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Creating Contexts for Readers

 //  Feb 27, 2020

Creating Contexts for Readers

Diane Stephens is a co-author of Reading Revealed: 50 Expert Teachers Share What They Do and Why They Do It, a winner of the Learning® Magazine 2020 Teachers’ Choice Award for the Classroom.

Everything we do is based on beliefs we hold. When I first encountered this idea, I was taken aback. Everything? And then, slowly, through reflection, I realized it was true.  When I put my hand on a door knob, I believe it will turn. When I walk into the room behind the door, I believe it will hold my weight. I also believe I will be able to sit in the chair in the room without it collapsing and put my books on the table which will also be sturdy. Philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce (Buchler, 1955) argued that it is belief that allows us to act. If we do not believe, we do not act. This can be seen in studies of babies asked to crawl across a piece of glass between two wooden structures. Babies hesitate. They do not believe that the glass will support them.

Pierce outlined four ways that people come to their beliefs: they believe what they want to, what they always have, what someone has told them, and what they have researched for themselves. 

All of these ways are necessary. None of us have time to research everything. And so we reach for door knobs, walk into rooms, sit in chairs, and put books on tables. It is through research that we can determine new truths.

As teachers, our beliefs impact everything, including our relationships with our students and how we come to know them, how we think they and we should act, the materials in our classrooms, how we organize time and space, and what we say and do to help students progress.  

In a previous blog post, I shared a list of beliefs that a group of teachers in South Carolina hold about readers. They believe that in order to progress as readers, students need to:

  1. Understand that reading is a meaning-making process that requires thinking
  2. Believe in their ability to make sense of text
  3. Choose to read because they find it both purposeful and pleasurable
  4. Self-monitor for meaning
  5. Have a repertoire of skills and strategies to problem solve for meaning

The teachers came to these beliefs via research. They read widely, closely observed their students, and talked with each other, reflecting both on what they read and observed. Through their inquiry, they also came to believe that in order for students to acquire the above characteristics, teachers need to provide classroom contexts consistent with them. For example, if teachers want students to understand that reading is a meaning-making process, then what teachers say and do and the materials they provide should send the message that reading is meaningful.

So what might these contexts look like? The idea is explored throughout Reading Revealed. First and foremost, teachers help students fall in love with books. According to Reading Revealed contributors Deborah MacPhee and Robin Cox, one way to do this is to read to students and have them interact aloud with the text. As addressed by Tasha Tropp Laman and Janelle Henderson, another way is to provide time for independent reading during which students read a variety of texts for pleasure. This should mirror what adults authentically do when they read for pleasure—sit comfortably, read a book of choice, chat informally with someone about what they’ve read. We don’t see adults filling out worksheets about what they’ve read!

Some teachers will ask students to let their peers know whether they liked a particular book or not. In Reading Revealed, Kay Wynter-Hoyt shows how this can be done via book talks in which students take turns telling their peers about a title they read. There are many ways for students to do this kind of sharing. When I facilitated an after-school reading program at the University of North Carolina - Wilmington, a group of elementary students decided to make a chart called, “Is it Hot or Not?” They put their names across the top, and along the side, the names of books they’d read. For each title, they decided whether to put a red sticker (the book is “hot”), green (“pass this one by”) or yellow (“so-so”). With this method, students got recommendations from other readers. This particular group of students also decided it would be helpful if they put short summaries in the backs of books once finished. That these ideas came from the students, not their teacher, meant that the practices were authentically useful to them.  

A third way to help students fall in love with books is to give them time to explore the books in the classroom library, identifying ones that look interesting to them. Reading Revealed contributor Pat Heine developed an engagement called Look, Think, Pass, in which the students sit in a circle and they are each given a book with which the group might not be familiar. Students have 30 seconds to look at the book and then pass it to their right. By the time the books have gone around the circle, children have identified new books they are interested in.

Reading Revealed contributor Michele Myers recommends that students put their favorite books into Browse Bags, which are bags or boxes in which students keep books that interest them. This way, students have quick access to books they want to read, just as I have a pile of books on my nightstand.

Teachers have an important role in helping students choose books with which they can be successful. The importance of success cannot be overstated because people like to do things which make them feel good. They avoid things which they haven’t been successful with in the past and suspect they won’t succeed with in the future. Literacy coach and Reading Revealed contributor Sally Somerall posits that teachers should encourage students to choose books that are “interesting and easy.” She shows how she helps students make these decisions and offers to go “shopping” in the classroom library with students who need additional help.

Students who fall in love with books are students who choose to read. Students who choose to read, both in and out of school, grow more as readers than do students who do not choose to read. This is consistent with what we know about doing anything—the more we do it, the better we become. While there are other aspects of classrooms in which students grow as readers, helping them fall in love with books is a great place to start. To do this, teachers need to provide them with opportunities to be read to and to read independently. The books they read independently should be books they consider fun and easy. Once that’s in place, teachers can move on to helping kids talk about books and encourage them to share them with their peers. Teachers who believe and act on this belief create contexts in which students grow as readers.


Perice, C.S. (1877). In Buchler, J.(Ed). (1955). Philosophical writing of Peirce. New York, NY: Dover Publications, pgs. 98–119.