Teaching Opinion

Response: Helping Students Develop a Desire To Read At Home

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 19, 2013 10 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is the first post in a three-part series on this topic)

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!).

Today, in addition to sharing my own response, you’ll find contributions from two other guests -- educators Donalyn Miller and Myron Dueck.

You might also want to explore previous posts in this blog on student motivation and on teaching reading/writing.

Before I get to today’s guest contributors, I’d like to share some of my thoughts on the topic. I think the challenge posed by the question is a two-parter -- first, it’s a matter of helping students develop intrinsic motivation to read and, secondly, it’s a matter of accountability. I might have a lot of intrinsic motivation to do something, but I might also have a lot of conflicting obligations and other tasks which I feel an equal or greater amount of intrinsic motivation to complete.

Helping students develop their self-motivation to read at home requires many strategies, including:

* Developing teacher/student relationships so we know their interests and aspirations and can help identify engaging books that will speak to them.

* Helping students see the long-term benefits they can gain from reading, which includes having them learn how it helps make their brain stronger.

* Having them identify for themselves (with our assistance) the many instances in their lives today and in their future where being a good reader can help them be successful.

* Developing strong relationships with parents so they can reinforce these messages.

Then, there is the issue of accountability. I’ve previously written elsewhere how I enforce it in my own classes. I’ll summarize it in this post, and you can read more about it here. I want to emphasize that I believe this system only works in combination with efforts to develop intrinsic motivation.

I have students in my mainstream ninth-grade English and in my ESL classes complete a simple “Reading Log” every Friday. It has five columns -- ones for the day, title of the book, the number of minutes read, space for a student signature and one for a parent signature. Though I leave it on for a reason, the “parent signature” box has remained blank for years.

I tell students at the beginning of the year that I expect that they will read a book of their choice at least two hours each week, and that if they promise to me that they will tell the truth on the log -- even if they read less some weeks -- that I will eliminate the requirement of a parent signature. Students always agree and make a public commitment, as well as shaking hands on it with me. I think seeing the “parent signature” column is a reminder of that commitment.

Each Friday, they quickly complete the sheet and, if they haven’t read for two hours during the previous four days, they write a few words at the bottom of the sheet with specific plans on when they will read that Friday night or over the weekend (“I’ll read for twenty minutes after we get home from our cousin’s barbeque,” etc.). I check with students on Monday (during the first ten minutes of class, which is always silent reading time) if they followed through and, if not, they tell me how they’re going to make-up the time that week. We do talk about how things do come-up, and that there’s always flexibility.

I’m confident that the vast majority -- at least ninety percent -- of students are genuinely honest, and determine that by seeing how far they’re getting in the books they read during our silent reading time and by the progress they make during cloze and fluency formative assessments (as well as through other methods). Based on my previous experience, I’m also confident in saying that it’s a much higher percentage than years ago when I required parent signatures, which are easily faked.

Now that I’ve shared my “two cents worth,” it’s time to hear from today’s guests:

Response From Donalyn Miller

Donalyn Miller has worked with a wide variety of upper elementary and middle school students and currently teaches fifth grade at O.A. Peterson Elementary in Forth Worth, Texas. In her popular book, The Book Whisperer, Donalyn reflects on her journey to become a reading teacher and describes how she inspires and motivates her middle school students to read 40 or more books a year. In her latest book, Reading in the Wild, Donalyn collects responses from 900 adult readers and uses this information to teach lifelong reading habits to her students:

There is no reasonable way to guarantee that students are reading at home. Reading logs can be forged or forgotten. Students can go for long periods without reading much and churn out a book report or written summary when these assignments are due. There are three things that teachers can do that encourage students to read more at home:

Discuss with parents why their children need to read more at home. In every parent conference and school meeting, I reinforce to parents why their children need to read at home--stressing the importance of developing reading habits and sharing with parents the abundant research data proving that students who read a lot experience higher levels of reading achievement and interest in reading (Krashen, 2004).

Ensure that students have access to engaging books that they can actual read and allow students to take these books home. Students who are engaged with what they read are not waiting until second period English class tomorrow to find out what happens in their exciting book--they will read at home. Many students lack meaningful book access at home and need to check out books from school--not just during the school year, but during the summer, too. We complain that kids don’t read over the summer, but for many students, their only book access comes from our schools.

Focus accountability measures for independent reading on book completion--not logging minutes or pages. We all have students who could log reading minutes or pages forever and never finish a book. Set expectations for book completion and confer with students often to ensure that can comprehend the books they read.

Response From Myron Dueck

Myron Dueck (@myrondueck) is a vice principal and teacher in School District 67 in Penticton, British Columbia. His book, “And I Thought Rewrites Were a Form of Punishment,” will publish in summer 2014, from ASCD:

In order to address this question, let us first establish a few general agreements:

1. Our end goal should be to encourage a love of reading.

2. Getting any group of human beings to fully comply with a requirement, such as reading a chapter of the Iliad at home, is nearly impossible.

3. If we raise our reading participation rates from 40% of the students reading at home to 70%, the fact that 30% are not compelled to read should not cause us to abandon the strategies that led to the improvement.

4. Assigning questions and collating question responses is no guarantee that students are reading at home. This tool will only work if students care about the grade. As well, students may find ways to attempt the questions without doing the assigned reading.

5. Even if students care about the grade and wish to read, there is no guarantee that they are in control of the variables that allow them to read for understanding. Some of these variables include:

* the ability to read for understanding

* the ability to remember what they read o the understanding of the cultural and historical context of the reading

* a quiet home environment

* a late-night job required in order for the family to make rent

* care of a family member (recent studies suggest that at least 10% of young people are a primary care giver for another member of the family)

* substance issues

* violence and fear of violence

* poverty and the myriad of effects this has on academic success

General agreements aside, reading rates will improve if we are able to address the two issues of purpose and ownership.


Whenever we hope for students to complete work outside the classroom, we must ask: Is it busy work or does it contribute to further understanding through student engagement?

In the case of wanting students to read in preparation for a class, is it a large amount of reading that ‘prepares’ students to listen to the teacher talk about it the next day? If so, students may see it as busy work that leads to a disengaging end. The more we attach the assigned reading to a clear and engaging purpose, the more likely it is to occur. For example, if reading at home prepares students to make informed comments in a reading circle the next day we are on the right track.

Reading will invite participation when it is contains topics that are relevant to the students and incorporates peer commentary. Too often I have listened to a teacher rail on forever of his interpretation of Shakespeare...that experience does not encourage me to read.


Too often reading assignments are designed to be time-consuming and standardized. If so, I fear that the industrialization model of education is still alive and well and the learning model is yet to be established. Students likely have a personal reflection to share or would like to relate the reading to something relevant to them. There are websites that contain hundreds of thousands of writing pieces submitted by students without any payment of grades or money. They do it because it is personally relevant, engaging and provides a sense of ownership. One such site is www.figment.com and a quick look at the forum section will reveal over 100 000 posts made by young people on the topics of reading and writing. None of it is for grades.

Perhaps this type of approach to reading can be reconstructed in the classroom. Consider alternative activities based on literature. Some include:

- students video a scene from the chapter

- personal journal writing as a reflection of the reading

- online photo compilations that match a theme from the book, a certain character or a connection to a greater issue

- a class writing blog where students can insert chapters into the assigned reading or to offer alternative endings

- a class reading blog where students are afforded an equal voice in the conversation

These types of activities are engaging and will either reward those who have read with a greater sense of the contextual elements, or it can compel those to read who so far cannot be bothered. Regardless, engaging activities will further the understanding of the material whether a student has read at home or not.

Students can also take ownership over the factors that lead to greater understanding of the material. The unit test can serve as a mechanism to determine who needs to be encouraged to read for success. By establishing a method for comparing personal reading completion data and the testing results corresponding to the data, the students can profile their personal reading needs. Consider asking each student to take note of how much of the material they read and then compare this to test data.

Over 100 years of research suggests that punitive grading does not lead to more learning (Guskey & Bailey, 2001; Reeves, 2010), so perhaps it is time to try encouraging student purpose and ownership.

Thanks to Donalyn and Myron 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 a post next week.

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 Two of this series in a few days...

Related Tags:

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.