By Jarred Amato, a high school English teacher in Metro Nashville Public Schools
As we arrange our classrooms, finalize lesson plans, and reluctantly re-set our alarms in preparation for another school year, I wanted to offer advice to teachers who are hoping to instill a love of reading in all of their students, whether they’re in first grade or twelfth. As I enter my eighth year in the classroom, I firmly believe that the best solutions are often the simplest, especially when it comes to reading.
If teachers and leaders commit to creating a culture of reading in our classrooms and schools, the results will follow. And by results, I’m not just talking test scores, although those will certainly improve, too. Research shows that students who identify as readers are significantly happier, less stressed, more empathetic, and ultimately far more prepared to succeed in this crazy thing we call life.
There’s no question that selling today’s students (and adults, for that matter) on reading is harder than it’s ever been. Books face a number of formidable opponents, most notably the smartphone. However, rather than admitting defeat to the likes of Instagram and Pokémon Go, we have a responsibility to help all students realize that reading can be far more enjoyable, and beneficial, than any iPhone app or video game. We know the unfortunate reality if we don’t.
Here are 10 tips to keep in mind as we begin another successful school year:
1. Instill a growth mindset in your students. I constantly remind my students that reading is just like exercising. The more you work out, the stronger you become. The more you run, the faster you get. The same is true with reading. Good things happen when you read all the time, and it’s nearly impossible to improve when you don’t.
2. Give students consistent time to read. I dedicate the first 20 to 30 minutes of every block to independent reading of self-selected books, and my students and I wish it could be even longer. Students crave routine, and by providing them with consistent time and choice, I have seen their reading attitude, stamina and ability improve dramatically. In the beginning of the year, start with 10 minutes (the same way you would start by running a mile before trying to run a marathon), and then add time as students’ stamina increases.
3. Give students choice. I’d have a much harder time selling students on the joy and value of reading if I forced all of them to read the same book at the same pace in the same place, regardless of their interests or ability level. But, by introducing them to novels by the likes of Kwame Alexander, Sherman Alexie, Kiera Cass, Suzanne Collins, Walter Dean Myers, Matt de la Peña, Sharon Draper, John Green, Khaled Hosseini, Marie Lu, Rick Riordan, J.K. Rowling, Veronica Roth, Rainbow Rowell, Gary Schmidt, Paul Volponi, Jacqueline Woodson, and Markus Zusak, my students end up reading more than they ever had before.
4. Be a reading role model. How can we expect students to love and appreciate reading if we don’t? Our passion and excitement for reading is contagious, so be sure that your students know you’re a reader and book fanatic. During independent reading time, I conference with students about their books, make recommendations, give book talks, motivate reluctant readers, provide positive reinforcement, and often, simply find a spot in the room to read alongside them.
5. Create a nurturing reading environment in your classroom. Start with an accessible and inviting library, appropriate lighting, and comfortable seating. If students read better on the floor or standing up, let them. Another non-negotiable is absolute silence. If we treat reading time as sacred, students will too.
6. Help students set personalized reading goals. Reading should not be a competition. However, most students respond well to a personal goal, whether it’s to read a certain of number books or words, improve their reading level by a certain number of grades, or finish an entire series by the same author. Help students set these goals, and then check in frequently with them about their progress.
7. Celebrate reading. We glorify athletes with pep rallies, yet our readers tend to walk through the halls virtually unnoticed. That needs to change. We have to be better about acknowledging and appreciating these students. Often times the only rewards that are needed are more books and more time to read. For example, last year, our school’s two reading marathons, where more than 40 students and teachers gathered in the library to read after school from 2:30 to 10:00 (with small breaks for snacks and prizes every hour) were a huge success.
8. Know your students and their books. Given that one of our primary tasks should be connecting students with books they don’t want to put down, it’s important that we a) read a lot ourselves, and from a wide variety of genres, and b) talk to our students constantly about their interests, hobbies, favorite authors, challenges, goals, etc.
9. Encourage reflection. I believe there is tremendous power in having students reflect periodically on their reading progress. Sample questions include: In what ways have you improved as a reader this year? What do you like most about reading? What challenges do you still face as a reader, and what can you do to overcome them? What can Mr. Amato do to help you succeed as a reader? In your opinion, why is reading important?
10. Don’t give up. No, not even on the kid who picks up a new book from the shelf every day or goes out of his way to tell you that reading is boring. Be patient, look for small wins, and remember that it’s never too late for someone to become a reader.
You can learn more about Jarred’s passion for developing strong, enthusiastic readers on his blog (here), and get a glimpse into his classroom (here). You can also connect with Jarred on Twitter @jarredamato.