One of the secrets to a successful independent reading program is helping students find the right book. And there is nothing more satisfying than seeing a once-reluctant reader eagerly turning the pages of a book they don’t want to put down.
So what can we English teachers do to make that happen?
There are several things that you can do to push students in the right direction, toward that book they will want to keep reading. First of all – and let’s get this straight – it doesn’t mean that you have to read all of the books in your classroom. There are so many great books out there that your students can read, and you are just one human. If you limit your students to only the books that you have time to read, you’re cutting out so many wonderful choices for them.
Secondly, independent reading allows you to focus on skill attainment, regardless of which book students are reading. You will still be teaching them to analyze and to support their analysis with textual evidence, and this is something that you can assess, even if you haven’t read the book (read more about this here).
As long as you have an awareness of the books and genres, you can help your students find the right one. For example, I have never read Lord of the Rings, but I know enough about it and the genre that I can recommend it to a student who might like that type of book.
So, just be aware of what you have on your shelves, pay attention to what students are liking, and then you can promote the right book to the right student. How? Watch and listen to what your students are reading and saying about their books. Spend some time on Instagram or TikTok and use the hashtag “booktok”. Google “best YA books.”
Then, try some of these strategies for helping students find the right book:
Speed dating with books
When I started the reading workshop component of my semester I wanted to make a big deal of it, like it was an exciting thing that we had so many books to choose from.
I brought in candles and flowers and did speed dating with books. I set up five or six stations with groupings of texts and gave students a chance to find ones they “clicked” with.
They each had a recipe card where they wrote down the titles they were interested in. They passed them to me and I gave them one of their top choices right away. They also got the cards back for reference later, to help them find another book.
The key with this strategy, whichever format you use, is to give students time to see what you have on your shelves – and to start generating excitement about reading.
Curated stacks & book talks
Book talks are a staple of reading workshop because they can be used to generate interest and to help a student find the right book. And, just as you don’t have to read all of the books, you don’t have to do all of the book talks either. You can get help from students, youtube, and #booktoks. You can even bring the author in to promo their books via technology. (Read more about Book Talk Hacks here)
Curating stacks of books that students might find interesting can help them select a title for them too, and it’s a more visual and tactile way to do book talks. Put new and hot books along your board or in a stacks in the front of your room. Or put together a pile of genre based ones – “If you liked this one, then you might want to check these out too.”
These stacks give students a chance to see what’s there in a less overwhelming way than staring at your bookshelves, hoping one will jump out at them.
Make talking about reading the norm
Book talks and book tastings are helpful, but I think that making talk about books the norm in your classroom is even more powerful. Stop at a desk and ask a student about what they are reading. If you know that someone is having a hard time putting their book away, ask about it. Start or end your reading period by asking “who’s reading something really good right now?”
When students hear casual talk about about books, they not only see that others enjoy talking about what they are reading, but they also hear about books they might like to read too.
This can be tied in with skill-building activities very easily. For example, let’s say you are teaching your students about how writers use tone in dialogue to develop character. You give a lesson, then tell students to note how this happens in the book they are reading. Then, after they have read, they will share what they noted with a partner. The students get to work on a skill and tell others about a book at the same time.
Ultimately, the more students hear about different books, the more likely they are to find one they want to read.
Get to know your students
Relationship building is important for so many reasons but when it comes to helping students find the right book, it can be the key. If you know what they’ve liked to read in the past that will help you point them in the direction of another book that might peak their interest.
But when students don’t like reading or find it difficult, knowing what they are interested in can help you direct them. If you know that a student loves his pet, show him books that feature animals. If you have an outdoorsy person, then a book like Into the Wild or Into Thin Air might be the one. If the student is a gamer, they might love Ready Player One. Or if you know they are going through something in their life there may be a book they can relate to and find some comfort from.
I gave my students a form at the beginning of the year that helped me get to know them as readers too. You can get your own editable copy here.
Let students discard books
Students will be more likely to try a book if they know they aren’t tied to it. Make it clear it’s ok if they try a chapter or two and realize that it’s not the book for them. When they do, they can try another.
You will need a system that doesn’t penalize this too. For example, my students had to set reading goals for the number of pages they read a week, not a certain number of books per term. That way, one student might read four or five short novels, while another read one long, complex one. Each reads the same number of pages.
This system allows for students to try a chapter or two and still reach their reading goals, so they aren’t penalized for stopping and starting.
Now, this can’t go on forever, and eventually they need to commit to a book. But this process helps more kids find the right book than requiring them to keep reading one they aren’t enjoying. And, if you’re problem is getting students to focus when reading, check this out.
I hope you found something you can use here. And, if you’d like more help running an independent reading program, check out my free course and membership. You’ll get tips and strategies in the course and all kinds of guidance and resources in the membership.