I learned about the book tasting—an opportunity for students to try out a variety of books—from an instructional coach at my school, who modeled it for the teachers, enabling us to learn firsthand what this activity can do.
To start, I gather titles in a variety of genres from the school library, classroom library, and literacy library—it’s best to have a few copies of each book. I set up my tasting by putting my students in seven groups of four, with four titles in a different genre for each group. One group is generally realistic fiction, one literary nonfiction, one fantasy, and so forth. With groups of four, students get to experience different viewpoints without being overwhelmed—every student gets a chance to contribute when they discuss their books.
I tell students before we start that they’ll be “tasting” every book at each group over the course of two days. I give them an index card and a pencil, and have them choose a book from their table. For three minutes, they read that book. At the end of the three minutes, they put it down, and write down the title and author if they liked it. Then they choose another book at their table.
This happens four times, and then they move to another genre. After they’ve tasted all the books, they rank the ones they liked. By the end of the two days, students have a list of several books they want to read. I give them their first choice if possible, but sometimes they get their second choice if I don’t have enough copies of a particular book.
Every day in workshop, they read the book they’ve chosen. My 45-minute reading workshops have a 10-minute mini lesson on a skill—like understanding how character traits are conveyed, for example—followed by 30 minutes of reading and five minutes of discussion on that skill. Once they finish a book, they move on to the next one on their list or do another book tasting to decide what they want to read next.
Some may ask, “How do I know they’re reading?” or “How can I prepare them for mandatory state testing?” I do three things to address these issues: conferencing with students, listening while they discuss the skill we’re focused on in relation to their book, and having them work in small groups.
Conferencing is meeting with each student once or twice a week and asking what’s going on in their book or what traits they see in a particular character or what they can learn from a character’s actions. Through this conversation, which should last around two or three minutes, you’ll quickly learn what they understand and what they don’t. You can take brief notes on the conversation: Track a strength and a weakness, and give them something to focus on or work on, which you can ask about at the next meeting.
Likewise, at the end of reading workshop when students discuss the skill for the day, I walk around and listen to what they’re saying. Are their answers really about the skill, or did they miss it and need some re-teaching? Take notes as you listen and note which students need work on the same skills, and set up small groups who will work together for 15 minutes or so.
I do three types of small groups based on data and conferencing: guided reading, strategy groups, and book clubs. In guided reading, I gather students on the same reading level who are not progressing in reading on their own and have them read out loud to me, and we discuss errors and make corrections.
I use strategy groups when I notice a specific need—for example, not being able to identify the theme in a text. I gather the students with that need, do a mini lesson on it, and have them apply the strategy in their own book while I’m sitting there. And I check in later to see how that skill is progressing.
The last small group is book clubs. I do these with my students who are consistently performing very well on tests and benchmarks. I let them book taste in a small group of four or five and pick a book. They read it at home or school, whichever they choose, and meet once a week together and once every two weeks with me.
I have students on a two-week rotation for book clubs, guided reading, and strategy groups. The only group I see twice in a week is guided reading. Everyone else gathers only once for 15 minutes out of their independent reading.
This way of teaching reading has changed my life and my students’ lives. They’re now getting individual instruction during the week as well as small group instruction, while doing what they have to do to become better readers—reading.