As the start of the school year kicks off across the country, elementary school teachers work hour upon hour to create welcoming, joyous spaces for learning. They set up their classrooms, consult the curriculum, make lesson plans and determine their routines.
Very often, teachers make well-intentioned and thoughtful plans to encourage their students to read daily in order to practice skills and strategies taught in class, as well as to build a lifelong reading habit. And, in an effort to hold students accountable for the work, they devise various tools to capture evidence of that practice.
Some teachers use a daily reading log, where students enter the date, the pages they read and the number of minutes they read for. Others use a calendar, where students enter similar information. And many teachers ask a caregiver to sign the log or calendar to prove that the information is accurate.
As a school librarian serving more than 500 elementary students each year, I hear kids complain about these reading logs and calendars all the time. I hear parents grumble about signing them, too. Many have shared with me that they sign without even looking at the data, because they are signing in the middle of a hectic morning, while packing lunches, helping a kid who is scrambling to find a lost shoe. I know what they mean. I’ve signed my own children’s logs in a hurry.
So, why do we do it? There’s a body of literacy research that says kids who engage in a high volume of reading become stronger readers. There’s evidence that students who spend time making meaning of text develop a stronger vocabulary, tend to be more fluent and perceive themselves as readers. And the opposite is generally true of those who spend far less time with a book in their hands. The problem is that if the goal is to help kids develop a love of reading, simply passing the minutes with a book isn’t enough.
Documenting that a child is reading at home seems reasonable, particularly while they are an emerging reader, but once a child is on their way to reading independently, it’s an incomplete approach. It risks creating a situation in which a child feels like reading is a bit of a chore, rather than something they choose to do with their precious free time.
How exactly do we support kids in developing a desire to dedicate time to reading? And how do we support them in reading extensively enough to achieve the volume of hours necessary to become proficient? It comes down to this: we’ve got to create a scenario in which the book is the draw—and that requires us to incorporate opportunities to learn about book choice and to build a reading community.
Let Kids Choose
S.R. Ranganathan—often referred to as the Father of Library Science—proposed Five Laws of Library Science in 1931, a theory of principles of operating a library system. In the librarian community, this has become a sort of guide to good practice. While open to interpretation, I see the laws as a sort of framework which guides librarians in making decisions about how books are to be used, the importance of respecting individual book choice and how libraries should grow and change over time.
Ranganathan’s theory resonates as I think about students growing into readers. I believe wholeheartedly that every person is a reader, if they can just find the right book.
For each person, the “right” book looks different. Some get a charge out of learning something via expository nonfiction. Others enjoy soaking up a story through a graphic novel. And others crave silly stories, narrative nonfiction, tales of friendship, picture books with stunning illustrations or even books that make you cry. Every book has its reader.
Once a young reader knows what they like, the key is to keep up the momentum by getting a new volume into their hands as they finish the one they had. There is typically a connection between one loved book and the next. For some it’s finding a series that captures their imagination or an author they love. But a lot of times, the connection to a book comes from the community. Maybe a teacher who deeply knows a student suggests a book, or a librarian hosts a book talk that grabs a reader’s attention, or a pal from an online book community shares a book trailer. In my experience, though, it’s most commonly a peer recommendation from a friend.
Let Kids Talk
Often, the classrooms that are most successful in building communities of readers are those in which reading is not only part of the curriculum, but part of the culture. Precious instructional minutes are devoted to creating space for students to share with each other about what they’re reading, why they like it (or don’t) and to encourage them to offer recommendations to each other.
These reading communities are sparked by teachers who model the kinds of talk and sharing they would like their students to engage in. They are kindled and nurtured with regular opportunities to share in small groups, with partners, with other staff members (like me!) or even with the whole class during a morning meeting.
Students not only share ideas about what to read, but sometimes, they informally coach each other. A few years ago, I was working with a fourth grade class, and several students had taken on the challenge of reading, “nine, ten: A September 11 Story” by Nora Raleigh Baskin. It was a middle grade award nominee that year and was unique in the sense that the chapters were told by a rotating cast of four different characters.
There was enthusiasm in the class. Many readers wanted to try the book, but the structure was challenging for some. One morning, a couple of kids who had already read the book took some time to explain to the class that the key to understanding the book was to be clear about which character was speaking. One student suggested reading all of the chapters from each perspective together first (for example, to read all of the chapters told by Naheed as one story, then repeat with the other three characters) and then to re-read the book as it was written by the author. Another student created a book guide for taking notes to help make sense of each storyline.
Being part of a community of readers can go a long way. In my school, I have seen students conjure up their own book clubs, plan their own author studies and create reading bingo boards to keep things fun.
I have witnessed students encouraging each other to take on a challenge and offering support if needed. I have watched students lead peers to new sections of our library to explore new genres.
And in my favorite moments, I have been engaged in a book talk with an individual student or small group and had another student politely interject with an enthusiastic: “Oh … I know a book you would love!”
The transformative power of a reading community is real.
There are, of course, always exceptions, but I firmly believe that most students, when engaged in a reading community and given plenty of free choice about reading material, will find that they enjoy reading. As a child grows from an emergent reader into an independent reader, their reading time may ebb and flow based on a number of factors like extracurricular activities, periods of complex curriculum or challenges in their personal lives. But if they know the joy of a good book, they will return to reading, even without the accountability system of a log or calendar. And isn’t that what we are after?