When Marilyn Pryle, a teacher in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, began scheduling silent reading time for her ninth- and 10th-grade students during the first 10 minutes of each class, it became “one of the most profound and rewarding shifts in classroom teaching I have made in my career,” she writes for MiddleWeb.
Now, instead of skimming entire books at the last minute, Pryle’s students “read, and can’t stop reading,” she writes. “They often finish their books in two weeks, or less. They want to know what will happen, so they read during study hall, at home, and during our classes.”
It’s a shift that Pryle, who is an author and last year’s Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year, believes reinforces what many educators already know: if we want students to read—perhaps even grow to love reading—time for in-class reading needs to be prioritized in the school day. Far from being a waste of time, and in spite of intense pressures on teachers to meet academic requirements, when schools make the shift to incorporate in-class reading time, it can have a powerful, long-term impact on students’ reading and writing skills.
Literacy experts like Kelly Gallagher, author of Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It, have been hammering away at this issue for some time. “There are not enough books in schools,” says Gallagher, sounding a familiar refrain. “There’s not enough choice of books in schools. And there’s not enough time for kids to read in school. Those factors have to change.”
To nurture a love of reading, students also need guidance learning how to find a wide variety of books they might like; exercises that teach them how to engage and think deeply about what they’re reading, at least sometimes; and plenty of low-stakes opportunities for reflection that reduce the pressure students feel around reading, removing it from the stressful realm of more homework and grading.
Daily class time: In high school English teacher Chris D’Ippolito’s classroom, students read between 10 and 15 minutes at the beginning of class—and a few times a month, even longer blocks of time—a routine he says is critical for setting kids up as lifelong readers. “Giving students both choice and regular practice creates a classroom culture in which books are valued,” writes D'Ippolito. “Daily practice then becomes routine—even if students aren’t reading at home, they’re still getting the practice needed to develop a lifelong independent reading habit.”
Try Book Clubs: Alongside her regular curriculum, Pryle organizes book clubs for her high school students, providing them with the opportunity to choose their own groups and the books they’ll read. She has a few simple rules: “The books must be a minimum of 150 pages, and each book must be one that’s new to everyone in the group,” writes Pryle, noting that, if necessary, teachers can evaluate students’ choices to ensure the books are appropriate.
If a student struggles to find a group to join, Pryle steps in to help, asking the student about friends or acquaintances in the class. “Then I delicately talk to someone in that group, usually seeking out the person who seems the most mature and kind. So far, it has worked out.”
Provide Choice and Build Agency: Pryle treats choice as a learnable and essential skill that’s “not otherwise cultivated in most children’s school careers.” She tells her students to ask friends, parents, and teachers for book recommendations; she directs them to Goodreads or Amazon to locate books they’ve read and scroll through related book suggestions. She invites students to browse her classroom library and offers “gentle suggestions.” And when her school switched to remote learning, she kept the book talk going by recording and posting videos about books on her Google Classroom, and leaving book suggestions there as well.
Sometimes schools and communities prefer not to let students browse that widely for books. In this case, Pryle suggests providing students with a list of books that’s as broad and varied as possible. “This will preserve the element of choice, which is essential in this process,” she notes.
Include Low-Stakes Reflection: Some traditional assessment and accountability tools, like mandatory daily reading logs, can have a negative effect, decreasing kids' reading motivation and turning daily reading into a burden rather than a pleasurable activity. Compulsory graded essays at the completion of every book, meanwhile, tend to reduce reading to a wearying cycle of reward and punishment. Still, some form of accountability measure is helpful so teachers know kids are reading and processing the material.
Allie Thrower, who works as a continuous improvement coach in South Carolina, developed an exercise that turns reading accountability into a social activity—removing some of the traditional emphasis on external motivators like grades to encourage reading.
She begins by pairing students with a partner—someone “who will challenge them academically and encourage them emotionally,” she writes. Then she provides “mini-lessons to help students understand their role as reading accountability partners—how they can hold a peer accountable for daily reading while being receptive to feedback.” Thrower tries to avoid “stipulations or assigning grades or other metrics” to these conversations. “Let the purpose of this activity be to simply support students’ love of reading.”
In Pryle’s classroom, each five-week book club cycle ends with two low-stakes assessments: Students write a one-page review of the book they’ve read for Goodreads, and each group engages in a 60-minute discussion of their book. The hour-long discussion can happen in one go, be broken into 30-minute chunks, or even happen as short chats spread out through the five week cycle as the students process their books. She asks students to submit either typed minutes from the discussion via a Google Doc, or upload a recording of their conversation. In the conversations, Pryle looks for “convincing evidence of a thoughtful, natural 60-minute conversation,” and leaves “comments for improvements.”