The key to instituting reader's workshop is to have a well thought out plan, and Penny Kittle's Book Love provides just that. Kittle introduced her high school students to reader’s and writer’s workshops, and her suggestions are classroom tested. Her book offers sound advice to reader’s workshop beginners, as I was when I started.
After reading the book in 2012, I put many of her ideas into practice in my seventh grade classroom. As a result, the majority of my students now love to read. They tell those willing to listen that reading is cool, have a list of books they plan to read, and eagerly share their favorites with each another. There is nothing more exciting to me than walking into a classroom where students can't wait to read. Here are some ideas I have incorporated in my room over the last few years. I hope they turn your students into passionate readers as well.
#1 Buy and Read (No – Memorize!) Penny Kittle's Book Love
This was my first step. It provided me the structures necessary to create a reader's workshop environment and the big name I needed to convince school and district administrators this independent reading time was a worthwhile use of classroom time.
Ten minutes of independent reading time every day in my 90 minute block class allowed my students to become invested in the books they self-selected. Students saw it was important because I made it important. Some administrators were initially skeptical because they couldn't readily see how choosing your own book to read could lead to improved test scores. Luckily, the ELA team at my school was 100% on board and the administration let us try it.
#2 Introduce Independent Reading and Don’t Let Them Off the Hook
To do this, talk about the power of books in your own life. Share books with students that focus on their interests. To do this, you need to be a reader yourself. If you are a reader already, share the books you loved at their age, and read the books that are hot in your students’ age group. If you aren't a reader, start now! Look for books that will appeal to your students. There are many websites that provide insight. Just Google "best children's books" or "hottest teen books" or "great young adult books" and you are well on your way to finding books that will engage your students.
Next, teach students the Goldilocks Rules for Finding a "Just Right" Book or The Five Finger Rule to ensure they are reading a book that is not too easy or too hard for them. Then go to the library and search for that "just right" book.
My students have incredibly varied interests. The more I get to know them, the better job I do of making book recommendations they may like. Many love sports novels. I can't keep Mike Lupica's books on the shelves. Others prefer video games, so James Dashner's new series that starts with The Eye of Minds has been of interest to them. John Green appeals to multiple audiences, boys and girls alike. Struggling readers love series such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Hank the Cowdog. I have hooked students on Minecraft manuals as a start, and while I hope they move on to literature, it is a beginning. Whatever you do, don’t give up!
#3 Require students to set reading goals
Penny Kittle has a great formula I use with my students to set weekly reading goals. It works like this:
# of pages read in 10 minutes X 6 = subtotal X 2 = reading goal for the week
So what does this formula mean?
Students read a book on their independent reading level for ten minutes. I caution students to read slowly, to read for understanding. The goal here is not to see how many pages they can read, but to see how many pages they can comprehend. When you notice “speed readers,” have mini-conferences during daily independent reading time to ensure they actually understand what is being read. This is another great time to check in with students and talk about the books they are choosing. This increases engagement, allows you to see if students are reading books that match their reading level, and allows you to suggest books they might like if the book currently being read isn’t doing anything for them.
Once the ten minutes are over, students multiply by 6. This gives them a subtotal that they should be able to read in an hour. Finally, multiply that subtotal by 2 to determine a reading goal based on two hours of independent reading.
Why two hours? According to ACT test developers, “Only 51 percent of ACT tested high school graduates met ACT’s College Readiness Benchmark for Reading, demonstrating their readiness to handle the reading requirements for typical credit bearing first-year college coursework, based on the 2004–2005 results of the ACT.” The more students read, the more likely they will be able to handle the reading during their freshman year of college.
I then record students’ page numbers daily on a student chart similar to the one in the picture. Lee Ann Spillane’s blog has some other great ideas to organize this task as well. I simply use a roster from Infinite Campus and it fits my needs.
Students have seven days (including the weekend) to meet their goal. Each Monday, students set a new goal as the reading difficulty level varies from book to book. Remember, even if students don't meet their goals, they are probably reading more than they did before.
For example: We have been analyzing how particular elements of a story or drama interact. Use your “just right” book to answer the following question. How does the setting in your book affect the plot or characters? or We have been looking at the connotations of words and how they affect tone. What is the tone of the chapter you are currently reading in your “just right” book? What words have connotations that support that tone?
#4 Celebrate Often
Celebrating students' growth is vital to the success of reader’s workshop. With middle school students, I celebrate in several ways. First of all, I praise students who clearly understand what their books are about. I allow them to share great books with their peers, and you might be surprised at how much validation that provides.
Second, I take students' pictures when they finish the entire book. I post the pictures in the hallway. This may sound silly - I know I thought it did when this idea was suggested to me - however, it has transformed the seventh grade hallway into one of pride when it comes to reading. Students want to be on the wall and may even "cheat" to get on the wall by not completing books. I have to occasionally ask students questions to ensure they have really read the entire book. By mid-year, some students are self-conscious about having their pictures taken. I always encourage but never require them to have their pictures taken. There are reluctant readers who get excited later in the year, and they tend to replace those who have become self-conscious. The pictures stay up all year, and it makes a great conversation piece during parent-teacher conferences.
Finally, I do give students who complete every weekly reading goal a free soda at the end of the nine weeks. Teen brains love rewards, so a simple soda often reinforces good reading habits. Students are usually pretty honest about their page numbers, believe it or not. Do some "cheat" to get the soda? I am sure a few do, but they are still reading more than they used to. When I tell the students how much I spend, you would be surprised how many get honest and won't say they met a goal if they didn't. I do also attach one quarterly grade to their reading goals. This is usually the only homework I assign, so parents know their students should be reading every night. I wish more parents held their students accountable for this, however more students are reading at home than they were before.
#5 Have Students Write about What they Read
Don't have students write book reports! Do have students write reviews. Those can take so many forms. Here are several.
- Penny Kittle suggests literary letters, and I have students write at least one a year. This year they wrote to their parents about their favorite "just right" book. The Library of Congress often hosts contests such as Letters about Literature which fit in perfectly with this assignment a couple of years ago.
- Use a Booksource's Classroom Organizer website so students can check books in and out. When they return books, they can write a review. More and more students are starting to do this in my room, and some are even providing specific evidence to support their opinions about the books!
- Invite students to use social media. If they blog, have them blog. Create an Edmodo site or some similar venue where they can hold written book talks. I have two students who started a Facebook page title The BCMS Readers this year, and they now have a following.
This was the way I started reader’s workshop. I change it a little every year. Over the last four years, I have been amazed at the number of students eager for our reading time. This year, our language arts department decided to adopt a new curriculum called Engage NY . I was concerned because I didn't want to give up reader's workshop. After looking at the curriculum, however, I was overjoyed because they include an independent reading component that is almost identical to the one our school has been using.
I am certain reader's workshop has made a difference. Parents have come up to me at ball games and asked me what I have done with their child? How did I get him/her to read? I have frustrated a few teachers who can't get my students to put away their books in their other classes. Teachers from the high school say things like "I am glad you have gotten the kids to read like they do. Now what can you do about their writing?"
I think engaged readers will eventually become engaged writers, especially if they use the model taught by the Kentucky Writing Project. Together, these two components can change students' lives forever.