We all want the magic key for growing our students’ reading comprehension. I’m not sure I’ve found the key to building reading comprehension, but I’ve definitely found one key that unlocked a whole new world in my classroom of readers! Book Clubs have been a powerful way to engage and grow my readers.
Flashback to my classroom (not so many years ago): I was exhausted. I was doing EVERYthing in my power to meet with EVERY reading group, EVERY day. I planned lessons for EVERY group to meet the target goals I’d set for them. I selected books to go with the skill, I modeled, I guided, I taught, I assessed, I re-taught, and I tried to keep from pulling my hair out. (If you didn’t notice, that’s a lot of “I’s”.)
On top of all that, I looked around one day and realized that most of my students’ reading time was spent reading “fake” texts. By “fake,” I mean they were reading texts written for very specific teaching purposes. For example, I used a lot of fluency passages with kids who were working on fluency and I used a lot of “skill-specific” passages to reinforce target skills.(And just to be clear, I’m not knocking fluency passages or skill-specific texts. Both serve an important purpose. I just think there’s a problem when that is the bulk of what students spend their time reading.)
My students were less-than-thrilled when it was time for their reading group, which meant I spent a lot of energy redirecting, asking questions, and trying to keep them engaged. And in the end, they weren’t making gains on their test scores anyway. Very frustrating, to say the least.
Inspiration came in the form of a book title. My principal mentioned a book called Never Work Harder Than Your Students (by Robyn R. Jackson). I borrowed it over the weekend and started thinking about the statement in the title in light of my Guided Reading fiasco. Clearly, I was the one doing all the work! My students were simply passengers on the ride, occasionally glancing up to take in some of the scenery. It was time to put them in the driver’s seat!
The first part of my mission was to ensure that my students spent time doing REAL READING for REAL PURPOSES, every day!
At the time, I was in a Book Club with some teacher friends. We’d pick a book, read it on our own, and get together a month or so later to talk about it. I decided to use this as my model and started thinking about how our Book Club was different than my current Guided Reading group format.
WHAT MADE OUR BOOK CLUB SUCCESSFUL?
1. We selected our own book.
In our Book Club, we’d bring ideas for the next selection and share. Together, we’d agree upon a title that everyone was interested in reading. Some books appealed more or less to different members, but you knew that if this book wasn’t your top choice, there would be another round soon.
2. We read at our own pace.
We read the book on our own time, at our own pace. We didn’t sit together reading a page or chapter at time. Everyone had the chance to read and get lost in the book on their own.
3. We made a plan to discuss.
We knew there would be a time in the near future to share our thoughts and ask questions. When the book we’d selected wasn’t one of my favorites, I’d still try to read it all because I wanted to be able to join in the discussion.
4. We led our own conversation.
Our conversations were real and revolved around our own questions. We shared our personal opinions and allowed the discussion to flow naturally. No one was there forcing us to answer multiple choice comprehension questions, that’s for sure.
My goal was for students to do the same kind of reading and thinking work that happened in my own Book Club. I wanted to empower my students to lead real conversations and begin applying their comprehension strategies independently, for meaningful purposes.
Obviously, you can’t just drop kids into a Book Club and expect amazing conversations, so my next step was to figure out how to grow my teacher-led Guided Reading groups into student-led Book Clubs.
STEP 1: Book Choice
The easiest part of all! I headed down to our Literacy Library and selected sets of high-interest texts for each group’s reading level. I found that nonfiction is the best starting place. What kid doesn’t want to learn about “Creatures of the Deep” or a “Mummy Mystery?” If you don’t have access to Guided Reading book sets, I highly recommend Time for Kids, Scholastic News, or National Geographic Kids for high-interest articles.
I offered each group 3 book choices. To help promote the idea of independence, I placed the 3 sets on the table and walked away while they discussed their options. After a few minutes, I returned and the kids were excited to tell me their choice (or why they couldn’t agree.) In the end, I just stashed the other 2 sets and offered them as choices in the next round… 🙂
STEP 2: Reading Time
Once the group selected its book, I explained that we’d meet the next day to discuss. I told the students they could leave the table and sit anywhere in the room while they read the book. I gave them each a stack of post-its so they could jot down their thoughts and questions while reading. After a brief introduction to the book (I couldn’t help myself), I sent them off.
STEP 3: Discussion Guides
It was important to me that students led the conversation, but also important that they practiced and applied the skills we’d been working on. SO, to facilitate this process I jotted Guiding Questions on the whiteboard nearby. (Later, these became the questions in my Book Club Discussion Guide.) When we met the next day to discuss, I explained that I’d be acting as a participant rather than a leader. In the beginning, I simply had students take turns asking one of the questions to the group. After we’d discussed that question, another student would read the next one on the list. It was still pretty contrived for awhile, but over time leaders began to emerge and I slipped into the background more and more.
BOOK CLUBS IN ACTION
Last week, I had the chance to observe Book Clubs in the classroom of a teacher-friend. I’d never seen my Book Clubs in a classroom other than my own and it was fascinating! These students had been doing Book Clubs for awhile and were clearly pros. The kids were engaged and having real, meaningful discussions about their reading.
My favorite was a group of three boys. I eavesdropped on their conversation from afar and couldn’t believe the what I heard! These boys were using the Discussion Guide to prompt their conversation, but were able to move beyond that into such a sophisticated discussion. One of the boys read a question aloud and another answered. Then the first boy asked, “What’s your evidence?” and the other answered with “Well, on page 7 it says…” and all three boys turned to page 7 to check it out!
That is what Book Clubs are all about! The kids were applying critical thinking skills WITHOUT being prompted by a teacher. They were listening to each other, considering different perspectives, and searching for evidence to support conclusions.
Book Clubs can’t replace targeted instruction with modeling, or even Guided Reading groups. In my room, I worked Book Clubs into my Reading Rotations. We’d do a week of more traditional Guided Reading work and then a week of Book Clubs. As the year went on, higher groups were mostly student-led Book Clubs and I used my “free time” for extra small group or one-on-one instruction with struggling students. I began to see gains in student achievement and a huge increase in motivation. And because my students LOVED Book Clubs, I had less classroom management issues.
Regardless of the format, I think it’s important that students see themselves as real readers and take ownership of their learning. Dragging a student along with me as I “forced” instruction on them was painful for both me and the student. When kids become leaders in the process, it’s a WIN-WIN!
For more resources on Launching Book Clubs, you can check out:
I’d love to hear your thoughts! How do you empower your students to take ownership of their learning? How do you grow stronger readers in your classroom?