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February 27, 2020
Vol. 15
No. 12

5 Indicators of Empowered Readers

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      How do you know if students are empowered as readers? How do you know if they believe in themselves and their reading abilities?
      As a classroom teacher and principal for the last 20 years, I've had firsthand observations of confident readers in action. I am also fortunate to have witnessed my own two children become bibliophiles. Five indicators come to mind that tell us we have empowered readers in our midst.
      <BQ> 1. Empowered readers can "talk book." These students have access to a literate lexicon. The terms they use, such as "scene" and "character," are not just regurgitated for a test. It is a part of their conversational acumen. This capacity for book talk helps them enter discussions with other readers. The connections two readers create have a reciprocal effect; by learning about what each other is reading, they are now aware of possible next titles. Readers who can talk book are also "influencers," as my former team teacher termed it. They persuade students less empowered as readers to pick up what they are recommending. While they are influential, they are not condescending. They have a genuine love for reading and aren't afraid to share their passion. Often, they are found organizing and leading the book clubs. To "talk book": Schedule opportunities for students to recommend books to their peers. Model how to deliver a book talk for your own favorite titles. In addition, structure small group book discussions and literacy circles with conversation stems as needed. 2. Empowered readers can make title choices independently. They have moved beyond levels or the Goldilocks / "just right" strategy (reading one page to determine if they can read the book fluently and comprehensively). If they want to read something more complex than typical fare, they will find a way to access the information, such as through audiobooks. Conversely, empowered readers will put a book down if it isn't meeting their needs. They will give the first couple of chapters a fighting chance. But they have other titles waiting in the wings and are ruthless if the current choice is not as they expected, despite giving it a fair shot. Throughout their reading life, empowered readers are constantly reflecting about their choices and literate experiences and adjusting: "Am I reading more fiction than nonfiction?" "What can I do to remedy that?" To select books independently: Ensure your space has a well-stocked classroom library with high-interest texts. Titles found in book orders and what's available at book fairs would likely fit the "high-interest" description. As an example, books in the Who Was …? series are popular in our school. You can also ask students what titles they want added and encourage them to help organize the classroom library. 3. Empowered readers read for purpose. Empowered readers are not affected by external motivators like points and stickers. Empowered readers understand that every good book has something to teach. When shaping understanding of a text, readers meet comprehension struggles with strategies such as rereading, reading on, or asking themselves questions. In other words, they are strategic about their strategy use. The tools they use to tackle text are almost second nature. To read with purpose: Read aloud to your students and share your thinking throughout the text. Make the comprehension process visible by showing students how to use sticky notes and other tools to capture their own thinking for later discussions. 4. Empowered readers make reading a priority. This goes beyond simply setting goals. Book challenges such as numbers of books or pages read are not a focus for them; rather, it's a natural outcome of their practice. Empowered readers also don't assume that maintaining a reading life is natural. For example, they think about what they will be reading and when. If a busy day disrupts their regular schedules, empowered readers rearrange other obligations to ensure there is time for reading. To make reading a priority: Provide at least 30 minutes daily for independent reading. This might mean removing or reducing other uses of time from your literacy block, such as worksheets, to prioritize time spent with books. Use independent reading to coach/confer with students and celebrate and assess their progress. 5. Empowered readers are risk-takers. They aren't afraid to tackle a new genre, an author they have not heard of before, or a different mode of text. Empowered readers carry their confidence toward that next book, founded on their history of success. Over time, these literacy experiences sometimes lead to writing fan fiction or at least emulating a favorite author. They have read enough that they start to tell themselves that they too can do this work. The language they've immersed themselves in may motivate empowered readers to create these same conditions for other readers. To promote risk-taking: Connect reading with writing; model for students how to read like a writer through demonstrations. Engage in author or genre studies that eventually lead to students producing written pieces that emulate the structures and styles read. </BQ>
      Another way to guide students to become empowered readers is to make sure we teachers practice what we preach, to embody the very qualities we seek to develop in others. It's hard to guide kids on how to talk about books if we do not have that skill ourselves. Every reading life exists as its own world, populated with unique characters, ideas, and questions. We can be a powerful model for our students when we demonstrate that being a reader is not only accepted but also expected. You will contribute to others' reading lives while investing in your own.

      Matt Renwick is an elementary principal in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. Prior to this position, Matt was a teacher and school administrator in Wisconsin Rapids. Renwick posts frequently on his collaborative blog for literacy leaders, Reading by Example, and tweets at @ReadByExample. He also writes for Discovery Education and Lead Literacy.

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