to the end.
But most of my students couldn’t start with Macbeth. Which is how I used to kick off the year.
In addition to all of this choice, we still read whole-class novels, too; however, it’s all about the timing. My sophomores who might have abandoned The Great Gatsby in September are able to embrace it in May. Because they’ve increased their reading stamina. Because they are ready.