Because of the complex schedule, extensive list of pre-requisite courses, and a pre-determined curriculum, developing a comprehensive and effective reading program in high school can be a challenge. While it does require “a village” to develop a comprehensive literacy program that spans a student’s entire high school career, the reality is that teaching, for many educators, is isolating. Therefore, many times, we have to take “the bulls by the horn,” and do the best we can as agents of change in our own classroom: the one environment we can control.
After 15 years of teaching English, I have grown to appreciate the importance of a solid reading program at the high school level in spite of the extra work it requires. What I have found is that oftentimes, when students enter high school, if they’re not already avid readers and writers, they don’t read. I’ve heard students say that the last book they read was in the 5th grade, or some variation of that truth. And, so I have dedicated a lot of my career, reading books such as Miller’s The Book Whisperer and Lehman’s Falling in Love with Close Reading, and studying curriculum & instruction to customize a program that fits my instructional needs. No matter the curriculum, I have always managed to integrate some form of a reading program in my English courses. Here are my tips on how this can be done:
1. Curtail the Curriculum
In an age of advancing technology, the art of reading is quickly losing its luster. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves why are we still reading the Classics? I’m not suggesting that we do away with Shakespeare or the Bronte Sisters; however, you must remember what you’re competing against: technology is multi-faceted and extraordinarily entertaining. You’re not going to captivate your audience unless the topic is relatable. This is why it might be more effective to expose students to parts of the Classics to meet specific objectives instead of reading an entire literature out of principle. For example, if you want to teach students the art of satire, then analyzing parts of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” would fulfill that purpose. If you want to show students how a writer develops a complex character, then using parts of Hamlet would be appropriate; however, I don't see the need to read entire works. Educators should cater to how students learn. Technology has transformed how students process information. Students have developed short attention spans because of how quick and brief information is disseminated. If we want to engage students, we have to adjust our practices.
2. Integrate Technology
If you can't beat 'em, join em'. There are a ton of free online resources that you can use to supplement your curriculum. I recently discovered ActivelyLearn.com and I share this resource with anyone who will listen. This free online program has an expansive literary catalog - fiction and non-fiction - from which to choose text. Each text has embedded questions students can answer and annotation students can respond to. Students can also annotate their own thoughts and engage in written conversation with the teacher and peers. If the program doesn’t have what you need, you can upload up to 3 PDFs a month and embed your own questions and notes.
3. Supplement the Curriculum with Independent Reading
Balancing parts of the curriculum with student choice, allows for a more comprehensive reading program. You’ll find that students will read more and not less. You can use the literature listed in the curriculum to model the skill you want to teach and then ask students to practice using their independent reading choice. Edmodo [another free online resource] is an excellent platform to monitor this type of application. For example, I use Animal Farm to teach the concept of an allegory; then, I challenge students to pick an independent reading that is an example of a contemporary allegory. There are a ton out there! Usually, trilogies such as The Hunger Games are allegories. In Edmodo, you can ask students to post the various symbols they encounter in their independent reading and what they think they signify. Peers can engage in conversation about the different symbols.
4. Follow a Reading Plan
Every time students begin a new reading, we spend some time in class developing a reading plan that I monitor closely through reading logs. Let’s face it! If we don’t monitor their reading, most of them won’t do it even if they choose a book they genuinely want to read. There’s so much going on in high school that students need help managing their time and balancing their life, and reading is not on their list of priorities. I give students four weeks to read their selection and so they have to divide the total number of pages in their book by 4. This tells them how much they should be reading a week.Then we divide that number by 7, so they can see how many pages they should be reading daily. This information is recorded in the reading logs as a constant reminder to both the teacher and the student. While I encourage them to read every day, I tell them that it isn’t necessary as long as they meet their weekly target. Students appreciate this because they are then empowered to manage their reading amidst their very busy lives.
5. Maintain a Reading Log
A reading log can be any platform that allows students to reflect on their reading. It can be a composition notebook, a graphic organizer, or a section in their binder. The key here is to guide their reflection. Provide sentence starters or writing prompts to focus their thinking. Or, you can standardize it, so students are applying the same skill every week; they can, for example, summarize the reading each week as well as record when they read and how many pages they read. You can use these to guide conferences or to informally assess if students understand what they’re reading.
6. Establish a Reading Culture
There’s no such thing as downtime. Train students to read every chance they get. If they finish an activity or exam before others, they should read. If you can manage it, make independent reading part of the lesson too. If you model a strategy or introduce a concept, allow students to practice applying the new knowledge using their independent reading. Don't underestimate the power of reading aloud at the high school level. I was skeptical at first too, but students love to hear you read, especially if you are an enthusiastic reader. Besides, non-readers need a model to emulate when they are reading on their own. Sometimes, allot time to read just for fun. This is a great opportunity to join in the reading too. Let students see what you’re reading and allow them to ask you questions. Whenever you can, share your experiences with your reading selections. When students see you read, they are more likely to read too.