We often assume that because we teach secondary ELA that students come to us with a rich history of reading. After all, don’t they require reading in elementary school?
I know this is what I believed when I started teaching all those many years ago! What I discovered, however, was that many students came to my class only reading books they were forced to or because a teacher required them to read it for class and even then, they didn’t always read.
Sad as it may be that there is most likely a student in my class that has never finished a book, it is equally sad to learn that many students come from homes where books and reading are not seen as essential. Because of this, I learned that in order for me to make a lasting impact, one that goes beyond their year with me, I needed to learn how my students viewed reading.
There are many ways to learn about your students as readers and I have varied my approach over the years. The following are ones I found to be the most valuable use of my time and gave me the most authentic information about my students as readers.
1. Reading Interviews
Reading Interviews – that sounds more formal than it really is. A reading interview is simply sitting down with a student and asking them about their views on reading. What do they like about reading? What don’t they like about reading? What do they see as their struggle? How do they pick the books they read? And the list of questions could go on.
Determine what you want to know from the students and then develop a few questions to ask. Usually after the first few questions, the interview turns into a conversation and the questions are not needed so don’t spend a lot of time writing questions for this approach.
You can tell a lot about how a student feels about reading based on their body language and facial expressions when you ask your first question. I love to see their eyes light up when they talk about a favorite book or the book they are reading, but take note of students that squirm and give me the “right answer” to the question.
This should be a casual conversation with the student about books. A judgement free zone in hopes of establishing a rapport with students that benefit both you and the them during reading conferences.
2. Interest Surveys
Interest surveys are great way to collect information about your students. I’ve often done this as a first week activity which gets students focused back into school. One problem I find with surveys, is that some students want to give you the answer they think you want to hear rather than the answer that accurately reflects their reading life.
This doesn’t mean that surveys are not a valid tool or a good place to start. If I feel like a student is giving me the answers they think I want, I will ask them to clarify their response during one of our first reading conferences.
3. Have Students Create a One-Pager about Reading
This is another great beginning of the year activity to get to know your students. You can create a one pager with many of the same questions you would ask in a survey, but in a more creative, with less risk for students kind of way. Since one pagers are something I often use in class, this is a great introduction to the idea from the beginning of school.
4. Make it a writing assignment
Yes, a writing assignment – this is after all an ELA class. I’m not suggesting asking student to simply write how they feel about reading as your students that love reading will write way too much and your students that don’t like reading will have no idea what to write about.
A writing assignment gives you both a glimpse at your students writing ability and their views about reading based on a past experience. Whenever I can do more than one thing with an assignment, I can get behind that! I’ve created 2 writing prompts (get them here free) that ask students to think about a past experience with books. One simply asks students to think about how they feel about reading with some guided questions, but the second prompt asks students to share a memory about a book.
Responses to either prompt tend to spark strong emotions related to reading. These written responses are a great jumping off point when introducing reading conferences.
Taking the time to get to know my students as readers has helped me, help them become better readers. It takes away the assumptions about what a middle schooler or high schooler should think or have experienced as a reader thus far in their educational career. Knowing that a student likes to read, just not that books that are assigned, gives me the opportunity to get a variety of books in front of the student – they will find a book they love if given the chance to chose their own reading materials and read more!
If I can help my reluctant reader find a book they understand and enjoy, they will become the reader they were always meant to be.
These activities also help me understand my reluctant readers better. Many reluctant readers simply believe they can’t learn to read well – that idea comes from a variety of places, but it doesn’t really matter – If I can help my reluctant reader find a book they understand and enjoy, they will become the reader they were always meant to be.
No matter where you are in your Reading Workshop journey, if you haven’t had the opportunity to learn about your students as readers, I would pause and try one of the strategies listed above. What you learn about your students will be invaluable as you plan the remainder of your year.