Getting students excited about reading is crucial to their academic success. Unfortunately, when it comes to reading, the “thrill is gone” for many by the time they enter middle school. This is a tragedy because middle and high school students must read well to be successful. I heard someone once say that students learn to read in elementary school but that they read to learn in middle school. It is gospel truth! So how do we keep that passion for reading alive for the majority of our students? By creating an environment so inviting, that kids actually WANT to read!
It is necessary students want to read if they are going to improve their reading ability. Why? Students improve their reading skills by reading a lot – not by doing worksheets or answering multiple choice questions or answer open response questions. No, the very assessment formats used to determine student mastery on state standardized tests do nothing to increase our students’ desire to read. In fact those very things can kill a love of reading, especially if that is the way a teacher “teaches” reading.
Students learn to read better by reading self-selected texts, talking about what they are reading with others, and applying strategies to what they read. Examples of those strategies are paraphrasing, summarizing, connecting texts to themselves, to other texts, and to the world, questioning what they read, annotating text (marking it all up). These skills are done naturally, as needed. It is up to the teacher to show kids how to use them and then provide multiple opportunities to practice them in a reading classroom.
Pulling teeth without Novocaine would be much easier than asking students to use these reading strategies when tackling more complex text or their science or social studies textbooks. It simply won’t happen. I have known for years that kids aren’t reading anything and, in fact, go to extraordinary lengths NOT to read something. Many work ten times harder to find a way not to read something than to simply buckle down and read. I have seen kids Google YouTube in an effort to find a video so they don’t have to read a short story or find a shortened summary in hopes that will get them through a class discussion. I have seen boys shmooze a girl who likes him to tell him the main points so he didn’t have to read. I have seen pretty girls do the same. While all of these strategies showed me they had coping strategies for life (maybe not ones I endorse), none of these strategies improved their reading skills.
This year was the first year our entire language arts department came together and supported one single initiative: Reader’s Workshop. You may wonder why it took me 19 years to try reader’s workshop. In all honesty, I have no idea. I have been an avid proponent for writer’s workshop for over 10 years. I have seen writer’s workshop transform students opinions about writing. Kids who wouldn’t write a sentence come by my room and share their latest novelette or their student government speech. They recognize their words have power after writer’s workshop. So why was I so reticent about reader’s workshop?
Maybe it was the constant pressure of THE TEST. Maybe I was too afraid to try something this radical on my own without more team support. Maybe it was my own insecurities about teaching reading (I feel like I am a much better writing teacher than reading teacher). Maybe it was the lack of control I felt when every students was reading a different book. How in the world could I possibly know the kids were reading? I hadn’t read all those books. How could I ensure every book they were reading could be used to teach the same skill? In short, I felt a severe loss of control. If all the kids were reading the same text or texts, then I could do my homework and know what happened in each book. The very same fears I had about writer’s workshop had to be addressed once again.
It took adding a couple of new ELA teachers to our staff (Cami Stevens and Sasha Reinhardt) who could cut through the bureaucratic crap, the jargon, the crap that tends to get in the way of great teaching. They helped me see the importance of allowing students’ reading choice and building some independent reading time into the schedule to convince me to try reader’s workshop. New blood in a department can do wonders for stodgy old teachers like myself. The phrase “reader’s workshop” took hold. Unlike writer’s workshop (which many teachers shrink from), this seemed doable to our department. We had a clear goal…let’s help kids learn to love reading again. As a department united, we approached our principal. We are blessed. John Slone treats us like professionals and believes in our professional opinions. He ok’d our experiment, and we set off to change students’ attitudes about reading.
Thanks to one of our new ELA teachers, Sasha Reinhardt (a truly amazing teacher), we all read Book Love by Penny Kittle. I had read Kittle’s book Write Beside Me the previous year which focused on writer’s workshop for high school, so I knew this author was a guru. If anyone could teach us how to incorporate readers’ workshop in middle/high school, we all felt this woman could. And she did! After reading the book, every one of our ELA teachers was excited, ready to change the reading culture at our middle school.
We started by doing booktalks – getting students interested in classroom books we had. We booktalked in the library. We booktalked in our classes. We booktalked in the hallway with kids. We booktalked everywhere.
We added a ton of new books to our classroom libraries. These teachers believed in what we were doing so much that they purchased books out of their own paychecks. As a department, we scoured library sales, Goodwills, and found books sales we could attend. We begged for donations. I even sold my engagement ring from a failed marriage, and turned those bad memories into good memories – books for my students. Soon, all of our classroom libraries began rivaling our our library. Books became a staple in every ELA classroom. Not boring books – books kids wanted to read. I now have a classroom library of 750 books! Kids love to come in and peruse the shelves.
Students started setting weekly reading goals, and we read for 10 to 15 minutes in class every day, and for the first time in 19 years, my kids couldn’t wait to read. Now when I give students things to read in class, they don’t automatically groan. They rely on past reader’s workshop experience that proves to them that reading can be fun. This goes a long way when doing close readings of more challenging texts.
We started taking pictures of kids who had finished books and putting those pictures in the hallway. This got other kids excited about the books they saw my readers holding. Those books were quickly checked out of the libraries. After about a month, the school culture about reading changed. Reading was no longer for nerds. How could it be when your football star was going on and on about the latest book he read by Mike Lupica? How could it be when the student who never performed last year couldn’t stop talking about The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton?Clearly, our school had taken a turn. It became “uncool” to say you didn’t like to read. Kids who had never finished a book had read an entire novel.
When we started this, most kids said they had only read one book or none every other year of school. I believe them. Now they were reading one, three, six in a quarter! Why the change? Here is what the kids said:
- We can pick what we want to read.
- I like setting a weekly goal and seeing if I can beat it.
- We can actually read our books in class.
- I get ideas for books from my friends because we can talk about what we are reading.
- There are so many good book in here (the classroom)
- I just never took the time to know how good reading can be before.
This initiative has transformed our school culture. We presented our initiative to the school board in the fall. Students came in and shared their thoughts about reader’s workshop. Their excitement about reader’s workshop was electrifying. It had school board members on the edge of their seats. Their testimonials convinced every adult in the room that we are onto something – something that should be innately obvious to every person in and out of education – that kids must enjoy reading and read lots to improve their reading skills. Unfortunately, in education, we tend to over analyze, complicate things. As a result, we sabotage ourselves and the kids. So teachers, let the kids read and read lots. It is clearly the answer to reading apathy!