Turning a Reading Slump into a Reading Surge

Help Student Readers Set Goals and Overcome Reading Hurdles

By Donalyn Miller, fourth-grade teacher at O.A. Peterson Elementary, Fort Worth, Texas

The long stretch of school days between winter break and spring break presents challenges for teachers struggling to keep students motivated and engaged during the bleak winter months. Kids get comfortable and complacent. Students who were excited about reading before the holidays lose interest or fall into reading ruts, reading the same books and avoiding genres that don’t match their entrenched preferences.

Getting Started:

• Make reading resolutions.
• Be transparent as a reader by sharing your own book gaps.
• Identify and address students’ book gaps.
• Nurture the social nature of reading.
• Provide a variety of reading material. Book Wizard is a great tool for finding books by level or genre.
Providing students with opportunities to reflect on their reading progress midway through the year and setting individualized reading goals breathes new life into reading and helps move students toward deeper ownership and independence. Consider the following activities during the gray winter months to kickstart independent reading and revive students’ lagging motivation.

Reading resolutions – Every January, people traditionally make resolutions — self-improvement plans for the upcoming year. When my students and I return from the long holiday break, we make reading resolutions. Looking through our readers’ notebooks, we celebrate our accomplishments and progress during the first half of the school year, and we set personal reading goals for the second semester. At first, I share my reading resolutions, and I describe my process of reflection and planning. Flipping through my reader’s notebook, I point out books that I want to finish, authors and genres I want to study, and my endless to-read list of “someday” books. My students learn that I still have reading plans — that I am still growing and improving as a reader.

Turning to their reading lists and response entries, my students identify at least one area for self-improvement. Some students resolve to read more at home. Others set the goal to finish a series or specific titles. During conferences, I help the children set reasonable, appropriate goals. As a culminating activity, we write our goals on colored paper squares, and then share them and post our resolutions in our classroom, publicly declaring our reading improvement plans.

• Book gap challenge – Reading hundreds of books each year, I still overlook, set aside for later, or avoid certain books. Although I have read most of the Newbery Award winners, I put off reading Shiloh because dog books make me cry. Taking up a huge space on my bookcase, Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth stares at me, waiting for the day (or month) when I can commit to reading all 1,000 pages.

Some titles remain unread for years, long after everyone else reads them. I see book gaps with my students too. Ashley prefers science fiction and fantasy, devouring epic-length series, but she hasn’t read a poetry book all year. Ethan likes realistic fiction, but he doesn’t know who Jerry Spinelli and Gordon Korman are. Ben’s mother bought him a set of animal encyclopedias for his birthday last July, but he hasn’t read them. Similar to our reading resolutions, a book gap challenge helps students focus on specific titles, authors, or genres they don’t read. Although I appreciate and value my students’ reading preferences, I want them to read widely and build their reading experiences. For students who lack clear preferences, a book gap challenge encourages dormant readers to set small goals that may help them uncover what books they like.

Reflecting on our book gaps, my students and I select one book to launch our book gap challenge. (Check out my post on the Nerdy Book Club site.) We share how we identified our book gaps, why we chose our books, and how our books bridge our gaps. As students finish their book gap choices, we write reading response reflections about our book gap experiences as readers and our next book gap goals. Many students express how much they enjoyed reading books outside of their comfort zones, while others claim that reading book gap titles reinforces their existing preferences. Regardless, everyone tries something new and learns more about themselves as readers.

The most successful goal-setting activities include three components: reflection, differentiation, and follow-up. Encourage students to look back at their independent reading often and realistically consider their individual strengths and needs as readers when setting goals. For students who struggle with a commitment to independent reading, set short-term goals such as finishing one book or dedicating more time for reading every night. Check in with students on a regular basis during conferences to determine students’ progress. When students meet their reading goals, celebrate their success and help them determine new goals that stretch their learning and broaden their reading horizons. Through goal-setting, students develop personal investment in their reading and commit to long-term and short-term reading plans—a vital part of lifelong reading habits.

Riding the Tide of the Ebbs and Flows of Reading

By Alyson Beecher, program support specialist at Pasadena Unified School District in Pasadena, Calif.

Sometimes I wonder if, as readers, we can benefit from a reading dry spell or a reading slump? Does reading bring with it natural ebbs and flows? I confess that as we confront the topic of reading slumps, I find myself in the midst of my own dry spot as a reader. I believe, however, this makes it easier to relate to my students because I can indeed speak from experience. Even as a self-confessed reading addict, I experience days or weeks where nothing seems to appeal to me. Regardless, my experience is not new and provides me with some tricks for coping. I understand that “this too shall pass,” and I know that I can share practical steps for guiding teachers and students when facing down their own reading malaise. Here are some of the challenges that I have seen face all readers.

• Reading too much of the same thing – Though it’s comforting to read familiar titles over and over again, or to read the same type of book (a formulaic mystery, or another science fiction novel with the same plot structure), reading too much of the same thing often results in a loss of interest in reading or falling into the dreaded reading doldrums. The same can be true for children, who unintentionally fall into a rut by reading Magic Tree House or Diary of a Wimpy Kid over and over again.

• Reading too much assigned material – In college, I found myself drawn to a particular topic of interest in the field of special education. I started reading more and more books about the same disability, many of which were written as professional texts. However, as soon as I started my graduate studies in this particular discipline and those exact same types of books became assigned reading, I lost interest in reading them. This isn’t to say that teachers should or shouldn’t assign particular books to read; however, it does acknowledge that choice in reading material even within assigned reading can keep readers engaged and interested.

• Reading without direction or purpose – Customers who have wandered around large bookstores can attest to the fact that when faced with dozens or hundreds of books, the task of finding a particular title to read can be daunting. Going into that same setting with a more specific focus can result in a much more successful shopping experience, as well as a greater likelihood that you as the reader will actually read the book you bought.

With some of these issues in mind, how can a principal – as reader leader of a school community – help staff and students break through their reading fog?

• Acknowledge the seasons of reading – Over the years, I have read all kinds of books and reading materials. Sometimes I have focused on informational texts for the whole year, other times on magazines and cookbooks, and in another season on historical fiction, fantasy, or mysteries. Even when armed with a wide variety of reading material, readers may enter a season in which reading will hit a low point. This is where friends come in handy.

• Nurture the social nature of reading – Have you ever listened to a friend wax on and on about a new favorite book? I have, and often I have rushed out to buy it based on an enthusiastic booktalk. Principals and teachers may overlook the importance of connecting readers to the social aspect of reading. Our school reading communities can be the place to which we can turn to get out of those reading slumps.

• Assist with providing new reading material at a variety of reading levels and spanning a diverse number of topics and interest – With increasing cuts to school budgets, funding for new books for a school or classroom library is often the first budget item to get cut. Principal reader leaders can work with PTAs, Scholastic Book Fairs, or community educational foundations to find additional revenue sources with which to buy titles with kid appeal or titles that will connect students to curricular themes in new ways.

By following a few of these tips, a reading dormant time can foster an exploration of new reading materials and discovery of new reading enthusiasm.

A voracious reader, Donalyn Miller spent 10 years teaching middle school language arts and is embarking this year on a new adventure: teaching fourth grade self-contained. Donalyn is the author of The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child (2009) and the upcoming Readers in the Wild, which describes her methods for inspiring and motivating her students to read. She writes The Book Whisperer blog for Education Week Teacher.

Alyson Beecher has worked in early childhood, elementary, and special education at the site and district level, including six years as an elementary principal. Alyson is passionate about helping teachers and students understand the value of reading for learning as well as for pleasure. She serves on the Scholastic Book Fairs Principal Advisory Board and the Schneider Family Book Award jury. Alyson shares her insights on reading and favorite children’s titles on her blog, kidlitfrenzy.com.

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