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Reading & Literacy Opinion

5 Tips to Help Teachers Put the Joy Back in Reading

How to cultivate book-loving students
By Hannah Schultz — October 03, 2023 4 min read
A surreal image of a small child inside a book on the back of an elephant flying over a blooming meadow of flowers.
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As educators, when we think of reading in the classroom, we typically consider the act of teaching to read (phonics, vocabulary, etc.) or the act of reading to learn. We follow the curriculum chosen for our schools and the standards set by our states. Students develop first the mechanics of reading, then the skills to decode more complex texts. We test decoding, fluency, and comprehension. We set yearly challenges and we ask students to log records or test for points. Through all this, I can’t help but wonder: What about the joy of reading?

In my (relatively new) career in education, I’ve witnessed a surprising lack of space in the day for independent reading. With so many requirements on teachers to fill every moment of a period with structured—and measurable—activities, allowing time for kids to relax into an age-old pastime has begun to feel like a quaint relic of a bygone era.

Bestselling author Neil Gaiman once wrote, “The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.” I have to agree.

In a world of progress monitoring and competition with screen-based independent activities, how can the humble book maintain its place in the classroom? I have some ideas!

1. Teach them to quit.

One of the hardest lessons I must (still) teach myself is that it’s OK to quit reading a book I don’t like. Of course, reading certain stories and novels within the curriculum is required. However, we can teach kids that if they’re not enjoying a book they’re reading alone, it’s OK to quit. They can move on to a new book.

Students often tell me they dislike reading. My advice: Try a different genre. I don’t care if students are reading graphic novels, classic novels, or user manuals. If it’s something they enjoy, I’m thrilled.

2. Turn the book report on its head.

So you’ve made the shift and carved out specific class time for independent reading. Now, administration is asking for evidence that you’re using this time effectively. While the sight of a room full of kids reading should be enough, you’ll likely want more proof to back your strategy.

Let the kids teach each other. Encourage them to make promotional materials for the books they’ve read or act out a scene they feel exemplifies the work. If the student loves technical guides, let them demonstrate a skill they picked up in their latest read (bonus points if they can fix your squeaky desk chair or produce a baked good with their new knowledge)! Graphic novels? Let them continue the story with their own strips. Give them the freedom to share their joy on their own terms.

3. Flip the script.

You can encourage the joy of reading in curriculum-based learning as well. The traditional method of novel studies has always been to read a novel and, upon completion, watch the movie that pairs with it.

For the benefit of complex texts or struggling readers, switch it up. Watch the movie first! One of my own students taught me this trick. By watching the movie first, he had a better understanding of the story, so he didn’t get bogged down quite so easily. You can use this to your advantage while reading the book later. Books always have more details than movies, so have your students track those changes and note the enhanced story line.

4. Push the level.

If you’ve chosen a novel that will be read aloud by you, push their limits. Choose a book that is beyond their capabilities but not their comprehension. This is your opportunity to share the joy of reading. Use funny voices. Pause for effect. Explain and reread the humorous parts so they can laugh along with you. Make the situations relatable to their lives. Demonstrate the inner movie you experience as a book plays out in your head.

5. Create the environment.

We’ve seen the Pinterest and Instagram inspiration pictures of reading nooks and corners, but let’s create an environment that goes beyond fluffy pillows and cute lamps. Let’s work on building a relationship with our readers that shows inclusion.

Share the joy of reading by knowing what your students like, encouraging their individual preferences, and celebrating their growth. Ask them to teach you about what they learned but do it in a way that makes them feel confident. This isn’t a quiz to see how closely they paid attention; rather, this is their opportunity to educate you on the content they found interesting.

As educators, we teach lessons that have lasting power in the classroom and beyond. What we develop in the classroom may carry over for a lifetime. They will remember some specifics from every subject (Pythagorean Theorem, anyone?), but more often, they will remember how a teacher and subject made them feel. In a system built around standards and data, help them build the memories of enjoying reading and feeling free to read what interests them. Help them discover the joy of reading.

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