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For Teachers: A Reading Program That Works

Getting teens to read was my most important mission as a teacher. When I realized how many of my high schoolers had NEVER read a book and bragged about passing tests on assigned classics by reading Spark notes and watching movies, I knew I had to act. We were losing them as readers, and once they left my class, my opportunity to change that would be lost. That's when I discovered the simple secret: CHOICE! If I wanted to teach kids the meaning of "reading for pleasure," I had to include young adult books in their assignments - books that were engaging, books they could relate to. Kids who've never read anything except the difficult assignments that are required for school don't understand what we're talking about when we say, "reading for pleasure." So I spent many years building a reading program that would help them become life-long readers. I'm happy to share the logistics of my program here, and I'll be traveling with Perma-Bound reps Kristen Ives and John Zeller to schools across the Southeast this fall to share tips and answer questions and getting kids to read. Also, you can visit the Perma-Bound website to find the books I recommend for reluctant readers, feature here on the blog - at a discount to you. Here's the step-by-step process I used: 


The Program

Step By Step with Beck McDowell


1. Get administrators on board with the idea that aesthetic reading (for fun) is just as important as efferent reading (for information.) Reading practice improves skills and increases vocabulary and comprehension levels. Many high schoolers have NEVER read a book. They brag about reading Spark notes and watching movies to pass tests on assigned classics. If we convince them to read through offering them a CHOICE, we can turn them into lifelong readers.

2. Send out Parent Letter. When parents understand your motives, they’re more likely to support you. Invite their input and be open to questions. If a parent objects to a book (which happens very rarely,) remind them that the list is OPTIONAL and no student is required to read any book. Let them know they don’t get to control what other students read – only their own. Be firm but friendly.

3. Hand out the list to students. Explain that they’ll still be reading classics as a class, but they’re now required to read two “choice” books per grading period. They may also read other books by authors already on the list. They may opt to read books not on the list, but only with prior permission from the teacher.

4. Read the annotated list aloud and have them mark books that sound interesting to them. Suggest that they check out  blurbs online for plot information and that they read a few paragraphs of the free sample chapter offered online to see if the writing style appeals to them. Remind them they don’t have to finish any book they don’t like.

5. Read aloud twice a week. Take 5-10 minutes to read from books on the list or others you bring in to entice reluctant readers. This is critical to the process. Some have no idea what’s inside a book.

6. Allow class time to read. Set at least aside one or two 10-20 minute reading sessions per week so you can monitor their progress. Use this time to assess levels of success by walking around and occasionally asking questions (very quietly) about the books they’re reading. Help the strugglers find good books. Encourage all with enthusiasm for reading and pride in their progress.

7. For grading, you have four options.

            1. Book Trailers – see NRR instruction sheet and grading rubric. Grade leniently, but let them know points will be deducted for spelling, punctuation and requirements on instruction sheet. (One note: when students have used popular music in the past, YouTube has allowed it and provided a link to viewers to purchase the music. If they use copyrighted music, they do so at their own risk, but most musicians allow it for the promotional opportunity. Just make them aware of the possible penalties. Maybe YouTube will make a policy statement about this soon, but royalty-free music is the safest route for now.)

            2.  Participation Grades – monitor progress informally during class reading periods and grade accordingly. Be lenient. The goal is to make reading fun. But insist that everyone reads and show them point deductions when they don’t.

            3. Book Interviews – If you prefer individualized assessment, choose several of the Not Required Reading discussion questions for oral “interview” assessment. Grades are 100 if they completed the book and 0 if it’s clear they didn’t finish by the deadline. If a student receives a 0, he may finish the book within three days for half credit, which is still a failing grade – but a “50” that can be pulled up more easily. Most students will finish after they realize how much a 0 affects averages.

            4. Reviews for NRR and other sites - If you prefer written assessment (or for extra credit to those who choose to do it,) have students first read three reviews in credible sources like NYT, LAT, NPR, etc. Then have them write 500-700 words on the book they’ve just read – with special attention to originality, personal response, and avoiding spoilers. Reviews should not be just plot synopses. 

            8. Early Bird Incentives - For Book Interviews, try offering Early Bird Incentives to spread out your workload. When students earn 5 extra points by coming before the deadline (after school, between classes, or during lunch,) the teacher is not overwhelmed on deadline day. Some students will “read ahead,” finishing an entire semester of “choice” reading in one grading period. This is fine. Those kids will usually keep reading even after they’ve completed requirements for the year. (Remind everyone that this is a flexible assignment. If they have lots of other homework one night, they can skip reading, so long as they catch up on the weekend or when other work is slower. On slower homework nights, they can “read ahead” and possibly finish early.)

            9. Extra Credit – Offer one extra “choic” book as the only extra credit allowed in your class. Make it worth their while points-wise. This is the very best incentive for reluctant readers who need to pull up a low test score or make up for missing homework assignments. Once you get them reading, lots will do this.

            10. You/Guest Readers – Your own enthusiasm for reading is key to the success of this program. Let kids see you read and tell them about books you love. Also, invite other teachers, coaches, local celebrities or officials or sports stars to come and read to the class. Show them that reading is for everyone!

Thank you, faithful teachers! It’s not too late to entice even 11th and 12th graders to the idea of reading as a legitimate leisure activity of choice. Build a classroom library by buying at used bookstores and library cast-off stores, surround your students with exciting covers, talk about books, read to them, and give them time and grade incentive to read and you WILL see a HUGE difference! And write to me at mcdowell.beck@gmail> and let me know how it’s going! I’m happy to answer any questions you have as you move forward with Choice Reading.











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Posted in 2013