I was recently approached by a school that I partner with in consultancy and asked for advice about how I might lead for developing a school culture of independent reading. Let’s start with the elephant in the room. When I talk about a school wide culture of reading, what I’m NOT talking about are reading programs that require students to read leveled books, take computerized tests for points, and get rewarded with pizza, parties, or prizes for the most points earned. This isn’t a practice that I believe in. I won’t go into that here though. That’s for another day and another blog post. The purpose of this post is to offer advice based on practices I do believe in and recommend to schools and districts where I consult.
Creating a school wide culture of reading requires an intentional plan for taking several actionable steps. But first let’s ask, with limited resources, why should schools invest time and finances in taking the steps I’m about to recommend? Simply stated, volume matters. Survey results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed that in reading for eighth and twelfth graders, students who read become better readers than students who don’t (U.S. Department of Education 2009b). Additionally, students that reported having time in school to talk about reading also scored higher on state achievement tests.
High stakes tests certainly shouldn’t be our only reason for working towards a culture of reading. The act of reading has many benefits far greater than academic achievement measured by a state test. For one, readers are more empathetic towards their fellow man and more willing to be curious and open toward others that may look or live differently than themselves. Additionally, readers are better able to cope with stress and trauma by finding stories similar to their own in the pages of a book. There are many life long benefits to reading, too many to list here. You get the point. Reading matters.
So let’s get started. How do we go about creating a school culture in which more students are reading by choice? Here are ten actions schools can take to develop a climate and culture of reading. These steps are not necessarily in order, however building diverse and enticing classroom libraries is typically where I recommend starting.
1. Create Diverse and Enticing Classroom Libraries If we want students to read, we must literally wrap them in books that they will actually want to read. Sacramento, CA teacher, Amy Heno, used a variety of resources to put together her extensive library. She’s gotten two Donor’s Choose grants, three mini-grants from local organizations, she’s used her an annual $100 classroom supply budget, and she often frequents places where she knows she can pick up books for a fraction of their original cost. Amy labels her books using Avery labels and keeps track of check-in and out with the Book Buddy app. When I asked Amy what makes her library so successful in terms of students checking out books and reading, she had this to say, “Diversity of books and organization keep my library working. Every year I need to add new titles based on popularity, new releases, and the kind of readers in my room. A wide variety of genres allow me to meet the needs of each unique class of readers. One year it might be YA, then sports and poetry books the next. This year it’s books with social justice themes and mystery thrillers. I cannot just buy what I like to read, I have to buy what I know will get my readers excited to read.”
2. Give Book Talks Book talks are like a movie trailer for a book. And I would say they are just as effective in getting students to want to read a book. When first launching a shift toward more independent reading in a school, teachers and other adults should give book talks. Notice I didn’t just say teachers, I said other adults too. Book talks shouldn’t be limited to the ELA teachers. School leaders and other adults in the building should visit classrooms and give book talks as well. Book talks create a sense of excitement and FOMO (fear of missing out) around reading. If you want to know more about the guidelines and procedures for book talks, here’s a great website.
3. Make Reading Visible Create classroom and school displays that feature books and reading. With the help of AP art students, Woodland, CA teacher, Janice Rose, created this beautiful tree from To Kill a Mockingbird, outside her classroom. She adds pictures of books that students have read on a regular basis. Keeping reading visible sends an unspoken message that reading is important and valued in a school. Many schools I visit display photos of books teachers have read on classroom doors or bulletin boards in the school. Jane Addams Middle School in Seattle, WA has baskets of books in the front office where students and parents wait to meet with staff. They also have bulletin boards featuring the newest award winners and a little lending library in one of their hallways. Yes, you read that right. A little lending library. In addition to a beautiful school library and rich classroom libraries, JAMS doesn’t miss a chance for a student to meet a just right book by having books easily accessible all over the school.
4. Get to Know Students and Their Interests It won’t matter how many books are in a classroom library if they aren’t books that match the interests of students. There are many ways to survey readers. It can be in the form of written or online surveys, asking students to take a quick genre poll, or taking data from an activity such as speed dating with books. (More on that to come.) The important thing is to get to know your readers and what they want to read. It’s also important to note that students may not be able to tell you what they like until you start giving book talks and they actually start reading. Be vigilant in watching and listening to what students say about the books they love and don’t love.
5. Be a Teacher or Leader that Reads When I visit schools (actually where ever I go), I carry at least two to three books with me. I carry the book I’m reading, the book I’ve just finished, and the book I’m going to read next. In the book 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Question to Engage and Empower Adolescents, Kelly Gallagher says, ” Modeling the range of reading we do honors the diversity of texts and the purposes for reading that, of course, vary by reader. Students enjoy recommending books to us, sometimes stacking them next to our whiteboards. We often read what students recommend to us. Why? It deepens conversations we have with them and helps us know new titles to recommend to others.” I can’t count how many times I’ve had teachers and leaders message me and thank me for reigniting their reading life by the sheer act of carrying around my current books and giving spontaneous book talks. Walking our talk is powerful.
6. Provide Opportunities for Students to Recommend Books In addition to teachers giving book talks, students should also pitch books to each other. At Grant Jr. High School, in Central Louisiana, students sign up to travel to core classes every Friday and give book talks. Because there’s a climate and culture around reading, the math, science, and SS teachers don’t mind giving up five to seven minutes of class time once a week for book talks. In other schools, I’ve seen a variety of ways students can recommend books. Ideas include writing a review on a sticky and leaving it inside the front cover or putting a book on a special shelf with a recommendation. This practice is similar to what Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon does.
7. Feature Specific Authors in Your Classroom Displays and Book Talks Many authors have their own websites that make it easy to quickly access background information that will add to the excitement of reading a particular author’s works. I found this to be true when I was giving book talks all over the country on Jason Reynolds’ book Long Way Down . When I shared that Jason Reynolds found inspiration in rap and started writing poetry at nine years old, but didn’t read his first book until he was seventeen, students were shocked. By visiting Reynolds’s website and showing students a photo of the author and other works he’s written, students became excited to check out his books. Of course I recommend you have a stack of an author’s work on hand to check out immediately while enthusiasm is aflame.
8. Allow Students to Explore Books Before Choosing I first read about book speed dating on the School Library Connection website. It’s just what it sounds like. Book speed dating is easy to prepare for and is an expedient way of exposing students to multiple titles within a short amount of time. In short, set up by putting out stacks of books on each table, either give students something to write on, or I prefer they use their reader’s notebook, and set a timer for browsing. If the student shows an interest in wanting to read the book, he/she writes the title and author in their “Want to Read” section of the reader’s notebook.
10. Provide Time to Read My pastor, Adam Smith, once said that we must quit saying we don’t have time for certain things. He pointed out that we all in fact have the same amount of time, twenty-four hours every day, and what we care about is what we make time for. At the time, this struck me as being so simple and yet such a revolutionary idea. So if we care about reading and we want our students to read more, we have to make time for it. It’s that simple. I recommend that upper elementary, middle school, and high school students have at least one hour a week, across the school week, reserved for independent reading. That could include listening to an audio book while holding the book. It could be reading on a phone. It could be holding an actual book and reading the old fashioned way. Whatever it looks like, make time and protect it. Hold it a sacred. In the professional text The Book Whisperer, by Donalyn Miller, Miller says, “I express to my students that reading is not an add-on to the class. It is the cornerstone.” I would agree. If we really want to develop a culture of reading at our schools, we have to provide time to read and not see that time as wasted. It is perhaps the most important use of time we have.