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Owings Mills, Md. -
Jackie Chaney conducts her 2nd grade class with the finesse of a seasoned conductor: gaining her students’ attention at will, facilitating smooth transitions, and creating an atmosphere that promotes wiggling around in one’s space for a moment before plunging into deep and focused concentration.
Much of Chaney’s expertise comes from sheer experience: She’s been presiding over elementary school classrooms for well over a decade. But Chaney, who teaches at New Town Elementary, a majority-minority school here, acknowledges the increasing difficulty of getting students to engage in activities that require sustained focus, such as independent reading.
The allure of electronic devices, with their dynamic and fast-moving screens that allow children to enjoy passive entertainment with very little effort, pose stiff competition to activities like reading books. The pandemic tipped the balance further; many children were isolated and bored during remote schooling and the shuttering of extracurriculars, and screen time skyrocketed.
New data strongly hints at the consequences: More than 80 percent of the nearly 300 educators surveyed reported a decrease in reading stamina among students in grade 3 to 8 since 2019, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey conducted in November and December of 2023.
The impact of the pandemic notwithstanding, statistics show that interest in reading wanes throughout childhood, beginning at about age 9, a phenomenon that the educational publishing company Scholastic Corporation has dubbed “Decline by Nine.”
There are plenty of reasons to push reading for pleasure before that. Engaging in the pursuit from a very young age has been linked to an array of benefits. A 2023 study that analyzed the impact of the activity on more than 10,000 young adolescents found improved cognitive performance, language development, academic achievement, and even reduced symptoms of stress and behavioral problems compared to peers who weren’t routine pleasure readers. And it can spark students’ curiosity and improve their motivation, which a body of research connects to academic success.
These factors lend a sense of urgency to the work of teachers like Chaney as they attempt to hook their students on reading for pleasure while they can.
Education Week sought to get a firsthand account of how an experienced teacher like Chaney makes pleasure reading a viable, accessible, and attractive option for students. She shared her favorite strategies, from common-sense tips to special in-class activities during which reading is central to the experience.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Have you seen a dwindling interest in pleasure reading among students over the years?
When I first started teaching, we were able to have reading logs and assign reading homework that was signed and supported by parents/guardians at home. I have definitely seen a change over the years in regard to reading engagement.
How important is student choice in reading? What book series are popular right now?
Student interest has a huge impact on the desire to read; including books in a class or schoolwide library that are popular and relevant will greatly increase reading interest and stamina. Dog Man, Amulet, Dork Diaries, and the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series are all super popular. When students are able to select books that they want to read, that is half the battle in actually getting them to read. And, like with everything, the more students read and have good reading structures, the better they become.
How do you find the time in a packed school day to make pleasure reading a priority?
I do a lot to encourage easy access to choice reading. For example, each student has a book box. Students are able to select three to five books of their choice each week from the school library or my classroom library, and switch them out as needed. I also purchase each child a book box from Lakeshore [an educational materials company].
I house them on shelves in our classroom reading area. They have opportunities to read after morning work or during reading rotations. Students can get a comfy pillow or read with a buddy on a floor spot. I find that when I allow students to read together, I definitely get more excitement and willingness to read.
What are some other ways that you make pleasure reading feel special?
We do something called “Flashlight Friday” during the cold or rainy months. Students get their book boxes, I grab my book, and we turn out all the lights in the classroom. I pull the blinds and we read by flashlight. The kids love this! Sometimes we put on a fireplace on YouTube and read by the fire. They love when I grab my book and read with them.
Students often read in partners but occasionally a small trio will read together. I often buy multiple copies of books for this reason. It warms my heart when a group creates their own reading book club.
How do you make time during instructional periods to fit in reading?
During language-arts class, I divide students into small groups that include novel studies. I run these like book clubs. We may meet for lunch or what I call “breakfast bunch” to read and discuss the book I’ve chosen for the group to read, share opinions, and work on our speaking and listening skills.
Currently, we are reading Stuart Little. Of course, the majority of my kiddos responded that they had seen the movie. I explained that the book and movie may be different, so read carefully. I incorporate questioning and modeling of good reading behaviors to increase their reading stamina and willingness to read.
Lunch bunches are a particular favorite of students. I bring a small reading group once or twice a week to eat with me in the classroom. We usually read a chapter, talk about story events, share reading responses and projects, and really just develop fellowship around reading. You would think that students would perhaps be hesitant to work during lunch, but they love it!
Breakfast bunches have begun to be even more popular. I grab Dunkin’ Donuts and some juice boxes, and the first 30 minutes of the day we meet for breakfast while the other students begin morning routines. Each group has a turn so there are no issues with it being fair. I always feel like I need more time to fit in reading, so this is something that I can do to get more reading time and start students’ day off positively.