Independent Reading Myth #3 Students Won’t Read

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Myth #3–Students won’t read in class if I give them time.

This is the #1 management issue I hear from teachers and that I’ve faced myself.  For some reason they think when I say, “reading time starts now,” its code to begin whispering to one another, working on homework for another class, sleeping, or not-so-covertly texting
My first question for a teacher who comes to me with this concern is, what are you doing during SSR?  Nine times out of ten the teacher “borrows” a few minutes to take attendance, check her email, or enter those last few grades for the essays she stayed up well past midnight to grade;  I’m guilty of all of the above.  
Stop it!  When you stop everything that you are doing to read it sends a powerful and unforgettable message that reading is so invaluable nothing is to interrupt it, not even your own perceived needs.  This was probably the most difficult part for me.  I am a perpetual multi-tasker.  But, oh!  The freedom from trying to do so much revitalized my reading life. 
When all of the above fails,  I have to ask, how are you helping match your most tangled readers with an appropriate text to spark their interest?  We’ll spend more time on this learned talent later, but until then here are just a few pieces to the machinery of my reading community.
  •  Book Talks–Talk about what you are reading.  What do you say to your friends when you are excited about a book you can’t pull yourself away from?  You don’t spill the entire plot, right?  Rather, you give them just enough so they want to snatch it up as soon as you are finished.  This is the perfect opportunity to model what real readers do as they share their reading experiences.  Also, it’s an opportune time to sneak in a mini-lesson (very mini) about previewing and predicting texts.  Book talks work especially well at the beginning of SSR.  I’m very purposeful with my booktalks.  Sometimes, it’s a book I’ve chosen for a reluctant or stalled reader, knowing he or she will be the first ask for it.  And other times the book might have a thematic link to our shared reading;  my more sophisticated readers understand the magic that can occur when you begin to read for themes across genres and across books.  If you’re still unsure what to say, read the cover.  Publishers usually do a pretty good job o inviting readers to try the book on. 
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  • Read-Aloud–I fight hard to preserve my read aloud time.  This is also a good practice to begin SSR with.  During read aloud, you are reading and the students are listening.  That’s it.  Period.  I begin read aloud by reminding my students of the purpose–listen to enjoy.  Read alouds can be editorials or articles, cartoons, excerpts from novels, picture books, or entire novels.  One of my favorite read aloud experiences was with a little book called Same Kind of Different As Me.  Written by two Fort Worthers, this precious story describes the unlikely relationship between an entrepreneur, his terminally ill wife, and a homeless felon and how they learned that it’s not the differences that matter, but the sameness.  Choose texts that are pleasing to hear, good strong story arcs or structure, and challenge the reader just enough to help build an understanding of structure and vocabulary.  At the end of a read aloud, don’t start in with twenty questions over plot, character, support, or theme.  Invite students to respond however they need to with a simple, “what sticks with you?” 
  • Excerpts–  I love to be sneaky and bring in an especially enticing YA excerpt to pair with traditional literature.  Some of my favorites include Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak paired with The Scarlet Letter, Gordan Korman’s Jake, Reinvented with The Great Gatsby,  Sharon Draper’s Romiette and Julio with Romeo and Juliet, just to name a few.  The excerpts are used not only to draw connections between texts, but also as vehicles for many litearcy skills.  I find that examining the isolation and social-outasts from the perspective of a 15-year old freshmen is a little more approachable than through Hester Prynne.  Inevitably, some reader will ask to check out the entire book once we spend part of  a day exploring a snippet.  Excerpts also make for terrific mentor texts during writer’s workshop as well. 
  • Conferences–  I’ve already discussed the power of talking to your readers about what you read.  Talking to them about what and how they read is as equally important.  I’m not talking about asking them to provide you with a five sentence summary, analyze the intrinsic motivation of the character, or expound on the symbollic or thematic elements.  The kind of transformative talk that makes readers grows organically from a student’s reading experience, how he or she relates to the text.  Conferences, one-on-one or small group discussions with readers, allow this transaction to come to the surface.  Tangled and alliterate readers may not have recent experience with a text that invited them to make their own meaning.  Their experiences stem from teacher-selected reading tasks and purposes.  Again, I like to start with a simple question, “What sticks with you?”  From there, with some probing and modeling, I allow the conference to take its natural shape.  Not only can I judge whether or not a book is a good match for a reader, but I can facilitate a deeper reading experience and recommend subsequent titles. 

Any new practice takes time to adapt.  Most of your average 17-year olds have very vague recollections of choosing a book AND being given time in class to read it.  Some have no memory of such a practice as they were probably never given that freedom.  Sad, I know.  And so it’s going to take some time.  In the fall we are warming up, building those reading muscles, forming good habits as readers, exploring our own reading interests and styles.  Sometime before Christmas my new readers might finish the first book they have ever read by themselves that they chose.  Between New Year’s and Spring Break everyone is exploring their reading identities.  And in the spring, we all sit back and marvel at the transformation.  Just remember, for some of your readers, one or two books is a success. 

Still unsure or need more convincing?  Check out some of these resources:
Teri Lesesne’s Making the Match
Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide
Penny Kittle’s Book Love (coming fall 2012)
Janet Allen’s Yellow Brick Roads

How are you able to facilitate a reading community that reads together?
Happy reading!


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