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Losing Control to Gain Readers

by Justin Stygles
March 6, 2014

As I look back on my reading life, I was lucky. For some reason, I possessed a natural ability to read. (Have you read research on this argument? Some people are natural readers?) However, I read about as often as I saved my paper route money. Yet, for some reason, I was in the highest reading group. Essentially, I owned my reading life from the start. Do our students?

As a teacher, I see many readers are learning to read and they have to work at it. This is dangerous ground, truth be told. As some students have to learn to read, watching other readers read seemingly naturally is very frustrating. Confining these learning readers, I have found, only disenfranchises them more. So, I release control, sort of.

Students’ interest in reading starts with less teacher control. I can teach reading, I can guide reading, and I can offer opportunities to read in the classroom. I cannot control or take possession of my students’ reading lives.

So, I let students manage their reading. Of course, they need to learn how to manage their lives and they need to learn to be sensible about their reading. Creating and modeling such boundaries is important to their success. Read for 30 minutes a night is a rule, a dictation, not a boundary. Aim to read a chapter book a week or 40 books a year is a boundary that can be surpassed with praise and acclamation.

p: CarbonNYC via photopin

First, I invite students to explore books they have no interest in. There is always an instructional decision behind the choice and typically I try to gear the book choice to their needs and potential interests. For instance, just because Jack likes hockey, that doesn't mean he likes Matt Christopher books on hockey. Actually, in class, we try to locate themes, conflicts, and life issues that students are interested in.

Jack, again, likes hockey, but hockey doesn't define him. Actually, Jack lacks confidence. He always starts new books and never sticks with one. I offer him “Rump” by Liesl Shurtliff. Turns out he loves the book, but won't tell anyone why. And it’s not because the book is a favorite genre, fantasy. That's a secret Jack and I have together. Now, he is interested in reading. He tries to be everyone's friend. As the classroom teacher, the manager of the curriculum, I have to make choices. Students don't often like it, but they understand my stance. Why?

Second, independent reading is really theirs. It's their choice and they have the freedom to move about the cabin, err, the classroom library. I don't assign them books unless there is a reason. There will be a literature circle or guided reading for that purpose (which is often tied to discovering new interests). Again, freedom is not free reign, I am still monitoring their choices. This, of course, eliminates levels. My kids ARE NOT going to the book store to ask staff for a book at their level.

I model and raise these readers to make choices: What do I want to learn about? What's something I haven't tried yet? Tanya said that book was great, I think I'll try it. If Janice wants to read seventeen “Who Was...” books over the next two months (about a book every two days) who am I to stop her? I know the books are “2nd-3rd grade level,” but there is a reason she is interested in those books and how much will you wager, that leads her to other, more complex biographies or other non-fiction text on that person or topic? Independent reading cannot be dictated by a level. That is like turning a horse out in a box stall and calling it a pasture. There is no room to move.

However, there are safe boundaries to institute as well. I need students to explore themselves and their reading lives within reason. Like my sixth graders who read “Twilight.” Just because it's in the book order or that the two guys are “hot” doesn't mean the book is good for right now.

I read “Slow Getting Up” by Nate Anderson when school started. I loved the book and told my students why I read it. Now, my football adoring students wanted to read the book because they were interested in football. The “level” of the book was not challenging, but they were NOT going to read this book. The premise was football, but the frequent adult themes, activities, and “locker room” talk were not appropriate for my students. Instead, I handed the book off to other teachers to model how I share reading ideas with people my age. You would not ask a child learning to ride a bike to ride down a rocky hill, even though they may want to. Rather, we have to teach them how to handle their bikes and have the right tools available, so when they mature into riding down rocky hills, they can.

Students in my class learn to read what they can manage. We do this, sometimes, with a mathematical formula. For example, students might sit down and read “Wake Up Missing” by Kate Messner. I ask them to keep a few boundaries in mind: What would it take to finish the book inside a week?

If their response is, I can't finish the book in a week, a conference might be in store to discuss book selection or support their personal reading management.

“Wake Up Missing” is 264 pages. If you follow the “minute-per-page” guideline, the book should take 264 minutes, or 4 ½ hours. (If you're a “thinking” reader, like me, which is a different story, you might go two minutes per page, for a total of 9 hours.)

If students are genuinely reading 30 minutes a night (which, by the way, is well-below research based norms) the book should be done in nine days. While that is not a week, nine days is OK.

But that means nine straight days? What about a day off from reading. (Truthfully, students think they have to read every night, which twists its way around to not reading at all, because they “have to read tomorrow night anyways.”)

A night off is a reason to manage a reading life. Reading nine days in a row is perfectly unreasonable. The idea of not reading should not be punitive.

Going back to “Wake Up Missing,” I try to guide students to read the book five days over the week. That, at most, is an hour a night, something sixth-grade readers should be doing anyway at this level.

If the book winds up going nine days because the student read for an hour every night and really delved into the thinking aspect, there is no reason to be upset with reading a book in nine days. The reader has to play with this cycle and I need to be present to mentor them. This mentoring is often not found in the level of the book, but in learning how to be a reader.

Often, I see readers switch to a “lower-level” book after this to read a book in less time or just to read something simple.

As an adult, have you ever done that? I have. I call it a newspaper, magazine, or a book of interest—rock 'n roll bios or horse racing books.

The truth is, if “Wake Up Missing”can be read in somewhere around a week and the student finds the appropriate time to make reading possible, the student has discovered one way to regulate their reading lives at their level. This ability, sense, judgment is not acquired instantly. Rather, significant time in conferring and mini-lessons is required to model and provide feedback to the readers.

Flaws in this method exist, but it’s a lot better than telling a student what book they should read, when they should read it, and what they have to know from it.

I have to trust my readers to read, take risks, and make mistakes.

The premise is that in the intermediate grades (4-6) there is no longer a race through levels (to meet grade level benchmarks, etc.), but a necessity to incubate within a level. Forget levels. Maturing readers just need to be nurtured and swaddled in reading. We did not race our infants to walk, why do turn reading into a race?

The bottom line: mold the readers, but give them reasonable boundaries to work with, allow them to move through the ebb and flow that is reading. In the end, the more you tell a reader what, where, and how to read, the less they will read and the less they will know about themselves as a reader. We have to learn through experimenting, and reading in grades 4-6 offers us this laboratory.

Come see Justin Stygles present “Close Reading and Critical Literacy: Song Lyrics—The Ultimate Teachable Moment, Grades 4–8” and take part in “Advisory Committee of Teachers (ACT) - CCSS: Integrating New Standards into the Classroom and Comparing Approaches in Ireland” at IRA’s 59th Annual Convention, May 9-12, 2014, in New Orleans, Louisiana. 

Justin Stygles on Reading Today OnlineJustin Stygles is a Grade 5/6 ELA/humanities teacher. He is currently writing a book with Corwin Literacy. Justin recently became a National Board Certified Teacher.
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