Building Independent Readers in Middle and High School: a 4-Step Plan
by Shannon Betts

My daughter’s high school library has a teeny-tiny fiction collection. I mean teeny tiny. On a recent orientation visit, I found I could traverse the entire area in 8 steps from the A authors to the Zs. I took in the rest of the room, with its soaring arches, flexible spaces, prominent and sparkling technology. It was a beautiful, well-designed room. But where were the rest of the fiction books? I reflected on how middle and high school libraries have changed. Our role in building readers seems to have been de-emphasized in our rush to modernize and prove our 21st-century relevance. I might get tarred and feathered for writing this, but it makes me wonder if we’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

independent readersSchool librarians have been inventing and reinventing our roles impacting student achievement for the better part of 20 years now, incorporating innovations from the learning commons model to makerspaces. We’re also integrating technology, digital citizenship, and information literacy into content classes like never before. Our titles have changed too: Are we teacher-librarians? Library media specialists? In some districts, we might have even morphed into technology integrationists. I branded my blog as The Information Literacy Teacher because the title ‘librarian’ didn’t seem to cover the scope of my job. Whatever the title, it’s been an exciting journey in which literacy, technology, and collaboration rule. Yet, in the evolution of the school library, the book collection in some libraries has faded into a secondary role, as in, “Books? Oh — yes, we also have books — they’re way over there against the wall, behind the Chromebooks, flexible seating, makerspace and the..! ” And with the shrinking collections, the school librarian’s role as central readerpants has faded, too.

But I get it. We can’t be running at top speed in all facets of this complex work at once. Joyce Valenza describes the attempt to do it all in this honest post. She shows that librarians continually re-balance our multiple roles to preserve our sanity and keep every plate spinning in the air. In evaluating your priorities at the start of this school year, though, it’s a good time to re-examine your role as chief reader. It’s the one most likely to impact your students over their lifetimes.

I’m envisioning a change in libraries which have gone too far along the path in the pursuit of technology-as-the-holy-grail begin to shift course a bit. The promotion of pleasure reading — both print and e-books, fiction and nonfiction, customized to reader interests — should form a major part of every reimagined school library’s central mission. In service to our highest purpose (If ya got 'em, salute with reading glasses here!), certified school librarians are actively engaged with classroom teachers, literacy specialists, and administration in building a culture of reading.

And here’s why:

Reading gives us clues about what it means to be human. And kids need these clues — lots of them. As an 11-year-old, I found some answers about relationships in Judy Blume’s books, the first to tell it straight to adolescents. I suffered from an all-consuming 6th-grade heartbreak; Blume helped me understand the mysterious behavior of one specific boy who shall go unnamed.

I found the truth in that book and shared it with all my friends. Funny thing about the truth: Once it gets out, it spreads like wildfire, helping us feel less alone. Many have written about the importance of the story to help us learn about ourselves and others. Rudine Sims Bishop was the first to compare books to mirrors and windows which help us readers understand ourselves and others on this planet. The window that I needed in grade 6 was insight into the male pre-teen mind, but I also needed a mirror to help me understand my own heart.

Books also give readers the chance to live hundreds of lives instead of just one. Through story, we can imagine a different reality. Next to travel and a time machine, it's the next best thing to help understand cultural, gender, or other perspectives outside our experience. As renowned author and library-lover Neil Gaiman recently put it, books are a way of imagining that, “THE WORLD DOESN’T NEED TO BE THIS WAY. It can be different” [emphasis is Gaiman’s]. And what better takeaway can you imagine for your students?

We already understand that kids who read for pleasure have a huge advantage in academic achievement. But did you know that lifelong reading can also increase earning power, life satisfaction, and overall well-being?

Yet with all these proven benefits of pleasure reading, independent reading in middle school declines sharply and continues to plummet throughout high school. In fact, a broad research review done by Common Sense Media in 2014 shared some startling statistics. It showed that while 53 percent of 9-year-olds read for fun every day, by the time they reach 17, only 19 percent of students read by choice daily.

Ugh. Do these statistics give you a sinking feeling? Put another way, this data suggests that our schools are churning out 81 percent of graduating students as young adults who do not read by choice. Though different studies vary in the breakdown of the data, the trend is clear.

But there’s also hope — as librarians (with parents, teachers and caregivers of every stripe), we’re positioned to help reverse this trend, and we have more influence than we think. It all hinges on these two immutable truths about reading, courtesy of Jim Trelease, author of the classic Read-Aloud Handbook:

Humans are pleasure-seeking.
Reading is an acquired skill.

Here’s an action plan to keep books in the picture in our collective momentum to build independent readers in middle and high school. Given a decent-sized library collection, many of these activities are low- to no-cost. If you don’t have an adequate collection to generate enthusiasm for reading, build one! Activities like these and others require books, time, and a renewed focus on the importance on reading for pleasure.

 

Give Readers Time to Explore and Process

  • Reinstate DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) or SSR (Silent Sustained Reading) time. Involve your school administrators in structuring schedules to allow for daily (or weekly) independent reading during the school day.
  • Schedule regular book exchanges in your school library — build collaborative relationships between ELA/Social Studies/Science teachers, literacy consultant, and school librarians.
  • Actively engage your readers in Speed Booking and other activities designed for exploratio
  • Keep school, classroom, and home libraries stocked with a diverse and current selection of titles and keep them coming! Fund school and classroom libraries to keep collections fresh.
  • Invite authors which represent different points of view, culture, gender, and orientation to visit your class or school.
  • Model yourself as a reader — share snippets of text, interactive read-alouds, and book talks; share your own favorite stories at different stages of your life.

 

Make Reading More Social

  • Book Clubs — organize regular meetings of students who have selected the same books.
  • Battle of the Books — teams read a group of books and then compete using knowledge of characterization, setting, theme, trivia, and so on.
  • Teachers/paraprofessionals/administration share current reads to help strengthen your 360° reading community.
  • Host a family or peer reading event.
  • Host a read-a-thon.

 

Incorporate Technology

  • Organize Author Visits — in-person and via Skype/Google Hangouts.
  • Students create Book Reviews and Talks Using Technology — video projects, Destiny Catalog.
  • Students create Book Reviews on Social Media – Goodreads; Biblionasium; Lit Picks.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A Connecticut library media specialist and classroom teacher with experience spanning elementary, middle school and college levels, Shannon Betts, MAT, MLS, has been integrating information literacy and technology into classroom content for 20 years. Her experience in promoting reading began at age 7 when she joined friends to organize a neighborhood lending library out of her room. You can find her at The Info Literacy Teacher or on Twitter @Sbetts8.