Here are some things to consider as you implement choice reading. If you want your kids to really read, it’s important to think about how these elements work together, and eliminating any of them is a sure-fire way to lessen the likelihood that kids are reading and audiobooks are fine as well. As long as they read, it’s okay. But one of the essential questions is Do we have control over what students read?
Let It Go
We have to give up control over what kids read. Let them choose. It’s ok if they spend the first 3 months, 6 months, the whole year choosing nothing but YA fantasy books. They. Are. Reading. We can still introduce and assign excerpts from classics as well as articles, essays, and plays as whole-class in-class readings. We can guide them toward new genres and challenging choices. But we have to let go of having control over what they choose to read.
They Don’t Need Points
It seems counterintuitive, but by not assigning points they are likely to read more. With independent reading, there is no need for “gotcha” reading quizzes. We also can’t evaluate kids on a single rubric when their reading selections will vary widely. So let’s help them focus. And creative projects aren’t proof of reading any more than making a poster was back in my days in high school.
Assessment takes away the joy of reading. Let them read without the pressure of grades. We can assess the excerpts we work on in class, and we can assess the skill acquisition as they demonstrate knowledge and growth through research, writing, and speaking. But there is no need to assign any points to independent reading. Trust me, and keep reading.
The Perfect Fit
Getting the right books in kids’ hands is a labor of love, but it becomes easier with time as phonics develop. The more I read, the more I curate a classroom library, and the more I get to know my students, the better I become at matching kids to books. When they have the right book, they will read. When told what they have to read, they will resist, and honestly, I would too.
Read Every Day
Full disclosure: my students read for fifteen minutes 3 or 4 times a week and I provide them with comprehension tips for nonfiction text. Sometimes those reading sessions are 20 or more minutes. I haven’t yet had a week when we’ve read every day in class. But, the point is, set the bar high. Ten minutes a day, every day is an excellent goal. Starting with three times per week is also excellent. Whatever days and times you set aside, make them consistent and sacred. Let nothing take priority over reading in class.
There Should Be No Penalty for Honesty
Even avid readers take breaks from reading. We all know that feeling when you finish an incredible book and need a few days to select and get into a new story (I call this a book hangover when the characters need to live in you for a few days before you can move on). We also have weeks when schedules are tight and commitments are high and reading is not part of our daily routine.
If I’m not reading every night, or if I have weeks when I barely lift a book, I can’t expect anything different from my students. Life happens, and students should not be penalized for honesty. Let’s not forget that reading books is the best leisure activity. Reading logs that require parent signatures or minimum hours or pages increase the likelihood that students will lie.
Each student reads at a different pace and will finish a different number of books in a marking period. Individualizing independent reading has to include valuing honesty. Let kids express their struggles with reading as well as their successes and help them work to create good reading habits.
Allow for Abandonment
Good readers abandon books. I might read a few pages, a few chapters, or half a book before I decide it’s become a chore to read. My goal in using independent reading is to bring pleasure to reading and finding inspiration for reading and writing. In class, we might struggle through difficult text that may not be everyone’s idea of the most interesting topic.
It’s in those lessons that I can teach strategies for readers to engage with those difficult texts. But as readers of choice texts, students should be able to put down a book that is not a good fit. Serial abandoners will need some help to increase stamina and choose the right books.
Let Them Do the Talking
Conferences are my favorite way to connect to kids individually. We can talk about their challenges and successes, and I can personalize my instruction to fit their exact needs. I might prompt them with a discussion point or ask for some self-reflection, but I let them do most of the talking.
I can listen to the excitement they have about a great book they just recommended to their friend. I can commiserate when they don’t want a book to end. I can validate their busy schedules when sports seasons are in full swing and reading is harder to manage.
I can suggest a book about an actor to a student who just got a role in the school musical. I can help them fairly evaluate their reading progress when it feels like everyone else is finishing books and they are working their way through a 500 pager. I can help them with reading comprehension strategies. Conferences help me understand them as individuals and as readers. They can’t fake their way through one-on-one conferences when I’ve posed the right questions.
Celebrate and Share Successes
The joy of finishing a book is, sadly, one that not all students have experienced. Also when you’re working with 6-9 year-olds, developing reading essentials is what it’s all about. We need to help them experience the joys that come with being a reader. Celebrate the victories: the kid who finally stuck with a book until the end, the class who managed to read over 200 books in a semester, the group of students who formed a book club on their own.
Let it be known that in this classroom, we value reading, reading is important, and reading makes us better students and citizens. Help them monitor their own growth over the year and reflect on that growth to recognize their individual successes.
A Little Friendly Competition Never Hurts
I’ve set up opportunities for classes to work together to accomplish a goal and for students to share their recommendations with and encourage others. Incentives need not be routine and frequent. I believe in rewarding kids who work hard, and my readers work hard. An occasional class reward is a worthwhile way for me to let them know I see what they are doing and it makes me proud. As my readers excel, class goals are a great way to encourage them to branch out into new genres and increase volume.
I’m not naïve. I know I have a couple of holdouts who have resisted reading every step of the way. I also know that when we read in class, and they have a great book in their hands, there are more times than not when they can’t help but get engrossed in the story. Are they all meeting my expectation of reading for two hours a week at home?
No, not always. But all of them are reading more than they were reading in the past. They are loving books and finding joy in reading. Parents are telling me that for the first time their child is picking up a novel to read on a Saturday. I don’t need a quiz score or a poster to tell me that this reading is real and it counts.