For the Love of Reading – Independent Reading

This is the first in a series of workshops about teaching reading at the secondary level.


In the infographic above, the fact that “reading frequency declines after age 8” strikes a chord with me. I’m sure most secondary teachers would heartily agree that elementary students read more than high school students. But why?

We can point our fingers at several things:

  • at technology (students can seem like they’re always on Facebook, watching Youtube videos, or chatting with friends)finger-point
  • homework (homework overload might leave little time to read anymore)
  • peer pressure (it’s just not cool to read)
  • after-school activities and socializing (are they too busy to read?)

It’s easy to place the blame elsewhere. But as a fellow teacher once told me, “Every time we point a finger, 3 more are pointed back at us.” The truth is, pointing fingers doesn’t help us make changes. The only thing we can change is ourselves and, in this case, what we do in the classroom.

In his thought provoking article “How to Create Nonreaders,” Alfie Kohn delineates all the the things we do as teachers to kill the love of reading in our students. He then goes on to explain how we can reverse this by changing the way we teach.


Our secondary Language Arts teachers read Kohn’s article and then met to discuss his ideas. In his article Alfie Kohn sys “deeper learning and enthusiasm require us to let students generate possibilities rather than just choosing items from our menu; construction is more important than selection.” In previous workshops, I would have come in with my charts all written up and ready to go, taking the decision making away from my teachers and imposing my ideas on them.But in the spirit of Kohn’s article, rather than prepare discussion questions in advance I had teachers generate the questions we would answer (this proved to be a little harder than expected – we discovered that asking good questions is harder, and requires deeper thinking, than giving answers). I taped up a few empty charts and we brainstormed what we should look at, then chose our questions and wrote them on the charts. We decided to look at the following:

  • Kohn’s ideas on what kills the desire to read
  • What we can do instead

reading chart

We started out by listing all the things Alfie Kohn said we should do if we want to turn students into non-readers adn then we added red stars to identify the things we’re doing in our classrooms. This was an eye-opening (and somewhat depressing activity). And of course the reactions came: “but what can we do? We have to give grades. How do we get around this?”

At the end of the article, Kohn makes seven specific suggestions. However, three are about writing, one is about assessment, two are about democratic decision making, while only one is about reading itself, leading us to the conclusion that it’s not easy to make changes in the reading curriculum. We realized too, that Alfie Kohn’s underlying message is that the real change needs to be in the classroom environment. We need to give up control and let students take charge of their learning. Easier said than done 🙂

These are own specific suggestions about how to engage students in reading:

reading chart 2Teachers decided to give some of these strategies a go this week. Everyone chose what most interested them. Some of the techniques they’ll be trying are:

  • giving students choice in the books they read not only in independent reading, but also in shared reading. For example, give four possible titles and allow them to choose the book they’ll study.
  • having students generate the comprehension questions they’ll answer
  • having students decide how much they should read during independent reading time and how they should prove that they’re reading
  • having students give book talks instead of doing reports on their independent reading (more engaging and at the same time other students will be introduced to great books they may want to read)

In next week’s workshop, we’ll be looking specifically at how teachers can engage students in shared reading and how to run book clubs or guided reading groups.

We’re all pretty excited about making changes!!



  1. I’m very excited to start a change in my classroom, and I believe my students are also excited.

    This week we decided not to do book reports, we’ll start a book club next week. I sold de idea to my students modeling the discussion they should have in a book club using my on independent book. I told them how much I’m enjoying the book, I explained to them what is the book about, I read a sentence that I love and finally when I was telling them what is happening in the book all of them were so curious to know more, and that’s were I let them hanging… I said, next week you’ll know more… I heard a big Noooo!!!! And I told them that’s the cool thing about a book club. My students are anxious to start and I’m looking forward to see them enjoy their reading for pleasure.

    We also had a discussion about how they’ll be graded. I suggested mystery envelopes with question for them to answer based on what they are reading, so I asked my students how often we should do it and they said once a week. I was not expecting that answer, I thought they were going to say once a month. At the end we concluded to do the book club one a week, they are going to form their own groups, they get to read and choose their own books, after the discussion among their groups they’ll take a question form the mystery envelope and answer it in the notebook. The students also agreed to do stop and jots once a week.

    Can’t wait to see how the book club goes…

    • Ylonka, I love the fact that you’re own reading to model for the kids. I think that seeing us as “real” readers helps them get on board. I’m also happy that your groups have thought of an assessment component (the part I, personally, find the hardest).

  2. I was talking to my 10th graders about changing the independent reading assessment into a book talk style instead of book reports. At the beginning they didn’t seem very motivated, they were complaining about using a new method which force them to speak aloud. Then, I modeled how I wished them to do it, and write together what should and should’t do during the book talk. I gave them the option of doing the amount of times they wanted and that we are going to try during this trimester, and in case they don’t like it, we can come back to the original way. At the end of the discussion, they were more engaged and motivated with the idea and ready to try, Now, they are doing their own schedule and organizing the time, almost ready to start next week. Most of them are into it and willing to start.

  3. I started the week with a good discussion with my students regarding how they feel about independent reading. The non-readers definitely did not like the “logging of the pages” format that we currently use but the true readers had no problems with it. We sat down and brainstormed how could we make independent reading more enjoyable AND how could I verify that they were reading. Some of the ideas that the students expressed were: doing 1 or 2 book reports per month, answer a series of generic questions about the book, or doing a book talk. Once the ideas were on the board I had the students discuss among themselves which of the following would be the most favorable option for them and myself. The students voted democratically and decided that a book talk would be a new and fresh look that they would enjoy.

    • Tom, I guess it’s giving them choice that makes all the difference. Jean shared this article with me and I love the way it describes creating a democratic classroom:
      5 Efforts toward Creating a Feminist Classroom
      Have a look at it – I think you’ll find it very interesting.

      • I read this article Carla and I love what it says about the one doing the work is the only one learning, “…think of yourself as a facilitator of learning, rather than the end-all, be-all. Let your students make their own discoveries, and validate the feelings that they have about them.” I think this is what we’ve been trying to work towards. I’m trying to give my students a lot more room to make decisions and although they’re not used to it, they’re really liking how we’re making decisions as a class.

        Today I had them create their own rubric for their next project in reading class. Together we came up with the criteria for the project and how they should be graded. Creating the rubric and deciding how they will be graded makes the idea of getting grades less intimidating and also holds them more accountable to their own standards. We started planning the project today and they got straight to work and worked the whole class through without me having to keep them focused! Putting the power in their hands is less scary than I thought; it turns out it makes both their lives and mine a whole lot less stressful!

  4. When reading Kohn’s article, I found myself inspired by the part in which he discusses how many fewer books he would have read over his lifetime had he not had been involved in a book group. This made me think… there are so many kids in my classroom that are SO excited about reading and want to share their experiences with me and others; yet, other than word-of-mouth and sharing with only those students interested, their passion for the book comes to a stop. Then I thought about my other students. There are also so many kids in my classroom that simply cannot get excited about books on their own, especially those who have come from other schools and who have not had reading worked into their everyday lives from a young age. Book groups… book groups… YES! I will have them get into book groups!

    So, although obviously still very much a pilot program in my eyes, I told the kids that they would be helping me out by being my “guinea pigs.” I told them that ultimately I wanted to divide the class into three/four/or five small groups (depending on the size of the class) based on the books that they are all interested in. I posed a question to the class: how many of you have read a book, in English, within the last two years that you LOVED? Most everyone raised their hand. I then had them put their hands down if they thought that book was one that they believed the rest of the class had already read (i.e. “Harry Potter” or a shared reading book that was mandatory for class). Most still could think of a book that they truly loved that most other students hadn’t yet read. For those students that couldn’t, I gave them time in class and encouraged them to research a book that they had heard of/had interest in reading, etc. Once this had been done, I had the students fill out a “form” I created asking for the title of the book, the author, a short summary of the book (without giving away too many details!), why they loved the book, and to write a little about why they think that their classmates would like the book. They all did a really great job!

    Now that this has been done, my plan is to compile one document containing all of the summaries of each book, why the person liked them, and why he/she thinks the rest of the class will like it too. I plan to keep this anonymous for those who do not want their writing/thoughts to be shared. Once the list has been created, I intend to have the kids rank order the books they most want to read (1-5). Although at this point I do not know what the future will bring with this, I hope to place every student into a group with a book that they rank ordered, and not just stick a kid in a random group of a book that he/she does not want to read. Fortunately, I think that the lists will be small enough (based on the number of kids in the class) that I should be able to get them all into a group of a book that they would like to read (I hope!)

    Once the plan is set into motion and the students are in their book groups, I plan to give the entire class a set period of time to complete the book (i.e. three weeks/one month – depending on the lengths of the books chosen) and allow the students to come up with a time table for the reading assignments. Now, they get to be in the role of teacher! Once this is set, I would like them to get into their book groups weekly in order to discuss the material that had been read for that week. During this process, I plan to rotate through the groups and sit in on all of the conversations, noting those students whom seem to have read, and those who seem to be relying on the others to keep the conversation going.

    My goal of this “project” is to excite the kids to read books that their peers have loved, and also to create motivation within groups of students, having the students hold each other accountable for the reading and discussion. Although all of the mechanics have not been worked out as of yet, I believe that this “mini-project” has great potential and I’m excited to see how it all plays out!

    • I can’t wait to watch this in action, Tasha. I like how you’ve thought through the different phases of this project and that at each level, the kids are in charge of the learning (choosing the books they like, coming up with a reading schedule, holding each other accountable). Super!

  5. I love the idea of giving the students more choices in the classroom and they seem to love it too! This week in my reading classes I discussed with my students the possibility of changing their independent and shared reading curriculum. They were incredibly responsive and had fantastic ideas to contribute. I explained to them the issues that I have with our current structure and where I think that we could make changes and they agreed as well as offered other areas that we could improve on.

    As a class we decided to keep track of independent reading by using book clubs. In each book club four students will share what they are reading once a week and compare/contrast their stories. We have not started this new idea yet but when we do we’ll practice what a book club should look like and what they should be talking about so that from now on they will know what to do. I think that the idea of having book clubs instead of their teacher counting each page they read makes them feel independent and empowered which is fantastic for them and takes some of the work off of me!

    We also decided to change our shared reading plan. Instead of reading one book all together as a class, the class will be split into two groups reading two different books. After they finish their books they’ll switch so that everyone has a chance to read the material. They are especially excited about this change because not only will they get more concentrated discussion groups with their peers and myself but they also got to choose the book that they will read first. We decided as a class to get a new book entitled “Looking for Alaska” by John Green (a popular young adult author) and they absolutely cannot wait to get started reading it. I was so happy to see that just one discussion and a few changes can get them so much more excited about reading!

    • I love your statement “takes some of the work off of me!” – since the one doing the work is usually the one doing the learning, this is definitely the goal. It’ll be interesting to see how the discussions of a variety of books work out. Please let me know when the book clubs hold their discussions so that I can pop in to hear some of them.

  6. I’m hoping to introduce book clubs as well. Next week, I plan to propose the idea to students and give them some time to reflect and ask questions about what the specifics would look like. Logistically, I’m still not sure how things will break down, but hopefully the students and other teachers’ own experiments can help inform mine.

    I’ve also had students generate their own discussion questions, and they’ll be answering student-generated shared reading questions next week. So far, this seems to produce more engagement and participation, but we’ll continue to see how this plays out.

    The other thing I tried to do this week was offer a mini-lesson where the students developed and defined their own standards for productive classroom discussion. I’ve got two very different classes that discuss in different ways; both have room to grow. I was noticing that since I was creating all the questions and moderating with a sometimes heavy hand, students were only addressing and listening to me. They weren’t necessarily building off of one another or creating a disarming, open classroom environment. Asking students to share what a healthy discussion looks like and what needs to happen for it to take place was really powerful, because I could simultaneously see what they really think and have standards (the ones they’d made) to hold them accountable to. I created some anchor charts about ways to get and stay engaged and about effective phrasing that can be used to keep the lines of thinking going.

    This may not seem to apply directly to the topic of reading assessment, but I hope that if we read compelling books, ask compelling questions, and create a warm classroom environment, it’ll be a motivator to read thoroughly, reflect deeply, and share openly.

    • Jean, I think that teaching your students how to have a healthy discussion, has EVERYTHING to do with creating a democratic reading classroom! When I watched your 12th graders define their standards for a productive class discussion, I was impressed with how motivated and engaged they were. They also immediately started to use the phrases for sharing ideas…… excellent!

  7. Puse en práctica la iniciativa de dejarles leer por iniciativa propia. La mayoría se observan muy tranquilos y felices, los lectores pasivos se muestran incrédulos y un poco preocupados. Hace semana y media que sacamos de circulación el record de lectura independiente y los reportes de lectura y tengo alumnos como Sanlley que hasta el momento ha sido un lector pasivo, que ha empezado a comentar sus lecturas, lee sobre historia universal y artículos de avances o curiosidades científicas que a su vez, lo incentivan a querer saber más (eso es mucho viniendo de él). Hoy se acercó y me dijo: “Sabes Aida, antes miraba la lectura como algo obligatorio y no la disfrutaba ni me gustaba, ahora estoy leyendo y a veces hasta no me doy cuenta de cuánto tiempo paso leyendo, creo que tomaré un libro y esta vez, lo disfrutaré”. En ese momento pensé que sí se puede!!!

    Hasta ahora, hemos hablado sobre la forma en que evaluaremos la lectura. Empezaremos haciendo los círculos de lectura, el martes me toca modelar y luego ellos harán una guía de trabajo para que los círculos funcionen adecuadamente.

    Ellos se muestran muy entusiasmados, han propuesto círculos de lectura guiada, proponen cuatro libros diferentes por mesas y que al final del libro, cada grupo haga una dramatización de los hechos ocurridos en el libro mismo. También proponen que el colegio tenga una biblioteca general para bachillerato, ellos plantean que así podrían seleccionar un libro teniendo una mayor variedad y es que dice que tienen gustos y niveles diferentes de lectura. Creativos ellos jajajaja
    Les observo motivados y yo, también lo estoy.

    • Thank you for sharing this, Aida. Sebastian Sanlley’s comment gave me goosebumps! This is exactly what the article suggested would happen, but I truly didn’t think the change would happen so quickly 🙂

  8. As a mother of an 11th grader I have to say that the change in my daughter´s attitude toward reading in English is wonderful. She is talking about the book, I hear her deciding with some classmates “how they’re going to organize their reading, how much they should plan to read this week” and she is reading more than ever. Her afternoons have dramatically changed, not because she didn’t read before (she is a hard worker), but now she is really enthusiastic. I’ve noticed how this enthusiasms has transferred automatically to other assignments, it is not that suddenly she loves everything, but I can see that she is handling the homework load in a smoother way. Thanks for implementing these changes!!!!

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