It was November, and a new intervention cycle was beginning. “What kind of reader are you, Giselle?” Kate asked the student who was new to one of her third-grade intervention groups.
Giselle stared blankly at Kate. After a few moments of silence, Kate tried again. “What kind of books do you like to read from the library?”
“I don’t know,” Giselle said, shrugging. And then, a moment later, “I read level J.”
It feels particularly devastating when our readers who are reading below the grade-level benchmark struggle with their reading identity. For them, a lot is tied up in the level they see themselves currently reading. Most of us would agree that a reader isn’t a level, and feel the same horror when readers identify themselves as a level. What sometimes feels less clear, though, is how to move away from those labels.
Building Identities Beyond September
If you’re like us, September is full of opportunities for building reading identities separate from levels. We teach minilessons about identifying your interests as a reader, build in time for book talks, and create space for readers to trade books with one another. Our classroom feels like a community of readers who know each other and are invested in each other’s reading lives.
And then, October happens.
As our units progress, building a community of readers and reading identities seems to become less of a priority. After a few years of this, we had an aha moment: we can do those September things across the year. In this way, we’re regularly reinforcing that reading identity is separate from reading level.
Here are some of our favorite ways to build reading identities, launched in September and carried through until June.
Research and Share Interests
Getting to know our students’ interests, and having them get to know one another’s, is the first step in being able to support them in finding books they’ll love. Creating time for sharing interests and even doing more formal interviews, including having students interview one another, helps us begin to make associations between books and students so that we can pass books along or recommend them.
Explore Reading Identities in Notebooks
In readers’ notebooks, students can create timelines of their reading lives. We’ll then guide them through noticing patterns—what does your timeline tell you about the types of books you love or what you need as a reader? This is something we’re sure to do at the start of the year when launching reading workshop, but it’s also fun to revisit during celebrations at the end of the units of study. Students can add to their timelines using books they’ve read more recently.
Every few weeks (for example, every other Friday during the share), we have reading partners look over their logs at the books they’ve read and share them with a partner. They might choose their favorite to tell their partner about or pick the book they think their partner would love the most. We’re sure to have readers open to the “Books on Deck” page in their reader’s notebook to add titles that sound interesting as they listen to their partner, too.
This can be done at the end of a reading celebration at the end of any unit of study. Students pick a book they’ve finished recently and loved, and talk about it with a classmate (not their reading partner) for three minutes. They find a new partner and then have two minutes to talk. Finally, they talk for one minute with a third partner. This allows them to share the book with three different classmates and also practice retelling and summarizing the book with increasing synthesis as the time grows shorter.
Charts Near the Library
One of the few things on our walls before school starts is a pair of two small, laminated charts in our library, one with “Books We Love” at the top and the other with “Authors We Love.” Each chart has a pocket with strips of paper students can take to write down a title or author they love before taping it to the chart. Students can add to the charts anytime, but a few times a month we’ll remind them as they gather for the minilesson or the share that they can look over their reading log to see any titles or authors that need to be added.
Students Create Bins in the Library
Our year begins with an unorganized library, so that it’s always reflective of the interests and needs of our current readers. Taking part in the organization of the library helps students reflect on what they love as readers—the types of books, the authors, the topics they’re interested in. It’s fun to include a bin like “Room 101’s Must-Reads” so that students can put their most beloved books in one place.
Sticky-Note Reviews in the Back of Books
We encourage students to leave sticky-note reviews in the back of books they finish before returning the books to the class library. We ask them to use phrases like the ones they use when talking with a partner:
The best part of this book was . . .
I loved this book because . . .
If you love _______, then you’ll love this book . . .
They then use the sentence stems to write a few quick sentences to review the book. Students shopping for books can peek in the back to see if there’s a review as one way to help them choose a book they’ll love.
Where We Find Time
We feel most successful when we build in some regular time as part of a routine so that we’re sure to do it. One year, we decided that the share of reading workshop every other Friday would be devoted to readers sharing books they had read in the last two weeks, along with a chance to add books they heard about to their Books on Deck list.
We’ve made the morning meeting every few weeks a chance for readers to say aloud to the group, “I’m the kind of reader who . . .” so that students are reflecting, building their reading identities, and also making it public so they know one another as a community of readers.
We try at least once a week to suggest as we’re gathering for the minilesson that students give a book they just finished to a classmate they know would love it.
Celebrations are an almost monthly chance to include another more formal sharing of books they loved from the unit, even if it’s just a few minutes for everyone to add at least one book or author they love to our class charts so that the charts stay current.
None of these are very time consuming (they usually take five minutes at the most), but building them into the routines of our weeks helps them become part of our regular work and strengthen the culture and community of readers who know themselves and know one another, completely separate from the levels of the books in their hands.