Engaging Diverse Learners Through an Individualized Approach to Reading Instruction

Most English teachers are avid readers who want to instill a love of reading in their students. A frustrating irony is that traditional language arts classes often kill the joy of reading for many young people.

This problem occurs partly because teachers are taught to assign books from the adult literary canon and then repeatedly assess understanding via quizzes, five-paragraph essays, and other tasks students tend to find boring.

This problem has significant implications for low-income students and those who come from underrepresented groups. The national conversation around “the achievement gap” between White youth and those of color is largely centered around reading. Additionally, low-income individuals who do not have positive experiences with reading or weren’t exposed to books in their homes face extra barriers when they are asked to read in school. 

The problem also disproportionately affects boys. “We know worldwide that there’s a gender gap in literacy,” reading expert Penny Kittle says. In 2015, The Brookings Institute issued a report showing that boys’ reading achievement lagged behind that of girls on international assessments in every country in the world.   

The Problem
Author, educator, consultant, and reading expert Kelly Gallagher explores how traditional education ruins the love of reading in his 2009 book Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It.

Gallagher says the traditional structure of English classes takes the joy out of reading for all children, whether they are in elite, high-performing, or economically disadvantaged schools.

As a result, many go through their entire educational career without actually reading. “I hear story after story from my [college] freshmen that they didn’t read in high school. It was just a matter of finding answers to quizzes. They know nothing about the books,” Kittle says. “Kids internalize that they don’t like reading, instead of, ‘I don’t like reading these books.’”

Kittle, a longtime teacher, professor, and literacy coach, has dedicated much of her career to advocating for more authentic, joyful, and rigorous reading instruction. “The fundamental shift I want to see is that we pay more attention to kids, and we pay attention to disengagement,” she says. “The idea of balancing independent reading core texts and book clubs will strike super-traditional teachers as easier, but it’s actually much more rigorous for kids to engage with reading than to pretend to engage.”

In Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers, Kittle offers educators a practical guide for engaging young people in reading on their own terms so they are prepared for the amount they are expected to do in college. With this approach, teachers help individuals find books students are interested in and uphold the expectation that everyone in the class will read large amounts of their own books throughout the school year. 

The main idea is simple, but as educators adopt this approach over time, there are specific routines and procedures to implement that go a long way toward helping both voracious and reluctant readers improve their skills.  

Prioritize Books from Day One
Kittle argues teachers must emphasize the importance of books and the centrality of reading during the first week of school. 

James Eady
James Eady

James Eady teaches seventh and eighth grades at Northeastern Elementary School in a small town in Ontario, Canada. He was first exposed to Kittle’s ideas during a workshop with his school’s literacy coordinator.

During the first week of school, he turns his class into a pseudo café “with tablecloths, homemade muffins, juice, and music. Kids move from table to table checking out the books I have placed there. I group books around theme and interest, and they move around, creating a list of books they want to read,” he says. 

Kittle also recommends giving frequent “book talks.”

Eady gets his class to talk about different books by photocopying the cover of every book a child finishes, attaching the photo to their name, and posting it in the room. “I have a banner [of books] along the top of my wall,” he says. “When a kid doesn’t know what they want to read, they usually look there and ask somebody else in the class.” 

Build Your Own Classroom Library
Steering away from whole-class texts in order to let each person choose their own books requires a classroom library. Having a variety of selections in the classroom encourages everyone to make their own choices, Kittle says.

As Eady began to implement the Book Love approach to reading instruction, he also re-designed his classroom to include cozier, more private spaces.
As Eady began to implement the Book Love approach to reading instruction, he also re-designed his classroom to include cozier, more private spaces.

Teachers can apply for a grant to build their classroom libraries — the Book Love Foundation offers one, accessible at booklovefoundation.org/apply. In addition, scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/teachers-get-grant provides educators with a grant calendar and detailed tips for securing funds for their classroom. Once teachers acquire books, however, they should be prepared to let children take them home because that could be the key to a child’s finishing a book and improving their confidence as a reader. 

In addition, Kittle argues that children need actual physical books versus electronic texts on their smartphones. “Kids tell me their devices are a constant distraction. We’re trying to get them to enter ‘the sanctity of the sanctuary of the reading act,’” she says. 

Other recommendations for inexpensively acquiring books include the following:  

● Visit used-book stores and library sales.
● Send mass emails asking friends and former students to donate books.
● Create a school box for donations from parents and community members.
● Work with local businesses to place a “donate a book box” in grocery stores or book stores.

Eady posts his own book choices to demonstrate the important, ongoing role that reading plays in his life.
Eady posts his own book choices to demonstrate the important, ongoing role that reading plays in his life.

Students should have ownership over their classroom library, but teachers should still skim the selections to ensure they’re appropriate. Educators should also be open with parents and administrators about the library approach, explaining to them why choice matters. Teachers should also read as many of the books in the classroom as possible so they can make recommendations.

Finally, Kittle says it’s easier to find books if they are organized by theme instead of by author’s last name. 

Monitor Students’ Reading Lives
Informal, one-on-one book conferences are an effective way to gain a sense of learners’ individual skill and interest levels. For this to work, children need in-class reading time to get hooked on a book, especially if reading is hard for them. Once they’re drawn in, they’ll be more likely to read at home.

Basic topics to cover during a book conference range from asking kids where they read at home to what’s on their to-read-next list. 

Eady’s students visit a local used bookstore to purchase books that catch their interest.
Eady’s students visit a local used bookstore to purchase books that catch their interest.

Some students have no reading life at all when they enter the classroom. They require serious persistence and patience, as well as a foundational belief that if they find the right book, they can turn on to reading. “It’s the book that does the work, not the teacher,” Kittle argues. “We have to set up all the conditions that allow kids to fall in love with books again.”  

Eady recalls a seventh grader who never read a book all year, despite repeated attempts to find him the right one. The student is in his class again this year. “He got into a book and it actually became a class joke because I had to tell him to put the book down,” he says. 

When the boy finished it, Eady immediately took a picture and sent it to his mom. “He automatically went right from that book to another book, and now he’s on his third book this year,” Eady says. 

Setting Volume Goals
Setting goals around quantities of pages or complexity of texts enables students to build stamina and fluency over time. It also helps them gain confidence as they measure their progress. 

Determining an individual reading rate can be done in the following ways:

● Ask students to find a book they’d like to read.
● Have them read at a comfortable pace for ten minutes, slowly enough so that the text really makes sense, rereading if necessary.
● Tell them that this exercise is about their current book and is not a reflection of their reading ability.
● Once the ten minutes are up, have each person record the number of pages they read.
● Require learners to read a book of their choice at a comfortable pace for two hours each week.
● Have them multiply that number of pages by six to determine how many pages they can read in an hour.
● Tell them to multiply that number by two to calculate their weekly page goal.
● To receive full credit for homework, students should meet or exceed their goal each week. 

Jenna Gardner and Felicity Repuszka, two of James Eady’s students
Jenna Gardner and Felicity Repuszka, two of James Eady’s students

As readers become more confident and choose more complex texts, their rates may become slower. This is a sign of growth. Evaluating individual progress can take time. Eady has not yet implemented this piece with his students. “I just have lots of conversations with kids,” he says. 

One of his eighth graders, Felicity, attests to the power of the “book love” approach. Felicity says she hated reading growing up. “When I got in trouble or something, my mom would say, ‘Go to your room and read a book.’ I really didn’t like it,” she says. This school year, she has read nine books. When asked what advice she would give teachers, she says, “Make reading a daily thing, like math and science.”

Her classmate Jenna says she likes how Eady rewards students with a fun activity if they read more than 200 pages over winter and spring breaks. 

Eady says his main focus is getting kids engaged in things that interest them, even if it’s an instruction manual. In particular, he wants to model a prolific reading life for his male students. “If you really show your passion for reading, kids are going to pick that up,” he says.

Ginger O’Donnell is a senior staff writer for DiversityIS. This article ran in the Summer 2019 issue.