A colleague recently said to me, “My seventh graders never just read. Every time they pick up a book, they have an activity to do.” Following up, I uncovered that those activities come in the form of packets.
Her words have been making me itch ever since we spoke: just read. Does she think what is happening in my classroom is just reading?
Her comment about reading instruction reveals a common misconception—that the only two options for reading workshop are that students complete activities in response to what they read as evidence that they’ve done the reading or that students just read.
However, those of us who use reading workshop as an instructional practice know there is a structure in place beneath the surface of a class of students who appear to be just reading.
Before students are set free to select a book and settle in to just read, I have provided them with access to books, some direction in how to choose a book, and a clear purpose for reading.
Access and Expectations
Although students are welcome to bring books they obtain outside of school, most of them gain access to books through my classroom library and the school library. Before they select a book for independent reading, we visit the school library. The beginning of the year is one of the few times we visit the school library as a class (other times are just before fall, winter, and spring breaks to stock up on reading material). Throughout the year, students visit the library as needed on an individual or small-group basis during class reading time. However, before they are ready for a visit on their own, I make sure they get a refresher on how the school library is set up to make sure they can be self-sufficient when sent to pick out a book.
Before students are able to check out a book from my classroom library, they turn in signed parent letters. The purpose of the letters is to inform parents of the reason behind self-selected reading, to share some background on my classroom library, to invite parents to talk to their children about what they are reading, and to invite parents to talk to me if they have questions or concerns about what their children are reading.
I use the Booksource Classroom Organizer to keep track of my classroom library books. I purchased an inexpensive bar-code scanner that connects to a USB port on my computer to make it even easier to use. At the beginning of the year, I demonstrate how to check out and return a book. The students who catch on right away become responsible for helping their classmates troubleshoot throughout the year.
Guidance and Independence
Once students have physical access to books, they need some guidance before heading to the shelves to dig in. That is why I begin doing book talks as close to the start of the year as possible. As soon as students have their notebooks, we set up a To Be Read (TBR) list on the very last page. By using the last page, we make it easy to find and give it room for expansion—it expands from back to front as the rest of the notebook is filled from front to back. Each time I give a book talk, or a student talks about a book that sounds interesting, students add the title and author to their TBR lists.
Because the TBR list is still very short before our first book selection, students also record what Nancie Atwell calls their “reading territories” in their notebooks. Territories consist of the areas readers are interested in exploring. We begin by listing books we love. For some students this category turns into a list of books we like, or maybe even books we didn’t hate. This also sparks a discussion about the fact that experienced readers reread books they love, and students begin to see revisiting a story they enjoyed as a possibility. We add to the territories by listing genres we like to read. Inexperienced readers might list genres of movies they enjoy, or perhaps even video games or hobbies, as an entry point for book selection instead. Other ideas for territories include authors, series, and formats (such as verse, graphic novels, prose).
Reading territories give students a focus when browsing the shelves to select a book for the first time and can be referred to throughout the year, along with the TBR list, anytime a reader is looking for a new book. Whenever a student asks for a book recommendation, the first thing I do is look at his reading territories. When a reader is really struggling to find a book, I might also take a look at his first-day-of-school survey, which includes a description of his ideal book character. This simple question is another resource to help me match students with the right books.
Just as important as each student having the right book to read is each student knowing why he or she is reading. Before selecting books, students set up their reading folders. The records I ask students to keep send a message about what is important. Students are expected to keep track of the books they begin reading on a reading record. The record includes the title, author, genre, and number of pages. When beginning a new book, students record whether they completed or abandoned the previous book and add their rating of the book on a scale of 1 to 10. This record sends the message that every choice you make as a reader is important, not just the number of books you finish. Students use these records to look for patterns and reflect on who they are as readers.
I also keep records to determine patterns and identify who students are as readers. Before students settle in with a book for the first time, they see photos of me collecting information from the previous year’s students as they read and of students completing challenges to turn in to me. The image of what my record collection looks like helps relieve anxiety over what might be expected from students. It also demonstrates that documentation this year might not look the same as it has in previous classrooms.
The records I keep include the date, the title of the book each student is reading, and the page number each student is currently on. I may add anecdotal notes if I am particularly excited about something a reader is doing (for instance, recommending a book to a classmate) or if I am concerned (for instance, a student appears to be pretending to read instead of truly engaging with a text). I show students a sample record from the previous year without a name attached and make sure they know they are welcome to ask to see their records at any time. Making records available to students communicates that the purpose of the records is to support their reading.
Reading is also supported through the completion of self-selected challenges throughout the year based on independent reading books. A challenge consists of capturing thoughts about the book and might be completed on sticky notes, a graphic organizer, or in a notebook. Some students choose not to complete a challenge until they are completely finished with a book, and others complete challenges in the midst of reading. I want students to know they will not have a challenge to complete for every book they read. This sends the message that the purpose of self-selected reading is not to complete assignments, but to grow as a reader.
Giving students access to books, support in book selection, and an instructional purpose for reading is what turns a class of students who are just reading into a class of students who are able to just read and grow as a result.