Help Your Students Find Time to Read

By Donalyn Miller, 6th grade teacher at Trinity Meadows Intermediate School in Keller, TX 

Donalyn MillerThis summer, I had to renew my driver’s license. I renewed online last time, but I had to appear in person this time. Arriving at the Department of Motor Vehicles when it opened, I drew the 112th ticket in line. Wandering over to an empty chair, I pulled a book out of my purse and settled in for a long wait.

Looking around, I noticed the other readers immediately. They had brought books too. Everyone else stared into space or texted on their phones. Considering how much of our lives are spent waiting—at the airport, the doctor’s office, or the DMV—I cannot imagine how boring life would be if I didn’t read.

Readers are pretty resourceful about stealing time. Lifelong readers carry books everywhere they go and grab a page or two when they must wait. Do we model and teach this habit to students? Do we explicitly talk to them about the benefits of carrying a book everywhere they go? Do we encourage students to steal a few moments of reading throughout the day? Do we set aside large chunks of time for students to read at school?

When I talk to teachers and parents, the number one reason they give for not reading much is that they don’t have enough time. Kids tell me the same thing: Their lives are packed with extracurricular activities and homework. When are they reading? If we value reading, then we must find more opportunities for students to read at school.

According to numerous studies, the amount of time children spend reading positively affects their reading achievement and increases reading motivation and interest (Krashen, 2011). Unfortunately, many language arts classrooms dedicate little regular time for students to read. In classes outside of language arts, reading anything other than a textbook is rare. With a demanding curriculum and tight schedule, how can we carve out time to read at school?

Consider these suggestions when looking at your school-wide reading culture:

Set aside time to read during class.
The federal report Becoming a Nation of Readers recommends that students spend at least two hours a week reading at school. Dedicating time for independent reading in every language arts class is a vital part of a balanced literacy program.

Students who read the most perform the best at reading, writing, vocabulary and spelling, and also possess the deepest background knowledge for such subjects as science and social studies. Students who read the most also develop reading stamina and endurance for the heavy load of academic reading they have in high school and college.

I recommend setting aside a third of the language arts block for independent reading, small-group instruction, and teacher-student reading conferences. While students read, the teacher circulates around the room to help students find books to read, assessing comprehension or fluency, or meeting with small groups for targeted support.

Recapture wasted moments in the instructional day.
No matter what our academic schedules indicate, interruptions and time delays exist during the school day: A teacher needs to gather assignments for an absent student, an administrator drops by to ask a question, the projector breaks, the lesson takes less time than planned. Students wait for the bus to arrive or lunch to end. These moments provide students with ample opportunities to steal more reading time.

Encourage students to read whenever they have to wait, and provide book baskets in the school and nurse’s office, the cafeteria, and the bus line. Require students to bring a book to every class. They can read when they finish their math test or while they wait for social studies class to begin.

Reconsider warm-ups and fast-finisher activities.
No matter what you call it – a bell ringer, a sponge, or a warm-up – vocabulary or grammar drills and test prep do little to enhance learning. Considering the proven value of reading time on students’ achievement, the time spent in classroom completing isolated skills practice would be better spent reading. When students enter the classroom, they begin reading. When they finish their work, they read. If you changed nothing else, students could rack up 10 to 15 minutes of reading time every day.

In science and social studies class, provide students with nonfiction books that relate to topics of study. Ask the school librarian to collect texts that connect to the curriculum, and set these books out on the white board rail or in baskets for students’ access. Whether studying fossils or the American Revolution, reading a few minutes about these topics every day builds students’ background knowledge and exposes them to more nonfiction texts.

Encourage students to have a book with them at all times.
I talk with my students often about “reading emergencies” — those moments when they find themselves waiting and wishing they had a book to read. Readers who carry a book with them are prepared for the reading opportunities that occur throughout the average day.

Talking about the books they carry provides conversation starters between students and their peers, their teachers, and administrators. Expecting everyone to have a book sends a strong message that you value reading at your school too.

Teaching students how to find time to read and making time for reading at your school supports students in their development as lifelong readers and increases their reading ability, stamina, and motivation for reading. Students who are reading are also less likely to engage in disruptive behaviors during unstructured moments or changes in school routines. Reading time reinforces both the academic and behavioral expectations at your school.

Donalyn Miller is the author of "The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child" (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and writes The Book Whisperer blog for Education Week Teacher ( Her articles about teaching reading and education policy have appeared in such publications as Educational Leadership and the Washington Post.
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