How to Build a Culture of Reading

Building a school culture is an overwhelming but important task. Here’s how my school has created a culture of reading. 

Building a school culture is an overwhelming but important task.

In 2009, my collaborative team and I read Readicide: How Schools are Killing the Reading and What You Can Do About It by Kelly Gallagher. This fabulous book discusses how schools have inadvertently killed the love of reading. Among other things, Gallagher suggests that it is, therefore, the task of schools to do all that they can to bring that love back.

Since reading Readicide, my peers and I have worked diligently to create a reading culture in our school. Here is how we’re working on establishing the perfect blend of reading for fun and for learning in our school.

Teacher Buy-in

Sometimes the hardest group to sell on trying something new is teachers. Not that I blame them. There are so many “silver-bullet” reforms and movements that impact our classrooms each year, it is hard not to be skeptical. However, for a cultural shift to take place in a school, teachers have to be on board. If only one teacher is trying to create something big, it will be difficult to sustain long term.

When we started our process of building a reading culture in our school, we had an entire common course team of English and Social Studies teachers willing to implement some sort of choice reading routine. Together, we studied different reasons and methods for using choice reading in our classrooms. Then, we established the expectation that choice reading was a part of the class we were teaching in common. Finally, we met regularly to discuss strategies for holding students accountable, organizing time structures, and promoting good reading habits.

After our first year, which had decent success, the initial group of teachers shared their excitement and ideas with other collaborative teams. Now, six years later, regular choice reading is a common practice in nearly every English and Social Studies classroom in our building. This means that nearly every student in our school is reading a choice book on a daily basis.

Student Buy-In

As Gallagher suggests in his book, getting students on board to read regularly poses some challenges. Many students don’t know how to choose a book that is both appropriate to their reading level and engaging enough to sustain their interest for more than a few minutes.

We learned early on that it was powerful to ask students why this was the case. Based on their responses, we now start each year by presenting specific statistics to address their concerns and to show them how choice reading will provide benefit beyond earning a grade for doing it in our classrooms.

There are endless statistics about the amount of reading students will have to do in college, not to mention articles about the value of being a faster reader for things like ACT and AP exams. Besides these statistics, there are also great studies about how reading more regularly allows us to be better human beings through the development of empathy. These kinds of facts are powerful for students to think about and are often the key to getting them interested in reading choice books.

Most importantly, though, the teachers in my school model their own habits and struggles by reading with the students. In addition, we make sure that we share important reader behaviors publically, like how we choose what we read or what we do if we’re not hooked by a book and want to find something else. We model the kind of thinking that we do when we’re trying to predict what will happen in a story and we ask them to help us think through complicated ideas that an author might have presented.

By engaging in authentic reader conversations, we are showing students what real readers do.

By engaging in authentic reader conversations, we are showing students what real readers do. We are taking the schooly-ness out of this classroom routine and allowing them to be equals with us in the process.

The Nitty-gritty

No initiative this big is magically effective the first year. We’ve had to work hard as a building to figure out the best methods.

For example, when I started, I had students read for 15-20 minute chunks of time one or two days a week. This was great because it gave students a chance to get into their stories. However, it was challenging because students often forgot to bring their books and, for those who struggle to engage with reading, 20 minutes was a long time to stay on task.

Last year, and again this year, I will have students read for the first ten minutes of class every day instead. I hope this will alleviate the forgotten book issues almost completely. I also hope that it will serve as a good brain exercise for getting students into class and oriented to the academic tasks we will engage with each day.

In addition, students have complete choice with what they read. My only requirement is that they choose something that they can comfortably read and comprehend on their own. Just like running requires finding the right pace to build endurance, students need to read choice novels at their reading level to help them re-learn how to read for sustained periods of time. This will also help them to have more success with increasingly complex texts as they will have stronger reading muscles when they tackle whole class texts.

The key to this being a cultural shift rather than another academic burden, though, is the belief that choice reading is meant to be reading for enjoyment more than anything else.

Readicide warns that too much accountability is the key culprit in the death of reading in our schools. I have students set personal goals for themselves and, this year, I will have them do bi-monthly reflections on their progress. But that’s it. No reading quizzes. No book reports. Just reading and occasionally talking about what they’ve read in a very informal way.

The Results

The results of our efforts have been revealed in a variety of ways. We’ve seen a steady increase in our test scores the past five years and have seen an improvement in student tenacity with complex text.

Most importantly, though, nearly every kid in our building has a choice book on him all the time. Our library is always busy, and conversations about reading are commonplace in the hallways and classrooms all over the school. Teachers and students swap book recommendations and there is often a wait list for popular titles.

We have become a school filled with readers.

We have become a school filled with readers. And that is a culture I’m excited to celebrate.

Image is licensed under cc public domain licensing

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  • MT

    What a great story and one

    What a great story and one that needs to be heard in all schools.  

  • Judi Moreillon

    School Librarians and A School-wide Reading Culture

    Brava, Jessica. You note that "Our library is always busy, and conversations about reading are commonplace in the hallways and classrooms all over the school." I hope you are fortunate and have a professional school librarian facilitating learning through your school library program. Librarians can be co-leaders along with classroom teachers and students (and families) in building a dynamic reading culture throughout the school learning community!

  • JudiMoreillon

    The School Librarian and A School-wide Reading Culture

    Brava, Jessica and your colleagues. You note that “Our library is always busy, and conversations about reading are commonplace in the hallways and classrooms all over the school.” I hope you are fortunate and have a professional school librarian facilitating learning through your school library program. Your school librarian can be a co-leader along with classroom teachers and students (and families) in building a dynamic reading culture throughout the school learning community!

  • JessicaKeigan

    The Power of a Great Librarian

    I was remiss to not include one of the key players in this process–our school librarian. Not only has Sara worked side by side with us to strategize how reading would look in our classrooms, she has worked hard to ensure that great books are always available. She polls students, monitors what is always checked out, and even endures long-winded teacher recommendations for what she should purchase. Our library has an incredible and well-loved collection and an incredible and well-loved librarian who is at the heart of our reading culture. 

    • Sara Poinier

      Booktalks

      Thanks, Jessica! One other strategy to note that I believe has been an important part of our success is booktalks: short, verbal, promotional blurbs about books we think will appeal to our students. These can be customized by your Teacher Librarian to address differences in age, reading level, English proficiency and more. Now, six years into this initiative, all of us adults do this for our students AND we have students do this for one another. I am really proud of what we have accomplished as a community of readers. 🙂