In this post, James Aycock, director of scholar support at Grizzlies Prep in Memphis, explains his school’s independent reading, or “choice reading”, program and how it’s contributed to huge gains in students’ academic performances and developed a school-wide love of reading.
By James Aycock
The culture at Grizzlies Prep is built in large part around a shared love of reading. Our scholars are expected to have a book of their choice each day. In fact, reading is so important that we’d rather you forget your pencils than your book. This is because the choice book is an essential part of our school day. We devote at least 30 minutes daily to uninterrupted class time for choice reading.
Why does reading matter?
There are tons of academic benefits to reading, but that’s not the message we send to our scholars. We think that it’s important to make a distinction between academic reading, which feels like work, and choice reading, which feels like pleasure.
Yes, pleasure reading has academic benefits, but we want to emphasize the message that reading is good in and of itself. Reading allows you to travel to faraway places, to imagine different worlds, to learn about other cultures, and to interact with some of the top minds of human history. That’s just an incredible opportunity.
Why devote time for kids to just read?
Reading in an English language arts class can and should be enjoyable, but that’s not the primary purpose; the purpose of reading in an English class is to develop specific academic skills and to master academic standards. Plus, in an ELA class, kids are often assigned a book to read – and the books assigned tend to be different than the books kids would choose to read.
Independent reading is just as important, if not more so, because it makes reading a habit. It is essential for kids to see themselves as readers, to consider reading a part of their identity.
The independent part of choice reading is also crucial. As kids get older, they need to develop the skills and motivation to become more self-directed. Reading needs to be something they choose to do.
Why 30 minutes per day?
Research shows a strong connection between reading and academic achievement. And 20 minutes of reading per day is regarded as the mark for high academic achievement.
We set our mark at 30 minutes because it sometimes takes a few minutes to get into a book and because attention can be difficult to sustain. In other words, in a 30-minute period, we are confident that at least 20 minutes of sustained reading happens.
We limit our choice reading time to 30 minutes because it’s difficult, especially in middle school, to read independently for any longer.
What does it look like?
We don’t start at 30 minutes, though. In fact, we don’t even start with reading. At the beginning of the school year, we start with one minute of quiet concentration. Then, we move to two minutes, then three minutes, then five minutes. Then, we start reading. And again, we increase the time each day until scholars build the stamina to read for long periods of time.
Choice reading time looks like kids sitting in desks reading books silently. The teacher monitors the class and conducts brief check-ins with scholars at least once per week to ensure that they understand and can talk about what they are reading.
What’s the impact?
We’ve seen such a huge impact from our choice reading program that it would be hard to find a better use of our time. In fact, our choice reading program has been so successful that a good question when planning anything might be: Will this be more beneficial than “just reading”? If not, then we should just read!
Moreover, reading is infectious. Our parents report that all the talk about reading has pushed them to start reading more. Even our teachers are impacted – they want to read the books our scholars enjoy so that they can talk with them. Yes, our scholars give book recommendations to our teachers.
If that weren’t enough, though, the reading pays off big time academically. Last year, our average scholar read 20 books and had reading growth of 2.4 years. Also, at a time when reading scores were down across the state, we saw an increase of 8.5 points.
How do I replicate this?
Our choice reading program requires very little. The most important factors are a well-stocked school library, dedicated time built into the daily schedule, and the expectation that all kids can and will love to read. The only training involved would be how to talk to kids about what they are reading.
Incentives play a role as well, but these don’t have to be costly. We plan quarterly, school-wide incentives, like free play for scholars who meet their word-count goals. Grade-level teams have their own incentives; when a homeroom reaches certain targets; for example, they get to watch a movie while eating lunch in their classroom. There are individual incentives as well; when a scholar reaches the 1-million word mark, they get to wear a cape all day, and they get their photo on the school’s Facebook page.
In short, the choice reading program at Grizzlies Prep costs very little. Time and books, together with the right attitude about reading and a little creativity, is all it takes.
Any school can do it, so why isn’t this a centerpiece of every school’s literacy program?