Establishing a Community of Readers by Brian Lawless
When I was a sixth grader at Tharp Middle School, the last of my concerns was being a reader. I would read the obligatory in-class assignments and Spark Note the chapters in the books I was supposedly reading at the time. I had never, in my twelve years of life, read a chapter book cover to cover. That was, until I met Mr. Thorpe. Mr. Thorpe was cool, he was a guy like me, and he loved reading. I will never forget the day that my idol, Mr. T. plopped Louis Sachar’s Holes onto my desk. He told me about his experiences with reading the book and how he thought I would really enjoy it. For the first time in my life, I cracked a book open and began to really read. Mr. Thorpe had planted the seed. Knowing that he cared enough to recommend a book specifically to me, as if he plucked it out of the sky and put a bow on it for me, just one kid out of his 70 sixth grade students, it made me want to impress him. I read the book in three days and have never looked back. It took me twelve years, but a reader was finally born.
The more I read and reflected over the years, the more I determined that there are five essential elements of getting children excited about reading. If these five elements are present and you are committed to upholding the integrity of each, the joy of reading will spread like wildfire.
1. Be a reader.
This seems rather simple. If you’re going to teach reading, shouldn’t you be a reader? For many teachers, it is easier said than done. Where do you find the time to read among the paper grading, parent communication, staff meetings, test prep and personal life? Speaking from experience, reading needs to be a way of life in order to develop a positive reading community in your classroom. How are you supposed to share in the excitement of Elizabeth reading R.J. Palacio’s Wonder if you haven’t lived Auggie Pullman’s roller coaster of a school year first hand? The more you read, and the more students see you modeling positive reading experiences, the easier it is for them to catch on.
2. Surround your students with relevant, high interest literature.
It makes me cringe when I see shelves of books that appear to have not been read since their publication in 1962. There is a time and a place for classics, I get that, and it is important to teach your students to value the classic literary pieces. However, regardless of whether or not we want to believe it, kids (and adults) will judge a book by its cover. The first step in getting kids to read is to get them to pick up the book to begin with. In Jackie Woodson’s After Tupac and D Foster, the narrator says, “I was always searching for a little part of myself in those books, and although I never found it, I kept looking.” Our libraries need to represent the needs of our students. Every year our class celebrates Multicultural Book Day, we read about characters from different backgrounds, different races and most of all, the students are exposed to stories that grab their attention. If a child is reading 1962 Newbery winner The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare, it is going to be because they choose to read that book. Not because it is their only option.
3. Talk about books. Every day.
There are many fun ways to have book discussions. I personally enjoy doing book chats, which is a little preview of a book not featuring any spoilers. Every Friday we begin class with book chats, and I choose two students to go each week. Nearly every hand in the room shoots up before any words leave my mouth because they all want to share about their latest adventures in reading. Students then have the chance to put their name in a raffle to be the first reader of “the book that Mr. Lawless shared.” On top of that, taking notice to what your students are reading and having casual conversation about their reading lives makes a world of difference. Something as simple as carrying a different book to lunch duty every week can spark conversation while the kids eat together. Last year I carried Louis Sachar’s There’s A Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom around for one lunch period and had six students asking to read it that afternoon.
4. Know that every child is a reader and we must treat them as such.
There are all types of readers in the world. Every year my classroom is a melting pot of reading interests and abilities. Last year, “Kyle” entered my classroom and told me that he hated reading. His reading scores from previous grades were well below grade level and upon digging a little deeper I found out that Kyle didn’t have any books at home. In fact, most of his time at home was spent taking care of his younger siblings while his parents worked. When I first sat with Kyle, we made a list of all the topics he was interested in. Sports, superheroes and dragons were just a few that we came up with. I immediately saw the light in Kyle’s eyes when we began talking about his favorite superheroes and when he told me about his best soccer game that he played in. Taking into account his knowledge of good fit books, Kyle and I began to browse our library. I pulled roughly 10 books on sports, superheroes or dragons to Kyle’s delight. Kyle’s reading journey began that day. By the end of the year, he was signing my bookshelf as a member of the 40 Book Challenge completion club, with a whopping 62 books read.
5. Read aloud, no matter the age.
Reading aloud to my students is one of the most important parts of my day. It allows us to drop everything that we are doing and enjoy a story together. Aside from the fluency benefits and comprehension scaffolding through discussion, it is also a key way to get students interested in books. Last year I pulled out Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan, a book that had many jaws hitting the floor because of its 600 pages in length. We gathered on the carpet and read the first 20 pages aloud together. When I closed the book I was met with groans and kids yelling “Nooooooo!” I swear I was about to get pegged with tomatoes from the audience for stopping. If we had the time, we could have sat there and read on for hours. 20 pages and the kids were absolutely enthralled. The book went home with a student that day, I ordered another copy that evening and I even sent home another of Pam Munoz Ryan’s books Esperanza Rising with another student. Whether it is picture books, graphic novels or chapter books, no child is too old to enjoy a good read aloud.
Mr. Thorpe was the light for me. I’m incredibly grateful that I get to pay it forward and be the light for others each day in my classroom.
Brian Lawless is a fifth grade Language Arts teacher in Worthington, Ohio. He lives with his wife Kaycee and his adorable furchild Penny. Brian enjoys reading and writing free verse poetry. His favorite book of all time is Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee. Brian’s mission as a teacher is to put good fit books into the hands of his students and create a passion for reading amongst his community of readers.