Creative Approaches to Reading
Taking time in class to read anything is part of this process.
The book is small, maybe 100 pages, and as soon as I hand it to the student he exclaims, “Ah, another book.” Unfortunately, this is how most of my ninth graders respond to any demand I put on reading, whether I’m sending home an article to read for class or asking about their own reading lists.
America has a reading problem. Arkansas has a reading problem. I have a reading problem. Students today have become addicted to the one-minute fill-up of information they can glean from a Google search, most not even going beyond the search results.
I recognize this in students every time we try to have informed discussions in class. They regurgitate a fact or idea with no knowledge of the context for what they are actually saying, attributing quotes to inaccurate persons because of a meme or video online. How can we break this cycle and bring back a curiosity for background knowledge?
I know that research has proven children who read many different texts improve in background knowledge, comprehension, fluency, and writing (Krashen).
However, I watch as my poorest students fall further and further behind their fellow readers. No amount of reading intervention and tutoring can completely alleviate this deficit.
As teachers, we are called constantly to find ways and methods that will help students read proficiently. No matter what we do in school the way to improve reading is to read as much as possible — widely and often.
I have worked this year to identify and try to overcome some of the obstacles to reading in my classroom, thinking of it as a lab of sorts to study and analyze. It is filled with books in the form of a classroom library.
The action research I am attempting has already begun to change my practice and generate ideas. I began with self-reported lists from students of current and past readings. With these, I began to clarify a vision of the obstacles.
Finding most of the students were reading well-below-grade-level texts, I instituted challenges to encourage higher levels. One such challenge resulted in creating what I call Bounty Books.
These are books of significant value that I reward with some type of prize. The first of these Bounty Books was Moby Dick. I declared that anyone who reads this book and presents on the story can receive two Whale Bars (chocolate brownies with white frosting).
I have also started discussing books I have read with my students telling them how much I am liking the most recent read. I make sure they know I am a voracious reader.
When students ask me how I can remember facts and dates and information, I always say, “I read it and therefore I learned it.” This has resulted in Mr. Welch’s Challenge for which my students are trying to read the books I read after I’m finished.
Reluctant readers, however, are ever-present. They present the biggest hurdle. I try to tackle this with a concept I call Read/Share. At least once a week I call on students to share their favorite page of the book they currently read.
I usually only have one or two shares at a time, and the practice is growing in popularity.
Taking time in class to read anything is part of this process. I have limited time each week with students, but I have to give at least a fifth of my overall time to them for reading.
I also tell my students that the experience of reading is often the greatest reward. By making reading a priority in the classroom, I create a sense of urgency around the skills I am reinforcing.
Donalyn Miller wrote in a blog post, “Dormant readers, who possess the reading skills needed for academic tasks, see reading as a school job — not as an activity in which they would willingly engage outside school” (Ascd.org). This idea feels extremely poignant when I consider the current reading by students in my classroom.
They see reading as something they should be graded on and only read if they see some type of motivating factor. As a teacher, I have to fight the urge to give them reading assignments and grades as motivators. These do not work; instead, they often play into the idea that reading is that “school job.”
I see the time in school as the gateway to getting students reading. Using interest-based classroom reading, I am able to raise interest in students, celebrating students who are reading more than average.
Creating positive talk around reading and encouraging engaging discussions contributes to their interest because I am genuinely taking an interest in what they are reading.
I also “genre talk” a lot in my room. I bring in conversations about television shows, movies, and pop culture. I tie these into genres that may be interesting. A most recent example was the show Riverdale on the CW network.
I let my students spend three to five minutes discussing the most recent episode then transitioned them into YA books that would present the same type of experience. Again, this takes time out of the classroom curriculum, but it encourages growth that will benefit both student and teacher.
I also have allowed students to bridge between texts we are working with in-class and out-of-class reading. In a recent essay, my students tied themes and ideas from Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, to both the Hunger Games and IQ.
Two novels I had not introduced in lessons suddenly became available to my classes. I was able to change some classroom plans and insert these texts back into our learning in several of the following lessons.
Now as we study The Odyssey we are branching out even more and students have brought in connections between the gods of the text and recent video games. I am encouraging students to see these texts as related because these connections open opportunities to improve learning and excite students.
It is hard to make these connections unless we allow our kids to lead the way. Such approaches can open up the experience of reading for reluctant readers and possibly change their thinking on and about reading.
Grover Welch is a ninth grade English teacher at Newport, Arkansas. He has a MSE in Reading from Arkansas State University.