Turning Pages: Putting the Fun Back into Reading
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, March/April 2022 Issue
By Martha Beach
A class of 30 students sit at their desks, each with an open book in front of them for daily reading time. For ten minutes the class is quiet except for the sound of pages turning and the occasional whispered conversation. It doesn’t look like much, but there’s a lot going on: easy access to a variety of books, increased confidence in reading, motivation to keep going, and time to practice and focus. Once those ten minutes are up, students happily mark their place, excited to journal about their experience and already looking forward to tomorrow’s session.
Not all students are this happy to read every day. By middle school (or earlier), many children have lost motivation, confidence, and focus. Often this leads to a lack of interest in reading, and kids choosing not to read for fun, which ultimately means the skill is lost. It’s a vicious cycle.
So where does it all start to go downhill? When students begin to read only for information, instead of for enjoyment.
Offer a Wide Selection
Of course, students can’t always read for pleasure.
“I understand why teachers have them read for information—we are under so much pressure to provide grades and numbers and assessments,” says Dan Rose of Oswego, NY, who has been teaching middle school for 21 years. “But the balance is sometimes off. Students don’t know how reading fits into their life—they don’t yet see the connection between what and why people read outside of school or work.”
Teachers can begin to address this disconnect by offering access to a rich and expansive collection of texts. “If you want kids to read, they have to enjoy it. And to enjoy it, they have to have access to a good selection of books,” explains Anita Brooks Kirkland, the chair of Canadian School Libraries.
Libraries should have diverse collections, by writers from many cultures, about a variety of characters with different voices. “These books may offer a window for seeing the rest of the world,” she says.
In some cases, teachers direct students to choose from a particular section or level of texts in order to help focus their choice or keep them within a certain learning bracket, but that can backfire. “In the library, the entry point to reading should be interest, not level,” says Brooks Kirkland.
“It’s important they have the ability to choose what interests them. A teacher is trying to be helpful by saying: ‘Only choose from this section.’ But that might not include what [students are] actually interested in. A picture book may not be of interest to a child who loves dinosaurs.
“There is no better way to kill interest than putting restrictions on what they can choose,” she adds.
Start a Classroom Library
Unfortunately, funding for school libraries varies.
“The reality is a lot of kids don’t have access to a school library. If they have one, it’s only open a few hours a week. They’re vastly underfunded,” explains Brooks Kirkland. Sometimes access comes down to a weekly visit, or simply when there’s a few minutes free. “Kids often only go to the library if there’s time—it’s been marginalized.”
One way to mitigate this is to establish your own classroom library. Dan Rose has spent years building his collection. He recommends displaying books with covers visible at “arm’s reach.” And just like the school library, books should offer a diversity of topics and characters by many authors.
“I spend a lot of time thinking each year, ‘What am I lacking and how can I address it?’” he says. “If I want kids to be interested, I need to have books that all kids are interested in.”
However, a classroom library can come at a heavy cost for the teacher, and may not satisfy every reader. “Even if a teacher builds their own classroom library out of their own funds, that small selection cannot satisfy a child who reads at a normal level for the whole year,” says Brooks Kirkland.
To get around this, Dan Rose recommends applying for funds earmarked for books. He also finds parents are often happy to donate old books or cash.
Find a Good Fit
Even with ready access to books, students may not know what they enjoy reading. Lisa Rose (no relation to Dan Rose) is a middle school teacher in Minnesota who is in her seventh year of teaching. She focuses on reading and reading intervention. At the start of each year, she gives her students a survey for reading personality “to help them find a good fit.” The survey matches their interests to suggested books.
“Once they find a book, I ask them to read at least ten pages. And then if they decide it’s not for them, that’s OK. It’s about giving it a good try,” she says. “The goal is to switch their perspective from ‘I don’t like reading’ to ‘I can’t find what I like reading.’” In this way, students begin to learn that reading is a process.
To introduce genres, Brooks Kirkland recommends book “tastings.” Offer a table of books based on genre (mystery, fantasy, history, etc.). Pick two or three books from the table and essentially sell the book in about 30 seconds, then rotate to another table. At the end, students can choose what they like. “They pounce on the books,” she says.
Similarly, Dan Rose suggests daily book talks, especially when you get the community involved: ask parents, siblings, business owners, the mayor, the principal, other teachers, etc. to make a pre-recorded one- to three-minute video about a book they’re reading and why they like it.
Give Students Time to Practice
Once students have found a genre or series they enjoy, then they need daily time to practice the skill of reading. “That’s a tough sell for many teachers,” Dan concedes. He sets aside ten minutes every day in his class.
“Ten minutes doesn’t seem like a lot but it’s the central technique that brings [kids] back to loving reading. Ten minutes of reading is the most important part of the day,” he says. This time serves multiple purposes: it allows students to run to the library to exchange books; it offers the teacher a chance to model reading (i.e. how fast they turn pages, the expression on their face); and it also provides an opportunity for the teacher to move around the room and chat with children who don’t seem interested.
Dan usually finds at the end there is an impromptu lesson based on something that happened during the session. (“Have you ever read a page three times and not remembered what you read? I just did that!” or “How do you hold your place so you can find it easily next time?”)
For some students, sitting and reading for ten minutes is an extremely daunting task. “Attention span is definitely an issue with struggling readers,” Dan admits. This is something he has noticed proliferate alongside access to technology. “A lot of them haven’t sat still for more than three minutes without their phone. Maybe ten to fifteen years ago kids could sit for thirty to forty minutes. But now it’s one page and they say ‘OK what’s next?’”
A change of focus often means shifting a student’s mindset, getting them motivated to put in the work and allowing them time to practice. Dan likens daily reading to a sports warmup: you need to practice dribbling before you can play a basketball game.
Change Their Perspective
Explain to students why it’s important to look at reading as more than a school activity. Explore areas of life that require reading: from Amazon reviews, to video games, to math equations.
To get students thinking about reading as a life-long skill rather than a chore, Lisa Rose likes to use “reading conversations” and journals to make the task approachable, to help students find what they like, or to carry on with a certain text. She also tries to embed metacognition (being aware of our thinking).
“Instead of asking them to write about what they’re reading, I ask them to pay attention to and write about and discuss what they’re thinking while they’re reading,” she says. For example: does the time go fast or slow? Where is my focus? If something doesn’t make sense, why is that? “This introspection also helps them realize reading is a process.”
Reading for pleasure is a lifelong journey, and teachers play a big role. “Reading begets reading. Success begets success. Give them permission to try, and give them lots of choice,” says Lisa Rose.
Other Tips and Tricks
- Ask students to keep a “books I want to read” list in the back of their journal. When they hear of an interesting title, add it to the list. “This heads off the excuse of I-don’t-know-what-to-read,” says Dan Rose.
- Many kids interested in one book? “Put a bookmark in it with their name so they get it next,” Dan advises.
- When the reading session is over, ask “Who needs a bookmark?” each time to avoid the I-lost-my-place excuse.
- Create a wall of fame: kids who have read more than 20 books get their name and/or picture posted.
- Practice visualization by listening to a video’s audio without the image, then having students describe what they see in their minds as they listen. “Then you can level up by asking them to describe it with five senses,” says Lisa Rose.
- Get kids hooked by listening to a few pages of an audiobook. “Stop it at the cliffhanger,” Lisa adds, and discuss what might take place next. Have them read the next bit on their own to find out what happens.
- Brooks Kirkland highly recommends Ontario schools join the Forest of Reading, a province-wide program that involves students reading and voting on winning books. “At the end, they have a big celebration—hundreds of kids cheering for authors like they’re rock stars. And that’s about intrinsic reward, about the pure joy of reading.”
Martha Beach lives and works in Toronto as a freelance fact-checker, editor, and writer for a wide variety of publications. When she’s not working, you’ll find Martha on her yoga mat or hanging out with her daughter and husband.