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Creating a Reading Culture that Inspires Secondary Students

Creating an environment that encourages students to love reading and to want to grow in their comprehension and analysis skills is an undertaking. To get a pulse on your classroom’s reading culture, consider the following:

  • Do students voluntarily check out books from your classroom and school library?
  • Have you regularly overheard students talking about what they are reading in a positive way?
  • Will your students make book recommendations to their friends?
  • Are students engaged in mini lessons? Do they accept the challenge to transfer the skills they learn in these mini lessons in independent practice?

Secondary teachers can implement practical, manageable, and enjoyable strategies to support the type of environment that leads to reading growth. You can search for reading culture ideas on the web, and no shortage of ideas will come up on Google! Ultimately, though, you have to choose what works for your teaching style and for your students’ needs. In this post, I’m sharing specific approaches that work for me. Take what you need.

Step 1: Get to Know Your Readers

At the beginning of the year, most teachers take time for relationship-building activities. Consider getting to know your readers one of the necessary steps you need to take in order to create a positive reading culture.

As you sit down and talk with students, ask them questions. You’ll want to know about their experiences with reading, their identity as a reader, and anything that will help you connect with them through literature. I also like to give students a separate reading interest inventory. It’s convenient to skim and then file away for future reference.

Step 2: Establish a Choice Reading Program

Research is clear. Students need to have as much experience as possible reading books at their independent level. There is no one right choice reading program to use. The one I love most is book clubs with 100 percent student choice in texts. That means every students is reading a different novel each month. An element, like literary genre, ties them together.

This blog series gives more details about how I run classroom book clubs. Whatever approach you use, I encourage you to introduce it at the beginning of the year, to keep it manageable, to avoid tying it to formal projects and assessments.

Step 3: Discuss Expectations for Success

What do you want students to do as members of your reading culture this year? Do you want them to check out books once a month? Twice a month? At their convenience? Should they make book recommendations to friends? If so, how and when? Will they be given time to talk about books? You’ll probably need to model how.

Whatever expectations you have, it’s safe to assume you’ll need to give them the reason why, the time to do it, opportunities to practice, and models to discuss.

Step 4: Surround Students with Books

If you want students to think about books, build it into your classroom decor and setup. Make the library easily accessible. Turn book covers facing outward when possible. Create interactive displays and reading bulletin boards that catch students’ eyes. Make sure they can see what you have read, what you are reading, and what is on your list next.

Make sure to build in time for students to talk about what they are reading. I like to use discussion cards on sticks so students can grab and gab whenever we have a few minutes to spare.

Step 5: Help Students Choose Just Right Books

Middle and high school students need explicit directions for choosing books that are just right for them. We need to build this lesson in at the beginning of the year, but we often need to revisit it as we notice students are abandoning books often. Metaphors are helpful ways for students to think about book fit. I like to use a reading ladder visual, but I know others who use weights or similar images.

10 ways to develop a positive and manageable reading culture in middle and high school #ClassroomCulture #HighSchoolELA

Step 6: Work with the School Librarian

If you are lucky enough to have a school librarian, become best friends! I work with my librarian regularly. We do book talks, introduce each month’s genre for book club, and create reading culture experiences both in the classroom and the library. For example, we set up book stacks for students to sort into genre categories and have coffee shop discussions. The librarian tries to visit on book club discussion days as often as possible, and she’s integral in helping me find books for reluctant readers.

Here are some additional ways you can partner with your school librarian.

Step 7: Track Individual and Collective Reading

I use book spines and reading tracking pages. When students finish a book, they fill out a spine, hang it up, and I record the book on my tracking sheet. This process helps me to keep track of individual student reading pace and diet. Also, it gives me a pulse on overall class needs and patterns. Best of all, it doesn’t require a lot of time.

The only roadblock to making it work is to remain diligent about reminding students to complete the book spines for each novel they read. I recommend building it into a specific day’s routine. For instance, every Friday, remind students to fill out spines for any books they have completed.

Step 8: Tie Independent Reading to Mini Lessons

Yes! Independent reading should connect to whole-class lessons. As you confer with students about what they are reading independently, keep track of what areas and standards they need to develop most. If you notice a pattern, form small group guided lessons or whole class mini lessons to re-teach and reinforce those skills.

Have some scaffolded graphic organizers ready that work for any text. That way, you can model with them in mini lessons, and students can use the same pages to practice independently with their choice reading novels.

When students see a connection between the books they are reading by choice and those they are reading as a whole class, they will buy into the value of reading for pleasure.

Step 9: Balance Choice Reading and Whole Class Texts

Do the classics still deserve a place in secondary curriculums? It depends on who you ask. Personally, I value the classics. They are often alluded to, and they offer students opportunities to really dive deep into some critical themes and shadow texts. You don’t have to carve out nine weeks to read them, though.

Authors like Kate Roberts of A Novel Approach* and the NCTE of Workshopping the Canon* provide helpful starting points for blending whole-class texts with independent and small group reads. Part of my goal when creating a positive, manageable reading culture is blending both approaches. I want students to experience it all!

Step 10: Don’t Overassess

We battle high-stakes testing. While some teachers see its value, others are left frustrated with the disconnect between how they want to assess reading and how they feel they have to assess it to prepare students for testing.

I do see the value in preparing students for the rigor of A/B type test questions and high-level reading passages with practice opportunities. Yet, I don’t think what we are really testing in those times is a student’s reading ability. I think we are testing their capability with testing. And, it’s not that we shouldn’t ever do that. We need to prepare students so they can perform their very best, but we need to be careful not to define a reader by that type of training.

Think about it. Would you appreciate someone making a judgement about you as a marathon runner when you have never run one or trained for one in your life? I love running, but there is so much more to me as a runner than training for a ridiculously long race.

Instead of overassessing with high-stakes type testing, we need to use alternate forms to measure students’ growth. Exit slips, book talks, conferences, and fun responses to reading are all ways we can assess comprehension without making students hate reading.

Creating a positive reading culture is important, but making it manageable should be even more of a priority. Middle and high school students need to love reading so that they dig into texts deep enough to grow as readers. We can help them by implementing some of these approaches.

A lot of the planning happens before the beginning of the year, but an inspiring reading culture that lasts all year long requires regular maintenance. In the mood to read more? Language Arts Classroom is sharing additional ideas for creating and sustaining a literacy-rich culture in secondary.

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