Even before my 6-year-old niece could read on her own, Jamie clamored for story after story. As I watch her growing delight with the printed word, I often wonder whether she'll enjoy reading in the years to come. If Jamie follows the pattern that I've observed among my own students, she will probably revel in books for a few more years. Then, as other activities, new friends, and various media compete for her time and attention, she may slowly lose her interest in reading.
So few teenagers read for pleasure; in fact, this phrase is oxymoronic to them. To make meaning of reading requires time and intellectual effort. In a society where people thrive on doing several things at once with minimal effort, reading presents a significant challenge.
More important, however, teenagers don't read because they think they can't. Even capable students' confidence can be destroyed by quizzes filled with arcane details, lectures that elucidate the “absolute truth” of the literature, and tests that require regurgitating these truths rather than making personal connections.
Reading as Pleasure
From these musings, “Guided Independent Reading” (another oxymoron) was born. This approach is the anchor of all my curriculum planning.
I teach my middle and high school English classes around large themes: one course focuses on the hero and his or her quest; another class is devoted to the relationship between one's beliefs and one's actions. Into these themes, I incorporate the majority of the literature we study. Now, every unit includes one novel or play that we read together as a class and one related work that the students select.
I try to choose books of interest to my students. For example, after discovering that I had a large group of baseball aficionados, I searched out a work about this sport. Kids who are normally nonreaders begged to read Eliot Asinof's Eight Men Out for our unit on justice. They were so excited to read about something that they loved.
During a unit on the quest for identity and self-respect, my students and I watched A Long Walk Home, a film about the African-American bus boycotts in the South. We also read Take a Giant Step, Louis Peterson's play about a boy who must deal with racism. Next, my students chose to read one of the following books:
- At Risk, by Alice Hoffman, about a girl who develops AIDS and must face a hostile community;
- Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, about a man and his tribe's struggles to maintain their traditions in a rapidly changing world;
- Princess, by Jean Sassoon, about a Saudi Arabian princess's efforts to gain a sense of self-worth in a sexist society; or
- April Morning, by Howard Fast, about a young boy's coming of age in the Revolutionary War.
While the style, setting, and content of each novel differ, the characters all face difficult decisions. Each selection also addresses questions about how a person can obtain a sense of self under trying circumstances.
A Sense of Ownership
About two weeks before formal Guided Independent Reading begins, I list several titles and authors on the board and provide brief information about each one. Based on these descriptions and their personal interests, students submit their top two choices to me.
Announcing who gets what book is a very big deal. Students are eager to know which book is theirs; a sense of ownership is part of the process. I make my decisions based on student choice and balanced numbers. Almost every time, however, students receive their first selection. When I pass out the books, I sometimes include extra information that might help readers—for example, a map of Poland during World War II to accompany In the Mouth of the Wolf by Rose Zar.
During the reading period—from five to nine days depending on the students, the books, and the calendar—my students and I bring our books to class, and we read. In the past, I had given students time in class to read, but I had never set aside several days in a row solely for reading. The first time I tried this, I was nervous.
To my surprise, students entered the room, opened their books, found a comfortable position, and read. Every so often, two who were reading the same book would confer about an event. One day, when I needed to make a few announcements, my students were paying no attention to me—their noses were buried in their books!
Toward the end of class every day, I stroll around the room, casually checking each student's progress, chatting about the theme, or urging some to do extra reading for homework. For the most part, however, students' reading is self-monitored.
At the end of the reading period, every student takes a test on his or her book. Tests include a smattering of short-answer questions that focus primarily on the plot (for example: Give two examples of situations when someone was kind to Amanda when she was sick) and an essay question that addresses some of the themes of the novel as well as the unit (Is Princess Sultana a heroine? Why or why not?).
After taking the tests, students work in groups to present their book to the rest of the class. The format of these presentations is wide open. Students have elected to do everything from acting out dramatic scenes from their books to making news shows to interviewing characters to creating elaborate collages. From start to finish, three weeks pass. During this time, students read a work of literature, write about it, and present it to the class.
Students benefit in numerous ways from having classroom time for reading. First, they get to assert their independence by making choices about what they want to read. Case in point: I am not a devotee of science fiction, and I rarely teach it. For one selection in our unit on the quest for justice, however, I offered Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 as a choice. A few students who read the book loved it; one boy even went on to read more of this author's work independently.
By giving my students classroom time, I can also be assured that every student will read something. Not everyone finishes every book, but I am convinced that more is being accomplished than would have had I simply passed out the books and given students two weeks to read them. “Reading week,” commented one student, “gives me something to look forward to and time to read my book.” Another said:
It's a really good idea to read in class. If we wouldn't have started it in class last week, I probably would just be starting my book. I usually finish in the middle of a chapter in class. Because of this, I have an overwhelming urge to pick up the book and finish the chapter. Once I finish that chapter, I wonder what happens next.
For whatever reason, my students don't consider reading as work. They see it as a break in the routine. In fact, most students want to know when the next one is. Interestingly enough, since we often spend between four and six weeks reading a novel together, my students end up doing more work in less time for Guided Independent Reading.
Most important, this activity renews students' confidence in their ability to read and increases their enjoyment as well. Students feel proud of themselves when they finish a long book; many even opt to read other selections during this time period after hearing peers talk about them.
A Community of Readers
When I first started this activity, I worried that, without my guidance, students might miss out on some of the important ideas in their books. Time and time again, I was proven wrong. My students now take the initiative to ask questions about what they don't understand, to comment about what they're reading, and to monitor their progress. All my students are challenged to read more, and the better readers often read two books. They even generate their own insights and make personal connections without my prodding. About Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, for example, one reader commented, “It's a short book with a fast pace and a Total Recall/Quantum Leap-type plot. It's pretty cool.”
Guided Independent Reading speaks to the growing diversity in all of our classes by providing a way to engage all students in reading. My students appreciate that I have confidence in their ability not only to read their books but also to understand them. They want to live up to my expectations, and they do.
Jody Brown Podl is a teacher in the Shaker Heights City School District, 15600 Parkland Dr., Shaker Heights, OH 44120.