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March 12, 2021

4 Keys to Building Students’ Reading Lives

In October 2012, Pew Research Center published a report on teens’ use of libraries and reading habits. From Christian Science to NPR, media outlets were abuzz with the good news that today’s teens are not just playing video games and watching YouTube videos. But as Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia points out, we may have been misled.

He writes, “One message is that young people are reading ‘a lot.’ What constitutes ‘a lot’ is a judgment call, obviously, but in this study the data showed that 83% of 18-29 year-olds had a read a book sometime in the previous year. That strikes me as a low bar to be considered ‘a reader.'”

Whether you’re celebrating the Pew Report or siding with Professor Willingham, you’ll probably agree with me that one of the most important jobs we have as teachers is to help our students build their reading lives. 

I made a lot of carefully considered changes to my eleventh grade curriculum at the Science Leadership Academy this year. My goal was simple but felt daunting: I wanted my students to have rich, authentic reading and writing lives. At the beginning of the year, I led typical activities like icebreakers, student and parent surveys, and the collection of contact information.

But I also did something different, sparking a frank conversation with my students about their reading habits. With a lot of honesty and vulnerability, many students told me that they did not read many of the books assigned to them in their classes.

Student ReadingOne student wrote this about her reading life: “Although, in middle school, many of the books that I read were really good, I never had the desire to read outside of school hours. Starting off high school was a drag. Reading wasn’t exciting and all and the pattern seemed to have continued as a person who had a limited vocabulary because of my lack of reading. I NEVER saw myself as a reader, just a person who was doing an assignment to get it out the way.”

This was a turning point for me as a teacher. I could teach as I had before, using the whole-class novel approach. Or… I could implement a choice reading program connecting my students to books that speak to their lives and experiences. Luckily, I had friends like Penny Kittle, Donalyn Miller, and Paul Hankins, to guide me as I tried to transform my approach to teaching literature.

If you’re looking for practical advice on developing passion for life-long reading in your students, consider picking up Donalyn’s The Book Whisperer and Penny’s Book Love. Both of these books offer tips on book talks, reading conferences, and creating a school wide community of readers. In addition, here are a few things to consider when implementing choice reading in the classroom:

Model Through Your Reading Life

You already know this one: you cannot ask of your students what you’re not willing to do yourself. Share your reading life openly with them. Share your goodreads account. Decorate your door with book covers of titles you’re reading. Tell them your reading goal for the year. Let them hold you accountable. Tell them about the books that changed your life… and the books you’ve abandoned because life is too short to be unhappy reading a book.

Build a Classroom Library

Don’t underestimate the value of having books in your room as part of your classroom library—even if your school library is well stocked. There is incredible value in putting the right book in the right student’s hand at the right time. Do not fear sharing your personal connections to books that have shaped your lives.

Connect Reading With Writing

Turn a great descriptive passage from an independent reading choice into a mentor text for your students and let them uncover the ways author made the magic happen on the page. For example, I just shared an incredible YA novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, with my students. I used the text to teach the characterization, voice, and dialogue. Turn great reading experiences into viable writing experiences and opportunities for your students.

Don’t Give Up!

Lastly, never, never, never, never ever give up on your students. I still have several students who believe that reading is just not for them. I keep trying to find the right books for them and fostering a rich reading environment in our classroom.

How are you helping to build your students’ reading lives? I look forward to reading your thoughts.

Center for Teaching Quality is writing a series of blogs in partnership with Teaching Channel. CTQ is transforming the teaching profession through the bold ideas and expert practices of teacher leaders.


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