For the past several years I have entirely abandoned the whole class novel in favor of student choice. The awkward part of teaching a whole class novel — the thud midway through the novel when student interest plummets but I have to keep the show running — that has thankfully disappeared from my teaching life. My students are actually reading more and they are happier with their reading.
Running an effective pleasure reading program requires much more from the teacher than providing good books and quiet time for students to read. Start with unpacking the idea of “a good book”; in this context the book must be both highly interesting to the student and highly comprehensible. I have never had enough books to fully satisfy these two requirements… for language learners I don’t think there are enough books out there to satisfy these two requirements. That is why I am leading the charge to get more teachers to write novels with their classes. But even if I did have “enough” books, I would still need to understand my students well-enough to be able to recommend the right book to the right student. I have close to forty students in each class, and I struggle to remember some students’ names well into September. October. Okay, for a select few I am still blanking on a name in January. My point is that “know your students” is another phrase carelessly thrown around by reading gurus that, when unpacked, is easier said than done. I break a sweat trying to connect students with a “good-enough book” from my library.
A pleasure reading program demands endless tinkering, but there are three things you absolutely must pay attention to if you want it to be successful. First of all, the books have to be highly comprehensible. Not kind of comprehensible. Not even pretty much comprehensible. Highly comprehensible. Take a look at my 4 minute video about how to develop a library with class-created texts. Doing this during the last five minutes of class, every day, will lead to hundreds of low-low level readings for second semester. In level one I unveil the pleasure reading library in January (although I have been talking about the books since the beginning of the first semester). Many students may be able to make the leap to professionally published novels, but I still need this basic foundation of a library to serve as a landing mat for the children who tumble off those books and need an extremely, extremely comprehensible read. To be successful, the library must have texts for the lowest level readers.
Second, take a hint from a good librarian and make sure your class library is browsable. Place your easiest novels in a location that is easy to reach for students streaming into the class. I have tables pushed against the walls on three sides of the room with various types of books so that when students do browse, they are not crowded into making a quick choice by the pushing and shoving of their classmates. Try to have as many covers facing up as possible, and occasionally rotate in the books that are stuck on book shelves. Keep collections together by theme, not reading level; I have all of my animal encyclopedias together on the table near the window, all of the manga and graphic novels together on the table against the back wall. Advertise books recently purchased or the subject of book talks by placing them up front with the book that the teacher is reading. Once you get enough, start stapling the class-created texts together in packets of 5-10, provide a book cover and number the collections so students remember which ones they have already read.
Third, expand your repertoire of browsing strategies.
A browsing strategy is any activity that gets your students more familiar with the books in your library. Imagine a class milling about in front of piles of books, perhaps casually gazing at a few book covers while you encourage them to “browse”: that is NOT what I am talking about! Book talks, Readers Theater, and CALP lessons related to a book in your library are much more effective ways to get students interested in what you have to offer. Heck, when a student interview reminds me of a book in my library I take the opportunity to advertise that book. So let’s take a look at some of these browsing strategies.
Book talks: A great way to complete a reading session. Usually after 5 or 10 minutes of silent reading I will ask students to talk about their books in small groups for 60 seconds. They speak in their first language. The idea is to spread knowledge about the books. After a minute they pass their books to the class librarians, who return the books. While the librarians are doing their job, I present a book in very comprehensible Spanish. Either I talk in general terms about what the book is about or I present one vivid scene, but this is often done by memory rather than reading aloud. I will use the whiteboard to illustrate what I am saying. The key is to talk about a book so that any student who is interested can follow up during independent reading sessions.
Reader’s Theater: This technique is often used when teaching a whole class novel, but there is no reason not to use it as a way to advertise a book. It requires a little bit of planning, but it is worth it. Before class I read a scene from a book with potential for a lot of dialogue and a lot of dramatic tension. Then I will rewrite the scene as a dialogue only script. This often involves me adding lines, even adding lines for characters who do not have dialogue in the book in order to flesh out how each character is feeling. I add stage instructions in English to help clarify what I want my actors to do. Print out a copy for each actor. When we start, I set the scene in Spanish, using the board to draw pictures. The fun part of Reader’s Theater, however, is coaching your student-actors to perform the scene in a variety of ways. Ask a character to repeat a line in several different ways. After performing an action, ask students to do it again in slow motion. End by recording the scene on video so that later in the semester you can play it again. Always have a copy of the book front and center so that students associate the book with the theater; the recorded version should present the book as a book commercial. Once again, the purpose of the activity is to give students a taste of the book so that, if interested, they can follow up during independent reading session.
CALP lessons: CALP lessons carefully introduce academic language, but they can be a great hook too. In my opinion some teachers and researchers misunderstand how to apply CALP to second language classrooms. Tina Hargaden’s version of CALP is really just introducing high-interest content to learners, devoid of burdensome follow-up activities. For example, when I preview my novel Superburguesas I use an info-graphic that I found on the internet about how infections are spread when people do not regularly wash their hands. Before class I project the image against a large piece of white butcher paper and I trace it quickly with light pencil. The pleasure is in revealing the drawing using marker in class: while we discuss hand washing in Spanish, I trace over the illustration of the hand. Then I overemphasize the creepiness of the comical illustrations of common pathogens found on unwashed hands, especially noting the ones that cause diarrhea and other unpleasant symptoms. Bringing the conversation back to the book, I describe the character who does not wash his hands when he works at a fast-food hamburger restaurant. Slowly revealing the info-graphic while discussing it in easy, comprehensible language adds great dramatic tension to the activity.
Impromptu book advertisements: At the very beginning part of the year when a student interview reveals that someone in my class likes baseball, you had better believe that I will be backing up towards the table with my sports books simply to hold up the books that I have about baseball players. However, impromptu book advertisements are easy to include in your classes in an organic way, as long as you are thinking about the books that you have. Before class stroll around your library and consider the themes so that you connect students with books. A student who expresses that the environment is important to her, or even professes enjoying hiking might like Juliana, a fictional novel about a real cave complex in Spain that houses hundreds of bats. She may not find the novel if you do not point the way. Heritage learners of Spanish often enjoy novels set in the country where there family members are from. A student interested in fashion might enjoy El último viaje by A.C. Quintero. An advanced student who is an avid cyclist will surely enjoy El cóndor de los Andes by Adriana Ramirez. An intermediate student who talks about her sister may not bother to browse your collection of graphic novels, but may be thrilled when you place on the front whiteboard a copy of Hermanas by Raina Telgemeier.
A great time to introduce a new book is when the theme comes up organically, during a student interview.
If you help your students learn to browse your library, they are much more likely to hit upon a book that they really like. That is what will turn them into lifelong readers.