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Student Choice Is the Key to Turning Students Into Readers

By Jenni Aberli
 | Mar 07, 2019

ela-engagementAlthough I was never really a struggling reader, from middle school until my first year teaching, I was what you might call a nonreader. I could read very well, I just didn’t. You’re probably wondering how one can major in English and not love reading. The answer is simple: no teacher instilled a love of reading in me. My teachers didn’t give me choices of what to read. Instead, I was given books I despised and then tested on them. That did not equate to enjoyment for me.

Not until my first year of teaching did I become a reader. One of my students was a voracious reader and always had a book in her hand. I recall seeing her with My Sergei by Ekaterina Gordeeva (Grand Central Publishing) one day and asked her about it. She gave me a summary and I told her it sounded interesting. Shortly after that conversation, she gave me the book and suggested I read it. Though I didn’t want to read it, as the teacher, I was supposed to love reading, so I did. To my surprise, I enjoyed it. When I finished the book, we did what readers do; we talked about that book. Soon after, she gave me another, and another, and before long, she had turned me into a reader. I learned firsthand the value of how finding great books can turn nonreaders into readers. From that point on, turning students into readers has been my life’s work.

When I saw the International Literacy Association’s (ILA) new initiative aimed at ensuring every child has access to the education, opportunities, and resources needed to read, called Children’s Rights to Read, I immediately latched on. As our district’s high school ELA content lead, my job is to lead the work of literacy in the more than 20 high schools in my district, and this document has become a part of that work.

So how do we turn students into readers? We advocate for reading in many ways, all of which are part of the Children’s Rights to Read. I am a huge advocate (for obvious reasons) of giving students choice in what they read (Right no. 3) to encourage them to read for pleasure (Right no. 5). Students need to read what they love and are interested in. Those choices should be texts that mirror their experiences and languages or provide windows into the lives of others (Right no. 4).

As teachers, we show students what we value by how we spend our class time; therefore, setting aside time in class every day for students to read is important (Right no. 7) as is providing diverse and relevant classroom libraries surrounding students with great texts (Rights no. 2, 4, 5, and 10). Finally, we must encourage and support our students by providing safe, literacy-rich environments in which students support one another (Right no. 6) and share what they are reading and learning with one another through various modes of communication, such as reading, writing, and speaking (Rights no. 8 and 9).

I spend most of my budget purchasing classroom libraries of high-interest YA books that will hook students, and my team provides teachers with professional development to guide them in how to effectively implement independent reading opportunities. We teach them strategies such as book-tasting, book talks, book clubs, and how to integrate apps such as Padlet and Flipgrid. Currently, we are using professional resources from Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide (Stenhouse) and Penny Kittle’s Book Love (Heinemann) as well as their collaborative book, 180 Days (Heinemann) to build our own expertise and knowledge of turning our students into readers.

Throughout my career, I have seen nonreader after nonreader turn into readers. Teachers have facilitated this transformation by giving students both access to high-interest books and choice in their reading. Our ultimate goal is to improve students’ literacy, and we know that in order to do so, students need to read. Yes, standards are important. Yes, grade-level texts are important. But unless students will actually pick up a text and read, none of that matters. The most urgent need to improve literacy demands students to read, and to do that, we must give them access to the education, opportunities, and resources needed to read. Fortunately, we have a guide for doing just that in the ILA Children’s Rights to Read.   

Jenni Aberli is a high school literacy specialist at Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky.

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