Tag Archives: developing readers

Guest Post: Ways I Can Encourage More Students to Love Reading by Holly Dottarar

“People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.”  -Malcolm X

At the beginning of each year, I spend close to a week talking about independent reading with my students.  To me, it’s worth investing the time because independent choice reading is the heart of my class.


How I frame choice reading during the first week:

  • discussing how to find a just-right book and how that is different for every reader, different genres and their definitions,
  • setting a weekly reading rate (from Penny Kittle’s book Book Love),
  • speed dating a variety of books to find potential novels to read,
  • going over My Top-15 Reading List (adapted from Kelly Gallagher’s book In the Best Interest of Students),
  • discussing how book conferencing works, and how to keep track of books read.

Even though I check in with each student monthly, share my Top 15 List with my classes, and book talk new books bi-monthly, there’s always a small percentage of students who refuse to read, or read very little.  My avid readers love the freedom to choose books, but my non-readers, emerging readers, and the reading-is-okay-but-currently-I-have-no-time readers need more of a nudge.  

How can I help all students be successful in creating and cultivating a reading habit? How can I help them look forward to diving into their book, to truly enjoy reading? How can I keep up the momentum for those who love to read?  

I whole-heartedly believe in the reader’s workshop model, but it is hard.  

Keeping track of 150 students all reading different books, and all at different places in their books, requires commitment and organization.  It is a daily, conscious decision to sit beside a student and recommend book after book, hoping something sparks an interest, or to try to find a new book for a student who has read 50 books in the last two months and isn’t sure what to read next.  (Yes, I have about 10 of these voracious readers each year.)  Up and moving around the classroom, talking with kids about books when sometimes all I want to do is sit at my desk and read my book too doesn’t help.  (And there are days that I just read alongside students, but it is few and far between.)

While there are times I want to throw in the towel, I am reminded that the hard work pays off.  Those tough days are just a bump in the road.  Students deserve to be confident readers.  They deserve to learn to think critically. They deserve a teacher who will not give up on them.   

As a reflective teacher, I’ve been thinking a lot about the reader’s workshop:  what worked in my classroom and what I want to make better.  These are ideas that I am going to incorporate this fall to build upon the love and joy of reading for all students.


1. Be consistent about my Book Talk Wall and teacher What-to-read-next list.


I have a wall in the back of the classroom where I post the book jacket of every book I book talk.  My goal this past year was at least one book a week, usually on a Monday, but I was not consistent.  This year I plan to continue book talking books I’ve done in the past, but really play on the books I just read and books that are new.  

Which leads to my What-to-Read-Next list.  Two years ago, I had on the board these titles MsDottararReadingListswith books:  What I just read, What I am currently reading, and What I plan to read next.  Next to each phrase I had an arrow and a copy of the book jacket so students could see my book list.  I didn’t do that this year because I didn’t have white board space.  

However, after reading students’ end of the year reflections and seeing if they met their book goals, my students two years ago read more than my students last year.  While I don’t think that each group of students should be compared, as each year we have different groups of students, I can’t help but think sharing what I read and talking often about it made a difference.  I’ll collect the data on that this year and then draw a conclusion.  


2. Student recommendation share outs

Book Recommendation SheetTwice a year, right before Christmas Break and right before school is out, I have students fill out a recommendation form on books they enjoyed and think others might like.  It goes in a binder organized by genre.  However, students do not share these recommendations prior to turning them in.  Why have I not done that? Not sure.  It was kind-of like checking something off my to-do list.  In this area, I plan to have students share out books they wrote down on that sheet of paper before turning in.Recommendations Binder


Even though this binder sits on top of one of the bookshelves, SO MANY students didn’t even know it was there.  I plan on referencing it often so if students need a book and don’t have one in mind, they can go to the binder and see what others have recommended.  (As that was the whole point of this activity anyway.)

3. Theme Topic Books

Penny Kittle has inspired me in so many ways.  Six years ago, over the summer, I took 42 composition notebooks (because that was the number of students in each class that upcoming year—yikes!), scrapbooked the covers, and wrote on 3×5 cards the theme topics.  (You can find more information about this in her book.) One of my goals was for students to write in them three to four times a year, thinking about how their book connects in some way to the theme topic.  And how cool is it for students to see what others have written years prior?  However, this past year, they only wrote in it once.  My goal is to incorporate this at least once a trimester.

Theme-Topic Notebooks

The other goal was if a student wanted to read a book about that theme topic, say compassion, they could look in the notebook and read what books others have read dealing with that topic.  However, these notebooks were filed in a cabinet with other supplies.  Not an easy way for students to find.  So, in this area, I am thinking about a good space to display these topic notebooks so more students can read what others have said.

4. Creation of Book Trailers

I am growing in the area of technology.  When I started teaching 16 years ago, I had an overhead projector and a chalkboard.  Phones were installed in December, and I couldn’t wait to pick up the phone to call the office instead of pressing the intercom button when I needed something.  When we went to white boards a few years later, I jumped up and down.  I no longer had chalk marks along the side of my right palm or somewhere on my back.  When our school installed projectors, I begged a friend in the history department—as they received a grant for document cameras shortly thereafter—to loan me an extra one so I could teach writing through a step-by-step process.  In terms of technology, this is the extent of my expertise.  A coworker had to show me how to use Google Classroom last year.  

With so many of our students interacting with technology, why not use that to our advantage? There have been some really good book trailers lately.  My favorite still is with the novel Salt to the Sea.  The music is haunting, which fits the book perfectly.  (You can check it out here.)

If I show professional book trailers for students on novels I think they’d like, why can’t they create their own and share on Classroom?  Something I plan to look into more and try this next year.

5. Virtual Book Stacks

Students keep track of books they’ve read on a sheet of paper titled My Top 15, but why not have a visual book stack at the end of the year to share and celebrate growth? I thought of a real book stack, as I’ve seen them all over Instagram, but to have students try to find each book they read and stack it up felt daunting to me, especially if students checked out books from the public library and not mine or the school’s library.  I plan to use Padlet for students to share their books and maybe even categorize it by their favorites.





If you are interested in more reading on this topic, I suggest the following books:

Nancy Atwell’s The Reading Zone

Carol Jago’s The Book in Question

Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer

Lisa Donohue’s Independent Reading Inside the Box, 2nd Ed.

Penny Kittle’s Book Love

Teri Lesesne’s Reading Ladders

Holly Morningstar Dottarar is an 8th grade English teacher in the Pacific Northwest.  While she spent her adolescence as a reluctant reader, once she read The Hobbit—in college—she became hooked.  Now, she carries a book wherever she goes.  When she’s not reading, teaching, or spending time with her family, she can be found in her kitchen baking.  She blogs at www.hollybakes.com and www.hollyteaches.com.


Why I Applaud The Student Who Reads Only Two Books

imageedit_5_2583117499Author, teacher, and reading-writing workshop guru Nancie Atwell recently won the $1 million Global Teacher Prize. I have been a fan of Atwell’s work since I read her book In the Middle during my first year of graduate school. In fact, I was star struck two years ago when Atwell sat on the floor next to me during an NCTE workshop (note my shoulder proudly photo bombing Shana’s picture of the goddess herself). While I have subscribed to Atwell’s philosophy since I began my career in education, I was shocked to read in the media coverage that her students on average read 40 books per year.

My students do not.

Don’t get me wrong; the majority of my students read a large amount, yet while I could calculate the average, it would grossly misrepresent the true value of their accomplishments. I have some students who breathe books and complete them at breakneck speed. They add leaves to our book tree at an astonishing rate, yet admittedly not all my students are like that. By the end of the year, some have only completed two or three independent books in total. As a first year teacher (last year), I felt like I had failed these students. As far as I was concerned, the good teachers didn’t run into this problem. They only spoke about the record-breaking kids, not the ones that kept me wracking my brain for a solution. It felt like I was the only teacher who had the two-book-reader.

Last year, mine was TJ. TJ couldn’t seem to make it through a book. Many of my hesitant readers have learning disabilities or attention deficit disorders; in past classes, they have felt little success in reading whole class novels. When they arrive in my classroom they are resistant to choosing their own independent reading books. TJ was no exception; he had ADHD and struggled to focus on his reading both in and out of class. I’d watch him stare at a page for five minutes straight without being able to settle his mind and read a line. During conferences TJ discussed his book and claimed he was interested in it, yet he moved at a snail’s pace. By the end of his foray with Jarhead, I couldn’t imagine him undergoing the same tedious process with another book. I thought he’d quit. But he didn’t. Through reading conferences, daily reading time, and check-ins with his parents, I was able to help TJ develop a routine and gradually become a reader. Yet the greatest influence was TJ’s friends. Seeing so many of his peers reading on a daily basis motivated TJ to continue working towards his goals.

By the end of the year, TJ had read two independent reading books and three whole class reads, “more books than [he] had ever read before.” This was a feat arguably equal to if not mightier than some of my students who read 80 or more books. TJ developed persistence and stamina even if he couldn’t keep up with many of his peers. He was proud of his accomplishments and determined to become a better reader the following year. As a teacher, that’s what I want for my students—to push them to succeed and accomplish more than they thought they were capable of.

We all have those students (or maybe it’s still just me) but we must praise and hold these students in high esteem. We must brag about their successes and triumphs just as much as we praise the work of our highly motivated readers. After all, every book is a learning experience and an accomplishment.

Do you have a “two-book reader”? What is your story, and how did you work to motivate that student?

Finding the Right Book for Growth in AP English

Several tiles similar to this one dot the ceiling in my classroom.

Sometimes I just want to say: “You are wrong.”

Of course, I try to be a little more diplomatic than that, but really, many critics of balanced literacy are that — wrong.

The argument I hear the most against allowing students to choose which books to read in AP English is that they will never choose to read anything other than Young Adult fiction and graphic novels. To that I want to say “So?” (For a great list of graphic novel titles, see Donalyn’ post Comic Book Girl.)

What I do tell those who assert this nonsensical claim is “I wish you could visit my classroom and talk with my students.”  Here’s what they would see:

Everyone in the class is reading. Everyone except Rebecca. She stands in front of the book shelf I’ve labeled “Literature at Its Finest.” Between bookends on the top are paperback classics; authors ranging from Ray Bradbury to H.G. Wells. The first shelf is stacked with anthologies from my university studies in literature: Homer, Sophocles, Chaucer, Milton –the Complete Works, and more texts from the canon: The A Tale of Two Cities, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Awakening, To Kill a Mockingbird. And many I have never read: 1984, Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, A Farewell to Arms, Brave New World.

I walk over and ask, “Whatcha looking for?”

“I want to read a romance,” she says.

“Why are you looking on this shelf?”

“I need a challenging book.”

“So you want a romance that’s a challenge?” I say.

“Yes, they make those, right?” she answers, and we both laugh.

I pull Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights. I hand Rebecca each book as I talk a bit about them. Why I love Jane Austen and a little about the Regency Era, a quick bio of the Bronte sisters, and a tad about Gothic literature.

She asks, “Which should I read?”

I answer, “You decide. Read the back covers and the first few pages of each. See which voice you like best, and go from there.”

A few minutes later, I see that she has the clipboard where students sign books out from our class library. Rebecca has decided to read Pride and Prejudice.

A week passes. I meet with Rebecca for a conference. She tells me that this book is hard. She has to re-read parts of it for it to make sense. We talk about her strategies for comprehension. She says she is not giving up.

Two weeks pass. I ask students to share out with the class what they are reading. Rebecca says P & P and smiles as she declares that she’s finally figured it out. “I get it now, and I am getting better at reading it.” When I get a chance, I walk over to her desk and ask her what she means.

“The characters, everything,” she says. “It was the language that was really throwing me, but I understand the story now. I like Jane — her attitudes and opinions.” I make a note to follow up on this conversation.

Critics may say: So, she’s reading Pride and Prejudice. She won’t understand the nuances, the humor, the satirical elements, or even the social commentary without guiding questions and class discussions to help her.

They are right. Rebecca probably won’t get all that. But she and I are fine with it.

We have learned how to look at language and deconstruct texts, analyzing as we go with short texts we read and study in class. If I asked Rebecca to select a page and analyze some aspect of Austen’s language, I know that she could do it. She is a a critical thinker and a competent writer.

And she has challenged herself into a beautifully written complex piece of literature. And she likes it.

We read, discuss, and work with other titles in book clubs to understand and be able to analyze the scope of a novel. (I facilitated #APLangchat on the topic of book clubs. Here’s the planning for that and the Storify. And I wrote about little about my class book clubs here and here.)

I want students to love literature. I want them to become readers. The best way I know how to accomplish both is to let them choose the books they read.

I surround my students with rich literature. I talk about books daily. They talk with one another about what they are reading regularly. We build a community where they know my expectations for them as readers, and they evaluate themselves — setting, reviewing, and adjusting expectations for their own reading lives often.

When we model the life of a reader, students will follow our lead. Like Chris who chose this National Book Award Finalist.

We are well into the school year, and more and more students have moved into more complex books, and they are thinking about their reading choices.

Chris:  Currently reading Station Eleven. Chris asked me recently to recommend a book. He said, “I’ve liked everything you suggested so far this year.” I asked him what he liked best, and he said The Curious Incident in the Nighttime, which was part of our first book club. Somehow the conversation turned to my book club with some colleagues at my last school. I showed him my copy of Station Eleven with the marked and dogeared pages. He asked to borrow it, and we’ve since talked about the multiple story lines and how the author eventually ties them all together. He gives me updates as he’s making sense of this story that is unlike anything he’s read in the past.

Jasmine:  Currently reading Let the Great World Spin. Jasmine asked me for recommendations for books with multiple story lines. She’d read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in our first book club and A Thousand Splendid Suns in our second. I mentioned Colum McCann’s Pulitzer Prize winner, and she noted the ceiling tile that decorates our classroom. Jasmine reads about 120 pages a week and told me in her last conference: “In the next two weeks, I plan to up that number to 200. I also want to find more books with intertwining story lines so I can be motivated to read each week.” Station Eleven is already on her To Be Read Next list.

When we talk about rich literature and use passages to teach skills, some students will choose to read the whole text.

Doreen: Currently reading The Goldfinch. Doreen is quiet, studious, sometimes even somber. I used a passage from The Goldfinch when I introduced rhetorical analysis. I wrote about it in the post Starting with the Ending. My copy sat in the front of the room under a potted plant until one day it was gone. Doreen had swiped it, and is currently about half way through. When we did a quick whip around the room to share out and rate our current reads today, she rated it a 9 out of 10. I’ll talk to her soon about why Donna Tartt doesn’t get a ten for her Pulitzer Prize winner.

Other students are reading just as complex and important books:  Nawoon/The Thirteenth Tale, Neydy/The Great Gatsby, Lillian/The Scarlet Letter, Pedro/Dracula.

Do I have other students reading YA fiction? Yes, and that is okay because they are reading.

Ivan finished Winger by Andrew Smith last week. He told me, holding out the book with tender care:  “This is the first time I have made a connection with a book. I get what you mean about literature now.” He is in an 11th grade AP English class!

Last summer at UNH Literacy Institute, I wrote a piece that references the reading theory of Louise Rosenblatt extensively. Below is an excerpt.

I believe this with all my heart:

What does it mean to experience literature? First, we must define “literature.” A text can only be considered such if the reader “responds to it in terms of sense and emotion and thought (106). If a book is “to be considered “literature” for any students, it must be experienced” by them (94), and it requires “a particular kind of reading process” (89).

All too often teachers of English and those who set the “critical theories dominating the college and university teaching of literature…” simply intensi[fy] the tendency to hurry the student away from any personal aesthetic experience” of it (102). We see this as teachers select the books students will read, usually in whole class settings, assigning reading homework with the expectation that students will read primarily complex literature outside of the classroom. These teachers often give reading quizzes as an assessment of their students’ reading lives, and make the only experience a non-reader has with the text punitive. This is detrimental to the growth of the individual. This is contrary to “our main responsibility” as the educator:  “to help the student to find the right book for growth” (67).

How are you, the expert in the room, helping students find the right book for growth?


©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

What is a Reader Anyway?

Guest Post by Marla Robertson

As a teacher of undergraduates in a pre-service teacher course for future 4-8 teachers with various goals for future endorsements – Generalist, English/Language Arts, Math, Science, etc., part of my community building/getting to know you activities this semester included having each student fill in two surveys – one each about their Reading and Writing habits. I ask similar questions when I am presenting at teacher conferences to get a feel for where my audience is in their beliefs about reading and writing and about themselves as readers and writers.

I have noticed a pattern in the type of answers that I get to these questions in particular:

Are you a reader?

Are you a writer?

No matter what context I am in – at a conference with practicing teachers or in a classroom of pre-service teachers – the majority of participants say, no I am not a writer. This answer has been universal. I’ll address my thinking about writing beliefs at a later date, but….

Most participants usually acknowledge that they are a reader to some degree but often qualify that answer in some way. Like, “Yes, I am a reader but I don’t have time to read because I’m in school”, or “Yes, but I only read _____(insert type of reading here), or “No, I only read …..”

These responses about reading led me to wonder – just what is the definition of a reader?

Google says that a reader is a person who reads or who is fond of reading. That’s it! That’s the

My daughter took this photo after a library visit.  If the books were turned around so the titles were visible, her sophomore Pre-AP English teacher would have been appalled at the types of books Courtney was reading because they weren't considered good literature in her eyes.  That teacher never cared that Courtney was an avid reader outside of school, only that she didn't like to fill out the worksheets and read the assigned readings for class the way her teacher wanted her to. Luckily Courtney never cared what that teacher thought and continues to devour YA fiction anyway.

My daughter took this photo after a library visit. If the books were turned around so the titles were visible, her sophomore Pre-AP English teacher would have been appalled at the types of books Courtney was reading because they weren’t considered good literature in her eyes. That teacher never cared that Courtney was an avid reader outside of school, only that she didn’t like to fill out the worksheets and read the assigned readings for class the way her teacher wanted her to. Luckily Courtney never cared what that teacher thought and continues to devour YA fiction anyway.

dictionary definition – no qualifications, no buts or exclusions. But when asked that question, what do people really think? Do people narrow that definition to exclude the types of reading that we do as a part of our everyday life, like reading the newspaper, surfing the web, reading our favorite magazine, etc.?

What about the reading that people do for their job? Does that type of reading qualify them as a reader? A friend of mine told me once that her husband doesn’t think of himself as a reader because he only reads non-fiction. If we as adults qualify ourselves as readers by the type of reading that we do, then it’s not surprising that our students may do this as well.

So, is a student who reads comic books/graphic novels a reader? How would they answer this question?

Does a student who reads about hunting (insert personal interest here) by perusing articles in the latest hunting magazines qualify as a reader?

Is a student who gets online and searches out all the information they can find about their favorite boy band, One Direction (or any other topic of personal interest), a reader?

Is the person who scans Facebook posts, reads Twitter feeds, loves roaming around Pinterest (or any other app) – are they a reader?

Can a reader be someone who is in school and is constantly reading textbooks, articles, or other assignments related to their coursework,

… or do they have to be reading a novel to be a reader?

So what do you think? How would you answer this question….

Are you a reader?

Whether your answer is yes or no or qualified in some way, switch to wearing your teacher hat and think about your students – what is your definition of a reader….for them?

Is it the same or is it different?

I know for myself as a teacher, I have to be careful that I don’t narrow the definition of “reader” to mean a person who reads novels, which is probably my definition of being a reader when applied to myself.

What do you think? In our role as teachers do we need to consider our perspective of what it means to be a reader and how we apply it to our students?

How can we help our students come to believe that they too can be a “reader” if they do not consider themselves as one already?

Marla Robertson currently teaches undergraduate literacy courses at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas to budding teachers.  She is a Teacher Consultant for the North Star of Texas Writing Project and strives to keep current on the latest research and trends in reading and writing instruction.  She is passionate about advocating for authentic purposeful writing opportunities for students of all ages and believes that everyone has a story to tell. She can be reached at mkrobertson2009@gmail.com.

%d bloggers like this: