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Supporting Choice Reading for Students in Distance Learning

Several years ago, I made choice reading a top priority in my English classroom. The benefits of giving students time to read books they love are well known, and after reading Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, I began to develop effective ways to get students actually reading. I was feeling pretty confident about this part of my teaching until this past March, when I was faced with the monumental challenges that so many teachers are dealing with this year—the Covid-19 pandemic and the huge learning curve of teaching online.

When I learned that I would be teaching fully online, I was overwhelmed by countless questions. One of the most challenging was how to make my choice reading work when students weren’t in a physical classroom. I normally allot 10 to 15 minutes every day for students to sit and read books of their choice while I walk around and chat with them about what they’re reading, recommending books from my classroom library and the school library. It’s become an almost organic process over the years, and at first, translating that to an online format seemed impossible. But with the help of my brilliant colleagues and some creative brainstorming, we figured it out, and kids are back to reading.

Getting Started and Getting to Know Students

I know from experience that students come into my classroom with a range of experience with and attitudes about reading. During my first few years of teaching, I was surprised by the one student, every year, who would firmly declare, “I don’t read,” but with time I’ve developed some strategies to get to know them and introduce them to the wondrous range of books awaiting them. With a little help from technology, these techniques translated surprisingly well to teaching students online.

In the first week of school, I had students take a reading survey that includes questions that help me begin to get to know them as readers (e.g., how many books they own, how many books are in their household, how many they read over the summer, their feelings about reading). Then I used this online library exploration activity to introduce them to our excellent school library and prompt them to begin to build a to-read list. Many of them had not recently taken the time to really dig around in a book collection, and I wanted to show them that there are so many glorious possibilities out there when it comes to reading.

I’ve found that Goodreads has some wonderful applications already built in for finding, charting, and discussing books with others. Students create their own Goodreads account and friend me, and then we can look at each other’s book lists and recommendations. Students can even read my reviews of books that I’ve read and write their own reviews.
Getting Books Into Students’ Hands

While some students have books in their homes, many do not, so the first order of business is getting books that they want to read into their hands. Working with our school librarian and the supervisory staff at our school, we have set up a safe place and system for book checkout and pickup. Students reserve books that they want from our school library by placing a hold on them on our library search page, and our library tech makes sure that those books are placed in the cafeteria (which isn’t being used during our online teaching), labeled with the names of the students who reserve them.

We use the same system for our classroom libraries—students simply show up at the school and pick up their books. This straightforward system has worked remarkably well. (One of my students actually apologized to me during online class one day because he had already finished the book I had left for him just days before, and he was hoping for the next in the series. I made sure to leave the remaining four books for him that afternoon.)

Establishing Routines

Many of the routines I used for in-person reading translate well to online. We still begin every class with 10 to 15 minutes of choice reading. Time is always precious in our classrooms, and this is especially true when we meet synchronously only twice a week. But we give time to the things we value, and I decided years ago that choice reading matters, so I make it a priority, no matter what.

Taking roll on Zoom can be a bit challenging, but I’ve streamlined it by simply calling out the students’ names and having them share the name of the book they’re reading and the page they are on. This was a technique I used in face-to-face teaching as a bit of triage, and it works well online. It reminds them to have their book out and open, and also helps me track how fast they’re reading. If they’ve moved only a few pages since the last time we met, or none at all, I prioritize them for reading conferences so that I can steer them toward a book they will enjoy more.

I track these reading conferences with a Google doc that I print and keep in a three-ring binder. I’ve created a simple coding system to help me remember what books I’ve recommended in the past and their reading history in my class—e.g., AB for books they’ve abandoned and an asterisk for books they’ve enjoyed. These conversations are key to keeping a finger on the pulse of how they’re progressing in their reading, especially for my students who come into my class thinking of themselves as nonreaders.

Remote Reading Conferences

Although Zoom meetings have presented many challenges this year, they’ve proven a boon when it comes to reading conferences. During our daily 15 minutes of reading time, I place students in individual breakout rooms and then drop into a few rooms each day to talk about reading with students one-on-one. I use the same questions and format as I did in person, but the bonus online is that I do not have to worry about disrupting other students with our conversations, as I sometimes do in an in-person classroom full of students.

With remote reading conferences, not only can I virtually make the rounds and recommend books for each student, but also I can connect with each one of them—some of whom I’ve never met in person. This is one part of online learning that I will miss when we go back to physical classrooms.

Reality Check

One of my biggest concerns when I continued choice reading in my remote classroom was whether or not I could tell if my students were actually reading—but then that’s always a concern when we ask students to read independently. All of the accountability measures we create for reading—logs, parent signatures, quizzes, and book reports—can be easily faked and ultimately are not the things a “real” reader does. So I devote synchronous class time to reading and conversations about reading.

That simple strategy works: My students are asking for more books, recommending books to me and other students, and becoming actual readers.

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