A Map to Transitioning Your Class to FVR

It is not going to happen all at once

Map to FVR paradise Last summer I encouraged a lot of teachers to set up their own Free Voluntary Reading programs (FVR). Not only do kids enjoy reading books more when they get to choose their reading, but there is a mountain of research supporting FVR in the World Language classroom when done correctly. However, even the strongest proponents of pleasure reading (i.e. Krashen) recognize that FVR is a long-term strategy. You will not see the impact in a week. A month is pretty short. We are talking about benefits that emerge after months and become strikingly obvious after a year or more. Or at least, those are my experiences. Today I want to outline a map of what to expect as your program takes root, and a few ways to assess your program while observing the cardinal rule of pleasure reading: don´t assess your students.

Lack of assessment feels like landing a plane in the fog; that is all the more reason to make sure that your program is research-based. I regularly consult Janice L. Pilgreen´s The SSR Handbook because it is a research-based approach that identifies eight characteristics of highly successful FVR programs. Some of the characteristics are more or less obvious, like having appealing reading material available in the classroom. When I wonder if my program is floundering I take the opportunity to ask my heritage speakers about what I can buy next. Even though my library is fairly large, continuing to ask students about their reading preferences sets the right tone: FVR is reading that we want to do.

It is a common misunderstanding that FVR is just “sit and read for 10 minutes”. Pilgreen points out that highly successful FVR programs DO have follow-up activities, even though those activities do not qualify as assessment. There are several things I do as follow-up activities. My favorite is to spend 4-5 minutes in small groups and have every student say something about what happened in their book today. All students talk, all students ask at least one question. Since I was reading too I join one of the groups; but no notes are taken and nothing passed in. I tell my students that we are engaging in the kind of talk that real readers do; real readers talk about their books with other readers. At first the conversations are very blah, and I am sure that this is partly because in the forefront of every student´s mind is the thought, “Why try? He is not counting this as a grade”. Over time, however, these chats become a source of information as students begin to share actual tidbits that they liked about their books. By the end of the year these talks are the main source through which students decide what to read next.

Another activity that I like to do are book talks. Whenever I introduce a new book into the class library I always place it up front and talk about it before the reading period. I also like to end a reading period with a book talk (when we are not chatting in small groups). Before I even start FVR with my level 1 students (in second semester) we have done about two months of book talks so that they are already familiar with the easy readers. In my classroom I am the one who gives book talks, but if you choose to have students give book talks then keep it on a voluntary basis.

book reviewsWhen students complete an entire book I allow them to post a book review on my back wall. The reviews are quick and painless to write; the major draw is rating it. The book review sheet is only a quarter of a page and provides a space for students to fill in up to four stars, write a sentence in English about what they liked and another about what they would change. This is entirely voluntary.

Occasionally I do have students complete a reading journal. I do this when I sense that students are not respecting the reading period; in that case the grade is simply based on completion. It also helps me identify who needs help choosing a book (that is, if they are choosing a different book every day). Most of all I see these reading journals as a part of the transition; few readers voluntarily keep journals of their pleasure reading and thus I want to minimize the use of journaling after FVR. Even when some students are defying me by simply staring at a book without reading, I remind myself that writing in a reading journal threatens to kill the internalized pleasure of reading that many of my students are developing. Assign reading journals sparingly.

Finally, I want to recognize that there will be students who will try to undermine the pleasure reading period. Do not feel bad if you still have a few students sulking during FVR. It has taken my most intransigent students months to honestly engage in pleasure reading. One heritage-speaker in particular from last year´s class often visits me and always mentions how much she read. She comes in and looks at the books, points to ones that she remembers, and exudes pride. What she does not seem to recall is that she spent nearly the first half of the year staring at the wall, holding the book upside down, crossing her eyes and distracting her friends. All she remembers now is that she joined the club of readers in my class, and that identity stuck. Every year I see transformations in students and I think that is partly because many students approach class as a game, to see how they can cheat the activity. The only way to battle this attitude is to smile and remain encouraging. Currently I have about a dozen kids who are just wasting away our FVR time, and it is so painful for me to watch, but I am convinced that external motivators will only undermine the internal motivation that they need to develop in order to truly join the club of readers.

If you enjoyed this post, you might be interested in my recommendations for buying a classroom library for heritage learners of Spanish (and second language learners here). One of the books is mine, but other than that I get absolutely nothing from making these recommendations.


  1. Mike, thanks so much! I have been studying your blog in attempts to improve FVR in my classroom this year. Is the lovely little book review form with starts to color in available to share somewhere? I’m excited to say that some of my students started finishing novels this week well before I expected them to, and I want to jump on their enthusiasm IMMEDIATELY!!

    1. I don´t have a copy of the book review form anymore… in order to free up wall space I started offering smiley stickers for students to stick in the inside cover of books that they finished & liked.

    1. I am seriously thinking of implementing an FVR program in our new heritage class this year and am wondering what your book talks are like? Thanks! I’m enjoying your blog and learning a lot!

      1. I used to try to describe what I like about a book, but nowadays I find choosing one great scene to read, starting off with a description of the background, and then reading the scene is a better introduction to get students interested in a book. The idea is to pique their interest.

  2. Good stuff Mike! I appreciate the comments about extrinsic motivators and the way they can creep into our teacher minds when lamenting the non-readers. You’ve articulated how to handle that beautifully. I like the idea of groups, I often do pairs and I think small groups to change it up will be a nice addition.

    Every couple weeks after a reading session, I’ll focus on a student and do an interview with them about their book. These last anywhere from 5 minutes to a half hour. They allow the rest of the class to get a preview/opinion of the book, as well as know in the back of their mind that after any given reading session THEY could be asked some questions in front of the class about what they read. I don’t like to shame so I don’t try to “catch” them, so they are pretty casual and spontaneous, but this did happen once where the girl obviously was not reading her book during that time and since then she seems to not want to make the same mistake again.

    And this from your comment above I think is an excellent way to approach Q&A, especially for non-beginners:

    “I try to replace all my gotcha-type questions with “questions” that emphasize why I love reading this book.”

    Thanks for the post!

  3. What astounds me is how little my kids have been read to. My mistake is assuming they know what Little Red Riding Hood is. (They don’t). I have so many completely struggling readers, so I read aloud to a group (these are juniors and seniors). Their current favorite is Donde esta Spot. Even my independent readers like story time and often join in with my reading circle. I am ill equipped to teach reading. Any ideas?

    1. That is interesting… you have a reading circle for struggling readers while other students are doing FVR? I have never thought of doing that. We do both read-alouds and FVR, but at different times and always whole class. I would think that the read-aloud would distract (my golden rule of FVR is silence, even administrators are discouraged from interrupting). With my most struggling readers, maybe 15% of the class (heritage speakers), I give them the lowest level book I can find and require that they look at it. Not optimal, of course, but I figure that the other 85% of the class absolutely needs silence.

      I like the read-alouds… at NTPRS last summer Stephen Krashen was talking about the stages that an emergent reader goes through before being able to take on the kind of academic reading required in school, and a good healthy dose of read-alouds proceed pleasure reading. I seem to recall him saying that read-alouds alone cannot take the place of extensive pleasure reading, but they are definitely part of the road to literacy. If you feel that your students crave read-alouds, perhaps spend more time doing that and a little less on FVR for a few weeks. I think your instincts as to what your students need are right on the spot.

      Currently with my heritage speakers we are reading a TPRS Publishing novel, La hija del sastre, which is normally a level 3 novel for non-heritage speakers. I chose this novel because I think it is gripping and easy to dramatize, knowing that maybe a half of my class could not / would not read it independently but could understand it if it were read aloud and dramatized. Earlier this year we read Esperanza and then Vida y muerte en la mara salvatrucha as whole class novels. So they are currently being exposed to reading in three ways (which is an attempt to reach all levels): first, we still have FVR at the beginning of class. Second, I read aloud a more difficult text as our whole class novel. Sometimes I have them read a portion silently first (generally an action-filled sequence)… I will ask them to open mid-chapter and tell them which pages to read as a sort of preview, but then I go back and read aloud, dramatizing to make sure every one understands. Third, I have been sending them home with super easy reading assignments taken from my level 1 non-heritage speakers classes.

      When doing read-alouds I do ask comprehension questions, but just a word of warning: superficial tell-me-what-just-happened type questions will make the reading drudgery. Instead of asking (in Spanish) Why is Emilia worried? (the answer, in the last paragraph, is because soldiers are looking for her father) I might turn to one of my students and ask (in Spanish, with an anguished tone as if I myself were worried), Oh my gosh Juanita, do you think the soldiers are going to find her father? This question is better because I know that Juanita may not have been following the reading but my question, which only requires a sí or no answer, has just told her what happened. Whatever she says, I would follow that up saying, But Juanita, they could KILL him! What would Emilia do then? This is awful, right?? I try to replace all my gotcha-type questions with “questions” that emphasize why I love reading this book.

      1. I began the reading circle because I wanted to include my “staring at the page” kids who seemed quietly miserable during FVR. Their relief when I read caperucita roja was palpable. I allow15 minutes a week to FVR and they can do whatever they want, independent or join me reading out loud. The independent readers don’t seem distracted by my read aloud. My goal is always to try to instill an enjoyment of the written word. I just wish I were more skilled at teaching reading. The only “work” I ever have them do is a drawing of 6 main points of whatever we read, and this only very rarely. My less able readers are picking books for our group and enjoy the process way more now. This year feels heavy with struggling readers in my level one and level 2 groups. One leveler is that my struggling readers are very good at listening so that allows them to shine. I never thought about how very little independent reading I do in my class- it’s usually me reading dramatically and with great emotion much like you do.

        My administrator views this as differentiation, the kids seem engaged. I’ll take whatever I can get. Currently I’m using Brandon Brown quiere un perro with my ones and El Nuevo Houdini with my twos. Huge hits and I thank my lucky stars for Carol Gaab and everyone else who so generously posts their ideas/lessons/extensions.

  4. Thank you for your help! My students and I have really been enjoying FVR. When I tell them that we are reading, I frequently get happy responses. Many times, students want to keep reading! I have not been doing any follow-up activities too frequently, so I am going to work on that. I have also had other students looking at the books on my cart. I have kids asking me questions about their books too which is awesome.

    I think it is also important to start with having kids just look through the books to find a book that they would enjoy. This is key to the success of the program.

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