Starting the Year in Reading on the Right Foot
Like runners, middle and high school readers get better with practice, goals, and individual feedback.
When I started running eight years ago, I was out of shape and often struggled to finish a mile without stopping to catch my breath. However, by practicing regularly and completing shorter races along the way, I was able to complete my first half-marathon in 2018.
Due to the recent school closures, trauma of the pandemic, and regular old summer slide, I worry that, as readers, many of our future students will resemble the out-of-shape runner that I once was. As a result, I’ve been thinking about ways to get middle and high school students up to speed in September.
Setting Readers Up for Success
Get to know students as readers: When school restarts, we should focus not only on getting students reading immediately but also on getting to know them as readers.
On the first day of school, teachers can distribute a survey that includes questions about students’ hobbies, interests, and reading habits. The teacher can use students’ answers to inform both whole-class instruction and one-on-one conferences, and as a way to provide students with books they’ll like.
Establish a reading routine: We know that to become good readers, students need to read a lot. Teachers should provide students with ample time to read. In the first few months of school, I usually give students 10–15 minutes at the beginning of class. Teachers can provide longer reading periods when they feel students demonstrate sufficient readiness and ability.
Giving students both choice and regular practice creates a classroom culture in which books are valued. 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.
For homework, I ask my classes to read for two hours outside of class each week (including weekends). Often this is the only homework I assign my students, which I hope emphasizes the importance of regular reading.
Increase the length of reading blocks: At the beginning of the year, our students should sometimes be afforded extended reading workouts in class to build their reading stamina.
When a reader finds a great book, she might want to spend a Saturday afternoon curled up with it. By extending the reading block a few times a month and suggesting great books for our students, we build their reading skills, which makes reading more enjoyable—and thus sets them up to be lifelong readers.
Coach students individually: Teachers can pull students aside for reading conferences to provide coaching, the way fitness apps can give runners real-time feedback. At the beginning of the year, teachers might use the interest surveys to ask targeted questions like “Do you consider yourself a reader?” and “Who is your favorite author, and why?”
As the year progresses and teachers build relationships with their students, they can begin to provide more individualized reading instruction in conferences. In these conferences, they can work on fluency strategies like rereading a difficult paragraph or researching historical allusions. At the end of the year, conferences can focus more on self-reflection and growth as readers.
Follow a schedule: Much like a runner who plans a weekly workout routine, independent readers make time to read—even when life is hectic. In an age when teens are busier than ever, teachers can ask reluctant readers to devote particular times and days to read at home. Students might find it helpful to write down the plan in a notebook, planner, or smartphone. When teachers are able to confirm that students have made reading a habit outside of school, they can gradually release them from this requirement to promote more independence.
Reflect regularly: By keeping a list of books they’ve read, writing about their independent reading often, and completing quarterly Reading Ladder assignments, students can set goals for themselves and track their progress. They might start with a goal for the first few weeks of school—then, after these have passed, for coming months, grading periods, or even the whole year.
While some runners, like me, have a targeted goal such as a half-marathon, teachers can demonstrate to their students that reading isn’t a race—and there’s no end to growing as a reader.