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Reading Choice is Reading Engagement

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of ETFO Voice.
Categories: Features
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It was 4:30 p.m. on a weekday in late October, when two grade 6 boys, Prajeeth and Aaron, rushed into the school library just as I, the teacher-librarian, was about to leave.

“We really need to use the computers NOW!” they exclaimed.

“Do you have a project due?” I asked.

“No, we NEED to find out the nominees for this year’s Silver Birch Awards!” Their eyes were bright with anticipation.

“The list of nominees just came out. I might not have those titles yet in our collection, but I’ll be buying them soon,” I reassured them.

“But if we know them early, we can reserve them at the public library,” was the reply.

The enthusiasm these boys demonstrated for reading is a passion that educators around the province would love to see in their students. The statistics surrounding reading engagement are sobering, but there are promising ways to reinvigorate the most reluctant of readers.

A decline in reading engagement

In 2011, the advocacy group People for Education published a startling report called Reading for Joy. The study, which is downloadable at peopleforeducation.ca, revealed that there has been a dramatic decline in students who report that they like to read. The percentage of children in grade 3 who report that they “like to read” dropped from 75 percent in 1998–99 to 50fifty in 2010–11. The number of students in grade 6 who “like to read” fell from 65 to 50 percent in the same time period. As the study elaborates, this reduction in reading pleasure is a cause for concern: “Students with a more positive attitude towards reading tend to be more successful in all subjects.”

This concern is not limited to students and schools. The National Reading Campaign is a Canada-wide organization dedicated to making reading a national priority for everyone. In 2013, they conducted a Pleasure Reading Survey. They found and shared on their website nationalreadingcampaign.ca, that 5 percent of the Canadian adults they surveyed admitted to not reading for pleasure at all and 12 percent said they read for pleasure less this year than the year before. The benefits of pleasure reading extend beyond the academic realm, as this infographic published by the National Reading Campaign can attest.

Harmful solutions

Many solutions have been attempted to grow a love of reading in young people, but some actually do more harm than good. Reading incentive programs that provide external rewards based on the number of pages or books an individual reads (such as Accelerated Reader or the Pizza Hut Book It! program) are actually detrimental, because many students wind up choosing books based on how quickly they can read through them to receive a prize – rather than for the enjoyment of reading them. And if the prize isn’t enticing enough, some students don’t even bother. Based on research, one of the key factors in igniting the joy of reading, in people in general and students in particular, is choice. If students have a say in what they read and are interested in the topic, they have intrinsic motivation that allows them to read beyond the level determined by reading assessments. In my school library, I’ve permitted students to borrow books that excite them and do not necessarily match their Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) level. (A recent series of webcomics documents this common conversation about reading levels versus passions: unshelved.com/2013-10-28unshelved.com/2013-10-29 ).

Helpful solutions

One method that provides choice, in a way that can comfort the cautious classroom teacher, is the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading. The Forest of Reading is the largest recreational reading program in Canada. Eight programs are available to readers of all ages and abilities, and this year marks the twentieth anniversary of the oldest “tree” in the Forest of Reading – the Silver Birch program. The Silver Birch Award, like others in the Forest of Reading, is a readers’ choice award. Ten nominees are announced and students are required to read a minimum of five titles to qualify to vote. The list of nominees is compiled by a selection committee consisting of school and public librarians, who take into consideration factors such as literary quality, audience appeal, accuracy and relevance, and a variety of genres and topics. Several school boards, such as the Toronto District School Board, have policies in place regarding the running of readers’ choice award programs that recommend that an adult coordinating the program read the nominated books in advance so s/he can be aware of any mature content that may concern community members – thankfully, the Ontario Library Association provides “crib sheets” summarizing plots and issues for busy teachers and teacher-librarians. When schools register with the OLA, this means that their students’ votes count towards deciding the overall winner.

There are many different ways for schools to determine whether or not a student has read a book and can qualify to vote. At my school, Agnes Macphail P.S. in Toronto, we use “passports” and “scheduled chats.” School staff members, from the principal to teachers to educational assistants, volunteer to read a title or two and their names appear on a large spreadsheet in the library. This demonstrates that reading is an activity everyone can enjoy, not just the classroom teacher. Students who have completed reading a book check the spreadsheet and then take the initiative to coordinate a time with one of the teachers who have read the book to have a chat at a mutually agreed-upon time. The chat is a conversation, not a test, where two readers share their thoughts and opinions on a text. If the teacher believes, based on the “accountable talk” they’ve had, that the student has read the whole book and understood it, s/he will sign the passport to validate the student claim. Students love the opportunity to talk with their teachers about books in a way that supersedes evaluation and in recent years, we’ve expanded chats to include group talks and conversations via Skype and/or email.

After the votes are tallied, a series of events, called the “Festival of Trees,” is held across Ontario, so that students can meet the authors, socialize with fellow readers, and at the final Festival, learn who has won the coveted awards. To hear students themselves explain why the Forest of Reading is important to them, watch this YouTube video.

One of the students in my school, Hamrish Saravanakumar, has had many high points in his 12-year life, but one of the biggest moments was when he introduced Kevin Sylvester, his literary hero, at the 2013 Festival of Trees celebration and awards ceremony at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto.

“For a long time, Kevin Sylvester has been my favourite author. For him to chant my name out to the crowd was truly amazing. The Forest of Reading is a really good reading program for all ages because there are many variety of books stretching all the way from kindergarteners to adults” says Hamrish.

Aaron and Prajeeth, those eager grade 6 boys reserving Silver Birch titles at the public library three months before the program launch, share Hamrish’s opinion about readers’ choice programs.

“I like the Forest of Reading because it’s a friendly competition and it introduces you to many good books. At the end, there’s either a Quiz Bowl or a Harbourfront trip. It’s fun meeting the authors and getting their signatures” says Prajeeth.

Igniting the flame and transforming students into passionate readers like Aaron and Prajeeth is just a page away.

Diana Maliszewski is a member of Elementary Teachers of Toronto.


10 Things You Can Do to Encourage a Love of Reading

  1. Don’t judge your students’ reading choices. Peter only reads comics? Joyce is obsessed with vampire romances? Leave attitudes about what constitutes a “good read” at the door. The best way to encourage diverse reading choices is through praise and read-alike recommendations
  2. Read aloud – just because. I can always tell what novel a classroom teacher is reading because her students flock to the library to get it or others by the same author. The read-aloud doesn’t need to be followed by worksheets, but by genuine discussion fuelled by interest. Look to read-aloud expert Jim Trelease or language-acquisition expert Stephen Krashen for evidence that reading aloud is time well spent.
  3. Establish a free-reading time as part of your class routine. The class schedule is jam-packed but providing a DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) or FRED (Free Reading Every Day) time calms the class like almost nothing else. On National School Library Day, October 28, 2013, many schools used the hashtag #canadadear2013 on Twitter to share how students in schools across the country read uninterrupted for 20 minutes.
  4. Visit the school library and public library often. Schools with teacher-librarians have reading enjoyment scores 8 percentile points higher than average. Use your school library and the staff inside to find new and classic reading treasures that will appeal to different readers.
  5. Let your students see you reading for fun. Never underestimate the power of modelling. Why not form a teacher book club that isn’t about disseminating the latest pedagogical trends, but instead focuses on book-to-film adaptations or teachers’ interests?
  6. Reading itself should be a reward – avoid routines or programs that focus on prizes for reading. Reading logs are useful but be wary of emphasizing the extrinsic over the intrinsic rewards.
  7. Recommend to parents that they read with and to their child/ren daily for pleasure in their own languages. This was an important recommendation from the Reading for Joy study – parents should not focus on the mechanics of reading when reading at home but instead choose texts for enjoyment.
  8. Give books as presents. The Canadian Children’s Book Centre gives a free book to every grade 1 student in the country. There are affordable ways of giving books as gifts, or to encourage your students that books for the classroom make good presents for the teacher instead of chocolates.
  9. Get students involved in purchasing books for the classroom or school library. I always take my student library helpers book shopping with me. They learn how to budget and how to apply selection criteria to purchases, while enjoying the pleasure of choosing books they know that they and their classmates will want to read.
  10. Use technology to share the joy of reading and connect with other readers. Use Goodreads, 49th Shelf, and other book review sites. Write a book summary or review and post it to Twitter. Check out author websites. Participate in the [R]E-Forest Interactive online forums, such as silverbirchonline.ca. Investigate reading for pleasure programs like the Kids Lit Quiz, where readers compete in trivia contests.