Three Shifts for Better, Engaged Readers

“Who needs a bookmark? I’ve got some here. Raise your hand.”

This was a new kind of complaint.

As a teacher, I was used to hearing them–complaints from busy students, or an exchange overheard in the copy room. People bond over shared struggles.

But this was different. This audible groan did not come from every kid, just a few. Others said nothing. Instead, they ignored me. Eyes glued to the page, they had to finish the chapter.

I had just asked my students to put their independent reading books away, so we could get on with the rest of class.

I spent a long time–a few years–thinking this was good. Students want more time to read. It’s working. And of course, I want students to be so engaged in a book that they can’t bear to shut it.

But I don’t want students or me to dread the rest of class. I want all the speaking, writing, reading, and thinking that happens in class to make kids better, engaged readers.

First, better readers, because we live in an increasingly print-rich society. There has never been more information available.

But also engaged readers, because in order to put forth the effort to parse through this information, to learn about the world and the perspectives of those who dwell in it, students need some motivation.

There are three shifts that I’ve observed in my classroom, worked out in my writing and speaking, and want to continue to refine.  These shifts are aimed towards the direction of creating a balanced literacy classroom, where everything–both independent reading and the typical curriculum–make kids better, engaged readers. Here are the three shifts in outline form:

  1. Less convergence, more craft
  2. Less fake-reading, more relevance
  3. Less grading, more reader-building



The three shifts that I think can help us to build students into better, engaged readers.


Convergence –> Craft

Here, convergence means one-right-answer situations. Comprehension questions that kill the reading experience. Rigid literary analysis with little room for real discussion and interpretation. Bad reading homework.

Instead, I’d like to shift the focus to craft. This means getting kids to notice, discuss and emulate the language of successful writers. This can happen with fiction and nonfiction. It’s the path to better reading and writing.

Fake reading –> Relevance

By listing fake reading as something to decrease, I’m putting it within what Stephen Covey would call my Circle of Influence. Yes, the student is the one who chooses to read SparkNotes or watch the movie, but I have created some environment where that is the best option. So, I can create an environment where fake reading is inconvenient and impractical. Hopefully, it doesn’t even cross students’ minds. Hey, I guy can dream.

Fake reading happens most often with whole class novels, in my experience.

The shift is to increase the relevance that students see in our required texts. So far, I notice three ways to do this:

  1. Make required readings part of rich text sets that students use to think, write, and speak about interesting questions
  2. Create speaking events and other no opt-out assessments. These compel students to dive back into our readings
  3. Use the Whole Novels approach

Grading –> Reader-building

Finally, the third shift will be no surprise if you’ve read this blog before. I’d like to de-emphasize grading.  Like you, I teach in a real school with real students, but I still argue that we need to de-emphasize grading in order to focus kids on the task at hand. When we emphasize the grade, students take the easiest path possible to earn the grade. The task becomes a means to a grade, not an end in itself.

Instead, we can work on building a culture of readers.  We can do this in a system that requires grades. By working to build more time in class for conferences, we get to know students as individual readers and writers. By giving students opportunities to write to each other in situations like literacy letters, we can get them to develop a genuine curiosity in the discussion of interesting texts.

Notice that I call these ideas shifts, not switches. They are not extreme changes made in a day. They are directions in which we can move. Ultimately, I’d rather work to move my instruction, and therefore my students’ progress, in a slow steady general direction, than a sporadic, random leap.

What shifts are you working on in your instruction? What do you think about the three I’ve mentioned? Share in the comments.

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