So you are all over the idea of independent reading. Maybe you’ve even decided that you want to ditch the full class texts and do reading workshop full time. You’ve stocked your shelves, and you have your mini-lessons and activities ready to go. There’s only one problem: you are having a super-hard time getting students to read.
It’s so frustrating when you’ve done all the things that the Kittles and the Atwoods and the Gallaghers said to do. But then you spend your class time managing all of the students who can’t seem to spend more than two minutes reading. It’s enough to make you pull out that box of full class novels and force your students to read Lord of the Flies again.
But don’t despair. Don’t give up. Turning your students onto the love of reading is one of the greatest gifts you can give them, and there are strategies that you can use for getting students to read.
Read on to learn how to get students to read by:
⦿ Dealing with the focus issue
⦿ Fostering a love of reading
⦿ Building reading stamina
⦿ Being social with books
⦿ Using effective classroom management
It’s a focus problem
If you’re reading this post, I’m pretty sure that you know that you need to help your reluctant readers find the right book. You don’t have to worry about your voracious readers – they will race from one book to the next and, hopefully, talk about how much they loved each one.
Then there are those who have never enjoyed reading. They are the ones that will need your attention at the beginning of the year, so you can help them select a book they want to spend time reading. You can do that by getting to know them, using reading surveys, and doing a lot of book talks (which you don’t have to do all by yourself)
But, as I said, you know about that. What’s making you frustrated is that no matter what book some students are holding, they just can’t seem to read it for any length of time.
There’s a problem that we need to pause and address here, and it’s all about focus. And I’ll keep it short, because I may lose you soon if I don’t. That’s because our world and our devices have robbed all of us of the ability to focus like we used to. The students in your class grew up this way, and so it IS hard for them to stay with a book when they are used to scrolling from one thing to the next.
This is a reality that we have to face and deal with. Does it mean we stop giving students activities that require focus? No! It just means that we need to find ways to help them get better at it.
Set a timer to build reading stamina
Here’s my number one tip for getting students to read: using a timer to increase their ability to sustain focus.
I’ve had many classes full of students who couldn’t focus to read, and this is a strategy that made a difference. First, I spoke to the students about the issue of focus and that, like any habit, we need to train ourselves. We picked a realistic time for the first day and everyone promised to try to keep reading until the timer went.
I set the timer on my phone and put it at the front of the room. I had to do a lot of reminding and pointing at the phone the first day, but we got through it. Then, the next day, we added two more minutes. Rinse and repeat until we made it to ten minutes each day.
And you know what? With some of those classes, they started to ask if we could read more after the timer went off.
Just let them read
One reason why my timer worked was because, for the most part, my students just had to focus on the joy of reading…even if it wasn’t a joy for them yet.
It’s pretty hard to foster a love of reading when we attach too many rules and requirements to it. Just imagine your own reading life. How often do you write a response after each chapter or stop to fill in an interactive journal?
The problem is that we have skills we have to teach our students and outcomes they need to achieve, and one of our main vehicles for doing this is through reading. The math teachers aren’t running around saying “let’s not assess their work because it kills the joy of computing” are they?
However…there are ways to teach and hit our outcomes without bogging down the reading process when students are reading their choice novels.
During my reading workshop, I teach skills using mentor texts, short passages from texts that illustrate the skill I’m focusing on. I would be sure to choose high interest passages, too, so students might want to check out the book. We also read many short texts together, like short stories, nonfiction, and poetry. Then, when students read their own novels, they can focus on the reading and not a task they might be worried that they couldn’t do.
Celebrate reading stamina
After a few weeks of just reading for fun, I introduce the idea of reading stamina, and that it was important to be able to read a little more each time. We were already doing that with the timer, but eventually I introduce the concept of setting reading goals. Students would assess how many pages they were reading during the week and then set a goal to read a little more the next.
I went around with my clipboard and recorded their goals on Monday, and then on Friday, I noted whether they met them or not. At the end of the class, I’d call out a few names, congratulating them on meeting – or smashing – their goals. Or maybe the fact that one person didn’t meet their goals but had to be asked to put their book away when reading time was over(something worth celebrating indeed!)
Basically, I made a big deal about this, so reading stamina wasn’t just another thing we had to check off the list. And students responded well to it, much better than they used to in the days when I required them to read a certain number of books or pages. This way, it’s completely individualized and not a hurdle reluctant readers need to overcome.
Let students socialize over books
You can rarely go wrong when you let your students talk to each other and with reading, it’s no different.
Now obviously you don’t want them talking during reading period, but a chance to chat afterward is always welcome. Sometimes, I just ask the students to chat with each other about what they are reading for a couple of minutes, or we do something more focused:
⦿ A turn-and-talk to share something they were asked to note while they read. For example, find a strong verb the writer used, or a place where dialogue was used to develop character.
⦿ Group chats where they try to find themes or ideas that connect their books. We talk about the big questions that the authors are asking in their books and students work to find ways that they are similar in each book.
Manage reading time effectively
Ok, there’s no other way around it. When students are distracted and unfocused, we have to be on our classroom management game. And that can be hard, especially if you have a crew that doesn’t want to read.
Ideally, we have a class full of readers and we can sit at the front, modelling our own love of books as we read along with them. That’s a goal for further into your school year.
The reality is, during the first week of workshop, you’re on your feet, helping students select books, stopping at desks for a quiet chat about the fact that they aren’t reading, or spreading your teacher “look” around the room.
One of the most effective strategies you can use is to squat beside a desk and quietly ask “how can I help you stay focused?” You may get some ‘tude or a shrug, but the student knows that you are going to keep coming back and keep asking the question.
My experience was that if I put in the hard work the first few weeks, and my students knew that the expectation was they they would read, they eventually settled in. And that timer. Use the timer.
If you’d like to question or challenge anything here, please do! Or ask for further clarification at any time.