We know the many benefits of independent reading outside of the classroom: Research shows that it reinforces early reading skills and improves vocabulary, spelling, and writing. It can also ignite a passion for reading that bears fruit throughout their entire academic career.
It’s because of these prospective gains that Kimberly Rues, a librarian in Missouri, believes teachers often resort to daily logs to “hold students accountable” for the time they dedicate to reading outside of school. Writing for Ed Surge, Rues said logs are also fixtures in many elementary school classrooms because teachers earnestly believe they help.
Nonetheless, the research shows that reading logs often backfire, and Rues says that she’s seen them firsthand turn reading into a “chore”, rather than something students feel motivated to do. “The problem is that if the goal is to help kids develop a love of reading, simply passing the minutes with a book isn’t enough,” Rues writes.
A recent study agrees, finding that second and third graders assigned to read for at least 20 minutes and fill out a mandatory log saw their interest and attitude toward reading significantly decline, when compared to peers simply encouraged to read as little or as often as they’d like. Researchers concluded that reading logs were “ineffective ways of fostering a love of reading and may even lead to a decrease in children’s motivation to read.”
Instead of focusing on creating more compliant readers, the research shows, teachers should drop activities like reading logs and explore approaches that help students develop intrinsic motivation to read. Here are four ways to get started:
TRY ‘ACCOUNTABILITY PARTNERS’
To get students excited about independent reading, make them feel they’re part of a community of readers, Rues writes. She suggests devoting regular instructional time to book discussions, allowing young readers to chat about what they like about a book, what they don’t, and even whether they’d recommend the title to others.
To ensure that reading is actually occurring—without resorting to bean-counting—Allie Thrower, a former elementary school teacher, suggests a practice she calls “accountability partners.” Teachers set aside 5-10 minutes of class time each day to have students pair up with each other and discuss the reading they did the previous night at home. To get the most out of sessions, Thrower advises teachers to think about student relationships in the classroom and pair students with someone who can challenge them academically and hold them accountable for their reading. “A prerequisite to setting up partners is knowing your students,” Thrower confirms.
Once effective pairs have been established, model what productive discussions sound like, and provide students with open-ended questions to kick off conversations: What feelings did this book evoke for you? or, Which character do you most closely relate to, and why? As students share, teachers can float around the room and get a far better understanding of how often and how deeply students are reading than they ever could by relying on reading logs.
LET STUDENTS TRACK JOY, NOT READING TIME
Instead of documenting time spent on task, teachers can ask students to track moments of surprise, delight, inspiration, or even confusion that arise as they read.
The educators Hannah Schneewind and Jennifer Scoggin, authors of Trusting Readers: Powerful Practices for Independent Reading, argue that by tracking moments of “joy” and delight, students are given time to reflect on moments of a story that moved them—while providing plenty of information for teachers who want to know how well, and how often, their students are reading.
Schneewind and Scoggin say that focusing on “joy” might make some teachers think the assignment is too easy. But not the case: “Working through a challenging text is joyful, just as finding yourself in a text is joyful,” the authors wrote on Twitter.
Students can keep these sorts of takeaways from a text in a reading diary, writes elementary school literacy coach Gigi McAllister. McAllister encourages students to reflect on favorite characters, scenes, or interesting ideas they’ve thought more about thanks to the text. To get a sense of how students are progressing, teachers can periodically collect the diaries, view them if they are digital, or eavesdrop when students are discussing books in pairs or small groups.
For some students, the diaries are a living document that can help them identify the kinds of books or genres that engage their own sensibilities the most.
CREATE A CLASSROOM ‘GRAFFITI SPACE’
Try designating a bulletin board or part of a chalkboard as a metaphorical graffiti space for students to enshrine some of the inspiring or thought-provoking quotes they have come across in their reading.
The quotes can give you a real-time sense of what is resonating with students, and also be used to start productive conversations in the classroom related to the skills you’re teaching. You can ask students: What details are really interesting to you here? What figurative language is the author using in this quote? Are there any words that we need to look up in our dictionaries?
To ensure that your graffiti space remains meaningful to observers, you’ll want to discuss the standards for a great quote with your students. You might even integrate this activity into accountability partner sessions by asking students or their partners to nominate quotes that they discuss together.
GIVE STUDENTS AGENCY
While some parts of a curriculum require students to read from the same text together, Rues writes that looking for ways to give students a choice in the books they read at home—and encouraging them to develop their own interests—goes a long way in creating an avid reader.
Some students might love nonfiction books about animals, while others might enjoy graphic novels. The key, Rues writes, is helping young readers identify what they like and “keep up the momentum” by providing them with more recommendations—or space to research their interests further—when they’re done with a book.
This can be achieved by taking students to the library in school, but according to Linda Gambrell and Dr. Barbara Marinak, education professors at Clemson University and Penn State Harrisburg respectively, teachers can up their book recommendation game by using other methods to stimulate interest.
Teachers might prominently showcase books upright on a table, like in a bookstore, or read a few pages out loud from a book they know might be a good match based on what they’ve learned about their students' habits and interests. Teachers can even leave small note cards describing the merits of a book, like many booksellers do, as a way to entice students.
“When you introduce books by instilling in children a desire to find out what's in them, those books fly off the shelves,” the professors wrote.