Let Them Read!: Independent Reading at the Secondary Level

Let Them Read!: Independent Reading at the Secondary Level

By Heather Rocco, Educator Collaborative Consultant and K – 12 ELA Supervisor for School District of the Chathams, Jen Agens, Chatham Middle School English Teacher, Cindy Gagliardi, Chatham High School English Teacher, Kristin Fallon, Chatham High School English Teacher, Christina McCabe, Chatham High School English Teacher

On April 2nd, this group of teachers from the Chatham School District will be presenting during session one of our spring gathering. You can watch them at 11:00 am EST. Their presentation carries the same title as this blog post: “Let Them Read!: Independent Reading at the Secondary Level.”

We love to read.  We are readers who immerse ourselves in long discussions about the latest young adult novel, New York Times bestseller or literary fiction.  We read every chance we get, planning entire vacations around how many hours we’ll be able to steal away from family and friends to read the books we’ve stuffed into our luggage.  And yet, we left little room or time to nurture this joy of reading in our classrooms.  We wanted our students to love to read too, but we felt pressure to cover curriculum, to design rigorous assignments, and to prepare for standardized assessments.  It left little room for book love.  Or at least it did until three years ago when we realized that if we teach them nothing else, we want our students to leave our classrooms knowing the love of a good book.  We wanted our students to be readers.

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 6.22.52 AMOur independent reading initiative began very simply.  We allotted the first ten minutes of our 49 minute or 56 minute class periods to reading.  Students chose the book they wanted to read, brought it to class, and read silently.  Yes, it involved our restructuring our lessons.  We tightened our transitions, eliminated some “Do Now” prompts, and homework review.  Despite removing some of this “instructional time”, our state test scores actually rose that year.  Why?  Because our students weren’t fake reading our assigned texts anymore.  They were building stamina, engaging in texts, and developing their reading strategies in books they wanted to read.  They were reading more pages than they had since elementary school.  They were becoming better readers by reading.  

As the years have progressed, we have continued developing our reading initiative.  We rely on Penny Kittle’s Book Love as our guide.  With the help of donations and grants, we have thoughtfully assembled classroom libraries that reflect the diverse interests and abilities of our students.  We hold conferences with students to find the right books for them.  We seek ways to include their independent books into our daily lessons.  We encourage students to set reading goals, to make “To Read” lists, and to track their pages read.  We book talk.  We model strong reading habits for our students. We firmly place the question “What do real readers do?” at the center of every decision we make about independent reading.  We have invested resources and time into sending one message: reading matters.

If you are thinking about adding independent reading to your classroom or school, we hope you’ll join us for our Ed Collab Gathering session, “Let Them Read!: Independent Reading at the Secondary Level,” on Saturday, April 2nd at 11:00 a.m. EST.  In the meantime, below are the steps we have taken to grow independent reading in our schools.  We will explain each one in more detail during our session.  We’ll also take questions from you throughout the session.  We are excited to share our learning and our love of books with all of you and your students!

Steps for Implementing an Independent Reading Program:

1. Do your homework.

If you can only read one professional text on independent reading for secondary students, read Penny Kittle’s Book Love. If you can read others, look for books or articles written by Donalyn Miller. While her work focuses on upper elementary, it is very transferrable to the middle and high levels.

2. Start small.

After reading Book Love, do not try to be Penny Kittle. First, pick one class in which you can pilot independent reading. Start by helping students find books they love and give them class time to read them. Figure out how you can make this work in your day to day routines and commit to it.

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 6.23.20 AM3. Let them read.

Dedicate time every day to reading. Whenever possible, allot approximately ten minutes a day. Our high school classes read for ten minutes of their 56 minute period every day. Our middle school periods are 49 minutes, so they read a little less, but they have a reading routine established so that students know they will read.  When Heather taught in a traditional 42 minute period, ten minutes wasn’t always possible, so she would adjust. The most important thing is to make reading time consistent and predictable.  Additionally, make your reading spaces comfortable and inviting. Let your kids move around, or even sit on a donated carpet square or beanbag chair!

4. Share your reading.

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 6.22.36 AMEngage students in conversations with their peers and you about their reading. These conversations build community in really powerful ways.  Offer book talks.  Have students give book talks. Encourage conversations about books. Set up digital writing spaces for students to write about and share their books with peers. Host book clubs or luncheons for students to chat about their books.

5. Gather student feedback.

After launching a mini-version of independent reading, gather feedback from your students. What does or does not work for them? What do they need from you to encourage their reading? If possible, collect this information in an anonymous survey so the feedback is authentic.

6. Spread the love.

Share your results. Talk about independent reading during lunch, at meetings, whenever! Invite colleagues to visit your classes. Show your administrators the student data. Mentor another to try it in his/her class.  Reach out to teachers in other schools and at other grade levels to find out what books their students love.

7. Keep reading.

Return to Book Love over and over again. Build the program over several years to more fully integrate students’ books into the instruction. Find opportunities for their books to serve as vehicles for the curriculum.

Happy Reading!

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