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February 1, 2020

Let Them Read, Please

What it takes to build a culture of reading in secondary schools.

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During our first class meeting this fall, I surveyed my freshman college students about their reading habits. Half said they never read books. Another 20 percent checked rarely. Less than 10 percent said they read often. These students may have started kindergarten mesmerized by books, but they exited 12th grade habitually uninterested. Far too many of my students tell me year after year that they completed high school courses without reading a single book. They no longer have the stamina to read 70 pages between Tuesday's class and Thursday's book club meeting. They've substituted the academic trickery of pretending to read or quoting summaries of books for the satisfying experience of devouring finely crafted sentences, and their schools rewarded them with diplomas for it.

So what is a teacher or leader to do when faced with a classroom of young people who believe reading is only about finding answers, which they can easily access online? Today's middle and high school students do not need another strategy or a lesson on comprehension. They need something much more difficult to orchestrate in this digital age: They need to enter "the unseen sanctuary of the reading act," as cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf calls it, "redirecting thoughts beyond the self to the good of others" (2018). The act of reading relieves stress and invites empathy. It can break through passivity and ignite curiosity, which drives deeper learning throughout the school day.

We want students who are hungry to learn, and as Lois Bridges says, reading can have a snowball effect:

Reading engagement is nothing short of miraculous. Engaged readers spend 500 percent more time reading than do their peers who aren't turned on by books—and all those extra hours inside books they love gives them a leg up in everything that leads to a happy, productive life: deep conceptual understanding about a wide range of topics, expanded vocabulary, strategic reading ability, critical literacy skills, and engagement with the world that's more likely to make them dynamic citizens drawn into full civic participation. (2010)

I aim to achieve this "miraculous" level of reading engagement with my students every year I teach. I begin by seeking to understand why my students have stopped reading. I listen. I give them time to read and access to the best books I can find. Students must see themselves—and each other—in the books they read, as Rudine Sims Bishop said so eloquently in her 1990 essay, "Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors." I include many voices and many points of view in the books I buy for my classroom library, and I read aloud enticing passages from books (fiction, non-fiction, and poetry) at the start of each class—a practice I advocate for at every level. I also confer with students, to encourage them and help them solve problems of understanding. I listen to their thinking.

But one classroom will never be enough. We must have a vision for all readers. As Mike Schmoker said in the pages of this magazine, "Students should read and/or be read to for a minimum of 60 minutes daily, across the curriculum, at every grade level" (2019). As I found at a high school in New Hampshire where I taught for more than 20 years, it is possible to create a school of readers when we prioritize time to read, offer access to irresistible books, give students choice, and encourage teacher learning.

Bringing Reading Into the Classroom

When I started teaching high school, I assigned reading outside of class. I had students focus on passages in class, but many students could not understand the whole of the book because they literally weren't reading the pages in between. My principal and I surveyed hundreds of students in our school, and the results showed that across content areas, students were listening to teachers talk about ideas in books, but they weren't engaged in making meaning of the texts themselves. Students skimmed pages to find answers; few hungered for more reading.

To immerse students in books during class time, I started a book club. I initially carved out time for my American Literature students to sample titles and choose what they wanted to read. The time they then spent immersed in those books in class resulted in more reading outside of it. Daily reading increased their joy and fluency, confidence and stamina. My students were reading books from start to finish. In biology, world history, economics, and health, I worked with teachers to create additional book clubs around big ideas in the curriculum, and together we have watched students' thinking deepen in each classroom.

Too many schools today push reading outside the school day and then use reading logs, incentive programs, and computerized tests of comprehension to check on compliance. The time spent checking on compliance would be better spent reading.

Gay Ivey, an elected member of the Reading Hall of Fame and 2018 president of the Literacy Research Association, studied middle school classrooms that prioritize reading engagement. She concluded in a joint interview she and I did in 2019, that the teachers in these classrooms

… arranged for students to have meaningful experiences by providing a vast collection of relevant books, letting students choose, and giving them ample time in class to read, all with no strings attached—no comprehension questions, journal responses, projects, or requirement for reading a set number of books, and so forth. These decisions resulted in students reading more, and willingly so; they were also reading more strategically and analytically, but far surpassing what is expected on any set of curriculum standards I have seen. (2019)

Yet some leaders still say independent reading in school is a waste of time. Even some teachers say this. Isn't pretending to read a bigger one? What do we think students learn when we give them high marks for not reading—for observing class discussions, but not joining them, and then using what they hear others say to answer quiz questions and write essays? They know they didn't read the books assigned; you know they didn't. Why doesn't this bother us more?

In school we can set the conditions for deep reading. We know many students will not find quiet or a wide array of books in their homes. But we can give them productive reading space in school. As one of my college students told me this week, "I stay focused when everyone in the class is focused on reading, too. And I become interested in what others are reading." If all independent reading moves outside school walls, we miss the chance to confer with students and support them amid their struggles to understand. We miss building their confidence, noticing a student's disengagement and addressing it, or simply celebrating the gains each student is making.

Celebrate the Diversity of Readers, Celebrate Choice

Personalize. Differentiate. These are not just words; they are actions that focus our attention on how we teach, so that all students can learn more. Our curricula should leverage the power of personalization around student interests. A curriculum guide can't tell me what to say when I pull up my chair alongside my student Shane, but I know he needs to experience reading as a meaning-making process. I don't quiz Shane; I help him connect what he knows from his years playing baseball to his understanding of Moneyball.

In order to balance teacher and student choices in reading, Kelly Gallagher and I have proposed a 9th grade reading map of 25 percent common texts, 25 percent book clubs, and 50 percent independent reading choices across a school year (2018). This gives students the power to make choices 75 percent of the time. We expect all our students to increase the volume of their reading, increase the complexity of the texts they choose, and form allegiances to particular authors and genres. In short, we invest time into helping every student develop an identity as a reader. We regularly hear from teachers all over the world who have transformed curriculum to prioritize student choice with stunning results. We can do this.

Hire Passionate Readers

If your teachers don't make time to read, it's hard to imagine they'll prioritize that time for their students. As a college freshman told me this fall, "I can't think of one teacher in high school who asked me what I was interested in reading—or ever talked about books that weren't in the curriculum." At my previous high school, our interview committee asked all candidates, "What are you reading?" and then followed up with, "What are you learning from that reading that you can bring to your classroom?" Their responses helped us understand the teacher's ability to support our school culture of engaged reading.

Likewise, our engagement with the profession—with our own learning as we prepare each week to teach—matters. For years I taught graduate education courses on my high school campus and had teachers choose books to study with their colleagues. We read widely, analyzing the claims of researchers in education to understand cognitive science and sound instruction. But we also read and discussed books on dogs, romance, sports, eating well, and the life stories of immigrants and politicians. We learned that we all bring our experiences to a book, which changes how we read it. We saw books differently, and we saw the teaching of reading differently. We had time to reflect, laugh, and learn together through reading together.

Help Students Lean In

In the last 10 years, connecting students to books has gotten even harder. A smartphone is the world in your palm, but it is also a tyrant. A master of your time—of you. It's the easiest thing to reach for when you have a free minute. Silence has replaced conversation at the start of my college class, as students sit "alone together," to borrow the title of Sherry Turkle's 2012 book. As a result, teachers might think it is impossible to engage teenagers with books, but I know differently. Readers thrive in schools that prioritize engagement.

When one of my students, Charisa, began freshman composition this fall, I had her and her peers spend a minute or two with a dozen books. Charisa quickly connected to Dear Martin by Nic Stone. She sustained engagement with the book because each day we set phones aside and read in a community. Once she finished that book, she began The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. When our book club discussions began, I heard her making connections between those two books and I Will Save You by Matt de la Peña, which she read with four students in my class and another dozen in an online book club with Kelly Gallagher's high school seniors in Anaheim, California. Charisa is now reading Know My Name by Chanel Miller, and she has a list of books written in the back of her notebook to read next.

We all want readers like Charisa, but we are far from stoking that fire. We try to speed up learning with our students by asking and answering questions; but reading a series of short passages never adds up to the authentic transaction between a reader and a book. I study passages with students because there is much we can learn from close study, but we can't neglect the sustained engagement with a whole book that ignites our curiosity. Reading requires leaning in and being fully immersed in the experience. The number of books a student reads is, as Nancie Atwell said, "the most significant statistic of all; it represents and predicts so much about his academic future" (2014).

Brick by Brick

In my former high school, we built a culture of reading brick by brick. A small committee of teachers from several content areas studied Richard Allington's research on fluency and stamina (2012) and asked questions: Do all of our students read? Do the conditions in our school encourage engaged reading? We presented these questions to the entire faculty, and our initial thinking expanded as we listened and learned together. Our high school took the courageous leap to add a 25-minute schoolwide reading break between periods one and two on our master schedule. We committed money to purchasing high-interest young adult literature for our school library. We set up a pyramid of interventions (Buffum, 2011) to support students who were resistant to reading, such as the principal's famous read-aloud group that came together year after year, with male students gathering around books like Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos that forced them to reckon with moral dilemmas. Those boys created a community in the principal's office, and teachers created communities in their classrooms.

Our small high school hung onto the practice for years until our leaders stopped prioritizing reading break, monitoring it, or even supporting it. Two school leaders suggested we swap reading break for a study hall period, and we now see hundreds of students scrolling on phones and very few engaged readers.

One Final Plea

As my school experienced, something as big as culture can feel impossible to shift. But it's like training for a marathon or losing 50 pounds: Every big shift is built—and sustained—by small, incremental steps. Pull a dozen of your students together for lunch and listen to them talk about reading. Share a book at every faculty meeting and expect book talks to happen across all content areas, several times a week, in all classrooms. Incorporate student, parent, custodian, and administrative assistant book talks into your school culture. Create posters for the doors of each classroom to celebrate the range of books teachers read: what I just finished reading, what I'm currently reading, and what I'll read next. Make book recommendations a portion of your morning announcements and newsletters home.

Above all, let students read, please.


Allington, R. L. (2012). What really matters for struggling readers: Designing research-based programs (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Atwell, N. (2014). In the middle third edition: A lifetime of learning about writing, reading, and adolescents. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 6(3).

Bridges, L. (2010). RTI: The best intervention is a good book [White paper]. New York: Scholastic.

Buffum, A., Mattos, M., & Weber, C. (2011) Pyramid response to intervention: RTI, professional learning communities, and how to respond when kids don't learn. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Gallagher, K., & Kittle, P. (2018) 180 Days: The quest to engage and empower adolescents. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Kittle, P., & Ivey, G. (Fall 2019) Engaged in young adult literature: A collaborative conversation with Penny Kittle and Gay Ivey. The ALAN Review.

Schmoker, M. (2019) Focusing on the essentials. Educational Leadership, 77(1), 30–35.

Wolf, M. (2018). Reader come home: The reading brain in a digital world. New York: Harper Collins.

Penny Kittle teaches freshman composition at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. She is the author of many books on reading and writing, including Write Beside Them and Book Love (Heinemann, 2008 and 2012) and president of the Book Love Foundation.

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