A Framework for Building Older Students’ Literacy Skills
Encouraging middle school students to read books of all genres and reading levels can reignite their interest in reading.
Teachers, can you answer these four questions about all of your students?
- Who in your class likes to read?
- What have been your students’ favorite books since third grade?
- Are all of your students reading on grade level?
- How long has it been since each of your students read a book that was not assigned?
These questions may be a stretch for teachers of older children. This is because we seldom check in on the self-guided reading experiences of older students. We may assign books for them to read, but we see very little self-exploration.
This brings up two questions: Why isn’t independent reading a greater focus for older children? What can be done to get older children more engaged and interested in building background knowledge and literacy skills?
An administrator’s approach
When I became an administrator in charge of enrollment and curriculum, what I learned about student literacy skills troubled me. There were students who had not attempted to read a book since second grade, others who could not read above grade level, and still others who had lost hope of learning how to read.
I realized that I had to do something different to improve literacy skills and ignite a love for literacy. At the start of the school year, I observed that our students had no interest in reading, and as I listened to their decoding and vocabulary, I also noted that they lacked vocabulary skills and background knowledge.
Thus, my plan to improve literacy was born. During the second six weeks of the school year, I blocked out two days a week for two weeks to chat with 24 students and learn about their interests and what they thought of reading.
The conversation: Beginning with the upper grades, I selected random sixth and seventh graders and invited them to come to my office to have a conversation with me. I always started off any conversation by asking them if there was anything they wanted to talk about or if they had any questions for me.
As we conversed, I would wedge my literacy questions into the conversation. I would say things like the following:
- Tell me about things that you like.
- What do you like to do? If they said they liked video games, I’d ask why, and if they knew anything about video game creators.
- What book(s) have you read lately? If they said they didn’t like to read, I’d ask why not.
- Who is your favorite author?
Our five-to-seven-minute conversations garnered information that pointed me to books that students might be interested in reading. After the interviews, I allotted an hour a day for two days to locate library books for all of the students I had interviewed.
On the hunt for books: After the student conversations, I went to the school library to find books based on the notes I had jotted down after the meetings with students. I thoughtfully selected books for each student, including two early literacy books (first through third grade) based on their interests. I chose the lower-level literacy books in hopes of helping students build confidence to pick up any reading material and read. My observations of older children reading as well as research on literacy suggests that students reading below grade level find reading taxing and labor intensive; therefore, they are most likely not to pick up a book.
The book drop: The books I selected for each student were delivered to the classroom—a stack for each student. The students’ names and topics were on the books. Students were asked to read at least one early literacy book and give me an oral report. I found that choosing the right books for students took longer than the interviews and oral reports. I ended the conversations by asking them if they would read another book.
The read: As I met with students, I asked how their reading was going. The first student to report was a low-level reader. He was excited to report on his book, which he connected to his personal experiences, and he compared himself to the character in his book. The comparisons included sports interests, anger management, and visits to a therapist. He had already found other books he was interested in. After his oral report, I gave him a reading passport with stickers. The stickers were a hit even for a sixth grader.
The students’ oral reports and reading experiences all differed. Some asked me to select more books for them, and others brought their books with them to ask me how to pronounce a word or give them the meaning of the text.
Implementing a Schoolwide Literacy Plan
After I discovered what worked well to increase interest and engagement in literacy, I created a process that I shared with teachers. I asked teachers to implement these strategies in their own classrooms. I also encourage teachers to use books from all levels and genres to help build confidence and interest in reading. This plan can be modified based on the size of the class: For smaller classes, teachers can engage in one-on-one interviews with students, and in larger classes students can work in small groups instead.
- Set up five groups with at least five books in each. The books in each group should be diverse in topic and reading levels.
- Put students in small groups, and give them a checklist with instructions on how to discuss the books. Set a timer and rotate students until they have gone to each group of books.
- Remind students to read the book‘s jacket to learn about the author and the book.
- After the students have rotated through all the groups, ask each student to select at least five books they are interested in. Find a prominent space in the classroom to display the top 15 or 20 books.
- Schedule a class visit to the school library for students to select five new books to bring back to the classroom. They must select at least two early literacy books.
- In the classroom, provide students with a small crate or shoebox that they decorate to hold their personal classroom library or create a classroom library.
- Create an oral book report schedule for students to give you a report. Be sure to create a book report rubric.
After the oral book reports, consider partnering with lower-grade teachers to have your students read their early literacy book to the younger students. This presents an opportunity for all students, not just the high-achieving or gifted and talented students, to be role models.