How I built a culture of reading in my classroom

Sam Reading in Badlands
Image by CaptPiper used under creative commons licence

Of all the accomplishments I’ve made in my second term of teaching the one I am most proud of is building a reading culture in my class.

This may sound weird as most people seem to assume that geeks eschew books in favour of gadgets. While I have proclaimed my love for my iphone, I also understand the power of books.

There’s something magical about cracking the spine on a brand new book or the smell that comes from picking up a treasure found in the back of a second-hand bookstore. I know my own life has been enriched by reading. As a child I loved the Alex Quartet that my mother gave me for my 12th birthday while First they Killed my Father prompted me to visit Cambodia a  few years ago and thus began an obsession with that part of the world.

Towards the end of my course last year I felt woefully under-prepared to teach senior literacy when @Kathryntrask reviewed the Book Whisperer on her blog. I immediately requested a copy from the library and was entranced by the impassioned plea of Donalyn Miller for children to spend less time on busy work and more time reading student-selected books during classroom literacy blocks. The central thesis of  the book, teach the reader not the book, really resonated with me however I had no real idea how to implement this in a classroom which is where The Daily 5 and CAFE books come in.

The Daily 5 gave me some concrete classroom management strategies  in order to build the classroom environment which supports the student-selected reading. Each day my students spend time reading to themselves, buddy reading, listening to audio books and I also read a book a loud to the class. In short my literacy book is a text-rich environment in which the expectation is that students will read 30 books of their own selection before the end of the year.

As part of the challenge each week the students write a letter reflecting on their progress.  I’ve been amazed how many students are now starting to evaluate the texts they read. One mentioned how the Lemony Snicket series was great for finding wacky words while another decided that Roald Dahl’s rich vocabulary and imagination were the reason why his books were perennially popular.

As I read through the end of term reflections by my students, I was staggered by how many kids mentioned that they read more books in the last 10 weeks then they did in the entire of last year. Almost all of them have a better relationship with reading now then they did prior to beginning this term. But what has been most powerful is how many of my students have mentioned they’ve started reading a book based on a classmate’s recommendation.

I frequently overhear classroom conversations which are now peppered with what books kids are reading or giving opinions on books or authors. These side conversations are so rich in opinions on writing style, plot and characterization that I wish there was a way I could capture those conversations without intruding on my students. The most beautiful moment for me as a teacher was seeing a group of my Year 7 boys huddled together in the library sharing a book. So often we hear of boys in particular turning off reading in favour of computers yet  based on my limited experience boys will read if they are encouraged to and are given the tools to develop as readers.

I followed Donalyn’s recommendation of 40 books a school year which I reduced to 30 as my class started 1/4 of the way through the school year. Miller points out that this hefty target means that students need to always have a book on the go if they are going to succeed. Not all of my students completed 10 books this term but even just having a large target gave kids some success. One of my Year 8 boys who readily admitted to finishing only 2 books in the entire of last year read 8 books over the past 10 weeks including a 500 page tome from the CHERUB series which is a huge achievement for a dormant reader in such a short space of time.

As is inevitable when you set a target, in this case 10 books in 10 weeks, there were some short cuts taken by students looking for an easy way to meet the challenge. Even with the genre requirement, some kids were seeking out easy reads however within a few weeks boredom quickly set in and the students started selecting better fit books. This is where Daily 5’s I-PICK comes in because it starts to give kids a language to finding books that are a good fit for them.

Activities like speed dating where a pair of students introduce the book they’ve been reading to their classmate in 30 seconds before finding a new partner is a quick way for kids to find out about books. I was a bit iffy about introducing a class of 11/12 year olds to the term speed dating so called the activity speed sharing. The students didn’t buy the ‘speed sharing’ euphemism for very long and I learned an important lesson, just be upfront with the kids.

I have also found that book selection is something that requires teacher guidance and feedback. Last week I noticed one of my students had picked up his 10th Geronimo Stilton book. After a quick reminder from me about what his reading goal was, the student decided to select a more challenging book. For me as a teacher this is the kind of conversation I want to have with my student. I didn’t attack the student’s taste nor disparage the book, I simply guided the student back to his learning goals and let him make the decision.

There is a downside to all this reading.

My students are a lot more discerning with the texts I use during guided reading sessions and will tell me if they don’t think the text is a good fit.  I think this is a good problem to have; kids being able to articulate that the text isn’t working for them. Certainly I’m going to have to be a lot more careful in the future with what I put in front of my students as their identity as readers matures.

I’m very aware that intermediate school is really the last chance that kids ‘learn to read’ before they enter high school and they are assumed to be capable of reading to learn. As always, there’s a few students I’m worried about. I’ve also got this nagging feeling that I am not preparing my students for high school where they will be expected to read a set text.

Moreover the increased fluency of my readers and the enjoyment my students have for reading might not show up in the assessment data even though research  shows that reading for pleasure has immense long-term benefits not just for my students’  academic achievement but for them as people.

This term has been really challenging but I’m proud of my students. As I looked out over my class during Daily 5 last Thursday, I was amazed to see a quiet, purposeful classroom full of students on task when at that point in the term the kids should have been sliding into holiday mode.

What I’ve come to realize over the last 10 weeks is reading is a highly social activity. By giving my students time and space to read as well as share what they are reading with others, the kids have started to support their classmates’ reading progress not just in terms of book recommendations but also fluency, expression, comprehension and even vocabulary.  I doubt this would have happened if I had continued with the more traditional literacy programme where I chose the texts and my students time is filled up with ‘response’ activities that I tried during the previous term.

I’ve also realized that there isn’t much point in teaching kids reading strategies if I also didn’t give them authentic opportunities to practice them. I know some teachers see recreational reading as something that kids should be doing at home while school is for work. While I don’t dispute the huge role that parents have in supporting children’s reading, by devoting time in the literacy class for reading, I am telling my students that I think reading for pleasure is a worthwhile activity which needs to be supported.

There are some drawbacks to this sort of ‘free range’ reading programme. The biggest one is that it is very labour intensive.  Although rich in data, the reading notebooks take a lot longer to mark that the more traditional worksheets as I follow Donalyn’s example of writing a letter back to each student.

You also need to invest in books for your classroom library. Alongside our regular library trips, I’ve become adept at sourcing cheap books in bargain bins and Trade Me to have on hand in the classroom when the kids don’t have any or don’t like the book they selected. As a teacher I try read at least one young adult book a week in order to walk the talk with my kids as a reader and it’s the best professional reading I do all week.

I don’t consider myself a literacy guru by any stretch of the imagination. In reality my literacy block is merely a mediocre copy of the master teachers out there including the 2 sisters, @donalynbooks  and of course my wonderful PLN including @kathryntrask, @judykmck, @annekenn, @heymilly as well as @kathleen_morris and @kellyjordan82 whose ideas for teaching literacy I have shamelessly stolen.

Thank you for being so generous with your knowledge.

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16 thoughts on “How I built a culture of reading in my classroom

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  1. This sounds fabulous, Steph. Well done you!

    With respect to introducing kids to set texts, one way to do it might be to find a book which has been turned into a movie. You could get the kids to watch the movie, then read the book, and then talk about the differences between the two. This has been HUGELY successful with my Ms Thirteen, who started reading Jane Austen when she was 10, but she’s a bit of an exception. Even so, there must be some young adults books that have been turned into movies very successfully that might also work as a set text.

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    1. Hi Deborah
      Donalyn talks about different strategies to the set text including using the read a loud book or just using shorter works to help pick up strategies used during a traditional novel study.

      Interestingly a couple of my readers don’t enjoy reading books they’ve seen as movies previously because they already know the plot.

      But I will definitely keep this in mind.

      Stephanie

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  2. Actually Deborah I did that with my son when I was homeschooling him….we read CS Lewis books that had been made into films, I had the old BBC versions and the modern day ones, we compared the two…very interesting exercise 😉 then we watched a documentary on CS Lewis…. keep up the good work Stephanie…hope you are enjoying your holidays

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  3. Stephanie
    This is all fantastic and I think by all the work you have done you are a master. I think of all the years in my beginning teaching so unfocussed. The beauty of the internet is we can find out and learn from others. I am not creative or innovative – wish I was but I am not – I lean on others and copy them!

    I love the speed dating, I haven’t been doing that, but will introduce it this coming term. Thanks!

    Kathryn

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    1. Kathryn
      You are so modest. I totally ripped off so many ideas from your blog! Don’t think of creativity as being a random stroke of genius more constantly refining and adapting others ideas.

      Stephanie

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    1. Hi Joanne
      Definitely grab a copy of Daily 5 before you start as it goes into a lot of detail about how to set up routines. My kids complained at the start that I was babying them by being quiet prescriptive about how to move around the class but I pushed through and the result was pretty awesome.

      Stephanie

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  4. That sounds slightly more constructuve than the way I built a culture of reading in my class. Viz screaming “Read or I’ll kill you in your illiterate faces!” Also, I have not read a book for grown ups in years. Kill me.

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  5. Hi Stephanie,

    This is exciting and encouraging. Another great source of books for you is National Library Curriculum Service. Eons ago I worked in the Auckland branch. The lovely librarians will put together a class set of YA novels etc for you. The collection is awesome. I am almost hyperventiliating just thinking about it.

    Well done. April

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  6. Hi Stephanie

    Thanks for another great post. I have just finished the Book Whisperer and you were right, it fits so well with the philosophy of Daily 5. I have my class doing a holiday reading challenge – they set themselves a goal of a number of books to read over the holidays and have set to it. I can’t wait to see how they have got on. I definitely feel that using Daily 5 to manage my literacy programme has boosted the reading culture within the class. I love your idea of speed dating, will see what I can come up with as a name for Year 3 and 4!

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