As this school year starts, kids are getting backpacks loaded, that freshly opened crayon box smell that teachers dream of is wafting throughout the classroom. Excitement is in the air and anticipation is palpable. Unfortunately, that all too quickly fades as the year wanes on. It will circle back at times, but it is difficult to maintain. The realities of test scores and proving our students are making progress as well as the mounting paperwork diminishes our enthusiasm as teachers as well.
One thing I never want to see my students lose excitement for is reading. All too often, I feel as though we start restraining our students reading and what they can read, and what they should get from their reading. We label certain times and books as “free reading”, however I would argue it really isn’t. When grades are attached, it isn’t “for fun” reading. Period. Of course we should keep students reading, but when the love is gone, the learning gleaned from it is also diminished and an ugly cycle has just begun.
For a moment, let’s consider our own reading. If I go into a library and ask a librarian for a recommendation for a book, I am asking that person to show me a book that will tell me a story I would enjoy. I don’t go in and ask that person to help me find a book that will be a certain amount of points on a test. The librarian does not ask me what my lexile is or if I have been given a certain amount of time to read it. The librarian is going to ask me what kind of stories I like and help me find a book that is a good fit. If I had to always read at my lexile, I would burn out fast as well. If I had to take a test after everything I read, I would begin to hate reading as well. There isn’t any prize or reward in the world that would keep reading fresh for me under those circumstances.
Our job in teaching reading is to expose students to ideas, genres, and books they may not have picked on their own. We help challenge them and teach them about plot, character growth and development, as well as themes. In nonfiction, we help them identify key ideas, and text formats and strategies to get the information they need from it. In all of these things we are determining what they should get and how they should get it from the reading. These are important pursuits and necessary student growth and therefore extremely worthwhile to teach and assess.
So how does this all fit into free reading? Another layer of teaching reading is to help students take those things we taught them and use them on an independent level. If I want to know if my student can really do something, I want to see it in action. Don’t tell me the definition of plot, show me. Don’t spout out what a theme of a book is, tell me what you are learning from your book and what it means to you as an individual. When we allow students to free read, truly read for free, they are able to open their minds and make the reading meaningful for them. We may be surprised at their thought process and what they are mastering on their own.
I have a quick story before I close. I once had a student who was reading the book Divergent by Veronica Roth. She, as well as my other students, would read and we would have a brief opportunity to share after 10 minutes of reading time at the beginning of class. I did not test students over these books. I did not demand that they read at a certain lexile, I just let them chose a book, read, and share. One day after reading, she confessed to the class she had a crush on the character Four. She said it was “freaking her out” because she never had a crush on a character from a book. (This was also prior to the movie coming out.) Despite Four’s harsh exterior at times, she was able to give me an in-depth analysis of Four and the little nuances of his character that made him lovable and kind. By allowing students the freedom to explore and form their own thinking, we are giving them so much more than when we try to determine what they should be able to get from their reading. Do we need to teach them reading basics and skills? Absolutely! Do we need to assess it with everything they do? I argue the answer is absolutely not.
Remember our students have a lot of reading to do over the course of their school career. Help them to see that while reading is important to learning, it can also be a whole lot of fun!