10 Ways to Foster a Reading Culture in Your School

By Cathy Whitehead

Cathy Whitehead shares one of her favorite books with students at Mitchell-Neilson Elementary.

Earlier this spring, I had the privilege of talking with students, teachers, interventionists, librarians, and principals in three schools across the state as I set out to discover how we are promoting a culture of reading in Tennessee’s schools, especially in kindergarten through third grade.

I’m excited to share the wisdom I gathered during my travels. Here are ten ways to build a reading culture in your school and classroom:

  • Make Time for Read Alouds –Casey Norrod, the librarian at Jere Whitson Elementary School, shared that reading aloud is a top priority for her. Many of her students are English learners, and reading plenty of classic children’s stories, folk tales, and fairy tales helps to develop vocabulary and cultural literacy in students new to our country. Reading aloud to children is incredibly important in building the knowledge and language skills students need for success in reading.
  • Give Students Choice in What They Read –If students are allowed to self select and follow their own interests, reading follows naturally with most kids. While you should encourage students to read within their recommended reading range, don’t limit your kids to specific book levels. Giving students freedom in what they read is key.
  • Build Your Library – Whether we’re talking about the school library or classroom libraries, having plenty of books around means kids are that much more likely to pick one up. Courtney Allen, at Jere Whitson, believes that classroom libraries, while challenging to fund, are the first place kids often look to when they need a book.
  • Get Parents Involved – Encourage parental involvement by allowing students to check out books from your classroom library to read at home with their parents. Since some students come from homes with limited access to books, making sure kids have a book – or two – in their hands when they leave school means they’ll have something to read with an adult at home. Instituting a simple checkout system, such as using an iPad to take pictures of students and their borrowed books, can make it convenient to send them home with a good book to share with their parents.
  • Set Aside Time for Sustained Silent Reading –Every teacher I met with said that giving kids the opportunity to read books of their choice in school is incredibly important. Some carve out time in their schedules exclusively for reading. Others, such as Leah Shull from West Chester Elementary, always have students who finish their work early pick up a book, and Amy Walker from Mitchell-Neilson says that allowing her students to read when they want has encouraged more of them to pick up a book.
  • Be a Reader Yourself – It’s hard to sell what you won’t buy yourself, and reading is no exception. Teachers from every school shared that they are readers – most shared fond memories of reading when they were children – and they make sure their students know that teachers are readers, too.
  • Know Your Books – It’s difficult to guide students to the right book, or create a set of questions about a book, if you don’t know them yourself. Many teachers said that they like to share their childhood favorites with their students while also reading current children’s literature to offer informed recommendations for the readers in their classrooms.
  • Let the Kids Talk – We don’t often equate talking with literacy, but reading is an incredibly social skill, and when we let our kids talk about their reading, their excitement builds. Rachel Prater, along with the entire first grade team at Mitchell-Neilson, leads her students in “text talks,” when they share a book and then talk through the text together. When it comes to creating a culture of literacy, giving students time to talk about reading gives them the opportunity to share book recommendations, explore themes and ideas in what they’ve read, and establish important reading relationships with their peers.
  • Make It Fun – If you want to tap into your students’ intrinsic motivation to read, help them see that reading is fun. In my classroom, we often have a book auction when the Scholastic order comes in; students are able to “bid” on books by writing a persuasive argument for why they should read their favorite new addition to the classroom library, and those with the best arguments get first dibs at reading it. Kids who find reading to be fun are more likely to spend significant time reading – and those who read the most become proficient, lifelong readers.
  • Believe! – Every teacher shared an unwavering belief in the power of literacy. Helping kids to become readers is significant work that will transform your students’ lives and give them a source of comfort and joy for years to come.

Thank you to these wonderful schools and teachers for sharing their classrooms, time, and stories!

Cathy Whitehead is the 2016 Tennessee Teacher of the Year and a third-grade teacher at West Chester Elementary.