This week’s post comes to you from Kim Hollis.  Kim is a reading specialist for Geneva School District 304.  I am thrilled to share Kim’s post with you, although I was/am not a middle school teacher I found myself thinking, “Oh that is a great idea”, and “I wish I would have thought of that”.   Thank you Kim for sharing your strategies and suggestions so that ALL students can find enjoyment in reading. 

As I get ready to return to the classroom after Thanksgiving break and parent conferences, I catch myself reflecting on my meetings with parents this year.  Like most years, the number one question I get from parents is how they can help their student become a better reader. My answer has always been to encourage them to read – help them build the all-important independent reading habit. With middle school students, I realize this is easier said than done. However, independent reading is truly, as Jen Jones of HelloLiteracy says, a ‘Low-prep high-yield’ instructional strategy.

Recently, NCTE published a position statement on the value of Independent Reading as an instructional practice.  The implications for long-term success as a result of building independent reading habits in students are phenomenal.  As Richard Allington found, “Independent reading leads to an increased volume of reading. The more one reads, the better one reads. The more one reads, the more knowledge of words and language one acquires. The more one reads, the more fluent one becomes as a reader. The more one reads, the easier it becomes to sustain the mental effort necessary to comprehend complex texts. The more one reads, the more one learns about the people and happenings of our world. This increased volume of reading is essential. (Allington, 2014)

It is important to note, though, that when we talk about building independent reading habits in middle school students it requires more than just providing time for students to read in class.  Successful independent reading routines are built on several components. I am focusing on three here: choice of reading material, access to interesting books, and time to read and interact with a reading community. These three elements provide much needed motivation for getting middle school students to read…and to keep reading once they leave us.

Middle school is a unique beast.  Our students are in this interesting stage between childhood and adulthood.  They are slowly figuring out who they are and developing independence along the way. As middle school educators, we need to put instructional practices in place that intentionally support our students in finding out who they are and developing this independence.  Giving students autonomy wherever possible is vital. So, giving students the power of choice in their independent reading falls under this umbrella. By allowing students to choose their independent reading books, we are helping them figure out who they are as readers – an all-important piece of developing reading as a life-long habit.  In addition, by allowing the autonomy, we are telling our students we trust their choices and that we will help guide them when necessary. Students will never develop the ability to choose for themselves if we are always telling them what to read. This means we have to accept that they may not choose as we would for them. Sometimes this can be a hard pill to swallow, but it is a necessary one.  In order to build this autonomy, we do need to provide support – to teach them how to self-select books that will keep them going. At our middle schools we do this in several ways. Below are the top 3:

  1.     Regular book tastings
  2.     Mini-lessons on book selection strategies (beyond looking at the cover and reading the summary)
  3.     Conferring with our students about their reading

If students are going to enjoy the power of choice in reading, they must also have easy access to a multitude of books.  When we talk about access, we automatically think of school libraries and classroom libraries. But access includes more than just the existence of a classroom library or a visit to the school library.  It also includes how easily students can check out books from these libraries and any restrictions that may be placed on them, like fines. It breaks my heart to have students tell me they don’t want to take a book from my library because they already owe too much for lost school library books and they don’t want to chance losing another one.  This halts their reading which goes against everything we are trying to build in our students. 

Access also includes exposure to a diverse collection of choices – genres, formats, topics, etc. Curating a classroom library is an art.  I have discovered this truth over the past couple of years, although I have had a classroom library since my first year of teaching. I’ve always known having books for students to borrow is important, but there’s so much more to the bountiful classroom library than this.  An appealing library display that is periodically changing to grab attention helps motivate students to check titles out. It takes work to keep up with YA reading trends, but it pays off for our students. Throughout the year, I add titles to our classroom library almost monthly.  We display these titles when they arrive to make students aware of them. We organize different bulletin boards and library displays to highlight the books available so they don’t’ get ‘lost on the shelves.’ We give kids time to peruse the shelves and preview books. They won’t check out books and read them if they don’t know what’s there. What is there also needs to reflect the students in the classroom – having a variety of cultures represented as well as formats, genres, lengths, and ‘levels’ is integral to a strong classroom library that motivates students to read.  Here’re the top 3 ways we strive to foster book access for our students:

  1.     Curating our classroom library: Weeding out old, worn out, our uninteresting titles and constantly adding new titles to the classroom library;
  2.     Utilizing the school and public library; inviting our public librarian in so students know her, and  including information on how to access all resources (from both the school and public libraries) – digital and audio books, etc.
  3.     Scholastic book orders and book fairs (Scholastic or otherwise) are a great way to put book ideas in front of students, build your library, and put books in students’ hands.

Finally, the third element of an independent reading program that motivates middle school readers is creating a reading community where students have time to read and share about books together.  Middle schoolers are social beings. This can be an asset to building their reading habit if we create reading communities within our classrooms. This means providing opportunities for students to share about the books they are reading – whether they like or dislike them. A reading community means opportunities to discover reading strengths and weaknesses together, hearing about new books and authors together, and sharing reading experiences together.  Top 3 ways to build a reading community:

  1.     Incorporate informal book talks as a means to share reading experiences.
  2.     Include mini-lessons to help the community of readers get to know each other and get comfortable with each other.
  3.     Immerse the community with literacy so they all begin to see themselves as readers.

Middle school students have a lot vying for their attention, and reading tends to fall to the bottom of their list of preferred activities.  But, we know that building and maintaining an independent reading habit is one of the most impactful things we can do for ours students before they leave us.  So, as I tell my parents every year at conferences, we must encourage the students to read. We must find ways to build reading communities in our classrooms that motivate our students by providing time to read and share about their reading as well as choice and access to great books.

I want to again thank Mrs. Kim Hollis for sharing her knowledge with us through her writing.  If you would like to be a guest writer for “The Progress Report” please reach out to me (Katie) so we can arrange this.  We all have something we can learn or take away from one another so please consider being a guest writer, such as Kim has.  


Katie Algrim – Director of Innovative Professional Learning

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