How To Help Teens Choose Their Own Books & Actually Read Them

Here it is, August, just weeks or maybe even days, before your new classes arrive.  You've committed to independent reading with choice books in your classroom. You've collected books and have started a classroom library. You've scheduled time daily for kids to read books. But one small, nagging question remains, how do you help kids actually choose books and actually read them? This is no small question...it's HUGE!  If the kids don't actually start reading, you will not stick with independent choice reading.  You'll think it doesn't work, and back you'll go to that whole class novel.
Before I answer this question (what's worked well for me, anyway), I have to ask you to put down a little bit of baggage you might be carrying with you:

1.  You don't have to assess everything.
2.  Stop classifying books as good and bad.

Some of you are going to stop reading right here because your inner English Teacher Diva popped out and started shaking her finger, "What?!" she screams, "How will I know if they're reading if they don't prove it?  Not discriminate between good and bad books?!  Are you freaking kidding??  There is a ton of trash out there passing as books!"

Stay with me for a minute, please. You wanted to know how to help kids choose books, right?

First, you don't have to assess everything:

In Kelly Gallagher's book Teaching Adolescent Writers, Gallagher encourages teachers to adopt a 4:1 philosophy about writing.  For Gallagher, this means, "I do not grade everything they write.  As a general rule of thumb, students are asked to write four times more than I can physically assess" (53). This philosophy acknowledges the basic truth that no matter what you are learning, you need time to practice.  No professional athlete, musician, artist or writer ever gets "assessed" on everything they do. They all spend hours practicing, honing their skills.  And no one thinks that is abnormal.

So, why, people, do we keep arguing that kids have to be assessed every time they read? Simple answer:  THEY DO NOT.  It's just as valid that kids need time to practice reading as they do basketball, playing the clarinet, or writing. We must allow time for that.

Second, stop classifying books as good and bad:

My daughter started playing the violin last year.  It was cute...sometimes.  Other times it was painfully screechy.  I heard Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and its variations way more times than I wanted too. Here's what I will tell you, never once did I walk in to her room and ask why she was playing such simple music when there are beautiful, complex classical pieces our whole family could be enjoying.  I mean, that would be stupid, right?  She's a beginner.  But what if I had said, "Oh, my God!  She's 11!  These songs are more suited to preschool violinists; they are so beneath her." You'd all give me the worst parenting award ever and call me unsupportive and cruel.  And you'd be right.

But that is exactly what we do to readers when we tell them certain books are beneath them.  Just because you can't see kids' reading ability as obviously as I could hear my daughter's violin "level" doesn't mean it doesn't exist.  If we want our kids to grow as readers, we must value every choice they make. It's the only way they'll grow into being able to read more complex books. (And this is true whether they are 15 or 7.)

Ok, once you're good on those two concepts, here are four things you can do to help your students choose their own books:

1.  Swim with the books
If you're going to get kids reading books, you have to know and share lots of books. You need to dive into YA and swim in it.  Read as much as you can; follow people on Twitter who share and review books; follow YA authors; take kids' recommendations; hang out in book stores, buy new books as they come out.  Live YA books.

And then you have to share these books with your students all the time. And by share, I don't mean, read the back aloud to kids. They know when you're faking it. I mean, create bulletin boards recommending books, show really good book trailers (they're all over Youtube), set up books displays in your classroom, have new books on your whiteboard ledge, talk about books in scheduled book talks and also weave them into everything you do.  Your enthusiasm, love and knowledge of books is contagious.  Yes, teens like to make fun of you and call you a nerd (or maybe that's just me), but secretly, they will get on board with you once they know you're for real.

2.  Set up opportunities to let kids explore

I start talking about books the first day of school - I point out, in my usual giddy-with-excitement way - books on our book shelves, on the white board ledge, in my displays, as soon and as often as I can.  I do this for two class periods. But I don't let the kids touch the books.  I know some of your English Teacher Divas have just come back, but hear me out.  I don't actually let kids touch books until DAY 3. Scandalous, I know. But here's why:  I teach kids who don't read, don't want to read, and have years of strong avoidance strategies in their pockets.  Another white lady up front glowing about books does not get their attention. For real. However, when you tell a teen they can't do something, that you won't allow them to do something, guess what they want to do? It's my dirty little secret and it works every year.  By Day 3, after I've talked about lots of books, pointed out all the amazing books (think kid amazing - all the gross, disturbing, sob-inducing, attention-grabbing, scandalous, banned, murder-filled, you-shouldn't-read-this-book books I can find) my kids are saying, "So, like, do we get to read these books?" My answer:  "That would be kind of stressful this early in the school year. I know you don't like to read. Let's just ease into this school thing."  I promise, by the beginning of Day #3 they are ready to be turned loose and to explore.

I'm not as fancy as some teachers with the ways I get kids exploring books.  I basically have one structure that I repeat over and over again throughout the school year (maybe that's an area of growth for me).  In my class, we do what I call Book Tasting.  I don't set up a restaurant, have table cloths, or print menus.  My inner-Martha Stewart ends the day school starts.  What I do is this:  I fill bins with books and set them on pods of four students.  Then I give the kids a little demo of how to taste a book (yes, I model not chewing on pages or licking the cover because you know the 9th grade boys are going to do that), hand everyone a Book Tasting Sheet (below), and tell them they have to write down three books per bin (a number I just made up out of thin air because I really don't care how many books they write down as long as they find something, but I can't exactly say that, right?).


It's what I put in the bins that matters.  I want a good mix of books I suspect some of them read (or fake read or had read to them) in middle school or before, books that flew off my shelves last year, and books I've been talking about and pointing out for the past two days.  My kids often start out slowly.  They drag themselves out of their seats, slowly sloth their way to their group and reluctantly peer into the bins.  And if I've done it right, the whole room changes.  Suddenly they're pulling out books, looking at covers, reading the backs of the books and talking to each other. Yes, there are varying degrees of enthusiasm, but every kid gets involved every year (and I'm starting year 23 this year).

You need to pay close attention to what kids are choosing, not choosing, and talking about.  I encourage you to take notes.  This will teach you more than any interest inventory ever will.  Be ready to add books too!  Kids really want to read Kwame Alexander's Solo?  Pull out The Crossover and Booked and casually throw those in too.  The information you gather here about your readers is so valuable...pay attention!!

We spend about 4 minutes per bin, and I make them move on (they're often not done; I'm ok with that - leave the party while it's still good, right?).  And when they've rotated through all the bins, I have them turn in their top 3 choices to me.  They'll get their books tomorrow.  This causes distress - What if someone gets MY book??  But I want to start it now!  I know, another day without reading books, but I promise, this build-up will make the first day you read so much better.

3.  Give students true freedom
You've done really well if you're still with me at this point.  Now don't blow it.  You have to let go of what kids should and should not read.  You better have graphic novels in those bins.  You better have skinny books, fat books, picture books, fiction, nonfiction, classics, chick lit, and everything else under the sun.  If you want kids to choose books, they have to feel safe and to understand that they really can read anything they want.  Inevitably, someone will pull out one of the District 13 books (10 engaging, short books from Saddleback Educational Publishing) I put in the bins. This series is written for high school kids, but they are easy reading (1st and 2nd grade reading level) and only 48 pages long. Sometimes kids want to say it's too easy (I've literally heard, "Chris, bro, you can't read that! That's too easy for you!").  This is my chance to prove to the kids that they are allowed to read anything.  I step in and validate their choices.  I mean, honestly, if a kid chooses to read all of them, that's 480 pages of reading they just did!

What happens when you offer real freedom?  Kids read.  They get over all their challenging, "Hmmm, I bet she won't let me read this," and their embarrassment that they have to prove something.  They begin to actually read the books in front of them, some for the first time in years. And as they begin to read, the neurological connections in their brains grow and strengthen, and they literally build the network they need to be able to read more complex texts.  As Penny Kittle reminds us in Book Love, "A system that supports volume helps adolescent brains develop structures for the problem solving necessary in more difficult reading" (6).

4.  Ease in, slowly building engagement and stamina
Ok, they've finally got their books!  Your work is done, right?  WRONG.  You've got something as fragile as a spider web in front of you - so much can still go wrong.  You must tread carefully.

We start with a mini lesson on what reading time looks like and sounds like.  We make a poster that will be up all year and reviewed often.  Here is ours:


Then I start with only 5 minutes of reading.  I preface it with, "I know it's hard to concentrate at the beginning of the year, so let's start slow."  I want them arguing with me that they can do way more than I'm offering, that they can concentrate way better than I'm suggesting, and that I should let them read more!  If the first 5 minutes goes well, I'll let them "talk me into" giving them 5 more minutes that day.  But I will only add a minute or two per class period until we've worked up to a solid 15 minutes. We'll sit there for a while and then build up to 25-30 minutes eventually (I teach 85 minute blocks).

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This post is a lot longer than I meant it to be because I got kind of excited when I started writing it.  That is Tip #5 - you have to believe that every student will grow and that you can help them.  I make no promises that it will be all rainbows and cute unicorns hugging and thanking you.  That's not real life, people.  But, if you take the advice I offered here, it will get you a long way.

I'd love to hear any questions you have, your own ideas, and how it goes along the way. There isn't just one path to creating readers and I'm always open to new ideas!


Comments

  1. Thank you! I start my year tomorrow and with a classroom library for the first time in 22 years!

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    2. Thanks for reading! I hope your first day back is wonderful and the kids enjoy the books!

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