As a special education teacher, I know reading is a struggle for many of my students. Throughout the past couple of years in the classroom, I have learned a few important qualities that many of my students share, and how to promote and maintain a love of reading in each child.
I’ve worked in a private, self-contained classroom setting where I taught students with Autism not only to read, but to love reading, and request to read every day.
When I first walked into that classroom, the one thing I noticed right away was that there was no bookshelf anywhere. When I questioned the lack of books, I got a dismissive answer: "oh, these children can't read." That was not an answer I was willing to accept.
I continually bought books and placed book club orders for the classroom, until one day there was so many books that I needed a bookshelf. The books were now displayed in an appealing way that intrigued the students. They were more willing to walk over, select a book from the shelf independently, and flip through it (even if they couldn’t read yet!).
Later, my career took me to a middle school in a district where I became a sixth grade inclusion teacher in a co-taught setting. This was something I had never done before. Naturally, when entering the classroom, I noticed tall, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, full of books for our students! We pressed on with classroom set-up and before we knew it, the kids were in the classroom ready to learn.
After meeting with a few students and discussing their reading, the general consensus seemed to be “Ugh I hate reading, it is so BORING!”
But what I really heard was, “Ms. Martin, I just haven’t found the right book yet, please help me!”
It was my mission from then on to show my students just how enjoyable reading could be. I selected texts based on students’ interests, and more importantly, I would model for them the joy of reading.
I also selected a book to read from the collection of books I had accumulated, and then gave a book talk to the students. They loved when it was book-talk-time! Afterwards, the book would be missing from the bookshelf for weeks because they were so eager to read it! If you model for your readers just how much you love to read, they will be inspired to give reading another try to find their very own connection to books.
The importance of access and choice
These improvements in my students would not be possible without the right selection of books. There are three main rules that I have learned this year as a result.
Always keep your books accessible to children. Let them pick up six different books and flip through to see if it’s a “just right” book. Let the children take them home to read. If they are easily accessible, when they finish a book they can scan the bookshelves for another really amazing book.
Always keep your library (and yourself) current. Not every child wants to read a book that was written too long ago that they cannot relate to. Get on their level, model for them just how important, and fun, reading can be. Have book talks, engage your students in every type of book possible. Challenge them to go outside their comfort zone and read a genre they would not normally read.
Attractive books will always interest the student more than a book with a missing or damaged cover. Teach your students to respect the books in order to keep them looking new. As much as we say, “don’t judge a book by the cover,” sometimes when dealing with a group of sixth graders, the cover is what hooks them right away.
However, I know as a teacher I was very lucky to receive a donated classroom library—that does not happen every day. Many teachers do not receive a lot of book donations, or are fortunate enough to have parents buy books for their students.
So I want to leave you with this story: In my district, there are a lot of low-income families. These are students I have seen waiting on line at the mobile food pantry we do every other week, or students that can’t even come to school with even a pencil, let alone any books. We, as a district, are lucky enough to have a Scholastic Book Fair come to our building twice a year. At the second fair, we were presented with coupons that we were allowed to give to students who we knew would not have money to buy all the books on their “wish list.”
I was able to take five students to the book fair and present them with these coupons. They were able to select, and buy books that they wanted to read, books of their choice. When told they were able to select any books they wanted, within the price range, their faces all immediately lit up. They were like kids in a candy store, except it was even better because they were that excited to have the opportunity to buy brand never-before-been-read books.