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March 1, 2010

Becoming a Classroom of Readers

What makes students want to read?

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As I stand in the hallway, monitoring students at their lockers before school begins, Emily wanders over to chat. She has been reading Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson (Simon and Schuster, 2000), a historical fiction novel about the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. The events in the book have piqued Emily's interest in medicine and epidemics.

Emily is full of questions. "Mrs. Miller, why did people back then have such weird ideas about diseases? Why did they drain people's blood and feed them nasty herbs to cure them? Didn't they know that mosquitoes caused yellow fever? Why do we know this now, but no one knew it then?"

"Well," I tell her, "scientists' study of infectious diseases like yellow fever has occurred over time, and years ago, we didn't know what caused many illnesses or how to treat them. There is a great nonfiction book called An American Plague by Jim Murphy (Clarion, 2003) that can give you more information about the 1793 yellow fever epidemic. Would you like to read it? We have a copy in the school library."

Emily agrees to read Murphy's book next and heads off to science class, where her newfound interest in infectious diseases will serve her well. During the 10 minutes between the first bell and the second, I discuss the Japanese invasion of Burma during World War II with Brian, who is reading Roland Smith's Elephant Run (Hyperion, 2007); debate the negative consequences of time travel explored in Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me (Wendy Lamb, 2009) with Hanna; and define and pronounce crenellated for Grant, who declares that Christopher Paolini overuses the word in Eragon (Knopf, 2003). None of these students is in my first period language arts class, but their books provoke questions that cannot wait. As a reader, I enjoy these conversations, but as a teacher, I appreciate the intellectual power these students are gaining through reading.

The Need to Read

Numerous studies prove that wide reading improves children's comprehension, background knowledge, vocabulary, fluency, and writing (Krashen, 2004). Unfortunately, in many schools the poorest readers read the least, often as much as three times less than their peers (Allington, 2006). Many students identified as struggling readers early in their educations continue to receive reading intervention and tutoring throughout their school lives, never catching up with their peers. No matter what instructional methods we employ, students must spend substantial time applying the reading skills and strategies we teach before they develop reading proficiency. To become good readers, students must read and read and read.

The challenge for many teachers lies in motivating and inspiring students to pick up a book in the first place. Developing or struggling readers often lack the experience and confidence to choose books for themselves, read for extended periods of time, or consistently apply reading strategies across texts. Dormant readers, who possess the reading skills needed for academic tasks, see reading as a school job—not as an activity in which they would willingly engage outside school. How do we instill lasting reading behaviors in all our students?

Lifelong readers possess certain habits that we can explicitly model and teach our students. By redesigning our classrooms to support young readers as they practice and internalize the behaviors of avid readers, we can increase our students' engagement in reading and reap the benefits that prolific reading engenders.

Making Time

When I announce, "Ladies and gentlemen, come to a stopping spot," my students groan. Their complaints are music to my ears. I learned long ago that the only way I could guarantee that my students read was to dedicate time for them to read in class every day. The Commission on Reading's report Becoming a Nation of Readers (Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, & Wilkinson, 1985) recommends two hours of silent sustained reading a week, but increasing curriculum demands and the need to prepare students for standardized tests have made independent reading time a luxury in many classrooms. Knowing that voracious readers make time to read every day, how do we carve out more reading time for students?

I set aside as much as 30 minutes a day for my 6th grade students to read in class. During this time, I confer with students about the books they are reading, ask students to read to me while I assess their comprehension and fluency, and work with students in small groups.

If dedicating chunks of your instructional day for independent reading seems difficult, you can still find time for students to read more. In my own school, I realized that there was a lot of wasted time spent waiting in lines for picture day, field trips, the bus, and assemblies—time when my students could read. After all, adult readers carry books with us for those times when we must unexpectedly wait. We read at the airport, at the doctor's office, and on the train.

Teach students to carry a book wherever they go and to enjoy a few minutes of reading time. Those stolen moments add up over a year. Young readers learn what committed readers know— keeping a book with you alleviates boredom! My students have even learned to pull out their books whenever visitors at the door, phone calls, and technology glitches interrupt classroom instruction.

Maximizing wasted moments in the school day may garner as much as an hour each week of reading time for students, but we can allocate more reading time by eliminating warm-ups and "when you are done" activities. At a recent conference, I asked the crowd to identify the true purpose of warm-ups and bell ringers, those activities that we have ready for students to complete when they enter our classrooms. Embarrassed, most teachers admitted that these activities were designed so that they could take attendance or make sure students are working as soon as class begins.

Common warm-up activities in language arts classrooms, such as editing sentences, vocabulary study, or journal prompts, may yield limited instructional benefits; but none produce the same level of academic power as 15 minutes of reading time. The same could be said for "when you are done" activities and enrichment folders. I tell my students that they are never done: When they finish class work, they read. Students can gain as much as 20 minutes of extra reading in class each day when teachers designate reading as the only activity for any class time not used for instruction and practice.

Having time to read in class motivates my students to read more at home, too. Captivated by the books they're reading, they cannot wait until the next school day to continue their books. Recently, I received an e-mail from a mother who discovered the night before that her son had fallen asleep while reading Scott Westerfeld's newest science fiction epic, Leviathan (Simon Pulse, 2009).

Every morning and after school breaks, students swarm me to share how their love of reading seeps over into their personal lives. As teachers and parents, we know that people who read when no one requires it are truly readers.

Giving Freedom

Although providing my students with more time to read dramatically increases the amount of reading they do, no single practice inspires my students to read as much as the opportunity to choose their own books. Learners who lack input into decision making feel powerless and unmotivated—this is true for adults, for teachers, and for our students (Cambourne, 1995).

We may spend weeks designing the perfect novel units, carefully selecting interesting texts and crafting meaningful activities, only to discover that our students merely plod through the book and our assignments. In addition, no one text or activity can possibly meet the needs of the diverse range of reading levels and interests found in the typical classroom.

So how can we accomplish our instructional goals and ensure that our students will be engaged? I have done away with whole-class novel units and allowed my students to choose their own books. A recent conversation I had with students about Suzanne Collins's futuristic novel The Hunger Games (Scholastic, 2008) confirmed my belief about whole-class novels. I never assigned The Hunger Games to my students, but after I mentioned it in book talks and offered it to my afterschool book club, the book's popularity spread like wildfire. Of my 93 students, almost 60 of them have read or plan to read this book.

When I asked one student, Adam, why this book was so popular, he told me, "You made the book sound so exciting, and I decided to read it because I thought I would be missing out. The book was amazing! I loved the action and terror of the Games, and I thought that Katniss [the protagonist] was a great character. When she volunteered to take her sister's place in the games, I thought it was so brave."

Curious, I asked, "Adam, knowing that this book is worth reading, with lots of topics we could discuss in class, what would you think about my assigning this book to the entire class? Most of you are reading it, anyway. Obviously, many students would enjoy it."

My question sparked a wave of head shaking and protests from Adam and his classmates who were discussing the book with us. "No, no, please don't! When teachers tell us we have to read a book, we hate it. We like it that we get to choose what we read." Even though I could use heartfelt recommendations, thought-provoking discussions, probing questions, and many other techniques I was using in book talks and small-group discussions when teaching a novel to the entire class, my students' reactions revealed that the most important factor for them was having the choice to read the book. (See the list on p. 33 for some of my students' favorite books.)

Options and Requirements

Asking some students to read devolves into a struggle to get them to pick up a book in the first place, so I don't provide students with the option of not reading. Instead, I ask students what book they will be reading today. I move the opportunity for choice to book selection. Allowing students to choose what they will read gives them power and removes the opportunity to refuse to read at all. That will be enough to motivate some students.

I require my students to read 40 books each year, in a mix of genres from nonfiction to fiction to poetry. Requiring my students to read widely exposes them to more genres, authors, vocabulary, and background knowledge than I could ever accomplish by teaching a few texts each year; and it helps students discover and develop their own reading tastes.

My instruction is focused on the knowledge and skills students must learn to meet state and district requirements. All students learn how to infer a book's themes, predict resolutions, identify figurative language, and so on, but each student chooses his or her own books to practice and perfect these skills.

For students who lack reading experience and confidence in choosing books, I introduce a wide range of books and authors through readalouds and shared reading, where all students follow along as I read. Shared reading provides support for developing readers because the teacher scaffolds texts that students may not be able to read on their own. By following a more fluent reader, students can focus on comprehension instead of decoding. Students frequently seek out books and authors that we share in class. I often use the first chapter of a book as a teaching piece, then place the book on the chalkboard rail for students to enjoy. The book rarely lasts the day before a student checks it out to read.

When students select books on their own, I condone their choices. Books like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and the Bone graphic novels are popular with young readers, but teachers often denounce such books because they are short, are said to lack literary merit, or contain too many pictures. But consider that any girl who reads the entire Twilight series has read over a thousand pages of text. Surely, this is a powerful reading accomplishment! I celebrate any reading my students do.

When students see that I value their reading choices, they begin to trust themselves to select their own reading material and trust me to suggest more books. I tap into this relationship to move students toward more challenging, meatier books over time. For example, when I noticed that Shayla loved books about animals, particularly horses and dogs, I used her interest in Laurie Halse Anderson's Vet Volunteers series to suggest more challenging books like Anna Sewell's classic Black Beauty.

I work closely with students who struggle to select books or commit to a reading plan; I help them set short-term goals, such as reading so many pages per week or finishing one book. I encourage and praise these students for every step they take toward their reading goals. For students who resist trying anything, I have assigned a book as a last resort, choosing a title that I think the student might like and be able to read.

The Gift of Reading

The more students read, the better readers they become. By dedicating reading time, recommending books, exposing students to a variety of texts and authors, and validating their reading choices, I've seen students' interest and motivation to read increase. Students' background knowledge, understanding of text structure and features, vocabulary usage, appreciation for authors' craft, and performance on a wide array of assessments improve tremendously because of the reading they do. For it is only through volumes and volumes of reading that many students internalize the comprehension skills and gain the reading experience they must acquire for academic success.

Of course, hours and hours spent reading and the freedom to choose their own books also leads many children to discover a love of books and reading—a path to enjoyment and learning that lasts long after schooling ends. This is an immeasurable gift.


Allington, R. (2006). What really matters for struggling readers: Designing research-based programs. Boston: Pearson.

Anderson, R. C., Hiebert, E. H., Scott, J. A., & Wilkinson, I. A. G. (1985). Becoming a nation of readers: The report of the Commission on Reading. Washington, DC: National Institute of Education.

Cambourne, B. (1995). Toward an educationally relevant theory of literacy learning: Twenty years of inquiry. The Reading Teacher, 49(3), 182–190.

Krashen, S. (2004). The power of reading: Insights from the research. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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