Making Independent Reading More Meaningful to Your Students

Upper elementary and secondary teenagers reading
Independent reading can be so difficult for students with a disability. It can be difficult to watch students struggling through reading, shut down because it is difficult, or feel distraught because they cannot read what they want.
Parents would request that I assign it for homework and I would make excuses as to why this wouldn’t be appropriate
“They’ll be too confused between what they are reading and what we are reading in class.”
        “It can be hard for them to independently decode text of books they want to read.”
         I felt that I had enough paperwork to grade and didn’t want to add on assignments that I thought would be flubbed because how could I honestly grade an assignment on a book I haven’t read?

        In June, I found out that next year I will be teaching sixth grade English language arts. Right away I was determined to figure out a way to make independent reading work in my classroom so I began to think about how I could make it more meaningful. 

       Over the summer, I love reading. I don’t have much time for it during the school year so I devour as many books as possible. I mostly like ones that I can read by the pool and escape but I do enjoy some professional development ones as well. I started my summer off reading Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. Boy, am I glad I did. 

       To those in the teaching field before the huge emphasis on state testing, much of their ideas aren’t exactly new but more like reminders. Reminders that when we are reading classroom novels to our students, we need to be reading them. Much of the shift has gone to dissecting. Tearing apart the text to find evidence for our questions, analyzing the main character ad nauseum, and having lengthy conversations about an author’s purpose for writing. As teachers, we think.

“Awesome, they know this book because they can tell me each and every detail about Salva Dut’s personality in A Long Walk to Water”.
        But are these questions really a good indicator of what our students know about the book? Probably not. Our students have gotten used to reading and plucking textual evidence but do they really understand the big picture? Are they really interested and developing that love of reading that I have or are they just silently wishing the book was over? One of my favorite quotes from Disrupting Thinking is, 
We have sticky noted reading to death Kylene Beers and Robert Probst
        So how do I get back to teaching novels in a meaningful way for my students to understand while still allowing me to assess them?
        I want my students to FEEL the book. I know the books that speak to me and that are the most memorable are those that have changed the way I think or make me feel the character’s emotions. These are also reasons I love to read. I love it when a book can completely capture me and take me away from my pool on Long Island and into that faraway place. That’s what I want to show my students.  
        To do this, I am changing the way I attack books, both guided and independent, with my students.
First, I am giving them more choices. The anal OCD side of me is shaking already but I know it will benefit the kids so I am telling myself to roll with it. In September, I will give my students two choices for the class novel we will read together. Majority rules on which one we will read.  
Next, instead of tearing apart each literary element and quote from the story, we are going to read and enjoy. Of course, we will stop, I will clarify information but I want the conversation to focus more on, “how does this make you feel?”, “did this change the way you think about something? instead of “what time of day did Johnny get hurt?”. I truly feel allowing my students to make connections and think about how they are feeling will get them to enjoy reading and think more deeply about the text.
In addition, students will read independently for homework and sometimes during class. This book opened my eyes to how much a student can grow by reading an extra ten minutes a day. 
Ten minutes a day of focused independent reading can change a students life trajectory

It is astounding and I as an educator, especially in special education, need to push my students to do this to help fill the gap. I will work with the librarian to find authentic reads for my students in whatever subject they wish to ensure they are excited to be reading.
Furthermore, their assignments will follow the same line of being authentic. So, I created a reading calendar that incorporates meaningful questions about any text. It is a four-week calendar that can be used at any point in time for students to answer questions about their text. I tried to include as many thought-provoking questions as possible to hit home on how they are thinking and feeling about what they are reading. I am hopeful that their responses will be genuine and meaty since it is coming from them. Also, I am not as concerned about whether I know what they read because I feel like I will be able to assess their knowledge based on their responses. It’s hard to fluff a question asking what surprised you most about the reading if you haven’t truly read and understood the text. 
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choice reading calendar for grades 5, 6, 7, 8
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worksheets and Google classroom choice reading activities
My resource includes printable and digital versions of each activity, teacher tips and tricks, and a student handout of explanations of each activity. 
Updated: Looking for nonfiction activities? I used the same thinking with fiction text and applied it to nonfiction. Using this nonfiction choice reading calendar, students will still have the opportunity to choose which activities to complete and you will have a rubric to assess their learning but the activities will ask students to make connections to the text, their head, and hearts. Check it out below:
nonfiction, choice, reading calendar, independent reading
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If you have struggling learners in your classroom, assistive tech can help them to develop a love of reading. Check out this quick read to learn about different types of technology that can assist your students.

Need more strategies to get struggling readers reading? Check out this video.
Methods to ensure understanding and a love for reading during class reads in grades 4 5 6

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