If you walk into my eighth-grade language arts classroom during the first 15 minutes of the period on Tuesdays and Thursdays, you will see students spread across the classroom reading different books. The books, selected by students based on what they want to read, aren’t assigned by the curriculum. This 15 minutes spent reading for pleasure isn’t connected to any assignment or assessment. It’s a calm and happy time for them and for me; sometimes I even read with them. Although this independent reading time doesn’t require rigorous problem-solving or the creation of any kind of output, I’d argue that it is fundamentally important to students’ future success.
Adolescents are more deterred from reading for pleasure than ever before. Schedules burdened with extracurricular activities and engrossing technologies like Instagram and TikTok consume students’ attention and hamper their ability to develop sustainable independent reading habits. One 2018 survey of more than 50,000 teens in the United States showed a clear decline in independent reading habits. Over the 10-year period from 2006 to 2016, time spent using the internet, playing video games, or attending to social media doubled, while time spent reading books or magazines was reduced by more than half.
In spite of these external pressures, when teachers give students time in class to read books of their choice and you do not connect that reading time with an assignment, then even teenagers will ask for more time to read for pleasure. But getting teenagers to buy into reading for pleasure can be a challenge. Establishing a positive reading culture in the classroom has encouraged my students to make the most of their reading for pleasure time.
Building a Positive Reading Culture All Year long
In Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers, celebrated English teacher Penny Kittle writes that “Reading is oxygen for a student’s future success.” To get students to read, it’s important to create communities of students with shared values around reading.
I’ve come to describe a class that shares values around reading for pleasure as having a positive reading culture. In The Book Whisperer, Donalyn Miller writes, “Building lifelong readers has to start here. Anyone who calls herself… a reader can tell you that it starts with encountering great books, heartfelt recommendations, and a community of readers who share this passion.” There are a number of practices that help create “a community of readers” with a shared passion around reading, including teacher-modeled reading habits, book talks, reading celebrations, and read-alouds.
Read-aloud theme weeks: Read-alouds are an excellent way to build shared values around reading for pleasure. I’ve found that having specific read-aloud theme weeks is a great way to take read-alouds up a notch and build student anticipation. One popular theme week among my students is “spooky story” read-alouds during the week of Halloween. Teenagers, I’ve found, can still get excited for read-alouds, especially when focused on age-appropriate themes.
As another example, the American Library Association and Amnesty International promote a Banned Books Week celebration every fall. I tell my students about Banned Books Week a week ahead of time, and we discuss historical information regarding the tradition of banning books in the United States. Then, during Banned Books Week, we will have a read-aloud from an excerpt of a different banned book each day of the week—recently, from popular challenged books like The Hate U Give, Speak, and 13 Reasons Why.
Jólabókaflóð: A cozy holiday reading celebration: When I explain that this event is pronounced “yola-boka-flode,” I often hear “Yola-boka-what?” More frequently, it is endearingly referred to as “that yola-boka thing” by both students and staff. Jólabókaflóð is an Icelandic tradition that coincides with the release of new books before the winter holiday season. Jólabókaflóð involves exchanging books with friends and loved ones and spending the day reading and drinking hot chocolate in comfort.
As a classroom activity, it’s a reading celebration that usually takes place the day before winter break. Students come to school dressed in pajamas (sometimes bringing a pillow and blanket), exchange books with classmates, and spend the entire period reading for pleasure. I serve hot chocolate, turn down the lights in the room, and put a yule log on the projector. This reading celebration is incredibly popular among students and is frequently mentioned as a fond memory by former students. Students this year have even been lobbying me for an encore Jólabókaflóð!
A schoolwide “Battle of the Books”: This is a great way to get a schoolwide conversation going about what both staff and students are reading for pleasure. Basically, Battle of the Books is a sports-tournament-style bracket in which popular books compete against each other to “win” instead of sports teams. The competition usually begins by surveying students to determine which books are most popular. Then, books square off against one another each round as students vote for the best book in each match-up. A Battle of the Books competition can be hosted around the time of March Madness to build enthusiasm and capitalize on the tournament’s popularity.
One way to vary a Battle of the Books event is to have one side of the bracket focused on books picked by teachers and the other side of the bracket focused on books picked by students. The championship match-up will feature the most popular book picked by teachers and the most popular book picked by students. Dedicating one side of the bracket to teacher selections sends the message that reading for pleasure is a lifelong habit, and it’s something that’s valued by the adults in the building as well.
A positive reading culture is an important first step in helping students develop independent reading habits. In addition, students, especially teenagers, need time in class to read books of their choice for pleasure. With the time constraints of the curriculum and the demands of standardized testing, it can be difficult for language arts teachers to find time for these activities. However, few things could be more important for a student’s long-term success.