This article is written by Truth for Teachers writer Melissa Pilon.
As a middle school teacher, I know that the experiences my students have had with reading up to the point that they walk in my classroom are out of my control. Hopefully, they loved books at a young age and were exposed to a lot of reading. I have to be prepared for 12- and 13-year-olds who may not have had a positive experience with reading so far. Or maybe they did, but have since gotten away from reading as they found new interests (darn video games!). It is my job to breathe life back into my students’ reading lives. This may seem like a daunting task, but it can be done.
1. Build an impressive classroom library.
If you want your middle schoolers to get excited about reading, they need to see books in your classroom … lots of books! This not only provides quick and easy access for them, but also a visual representation of your passion for reading. I know, I know, books cost money, but there are plenty of ways to get books into your classroom. Ask your district administrators if there is money in the budget, and then stretch it as far as you can. Apply for grants that award money for classroom books. There are so many out there, both at the local level and the national level. Scour library book sales. You can often find books for a quarter. Head to yard sales and thrift stores to grab cheap used books. I could write a whole separate article on how to acquire books for your classroom! Enroll in a rewards program like Scholastic where you get bonus points to use towards free books. Once you have the books, present them in an appealing way. I use baskets so students can see the front of the books, plus it keeps it more organized. Each basket is labeled with the genre of the books for easy navigation. Make sure you actually read many of these books yourself.
2. Help students choose that “just right” book.
Once you have a classroom full of books, you need to guide students in selecting the best book for them. Start by asking them about what types of movies and TV shows they like. Find out what activities they like to do, or sports they like to play. Get to know your students. Ask them if there has been a book they have loved in the past. Based on their answers, guide them toward a genre that may interest them. Also gauge their feelings towards reading right now. If they tell you that they don’t like to read, give them a shorter book to start, or even a graphic novel. Let them feel some success in finishing a book. Show them how to read the back of the book to learn about the story. Tell them it’s okay to ditch a book if they don’t like it after 40 pages. But make it clear that they should never give up on reading.
3. Give over-the-top book talks.
At the beginning of every class, I do a book talk on a book from the classroom library that I have read and loved. In an excited voice, I tell the students that I can’t wait to share the book with them. I give a brief summary of the book and read an enticing passage that leaves the students wanting more. I talk about how much I loved the book in very exaggerated ways, using lots of facial expressions and hand gestures. Usually, several students end up wanting to read the book, and sometimes even fighting over who gets to read it first. Students put these books on their “Want to Read” list, so they always have a book lined up to read next. As they get more comfortable, I then invite students to do book talks on a voluntary basis.
4. Give students time to read.
My students get class time to read every single day. Outsiders may see this practice as a waste of class time, but it is actually quite the opposite. Time for reading is one of the most powerful gifts you can give your students. Getting a reluctant reader to pick up a book and start reading can be one of the greatest challenges. By giving them time in class, they have no choice but to start reading. The hope is that if they have selected the right book, they will want to continue reading at home. This practice helps create reading momentum, shows the students that you value reading time, and provides them with a quiet place to read. Throw down a rug and some pillows, or set up some bean bag chairs. Turn on some quiet, relaxing music and dim the lights. Create a comfortable atmosphere that makes reading feel like an enjoyable activity. Whether you can give them 5 minutes to read or 25 minutes to read, it is worth every second.
5. Make reading meaningful.
Once you get the students reading, you must make it meaningful for them. Talk with them about the books they are reading. Individual conferences are so powerful. Students open up so much when they are one-on-one, and have so much to say about the books they are reading. Give them a place to record thoughts about their books. Use a reader’s notebook or online platform where they can do jots, draw pictures, and make charts. Give them choice not only in the books that they read, but also in the way they show their learning about their reading. Model many different ways to write about reading, and let them choose what works for them.
If you put in the time and effort, your students can learn to love reading, even as a teenager. When a student finds that one book that makes them love reading, I call it their “magical book moment.” It is the moment I live for. It won’t happen for every student — it’s actually only a few each year. But it is amazing to watch, and it makes me so happy! I often ask these students to record a short video telling about their magical book moment, and I show these videos to my classes the following year. When students see their peers talking about their love for reading, it makes it more real for them. Even if a student doesn’t have a magical book moment, you should see growth in the volume they are reading, their reading level and ability, and most importantly, their enjoyment for reading.