15 Tips for Pulling off Independent Reading Programs

If you have any variation of independent reading in your middle or high school English class, you've undoubtedly faced challenges at some point in the experience. 

Unlike the enthusiasm for reading in primary grades (think stickers, SSR, take-home bags, cute reading nooks, etc.), it's a huge accomplishment in secondary to get students to read anything, much less doing so with a stocked classroom library, fair assessments, and anything resembling enthusiasm. 
When many of our kids are over-committed, how do we make reading habits enjoyable, instead of just assigning tasks that just feel like more work?

Though I won't pretend to have all the answers for every reader and every type of classroom, I *can* tell you 15+ solutions that helped me teach independent reading programs over the last six years, to four grade levels and two school settings (urban and suburban/private). 

Why Independent Reading, Though?
Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It by Kelly Gallagher
This book is gold!
(Link to Amazon)
Before I share these tips, let me clarify that I'm a Kelly Gallagher fan and believe firmly that teens should read as much as possible, without "killing the book" by over-teaching and over-assigning it. 

On the other hand, if your students are reluctant or growing readers, then even finishing one book per month might be an accomplishment. It's all about getting them to read the same or more than they are now, right?

My Story: Starting from Nothing
During my master's program, I was studying motivation and reading for my thesis/portfolio, and I was hell-bent on bringing some level of independent reading to my inner-city classes of sophomores and seniors for student teaching. 

However, despite my amazing mentor teacher, there was no classroom library, the school library was under-funded, and the kids had NO buy-in. The regular-English class of sophomores were outwardly priding themselves on having NEVER FINISHED A WHOLE BOOK BEFORE, and my AP Lang seniors felt that they had too much homework to squeeze in any more reading. 

So, with the help of book drives, volunteers, and various kinds of coercing on my part...
  • We built a classroom library. 
  • My "Book of the Month" system was born. 
  • We had guest speakers come talk about reading. 
  • We made time in class to read (and/or talk about) books. 
And, according to the letters that I got from students at the end of my time (which they were NOT required to write), many were "converted" to reading, before it was too late.

Nowadays, I teach in a private middle school with a district that requires use of Accelerated Reader (which kids hate) and have a lot of over-committed students (who think they have no time for reading). My challenges have changed, but the solutions I used in both settings really haven't. 

So trust me, I know how hard it is to start (and enforce) independent reading. But the steps below have helped me a lot, and they can help you, too.

Top 15 Tips for Your Program
So here are a few solutions to think about before or during your choice reading requirements for your English class.

1. Start with a quantity within their ZPD
At the beginning of your program, ease into the length and/or quantity of books you require. Let them pick up shorter books at first, and don't be afraid of giving them plenty of time to finish the book (before assigning shorter deadlines later).

When I helped teach sophomores and AP Lang, the one thing both classes had in common was my Book of the Month requirement, and it was a hit at both levels! 

2. Teach students how to pace reading to meet a deadline. 
We teachers HAVE to stop passing out books, assigning a deadline, and just saying "go." The sink-or-swim approach does little to actually teach students to pace themselves, and it probably won't help them like the experience, either.

I like using these pacing bookmarks to help my eighth graders calculate the number of pages they need to read per day to meet a deadline; it promotes more consistent reading instead of trying to fly through 150 pages the night before it's due. 

Giving students time to read in school in a low pressure, leisurely way is super important, because many kids have negative attitudes towards reading. This post provides 15 teacher tips for implementing an awesome independent reading program in your secondary classroom! 

3. Let some books end with just opinion or reflection. 
Yes, some texts will end with summative assessments, AR quizzes, or your own check for understanding. But not every book needs to end with work (and you don't need to grade everything, either.) 

4. Use reverse psychology. 
One of the best ways to get a teen interested after all is to tell them they're not allowed to. Even if it's not September, try this banned books mini-unit to get students reading commonly challenged CHOICE books (that they negotiate with you and their parents). 

5. Make them watch the movie version. 
Yes, this activity is fun, BUT more importantly, it's extremely important for weak readers who have a hard time visualizing the text.

You don't have to play the movie in-class, either. Make students do the work of picking the book/movie combo (including getting parent permission based on film ratings), and then let them generate heated opinions of which version (book or movie) was better. Start here for more ideas

6. Eliminate excuses for acquiring books. 
  • Don't have books at home? Get them from school.
  • Don't have time for the school library? Get a cart of books from there. 
  • Don't have a classroom library? Do what I did and ask your local Half Price Books (or whoever) to work with you on a Book Drive for your classroom!
  • Need more copies? If you qualify, set up a Donors Choose account

7. Let books become gifts. 
I always make a big deal out of it when new books arrive in the mail or when I've been shopping. I bring it into the room in its shopping bag/box and "unwrap" it in front of them, turning it into a suspense-filled book talk.

You can also literally gift them back and forth: let kids donate books to the classroom, and if you have the funds, buy a book for each kid at some point in the year.

8. Add a teacher book talk once a week.
Just make a starting goal to hold up and discuss ONE book for five minutes or less, once per week. You need to model what enthusiastic chatter about books looks like, especially if no other adult does. Plus, it will help them branch out into different books (other than the popular ones already being circulated in teen word-of-mouth).

9. Make STUDENTS give the book talks. 
I have a Student-Led Book Talks Project that lets students recommend one book, a series, or a themed collection in a short (graded) presentation. Book talks that come directly from students always have WAY more cred than ones from a teacher (even if they trust your book judgment)!

10. Do a buddy read.
If ever, they probably haven't been allowed to read a book with just one buddy since elementary school. Maybe one month is a required Partner Read month in your class, in which both have to agree on a book and do a culminating partner assignment together!

11. Allow one "re-read". 
Let just ONE of the books be a reread of a book from the past 2-5 years (assuming it's a reasonable choice, difficulty-wise). Let them feel the confidence-booster of being older and smarter, noticing more as they read it again. Ask them to reflect on what they got out of the text the second time!

12. Make decorative book reviews that last. 
I did this Quote Analysis and Artwork project as prep for an author visit last year, and it gave us cool Pinterest-style illustrated quotes to hang on lockers or walls!

Quote Analysis and Artwork Project

13. Bring in (free) guest speakers. 
I know this may vary, but our local librarians do free school visits to recommend books to students, especially if it's at the end of the year (to promote their summer reading program). See if a library or bookstore is willing to talk to your class!

During student teaching, I also had college students visit my sophomores and seniors to talk about their reading habits (both their required reading in college classes and what they read for fun).

14. Get a (free) author visit. 
Many authors do free (or cheap) Skype visits, or sometimes even in-person ones if they're local. Ask your school or local library for ideas, or check out websites like this one that provide lists.

Not going to work out? TWEET AT THE AUTHOR and see if you get a reply! (I did this last year, and you can read about it in my TED posts.)

15. Give them TIME.
I saved this for last because I know it's the hardest one - making time to give students in-class reading time.

I've done this several ways in the past - doing it as my bell-ringer (while I take attendance), or doing a longer period of time once a week (so I can circulate the room and check reading logs/progress, etc.). Do whatever works for you, but once a week for 20 minutes is better than nothing, and it may give them a chance to RELAX in the middle of the school day!

For More Info
If you want help getting your program started, you can get my rubrics, logs, and other forms HERE in my Book of the Month programs for middle school and high school! And if you want to see my other lessons and tools for teaching literature, just click here.

What advice would you add to this list? 
Tell me in the comments!

1 comment

  1. Wow! So many GREAT suggestions- I can see why your kids enjoy their reading time.