Teaching Opinion

Response: Getting Students to Read at Home by ‘Building a Daily Habit’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 22, 2013 8 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here)

Elizabeth W. Rivero asked:

If teachers assign reading as homework and the students are not completing the reading at home, what do you do to get them to do it, other than assign questions?

This question has garnered a lot of interest, and I’ll be including readers’ suggestions in a post next week (of course, there is always room for more!).

Part One included responses from educators Donalyn Miller and Myron Dueck, and I threw in my “two cents worth,” too.

Dina Strasser and Ariel Sacks share their thoughts today.

Response From Dina Strasser

Dina Strasser is a 7th grade ELA teacher and 13 year veteran of the public schools. She is currently working as a curriculum designer for Expeditionary Learning:

Ah, reading at home! So simple, and yet so complex. The reader’s question doesn’t specify what kind of reading is being assigned, so these answers will be more or less useful depending what the teacher is asking for. That being said, here’s four things that have helped me out over the years.

1) Don’t assign questions just to ensure a kid is reading at home. Accountability is always a good thing, but if you’re cranking out 15 not-so-hot multiple choice questions just to “encourage” a child to do their reading homework, you’re wasting your time. Save your precious energy for developing two other tools instead: a small set of robust, thoughtful reading questions that actually help the students comprehend the reading; and a system where accountability is flexible and allows the students as much autonomy as possible. I’ve had the best luck with giving the students a log to turn in weekly (graded for completion), a set amount of time to read per week that works out to about 20-30 minutes a night (but which students can satisfy in whatever way works for their schedules), and a weekly conference using their log as a base for discussion. I would strongly recommend checking out the SEM-R model developed by Sally Reis at University of Connecticut for an example of how a system like this could work.

2) Do everything you can to make sure the student likes what they’re reading. Engagement is half the battle. If you can get the student hooked into his or her book, very little prodding will be needed to complete the home reading. Independently chosen books (with your guidance) have proven to be the key for me here. Nancie Atwell is the goddess of this kind of work; check out her stuff too. If you’ve assigned the book or the reading, things get trickier, but engagement is still key. Look for texts that will appeal to their sensibilities and interests--and if it’s dry as dust, find ways to make it come alive, such as finding audio or video versions to complement the reading, or giving juicy background knowledge on the author or setting.

3) Provide multiple opportunities for the students to complete the reading at school or elsewhere. Why do we ask students to read at home? When you get to the bottom of this question, there’s only one answer: practice. Practice, just like in any sport, doesn’t have to occur with the hoop attached to the garage door at your house. In fact, as we all know, some students simply cannot practice their reading at home for one very good reason or another, and are powerless to do anything about it.

Create as many safety nets for those kids as you can. Conduct a class exercise where kids pinpoint where and when they can complete reading other than at home. Let kids come into your room on their study halls, at lunch, or before or after school just to read. Write copious passes to the library. Lastly, but certainly not least, check in with the students’ families--preferably with the child present. Work together to create a reading plan that respects the physical and temporal constraints the child may be working under, and honors the child’s own preferences for how they read.

4) Differentiate, differentiate, differentiate. When our best research indicates that there may be a six-grade span between the strongest and weakest readers in our classrooms, using texts and activities while they’re at home that match their reading level is critical. Save the close reads and “stretch texts” for guided classwork, and use home reading for leveled work if you can. If this isn’t possible, find ways to support and/or extend the reading assignments at home that fit your reader’s abilities. This could range from creating three versions of the home reading questions (for kids “at proficiency,” “below proficiency” or “above proficiency”) to having different kids read different sections of the text in question. Carol Ann Tomlinson is my go-to-expert for differentiation.

Response From Ariel Sacks

Ariel Sacks teaches 8th grade English in Brooklyn, NY and is the author of Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach. A member of the CTQ Collaboratory, she writes the blog, On the Shoulders of Giants:

It’s so important to me that my students read outside of class that I’ve pretty much based my entire homework policy around it. That said, I’ve also shifted the way I conceive of “reading homework.” Instead of emphasizing the importance of “homework completion” to my students--a school game they’ve been playing to various degrees since about the third grade--I focus on developing, in general, the daily habit of reading in my students. Reading is a habit that has value in the real world beyond the construct of homework.

I’ve found that if I want students to practice the habit outside the classroom, I must build the foundation and maintain the practice inside the classroom. In other words, a prerequisite for getting students to read at home is giving them time to read during class. In-class reading every day is ideal, but about 3 days per week is sufficient. Sometimes this is in a 25-30 minute chunk of a reading workshop lesson; but if we need to focus on other things during the bulk of the period, I have students read during the first 10 minutes of class as a “Do Now.” If I start to skimp on in-class reading, no matter how strong my “accountability” measures are, I find that my students’ reading momentum dwindles and they stop meeting my expectations for outside reading.

I also teach students certain habits of response to reading, which I believe have value beyond providing evidence of their reading to me (though they also serve this function). I teach my students to record their thoughts as they read in freeform on sticky notes placed directly on the page. I teach students to distinguish between literal, inferential and critical responses and emphasize that quality notes have all three levels of thinking.

Then I do add the accountability piece--4 sticky notes each day/night (they can read some in class and some at home), which will be checked and graded. When students don’t complete it, I have conversations with them about why, building the relationship, and trying to figure out what’s getting in the way and how I can help. I also build a relationship with my students’ families about my reading expectations and how they can support their students’ progress. These make up a significant portion of my students’ grade, so there is an academic consequence for not doing it. However, the grade itself matters, because it’s a symbolic representation of habits that we’ve already established have value in our classroom and in students’ lives.

When students don’t complete the reading, I don’t jump to holding the grade over their heads, because I don’t want the work to be about the grade. The grade is simply a reflection of a more important reality for students. By the same token, I don’t hold “calling home” over students’ heads. I do talk to parents about their child’s reading, because it’s important, I want them to be a part of it, and I need their help. This may include assigning the student to stay after school for a few afternoons to complete the reading (also known as homework detention!). We can’t force anyone to do anything, so I stay away from actions that suggest I’m trying to force kids to read. Overall, my approach is to constantly show how important and meaningful reading is, and throw everything I’ve got behind building authentic reading habits in my students.

Thanks to Dina and Ariel for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be including many readers’ comments in the next post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and am starting off with Corwin.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email.... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first two years of this blog, you can see a categorized list of them here. You won’t see posts from this school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking in the monthly archives link on this blog’s sidebar.

Also, Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Look for Part Three of this series in a few days...

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.