When students self-select books to read, they have opportunities to read what interests them, what they care about, and at the same time, they discover what kinds of books they enjoy. This year, I learned a humbling lesson about self-selecting books for independent reading: it doesn’t always work the same way for striving readers as it does for proficient and advanced readers.
In January, I started working with a group of fifth graders who were reading at a mid-first grade level. They consistently selected books far above their reading level. Each time this happened, I gently suggested to a student to save the challenging book for later and then offered three books for him or her to consider. The student always checked out the book he or she couldn’t read. I pushed my feelings of discouragement into the recesses of my mind. At least three times a week, I gave a mini-talk on how reading books with ease independently offered the practice that could improve fluency and understanding.
Obviously, students needed to save face in front of peers who were reading long books. That was a problem in their regular language arts classes, but not in our extra reading class. I fought my desire to tell them what to select, knowing the change had to come from them. This pattern remained the same for several weeks, and I learned to live with it.
These students were part of an extra reading class called “Pathways” that met daily for 73 minutes. Two of my colleagues and I taught this class of twenty-four students who read two to four years below grade level.
One day, after the read-aloud that always opens the class, I told students: “In this class you’re always safe. Everyone will celebrate choosing books you can read and enjoy.” That comment seemed to be a tipping point because during independent reading time, several students selected books they were able to read and enjoy. However, it took six weeks for all students to feel positive about selecting books they could read with ease.
I share this story to emphasize that it was essential that students, not teachers, made the decision to choose books they could read. Moreover, some students need time to trust that no one will make negative comments about books they select. By giving them time, by explaining they are safe in our class, we open the doors for students to develop an independent reading life. If we believe that self-selection develops responsibility and independence, then giving students control over this aspect of learning is crucial to their reading development.
It’s important for teachers to know this: books for independent reading shouldn’t be leveled. Leveling can prevent a student from selecting a challenging book that the student has strong background knowledge about and truly desires to read. I’m reminded of an eighth grader who wanted to read Laura Elliot’s Under a War-Torn Sky. He knew a great deal about World War II, and desperately wanted to be part of the group reading Elliot’s book. Though a challenge, his strong desire overcame any obstacles, and he willingly reread sections until he understood them. In addition to choice, there are other things that create joyful reading and allow students to spread the word about a beloved book to peers.
Time for Reflection
Have you ever closed the last page of a book and wished you hadn’t finished it? The need to revisit events, to be that character and think about the character’s decisions claims your mind and heart. You don’t move. You feel compelled to mull over and relive favorite parts. Time to reflect, returning to and thinking about events and characters brings satisfaction and pleasure to readers. Remember these moments in your reading life and offer students time to reflect and savor parts of a book that touched them deeply, to discuss the book with classmates, and to recommend engaging books to others.
The Power of Discussing Books
Reading is social. That’s why students love talking about books with a partner or in a small group. Discussions reveal a range of interpretations supported with evidence from the text. In addition, students practice active listening as well as organizing their thoughts, so they can communicate their thinking to peers. Discussions move students deeper and deeper into the layers of meaning of a text and move them from literal, superficial interpretations to inferential thinking. Besides discussions, it’s beneficial to offer students ways to advertise to others books they couldn’t stop reading. Doing this provides students with a list of books their peers enjoyed. Moreover, peer-to-peer recommendations for reading offer students choices they might never have considered.
What follows are four ways students can hear about and explore books their peers enjoyed—books they can check out to read.
1. Elevator Talks: Marketers use these short talks to sell a product in sixty seconds by honing in on its excellent points. In school, students set up an appointment with their teacher when they complete a book and want to present an elevator talk. Have students jot some notes they want to include in the brief talk. Then, they have sixty seconds to sell a book to classmates.
2. Book Log Conversations: Every six weeks, set aside ten to fifteen minutes of class time for students to review their book logs and choose a book to share with their group. It could be an abandoned book or a book the students loved. Groups hear about books and have the option to note the title and author if it’s from the school library or check it out of their class library.
3. Graffiti Wall: Students enjoy writing short book recommendations to peers. Place a large piece of construction paper on a bulletin board or a wall and have a marker pen nearby for students to post beloved books. These short reviews are positive, point out one important reason why the book was a great read, and recommend the book to one student or a group who is passionate about the topic or author.
4. Class Blog: Set up a class blog and invite students to post original book trailers they created and/or short book reviews. Students read the blog to explore books classmates posted and also to add a comment to a peer’s post.
Students love choosing their books. Recently, I interviewed a group of sixth graders about reading, and several told me that they don’t enjoy reading a book that’s “required.” They want choice because that’s what motivates them to read. Moreover, when students have time to sit back and reflect on a completed book and also discuss it with a partner or a small group, their motivation to read can soar. Because peers value their friends’ opinions, it’s also beneficial to advertise books so students observe what peers enjoy and can explore books they might not have selected on their own.
This post is part of an ongoing series on independent reading. Read more:
- How principals can foster independent reading
- Independent reading: nurturing students’ personal reading lives
- Making time for independent reading at school
- Independent Reading: It’s for Everyone!
- Book Studies: Home-Grown Professional Development
- Conferences and Conversations About Independent Reading Matter