Establishing a Reading Culture, Penny Kittle Style

readercollage (1)

Here are some questions:

How do you get teenagers to read… I mean actually read? If students in high school don’t read at all, is it already too late for them to engage in a lifetime of learning? And if these students continually, halfheartedly fake their way through classroom texts, how will they have even a prayer of being ready for the demanding reading requirements of college?

These are the questions that bothered New Hampshire teacher and professional development expert Penny Kittle. Not so coincidentally–for they are the concerns of teachers everywhere–these questions have also been bothering the teachers in my own department. We’ve come up against so much student resistance to reading tasks, even simple ones, that it’s hard not to feel frustrated and confused. For this reason, we’ve decided to make this year about establishing a serious reading culture at our school. Thankfully, we’ve had much wisdom and strategy support in the form of Kittle’s resource-rich title Book Love: Developing depth, stamina, and passion in adolescent readers

I can’t stress enough that teachers should read and consider Book Love in its entirety. There’s too much great stuff in there for me to recap here, but I’d like to share a couple key components that my own school has incorporated in hopes of overhauling our reading culture. Kittle’s methods don’t just sound great on paper–they are clearly and actually working. Even in the short several weeks of school we’ve had so far, the change is perceptible and positive.

6 Steps to Take to Establish a Reading Culture

1. Get the right book into the right kid’s hands. Kittle is a staunch believer in the idea that all students want to read, if they only can find the right book. In my own adoption of this attitude, I’ve experienced a shift in my interactions with students. I’m more persistent and more diligent when it comes to making reading recommendations to reluctant readers. And it is paying off–when students understand that you care enough to work hard to get a book in their hands, the likelihood of them reading it goes up. Our whole department has begun giving book talks at least once a week in every communications class–taking time to preview great titles gives students more chances to find the book that will make all the difference. We each have classroom libraries (mine is pretty tiny, but it’s there!) of titles just waiting to be picked up by a student. I’ve also been very direct with students in selling the idea that “hating reading” is a virtual impossibility. It’s just that they hate what they are reading. Below, you’ll see a presentation I used in class that mirrors this idea–our message to all students is “You are all readers… you may just not know it yet.” That message resonates. Kids respond when teachers demonstrate aggressive faith in them.

2. Make reading about relationships. The quality of teaching, according to Kittle, is only as good as our relationships with our students (35). I have often embraced this mindset with my teaching of writing, but consciously making reading about relationships is something that I haven’t actively tried to do as a teacher for quite a while. Our department is taking a cue from Book Love as we bring in reading conferences as a way of not only keeping students accountable, but also becoming active mentors in their reading lives. In conferences, we question, recommend, and provide challenge for student readers. Kittle outlines an entire process and rationale for a couple different types of conferencing (77-90). My own variation on the reading conference, or “interview” as I call it, is structured for a once-a-quarter conversation with students. Click here to view and use it!

3. Celebrate and privilege reading as an important activity. We are making our reading more visible, through images and actions. This year, each classroom has some type of visual display that grows as students finish more titles. Some classes are even competing with each other. Seeing the row of paper book spines slowly extend down the hallway is a way for us to visually assert the importance of reading in our wing of the school. We’ve also created display cases with personal book recommendations. (The images included at the top of this post are seen in those display cases.) We’re making an effort to be vocal and visible with our reading lives, reading alongside with our students during class time that we set aside for reading. Some teachers start with ten minutes of reading each and every day, others set aside 20-30 minutes once or twice a week. If we truly value reading, we have to be able to reserve some class time to simply stop the world and read.

4. It’s about volume. A large part of Kittle’s argument for reading is that quantity does, in a sense, trump quality… at least at first. We all understand the idea that students naturally gain skill in reading the more that they do it, yet we often get trapped in this idea that students “should” be reading “great” books. Rather, Kittle says, we should be focusing on building stamina by helping students read more than ever before. This is especially important when we consider the 100-600 pages per week of the typical U.S. college reading requirement (20). With this in mind, we are challenging our students to see how much they can read, without being too worried about whether what they select is “worthy.” We’re trying to foster a reading addiction–why not allow students some titles that they can eat up voraciously before prompting them to tackle something tougher?

5. Help students track progress, make goals and set reading plans. Kittle says, “I once heard that a key difference between readers and nonreaders is readers have plans” (63). In order to help our students grow in their sophistication as readers, we have them track their titles and reading time, and also keep a running “next list” for books that they want to read in the future. We’ve helped students measure their reading rates, so that they can watch their speed increase over time. Reading needs to be purposeful, and getting a sense of how we are growing, and what we are growing towards, increases motivation. Our student readers are asked to look ahead to what’s next, fostering the expectation that tomorrow, or next week, or next year, we will still be reading.

6. Reading needs to be “what we do.” As a department, we’ve been vocal about encouraging teachers in disciplines other than communications to require students to read during downtime, to establish classroom libraries, to ask students about what they’re reading, and to recommend titles to students. The more our buy-in grows with staff, the more it does with students, and the closer we come to a true cultural shift, towards becoming a community of strong, constant readers.

This is just the starting phase of morphing into a reading-strong school. But I have to say… it’s a darn fine start. 🙂

How are you building a reading culture in your school? Share in the comments below!

2 comments

  1. Sherri Michalowski

    And this belief is why my son is lucky to have you as a teacher. Keep doing what you do Amy… Your work is awesome!

    • Ms. H

      That’s the highest compliment I could receive. Thanks so much! I’m surrounded by an utterly fantastic group of teaching peers and supportive administrators who make it easy to be awesome. 🙂

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