It seems like yesterday that I was coming to the end of my first year of teaching and finally starting to figure a few things out about what it meant to engage young readers. My first teaching job was a Teach For America assignment at Youngblood Intermediate School in Alief ISD, on the southwest side of Houston, Texas. My 6th grade Language Arts classes were a diverse mix of cultures, all low socio-economic, and almost all “non-readers”. I worked hard to change that and turn them into“readers”. They grew an average of almost two grade levels in reading during their 6th grade year – but how?
At the time I didn’t know what I was doing, I had no idea really. I was flying by the seat of my pants and existing on a steady diet of trial-and-error. I worked closely with another teacher who taught 5th grade in the same school. We lived in the same apartment complex and carpooled to work most days, the 30 minute drive gave us lots of time to debate possible strategies for engaging our young students. Here are, in MY order of importance, 5 of the most successful and easy to use ways to engage young readers that we came up with:
Build a Classroom Library
This sounds obvious, I mean what Language Arts teacher doesn’t know that? I agree, it’s obvious, but I’m shocked by how many classrooms I walk into that have little to no so semblance of a classroom library (ALL classrooms should have a library, non-LA teachers don’t need a huge collection but should have something). At the end of my two years working at Youngblood I had almost 500 unique titles and they were being regularly read (unlike some classroom libraries that collect dust). A successful classroom library will include engaging titles and books that excite the readers in the room. I will write more on how I created such my classroom library (I was up to 1000 books before I moved to China and left them behind) in another post. For now…start building your classroom library, no matter what subject you teach!!!
- Bonus tip: Even when my library was huge I still went to the school library and checked out 20-25 higher level (but short) nonfiction books that remained in the classroom. Lots of kids liked to read these once in awhile. I tried to find those that connected to current units in Science, Math, SS, Art, etc.
Set the Expectation and Then MODEL
This is the old “walk the walk” thing. It’s so simple, yet so effective. You can’t just tell kids to read and then go grade papers, you need to give them time to read in the classroom (more on this later) and sit down and read alongside of them. This is prime time to really learn the young adult genre (more on this later too) with it’s ever-growing amount of fantastic books. When your kids see that you’re reading Harry Potter (that’s where I started since I had never read them) they’ll want to try it too! When it’s time to read, pick up a YA book and join the fun!
Develop a System for Accountability
This one is tricky, very. I’ve seen everything from the very basic reading log to independent book projects to Accelerated Reader (AR). While at Youngblood I used our AR system and set a required minimum of points. It took a lot of oversight for the kids who tried to game the system but in the end it worked well and the “gamers” eventually realized it’d be easier just to read then beat me at their game 🙂 The reason accountability for “reading for enjoyment” is so tricky is because you don’t want to create a disincentive to read. If kids start thinking, “Oh man, I have to write a book report at the end of this book” then they aren’t going to want to read very often. The beautiful thing about AR was that it provided a comprehension quiz for hundreds of thousands of books, kids who could pass these quizzes at an acceptable rate demonstrated that they had read and understood a certain book. The quizzes were relatively painless (if they read and understood the book) and kids accumulated points with which they earned certificates and medals. I also took quizzes and accumulated points, there were two or three kids each year who would out read me! Of course we did plenty of independent reading projects but the AR system allowed kids to read at any rate they’d like without being slowed down by big book reports or projects every time they read a book.
I didn’t realize this had happened until long after I left Alief but I’m 100% confident that it helped my students develop into “readers” and, as a bonus, played a part in the success my students saw on their standardized test scores. Start the year expecting kids to be focused and reading in class for no more than 10 minutes at a time, every day. After a couple weeks of successfully reading 10 minutes each day, extend the time. Push them until they are reading 20-30 minutes with no problem (depending on the age group, this shouldn’t take more than 3-4 weeks if things are going well). Since I had no idea what I was doing, when my kids begged for more time to read, I would let them (especially on Fridays and any day after our standardized test season had ended). We had gotten to a point at the end of the year where all 35 kids could read for an hour straight without anyone losing focus…it was simply amazing and all totally achieved by luck! I strongly believe that their increased stamina for reading paid off in the way of extremely impressive standardized test scores. These tests can take 3-4 hours, and for some kids upwards of 6 hours. My kids did really well, not just on the reading but on the math too! My students, because they’d built stamina while reading for enjoyment, were able to focus for longer periods of time and thus excel on their standardized tests that year. More importantly, this stamina also allowed them to take books home and reading for hours at a time each night…much better than most of the alternatives!
Learn the Young Adult Genre
It was all Beverly Cleary and Where the Red Fern Grows when I was a kid. Not much variety to choose from. Today…wow…there is no shortage of absolutely fantastic YA literature available. I wouldn’t recommend reading a whole series (unless you’re really into it) as it will eat up your valuable reading time. Reading the first book in a series gives you plenty of insight as to what to expect. Being able to recommend books to kids based on personal reading experience is one of the most valuable tools for engaging kids. I strongly believe that all it takes is one great book and you’re able to hook even the most reluctant reader. Push outside of your comfort zone. Reading Twilight was one of the best things I did for expanding my horizons. It was brutal for a 20-something such as myself but it allowed me to understand what so many of my students were excited about, then I just needed to find more like it. This brings me to one of the most important tips, talk to your students and learn about what they’re reading. I can’t tell you how many times I read a book because it was recommended by a student…I read things like Twilight because of student recommendations and they almost always wound up as the most popular selections.
All of this takes time but, frankly, it’s time you can’t afford to spend any other way. Engaging our young readers is one of the most challenging (and important) things we do as educators. Some students come in already hooked, thank you parents, but they still need their teacher to push them and expand their horizons. The strategies listed above take time and effort but in the end they are all relatively easy in the long range scheme of things. Enjoy the process and, even better, enjoy watching your students blossom as young readers!