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December 8, 2015 Getting to Know My Students as Readers By Alycia Zimmerman
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

    “I cannot remember the books I've read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

    -Ralph Waldo Emerson

    The first month of school is all about getting to know the 32 new young strangers in my life.* What makes them tick, what turns them off, how do they work best? The questions go on and on — it can feel overwhelming! With literacy at the center of my elementary classroom, getting to know my students as readers is a critical part of this process, and it begins on the very first day of school. Here are some of the ways I “research” my students’ reading lives — and through the process, also gain a deeper understanding of them as individuals. After all, we are what we read at least as much as we are what we eat!*

    *For more ideas about “researching” your students, check out my blog post, "Getting to Know My Students – My Most Important Research Project."

    *Here is an interesting "You Are What You Read" infographic about the bookshelves of famous folk.


    Moving Beyond Reading Levels

    In my school, we are required to assess every student’s reading level with formal running records and verbal comprehension questions by the end of the first month of school. Not only is this a gargantuan task, it is totally inadequate. There is so much to know about my students as readers beyond their reading levels! Even though reading assessments take up the bulk of my one-on-one conferring time during September, I make sure to use other activities to really get to know my readers. After all, I need a lot more than a reading level to make book recommendations, pair reading partners, and make sure my students are becoming total bookaholics.



    Start Simple: Reading Interest Inventory

    During Readers Workshop time on the first or second day of school, my students complete a survey about themselves as readers. It is enormously helpful, not only to read what they’ve written about themselves, but also to see which questions they struggled over. I like to give this Reading Interest Inventory again during the last week of school to show the students how they have matured or changed as readers.


    Download my Reading Interest Survey

    I give students the option to fill out a paper survey or to fill in a matching Goggle Form online. It’s helpful data to see which students gravitate towards typing and using technology, and which prefer a pencil-and-paper approach.


    Video “Reading Confessionals”

    We spend a lot of time during the first weeks of school talking about ourselves as readers and about our reading lives. I want reading to be as natural a topic of conversation as talking about our day or the weather — it’s something we all do, and it’s worth discussing to build a “cult of reading.” I like to capture some of this discussion, so I use “video confessionals.” This format, popularized by reality television, involves having a student speak “privately” in front of a camera — in this case about themselves as readers.

    I set up a tripod in a corner of my classroom for reading confessional selfies. I also invite students to record their classmates talking about themselves as readers. After a week of collecting footage, I show a pair of students how to snip it together into a “Reading Confessional Movie” using the iMovie app. My kids love watching themselves on the big screen — and it helps to further our collective culture and identities as readers. (It also makes a great beginning for Meet the Teacher night. The parents love watching their kids.)


    “Reading At Home” Photo Show and Tell 

    If you work with a population of students that already has books at home, this is a helpful way to make a home-school connection that celebrates reading culture. Invite your students to take a photo of their bookshelf at home, their favorite place to read, or a stack of their books. My students ask their parents to email me the photo. Then I print out all of the photos (or project them on my interactive whiteboard.) My students love this sneak peak into one another’s homes, centered on reading. The students can write caption paragraphs on index cards to accompany their photos, and this makes a quick reading bulletin board that shows that reading isn’t just for school.


    Natalia, India, and Peter were excited to share photos of their bookshelves with their classmates.


    Book Cover Collage with Reading Club Flyers

    I bet you have old Scholastic Reading Club flyers lying around somewhere. At my school, they pile up in our office near the mailboxes. My students cut out book covers that particularly tempt them — books that they’ve read or would love to read. They glue the pictures onto the front of a marble notebook and have a bookish collaged cover for their reading journal. (For another teaching idea with Reading Club flyers, check out fellow blogger Rhonda’s blog post, "Exploring Genre Characteristics.")



    Talk, Talk, Talk About Reading!

    Our class conversations during September often focus on building a reading culture. We talk about the five W’s: what, why, where, when, and how (cheating — the "w" is at the end here) we read. We set reading goals, explore new genres, unpack our classroom library, and watch book trailers online. Happily, Scholastic is also celebrating the building of a reading culture with Open a World of Possible. Check out their reading testimonials, teaching guide, and other materials, and share the World of Possible video narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker with your students — it’ll tug on everyone’s bookish heartstrings. #sharepossible



    How do you get to know your students as readers? Please share your suggestions, comments, and questions in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from you!


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    Join us for an exclusive video with Taylor Swift about books, and how reading and writing have influenced her.


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Susan Cheyney