Reader’s Workshop: Changing Reluctant Readers into Lifelong Learners

Convincing reluctant readers to pick up a book can be quite challenging. By instituting reader’s workshop in your classroom, a new energy about reading will replace the glazed over look so many student in today’s classrooms seem to exhibit when told to read.
Our school adopted reader’s workshop four years ago.  The key to instituting reader’s workshop is to have a well thought out plan.  There are some essential components needed to ensure its success, and this is where Penny Kittle’s book titled Book Love comes in. Her book offers sound advice to beginning such an endeavor, and  her passion and perseverence to be a great teacher is clearly evident.   I think Penny Kittle realized this when she wrote Book Love, and thank goodness she did.  After reading the book in 2012, I put many of her ideas into practice in my seventh grade classroom.  As a result, the majority of my students love to read.  They will tell you reading is cool, give you lists of books they plan to buy when the next book fair rolls into town,  and share books that have earned top ratings in their eyes with anyone who will listen.  There is nothing more exciting than walking into a classroom where students can’t wait to read.  Here are some ideas I have incorporated in my room over the last few years.  I hope they turn your students into passionate readers as well.

#1  Buy and read (no – memorize) Penny Kittle’s Book Love

This was my first step.   It provided me the guidance I needed to create a Book Lovereader’s workshop environment that allows my  students to read for 10 minutes every day in my 90 minute block class.   I have always known that whatever is given priority in the classroom is what is valued, so it made sense to give time to daily independent reading.  However, many administrators were skeptical.  They couldn’t see an immediate correlation to improved test scores. Luckily, the ELA team at my school was 100% on board and the administration let us try it.  If you meet resistance, be an advocate for your students.  Push for this!  Remind administrators that we are in the business of creating lifelong learners. Readers are lifelong learners.  In addition, provide them data to support the effectiveness of reader’s workshop, and yes, there is a way to give  principals and district level officials the data they need to support such a program. More about that later…

#2   Introduce Independent Reading

To do this, talk about the power of books in your own life. Share books with students that focus on their interests. To do this, you need to be a reader yourself.  If you are a reader already, share the books you loved at their age.  If you aren’t a reader, start now!  Look for books that will appeal to the age group you teach.  There are many websites that will provide you insight.  Just Google “best children’s books” or “hottest teen books” or “great young adult books” and you are well on your way to finding books that will engage your students.

Some of my students’ favorite authors include sports novels.  I can’t keep Mike Lupica’s books on the shelves.  Others prefer video games, so suggest James Dashner’s new series that starts with The Eye of Minds.  John Green appeals to multiple audiences.  Struggling readers love series such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid  and Hank the Cowdog.  Any student can be matched with a great book.

Teach students the Goldilocks Rules for Finding a “Just Right” Book or The Five Finger Rule. Then go to the library and search for a “just right” book.

#3 Teach students to set reading goals

Penny Kittle has a great formula I use with my students to set weekly reading goals.  The short version.  It works like this:

# of pages read in 10 minutes X 6  =  subtotal X 2 = reading goal for the week

So what does this formula mean?

Students read a book on their independent reading level for ten minutes.  I caution students to read slowly, to read for understanding.  The goal here is not to see how many pages they can read, but to see how many pages they can comprehend.

Once the ten minutes is over, we multiply by 6.  This gives them a subtotal that they should be able to read in an hour.  We multiply that subtotal by 2 to determine a reading goal based on two hours of independent reading.

Why two hours?  According to ACT test developers, “Only 51 percent of ACT tested high school graduates met ACT’s College Readiness Benchmark for Reading, demonstrating their readiness to handle the reading requirements for typical credit bearing first-year college coursework, based on the 2004–2005 results of the ACT.”

I record students page numbers every day on a student chart.  They have seven days (including the weekend) to meet their goal.  The following Monday we set a new goal as the reading difficult level varies from book to book.  Remember, even if students don’t meet their goals, they are probably reading more than they did before.  Talking with those who don’t meet their goals is important because it may help you get to know your students better.

#4  Find Books that Hook Reluctant Readers

Never give up on a child that abandons books regularly.  Keep trying.  Get to know the students interests.  Even when they tell you they don’t have any, they do.  It is a matter of perseverance.  I have hooked students on Minecraft manuals as a start, and while I hope they move on to literature, it is a start.  One student claimed he hated to read all year.  Finally, at the end of the year, I introduced him to S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and that was the book that hooked him. He found a book where he could relate to the characters.  Once they are hooked, push students out of their comfort zones into books that are similar to their interests but will still challenge them.

#5  Celebrate Often

Celebrating students’ growth is so important.  With middle school students, I celebrate in several ways.  First of all, I praise students who clearly understand what their books are about.  I allow them to  share great books with their peers.  This validates them as readers, and it also peaks students’ interests about the books themselves.

Second, I take students’ pictures when they finish the entire book.  I post the pictures in the hallway.  This may sound silly – I know I thought it did when this idea was suggested to me –  but I cannot tell you how it has transformed the seventh grade hallway into one of pride when it comes to reading.  Students want to be on the wall and will even “cheat” to get on the wall by not completing books.  I have to ask students questions to ensure they really read the book.  By mid-year, some students are self-conscious about having their pictures taken.  I always encourage them but don’t require them to have their pictures taken.  There are reluctant readers to get excited later in the year that tend to replace those who have become self-conscious.

Finally, I do give students who complete every weekly reading goal a free soda at the end of the nine weeks.  Teen brains love rewards, so a simple soda often reinforces good reading habits.  Students are usually pretty honest about their page numbers, believe it or not.  Do some “cheat” to get the soda?  I am sure some do, but they are still reading more than they used to.  When I tell the students how much I spend, you would be surprised how many get honest and won’t say they met a goal if they didn’t.  I do also attach one quarterly grade to their reading goals.

#6  Have Students Write about What they Read

Don’t have students write book reports! Do have students write reviews.  Those can take so many forms.  Here are several.

  • Penny Kittle  suggests literary letters, and I have students write at least one a year.  This year they wrote to they parents about their favorite “just right” book.  The Library of Congress often hosts contests such as the Letters about Literature contest which fit in perfectly with my literary letters a couple of years ago.
  • I have a rather large classroom library that I have collected over the last few years thanks to Goodwill, book fairs for educators, and parents who have continued to donate books their children have read.  Because it is so large, I use a Booksource’s Classroom Organizer website so students can check books in and out.  When they return books, they can write a review.  More and more students are starting to do this, and they are even providing specific evidence to support their opinions about the books!
  • Invite students to use social media.  If they blog, have them blog.  Create an Edmodo site or some similar venue where they can hold written book talks.  I have two students who started a Facebook page title The BCMS Readers this year, and they now have a following.

Our middle school has decided to adopt and use a new curriculum called Engage NY – a free, comprehensive ELA curriculum.  I was concerned as I didn’t want to give up reader’s workshop. After looking at the curriculum, however, I was over joyed because they include an  independent reading component that is almost identical to the one our school has been using place for three years.

I know that reader’s workshop has made a difference.  I have had parents ask me what I have done with their child.  How did I get them to read.  I have had frustrated teachers tell me they can’t get students to put away their books in classes.  I have had teachers from the high school say things like “I am glad you have gotten them to read like they do.  What can you do about their writing.”  I think engaged readers will become engaged writers, especially if they use the model taught by the Kentucky Writing Project.  Together, these two components can change students’ lives forever.

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