The Simple Trick to Get Everyone Reading

I had so many reluctant readers at the beginning of this year.

I asked a lot of questions to find out why. Some students admitted that the last book they enjoyed was The Outsiders way back in middle school. Some could only pick out one or two high school books that spoke to them. Most were apathetic and uninspired about reading. Many were tired of being told what books they had to read, which study guide questions to complete, and what the final project was supposed to look like.

I wanted to change all that this year. After all, I teach six sections of seniors, and for many, this would be the last English class they took.

I experimented with choice in the past in my AP classes. You can read all about it in Start a Reading Revolution. The gist of it is simple: My students choose any AP worthy book and they read in class and blog about what they are learning from their book at home. It is my way of flipping a high school English class, and it has consistently been my students’ favorite unit each year. The empowerment they feel in choosing their own book and the opportunity they have to experiment with voice and format on their blogs has led to greater engagement and tremendous growth on AP exam scores.

But it is a stand alone unit, one that only last three weeks.

While I still do the unit with joy, it doesn’t solve the problem of sustaining a love of reading long term.

The Killjoy of Reading

How do you develop a consistent habit of reading that lasts an entire year? How do get students excited to read everyday?

When I plan a unit or design an instructional practice, I always keep in the back of my mind the Mark Twin quote that says, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

And that is the problem with reading… for too many students it feels like school.

Schooling says that students should have reading logs, there should be study guides, journals, posters, or dioramas, and of course there must be a big test at the end.

While those things all have a place and time, let’s think about what we do as adults when we read. We never do any of those things mentioned above. I read about 30 books last year and never printed study guide questions to answer at the end of every chapter. Not once did I dash off to Staples or Hobby Lobby to buy glitter and poster board paper when I was done.

Mostly, I just read.

If there was a passage I liked, I dog-earned the page and recorded it later on an index card. Sometimes, but not often, I’d annotate. If there was something I didn’t understand, I’d look it up. If something sparked curiosity, I would do further research.

I did what the book compelled me to do, nothing more. And I love that freedom as a reader. I’m in control.

Who wants to be told how to read and what to read all the time?

The tragedy of the assessment era is that everything now needs a metric. Everything needs to be tied back to an assessment and justified with a number. And that is killing a love for reading. What metric more important than engagement?

Resurrecting the Joy of Reading

Since December I have given my students the opportunity to read like adults.

I begin each one of my classes with 10 minutes of silent, independent reading. It happens every single day. I set the timer and we read. Even on test days, when my students finish early, they are reading for the remainder of the period.

The only condition is that it must be a book. No review packets for another class. No notes for the test next period. Just books that they choose.

And what I have found is that the 10 minutes is the perfect tease. It is just enough to get the students in a rhythm and it cuts them off before boredom sets in. Often they are disappointed that we can read longer, they ask if they “can have a few more minutes to finish a chapter” or “get to the end of this really good part.” Some even ask if we can read for an entire period.

Since December, my students have read more books on their than they did in their three years of high school combined. They are reading the Game of Thrones series. Sports biographies. Business books. Political books. Books on Buddhism. Nicholas Sparks books. Classic literature. And everything in between.

And now that the rhythm has set in and they realize that this was not a one week or one month experiment, they are thinking as sustained readers. Before they even finish a book they are thinking about what they want to read next.

So what’s the simple trick to get everyone reading?

Implement the 10-Minute Fix

  • Do Books Talks Every Month. My librarian comes into all my classes once a month and we transform into tag-team partners, teaming up to talk about the books we love and get students excited.
  • Start Every Student With a 100. They get to keep it if that 100 if they bring a book and read every day. There is no test, no homework questions. No other grades attached to the habit. Just a reward.
  • Do Not Make Any Judgements About What They Read. Honor their autonomy. Even if a student chooses a middle-school book, that’s their choice. I don’t say anything about it. The only condition that I put on the reading is that is it must be school appropriate.
  • Model the Behavior You Want. This is not your time to get caught up on grades or file papers. Read right along with them. Share your excitement and frustration.
  • When They Ask You How It’s Being Graded, Tell to Stop Worrying About Grades and Start Enjoying Reading. They will ask. They always do. But eventually they will get the point. These 10 minutes are not about a grade, they are about an experience.
  • Find a Way to Show Off All the Reading That Happens. When my students finish a book, I have them print out an image of the cover, rate it on a five-star scale, and tape it to the front door of the classroom. I want other students to see what we are reading and how many books we have read. It’s free advertising for the power of good books in our lives.