Strategy 3.10: Give Students Multiple Opportunities to Read Self-Selected Texts. Teachers actively seek ways for their students to read self-selected books and other texts such as magazines and comic books. Teachers view free voluntary reading or sustained silent reading as keys to building student literacy, and as crucial in developing habits of reading that extend beyond the classroom.
Getting students to read more of what they want to read is an often-overlooked strategy in teachers’ attempts to raise reading scores and close the gap between second-language learners and native English speakers. Adding a voluntary reading program to the curriculum at any grade level provides what most second-language learners do not have at home or at school: access to books.
Many advantages accrue for students who begin to read on their own. A compilation of research (Krashen, 2004) on voluntary reading shows that students involved in free reading programs do as well as or better than students involved in more traditional skill-based reading instruction. Second-language learners involved in free reading programs in school consistently outperformed those who received a more traditional language-teaching approach with a mixture of grammar and oral exercises. Free reading also has positive effects on vocabulary acquisition, spelling, and writing accuracy and style—thus the potential to dramatically increase the acquisition of English.
Frank Smith (1988) has written eloquently about the need to get students to feel that they are part of the “literacy club,” that they are potential members of this powerful inside group who expect to be able to read and write competently. But access to books to read has been a problem for many poor and language-minority students. Spaces that abound with fiction and nonfiction books, magazines, newspapers, and comic books are often referred to as print-rich environments. Though it is understandable that many homes lack the economic resources to make such environments possible, many schools (especially secondary schools) have not made access to books a priority. Many teachers committed to getting books into their students’ hands comb secondhand bookstores, their own bookshelves, and garage sales to build a classroom library of engaging books. Many teachers work together to ensure that a necessary portion of their school’s discretionary money is allocated to the purchase of books for free reading programs, whether based in the school library or in individual classrooms.
Schools that implement voluntary reading programs in classrooms use a variety of methods to heighten interest in reading and ensure that reading happens regularly; school-wide support of a voluntary reading program has been shown to change attitudes about reading that one classroom teacher alone could not accomplish (Fisher, 2004). In schools using voluntary reading programs, teachers and students conduct research on what students would like to read. They ask other teachers, see what kinds of books students check out on their own, and ask the students themselves. Teenage romances, horror books, Newbery Award winners, comic books, series—all qualify for inclusion if students want to read them (paperbacks work better than hardbacks). The idea is to get students to read something, so they will want to read more (Frey & Fisher, 2004b). High school teachers report that their ESL students even pick up a good children’s book with no embarrassment if it is part of a classroom library that has many types of books from which to choose.
Most teachers set up some sort of system for voluntary reading. They want to make sure that the time for reading is extended and consistent. For example, reading may take place at the beginning of class every day for 15 minutes. Students are taught the process for selecting and checking out a book; they learn such strategies as perusing the back cover to see if it looks interesting. Teachers look for students who seem to be struggling to maintain focus and try to help them select a book more appropriate to their reading level or interest.
An open sharing of ideas and progress shows what others in the class are reading. As a means of sparking interest in a book, the teacher might conduct a talk on a selected book, giving a short description of the characters, plot, or setting. Recommended reading lists from fellow students can help to guide student selections. Teachers often incorporate some kind of accountability into the program, so that they are better able to chart individuals’ progress. Progress may be assessed in the venue of a conference, in which teacher and student talk about what the student is reading, or it might involve asking students to keep a daily reading log, in which they indicate how many pages they have read and write short summaries. A reading folder might include a list of books read over the course of the year, reflections on progress in reading, and book reviews to be passed on to next year’s class.
When 12-year-old Juan entered his 7th grade advanced ESL class, he wrote in his reading portfolio, “I don’t like to read.” Asked what kinds of books he liked, he wrote, “None.” In response to a question about when he reads, he said, “I read only when I have to.” He spent the first two weeks of free reading staring at the pages of books he picked up at random from the revolving bookshelf in his English classroom. Juan made no progress in reading a book and tended to pick up a different book every other day. He was easily distracted during reading time and often attempted to disturb students around him who were trying to read.
Ms. Alvarez, Juan’s teacher, had experience with such students. She knew it might take him a while to settle into the routine of reading. She also knew that she would have to help him. After the second week, Ms. Alvarez took Juan aside during free reading time and said, “Juan, I see you’ve had some trouble finding a book you want to read. Let me help you find something today.” Together, they perused a variety of books on the shelf. Ms. Alvarez selected three that she thought he might like, told him to sit down with them, look at the back covers, read the first page, and then decide on one. When he had done that, she said, “Now, for this book you need to read the first two chapters. If, after that, you don’t like it, we’ll pick out another one together.”
Over the next three weeks, Juan read the first two chapters of four different books. Finally, one day Ms. Alvarez noticed that Juan was a third of the way through a short novel by Gary Soto—way beyond Chapter 2. When she asked him later if he wanted to try a different book, he replied, “No. I kind of like this one.” Over the course of the semester, Ms. Alvarez saw subtle shifts in Juan’s behavior toward reading. He came in, sat down, and usually began the task of reading. Though he read slowly, the summaries in his reading logs showed that he understood most of what was going on. By the end of the semester, Juan had read two short novels (about 150 pages each) plus a short book on soccer stars. He wrote in his portfolio, “This is the first time in my life I ever read a whole book.”