Monday, March 25, 2013

Tackling Readicide: Five tips to get started

Guilty confession: For the first eight years of my teaching career, I was clueless about teaching literature. By the way... I'm an English teacher.

In college I took several literature courses ABOUT literature, but we never had instruction on how to TEACH literature. My experience in college went something like this: we would read a book each week, then sit around in a circle discussing it... usually from a Freudian perspective. Then write an essay. That's it.

When I started teaching, I tried the same technique. The problem was, my students didn't care about the symbolism of the ducks in The Catcher in the Rye or the green light in The Great Gatsby. I quickly realized that I was merely a human Cliff's Notes, delivering the plot and basically having a discussion with the handful of students who actually read the book. 

I tried quizzes. I gave tests. I assigned projects. I showed movies.

My students simply weren't reading the books I was assigning.

Then, my teaching world was rocked. Two years ago, I read two books about teaching reading: Readicide by Kelly Gallagher and The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller.

After reading these books, I slowly began to implement the strategies from the books. This blog post will be the first in a series about how I set-up and run our outside reading assignment. It is a work in progress, but I am confident it is much more effective than the "Human Cliff's Notes" way of teaching reading.

Five rules to get started:

1. Allow students to choose what they read

This is a huge paradigm shift for many teachers. I will admit that I am a control freak in many ways. I believed that I was the paid professional, so I should control what students read and write. However, I have discovered that it is much more powerful when students get to choose and have ownership over the books they are reading.

When I look across the room at the books my students are reading, I see a wide variety of books. Some students are reading The Hunger Games series. Some are reading graphic novels. I even have students reading classics such as A Tale of Two Cities and Pride and Prejudice. Whoda thunk?!

The kicker? They are actually reading! Does it really matter that all students read the same book at the same time? I would argue no. As long as they are reading, that is what matters the most. Allowing students to have choice in their reading selections is far more powerful than force feeding "classics" like Jane Eyre down the throat of a 16-year-old sophomore.

2. Give up control

Repeat after me: "This is not about you."

We have already established that I am a control freak. Giving up control is scary, and this kind of shift forces the teacher to give up a great deal of control in the classroom. It is scary... and that is kind of cool.

I am not proposing that you let this turn into total chaos. There needs to be guidelines in place (which I will discuss in another blog post), but the teacher must be willing to turn control over to the students: selection of books, pacing, "abandoning books" when the student isn't digging it, etc...

This should be very individualized for each student. I set a goal for my students to read 20 books in one year. However, through individual conferences if a student tells me she read one book last year, and has read eight books this year, how can that be anything but a win for everyone? 

Giving up that control that EVERY student has to read the same books at the same time is scary, but also exhilarating.

3. Give students time to read

If you are going to make a commitment to reading, students need time to actually READ in class. I used to think of "reading" time as filler or a time-waster, but I have found huge value in providing SSR (Silent Sustained Reading) time to my students. The ONLY way students can become better readers is to actually READ.

We start each hour with 10 minutes of SSR. Once everyone has settled down (usually within the first 30 seconds after the bell), I start a timer and the students know they have 10 minutes to read. This does not change. It is the procedure for how we start the class each day.

I also ask my students to read 20 minutes five days a week outside of class. That time could be in another class during the school day, on the bus on the way home, or in bed before they fall asleep. I don't care, as long as they get in another 20 minutes during the day. This builds stamina. Just like a runner needs to invest time in running, readers need to invest time in reading. 

My classes meet four times a week. If you do the math, students should read 40 minutes a week in class, plus 100 minutes outside of class. That is 140 minutes of reading a week. If they can read one page a minute, they should be able to read a 300-page book in approximately two weeks. 

4. Model reading for students

Kelly Gallagher asserts in Write Like This that the teacher is the best writer in the room; therefore students need to see the teacher writing in front of them. The same logic applies to reading. 

Students need to visually see their teacher reading books along with them. 

During those 10 minutes of SSR time, I sit at my desk and read a book. I have been trying to read books that my students are reading (I am currently reading The Maze Runner, for example), but I also have been working through my own personal reading list. 

I would venture to guess that many students do not regularly see an adult reading books. You may be the only adult in their life that they can see actually reading books. That is a powerful responsibility. If they can see you as the teacher taking part in the same reading experience as them, it makes it a shared experience that you can discuss and talk about with your students, not an "assignment" where the teacher doesn't take an active role. 

5. Do not be a fun-sucker

Let me be clear: If you are not careful, you are going to suck all of the fun out of this:
  • Do not get bogged down in how you are going to grade it.
  • Do not worry about how you are going to keep track of everything.
  • Do not stress about students who are not keeping up with the pace.
  • Do not get upset with the students who are "gaming" you on the number of books they have read.
  • Do not force students to read things they don't want to read.
This should be an enjoyable experience for everyone. If you implement too many rules and guidelines, you are going to make it a dreadful experience. Some students will "game" you. There is no good way to grade this. Things will fall through the cracks.

Keep some guidelines in place, but the focus should be on reading enjoyable books. 

These are some simple guidelines I started out with when we started outside reading in my sophomore English class. What are some tips you have for getting started with outside reading?


  1. I whole heartily agree with your approach to give students the time, space, and control to become better readers. Choice is a very powerful motivator! Since you seem to sincere in your belief about giving students time to read, do you think you will allow more than 10 minutes? I have a 90 minute block and I give students 20-30 minutes to read. Thank you for your post. I look forward to reading more.

  2. Terry:

    Thank you for the comment! I wish I could give more than 10 minutes EVERY day. Our class periods are 50 minutes three days a week, and one 90 minute block. It always seems like once we get started reading, it is time to stop. I do sometimes give a bit more than 10 minutes on those 90 minute block days, but I feel bad about giving up too much instructional time, even though I believe the reading is important.

    Thank you again for the comment!

  3. I also read both of those books and it drastically changed the way I teach my classes. I read Donalyn's book over a break and came back to school to have all of my students throw away their reading logs! It has been fantastic and for those that say, "How do you know they are reading??" It is evident through conferencing, reading responses in their journals and large group discussions of what books kids are reading. With just allowing them extra time to read and not trying to grade that time, I have more time to spend with my students discussing books, which help them become better readers and I still find enough "stuff" to fill my gradebook - WIN WIN!
    Looking forward to reading more of your posts!

  4. I'm curious about how you teach literature/reading without the whole class reading the same book/story. Could you share how you go about instructing in comprehension, themes, character development, etc.?

  5. The strategy of letting them pick, and not grading, isn't this what weekend reading is? Students want structure, and my administration wants a book list to give to the parents.

  6. How can the above ideas be used in a classroom where the freedom of choice isn't really allowed?

  7. @Scott: We do one-pagers from Kelly Gallagher's book Readicide where students write about characters or literary devices from their own unique novels. We do a couple of whole-class novels, but most of the focus is on students self-selecting their books.

    @Joseph: Great questions. I am going to write about how I assess this in an upcoming blog post. I don't necessarily "grade" it, but I spend time conferencing with students and holding them accountable.

    As far as your administration - our administration is very supportive in what we do. Could you take 10 minutes out of each class period for reading? Still teach the novels you are required to do, but let students have time once or twice a week in order to read something they select. I would suggest reading The Book Whisperer or Readicide and sharing those books with your administration. Good luck!

  8. Great blog, great post. I'm trying to do the same thing but am having trouble with homework. Is your 20 minutes a day of reading your students' homework? Or do you also give additional homework? I'm still having trouble figuring the homework part out.

  9. Mark: That is basically the only homework I assign. Sometimes, if something doesn't quite get finished in class, they will finish it up that night. Otherwise, I just ask them to read 20 minutes every night. They should read about 140+ pages a week.

    Thank you for the question!

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