This year, I have spent too much time and energy trying to manage a silent 10 – 15 minute daily independent reading time in my grade 7 classroom. I haven’t given up because I value independent reading: I know this is the best way to get reluctant readers to love to read. At this point, you may be entertaining two conflicting thoughts. On the one hand, you may be thinking that silent is unrealistic and, on the other hand, that 12- and 13-year-olds should be able to sit and read for less than 30 minutes without having to be redirected. A disclaimer: I believe that asking grade 7 students to read silently for 10 – 15 minutes, without getting distracted, shouldn’t be an unrealistic expectation. But, alas, that is not the case. However, to be fair, I am only talking about 5 or 6 of my students, or 1/3 of the class. Although this is still a large percentage, it’s rare that all of these students are distracted at the same time. Let’s just say they take turns…in pairs.
You may have already guessed that these 5 or 6 students are boys. At the beginning of the year none of them could stay with a book for longer than a few minutes before getting distracted or distracting each other. Although this situation has improved greatly – they are now able to find books they like and are rarely dissatisfied with their choices – I would predict that, if given the choice, they would still rather do anything else than read. That’s OK. My goal for them was that by the end of the year they would like reading a little more than they did at the beginning of grade 7, and that they could identify books and/or authors they enjoy reading. Some now have a book or two on their to-read list.
Nevertheless, I recently stumbled onto (and, yes, stumbled is precisely how it happened) a way for us to have our cake and eat it, too. I discovered that by incorporating just 10 minutes of partner reading conversations after independent reading, students could talk about books in a relaxed but focused environment. Admittedly, the first few times, students were at a loss as to what to talk about; they are gradually finding ways to keep the conversation going. To help them do this, I guide the class through focused reflections at the end of every partner conversation period. We talk about was hard and/or what went well. In this way, much like adult problem solving conversations about how to have an effective book discussion, we brainstorm solutions to stumbling blocks such as, not knowing what to talk about and avoiding spoilers. For example, my students suggested, and we adopted, having groups of three instead of pairs as a way to increase the talk on books. During our last debrief, several trios talked about how they had piggy backed on another student’s talk rather than immediately sharing about their book. So, they are learning to extend conversations and respond to each other rather than simply sharing without engaging in a true dialogue.
Many adult book groups have a group created question or two to guide discussions. I plan to teach my students how to create generic questions for their book talks since they will be talking about different books. A possible next step could be to allow students to self-select partners based on having read the same book, series or author.
I’m not sure if the no-talking-reading-all-the-time expectation has gotten better or not, but I find other aspects of our literacy workshop have improved. For example, more students are writing reading responses based on that day’s group discussions of books. Their reflections, as a result, are more interesting, to them and to me, and provide a natural formative assessment opportunity. Also, the level of student conversations and what they are getting out of them has improved. One of the biggest payoffs is that they are recommending books to each other. As summer approaches, they are using these suggestions to make mental plans for their summer reading.