It can feel difficult to engage students in independent work and reading tasks—a challenge that I thought about carefully as I prepared to teach a unit on World War II in my high school social studies course. How can we capture students’ interest and teach them how to read, even in later grades? How could I apply my master’s training as a reading specialist to the history classroom? Could “right fit” narratives tap into students’ intrinsic motivation?
To explore these questions, I had students complete a book study experience to get a quick and wide view of important events that happened during the time period. The approach offered students multiple entry points into the unit topic and a survey of relevant information that positioned them well to engage with unit topics with greater depth. Below, I describe the model I used—replicable for other themes of study, too.
Creating a Classroom Book Study
My book study consisted of seven tables or “stations” of books of all reading levels and formats, from comics to collections of photos, prose, poetry—even picture books. Each table was designated with a specific theme related to the time period—for example, Holocaust, Women, African American, Battles and Tech/Weapons, At Sea, In the Air, and Historical Fiction. I asked students to complete a worksheet, documenting textual evidence or summaries of their learning about each category.
Rather than sitting still and reading only from select books at any one table, I sought to incorporate student movement into the unit, especially given our 80-minute block session. This meant that students cycled through each table, and they reported feeling excited to get to the next table to see what other books were there, especially when they heard other students talking loudly about the books at different tables.
On students’ book study worksheets, I prompted them to answer reflection questions like these: Describe one image you saw that jumped out at you. Why did you choose this one? If you had to read one complete book, what is the title of the text you’d select, and why would you want to read it? What are three questions you have/want to know more about?
I then invited them to swap papers with a neighbor and write down three things that their peer wrote about that stuck out to them before, finally, suggesting one category I could add to future book studies. Worksheets scaffolded reading, reflection, writing, and small group dialogue, diversifying how students spent their time while interacting with a range of texts.
Modeling Active Reading
Much of my own scholarship and writing is about how to use comics to engage students in the classroom. During book studies, I notice that students often tackle available comic books or graphic novels first, talk about them the most, and then follow up with other types of text.
In my classroom, I don’t subscribe to Lexile leveling, as I believe that students should be allowed and encouraged to explore the texts that speak to them, no matter if they are below or above their designated reading level. By incorporating student choice intentionally into book study units, I strive to empower students to identify and listen to their literacy needs and follow their interests, making the unit more accessible by complicating what we think of as “worthy” texts.
No matter which texts students select, we talk about important reading skill sets: scanning text and evaluating what books to read, noticing similarities and differences between texts, and identifying and making sense of patterns, among other close-reading skills.
Cultivating a Reading Culture
I always have a vast classroom library available to students from which they can borrow books to read for extra credit, but I was not having any luck getting students to do so, despite my many book talks.
Book studies solved this problem, sparking student interest that overflowed from our designated time for book exploration and inspired them to pursue more independent reading. Giving students space and time to just sit and read together in class turned out to be exactly what we needed.
Students are often surprised to learn that I have read all the books in my classroom and don’t just have them out for show. Reading is not always the easiest for me, I tell them, but it’s a skill that I practice a lot; through this transparency, and by modeling reading, annotating, and the thinking processes I use as an active reader, I strive to create a culture of learning in which we all engage in authentic literary inquiry.
Leveraging Book Study for Sustained Engagement
At the end of our World War II book study, students told me that I should do this lesson again next year but offer a lot more time for students to read through the books. I was thrilled to hear that they wanted more time to read.
As we delved more deeply into World War II content in the weeks following book study, students made powerful connections between new content and the texts they explored at the start of the unit. And they were better able to retain the information and see the bigger picture by referring back to the texts they explored.
Building background knowledge through book study proved to be the perfect hook to create engaged thinkers who were able to learn at their own pace and direction. Students will read if we offer them time and choice of materials, and station-based text study lends breadth and context that deepens direct instruction.