Creating a Reading Culture

A Facebook post by NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) this week made me think about my students’ home reading. In the linked article, parents were complaining about excruciatingly tedious tasks their children were given to track their reading. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big believer in tracking what my middle school students read, but it’s as simple as noting titles and authors. It can lead to reflection and discussion and helps students see patterns and movement in their reading choices.

But daily recording and written responses? As a reader, I can’t think of anything worse than having to record time spent and pages read every single day in addition to some kind of summary or other ‘activity’. It’s unappealing to me as an adult, and it would have been torture for me as a kid.

So how do you get students to read? Create a reading culture. How do you do that? Here’s what works with my middle school students:

1. Be a reader yourself. Love reading. Read what you love; get excited about what you’re reading. Consider joining a book club. Join Goodreads. Follow authors on Facebook. Read whenever and wherever you can. Fall in love. Sigh.

2. Let your students know that you love reading. If you’re not passionate about it, see suggestion number 1.

3. Subscribe to Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal. You’ll get regular emails about debut authors, favorite authors’ new books, new books in series, author events, and much more. Find out what’s going on and pass on irresistible tidbits to your class.

4. Show book trailers. See if your librarian will show playlists of book trailers in the library before or after school, or during lunch. (Well made) Book trailers are so much more appealing than a jacket blurb. They’re exciting, they project a sense of the voice, characters and conflict. Great for discussion! You’re welcome to use any or all of my playlists. I’ve got dozens and I add a new one most weeks:

5. Let students read every day, if possible.

6. Read aloud to them, no matter how old they are.

7. Applaud surreptitious reading! Ask your class,’ Who has ever read in the dark with a flashlight when you were supposed to be asleep? What other places have you read when you weren’t supposed to?’ They love this conversation. If no one has done it, challenge them!

8. Steal occasional class time for reading, just to show them that you can! I didn’t broadcast this at the time, but a few years ago, my eighth grade class were voting on the Kirkus Video Awards during class. They were enthralled by The Maze Runner trailer, and one student quickly and quietly found an excerpt on the publisher’s page. She asked if we could read the beginning, and the class all begged. Of course, I read it aloud. They loved it. Seizing the opportunity, I bought a digital version online, and we ditched our regular programming to read the whole book over a week. They raced in to class every day to find out what would happen next. I got a little behind in my already over-stuffed unit plan, but some of those kids turned into readers that week. I asked our wonderful librarian to order some for the library and they’ve been in constant demand ever since.

9. Let them read good literature in class. Let them be swept up in a narrative. Take them to another world. Give them a taste of the power of reading.

10. Get them talking about what they’re reading. Ask them to raise their hands if they’re reading a really great book? Ask them to tell the class why it’s so great.

11. Whip them into a frenzy when a new movie is coming out based on a book. When it comes out, make sure you’re there! Ask in class who’s seen it, and excitement will grow.

12. Find a way to bring authors to your school.

13. Find out about local author events and publicize them in your class. Go to them yourself, and then tell your students about your experience.

14. As a class, write to authors. So many MG and YA authors tweet, instagram, blog, and are on facebook! It’s easy to contact them personally in a way that didn’t previously exist. When I wrote to Neal Shusterman on his Facebook page and he responded, my classes were amazed that he was so accessible and interested in talking to readers.

15. If you have students who say they don’t like reading, spend some one-on-one time with them in the library. Find out what they’ve read recently, what kind of movies they love, and go from there. Build a stash of secret weapons for reluctant readers. Try Once by Morris Gleitzman, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Maze Runner by James Dashner, or Sold by Patricia McCormack. Find out what’s popular and push it.

16. Discourage students from thinking that 18th century books somehow make more virtuous reading choices. Students need to be challenged, but they can be challenged in many ways. My students in each year level construct a ‘Rich Reading’ list. They categorize books as follows:

  • What books challenged you in terms of language?
  • What books made you angry about injustice?
  • What books helped you understand others and their struggles?
  • What books broadened your understanding of politics, power, or ethics?
  • What books increased your understanding of historical events?
  • What books made you reflect deeply about your own experiences or beliefs?
  • What books offered examples of excellent writing?
  • What books had characters you could use as role models?

We review and update our lists frequently. Books suggested by multiple people are asterisked.

17. Try and get your whole school on board. If you can wangle a pajama day in which every teacher allots some class time on free reading, do it!

18. Let students read with a buddy or a small group. It doesn’t have to be organized with roles and tasks. Just give them a little time to talk to each other.

19. If you can afford it (or can find funds somehow), buy a new book that’s going to be popular (e.g. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green) and lend it to kids. I had an old Kindle that I used purely for lending to my students. They loved it. It meant that they could read it before it became available in the library. Unfortunately, one day it came to school with a broken screen. That’s life. Alternatively, if your local public library lends digitally, and you have an old reading device, use that.

20. Celebrate reading events. At my school, I organize an annual Reader’s Cup: a grade-level competition including games, puzzles, video challenges and other book-related tasks. It’s great fun.

21. Look for author webcasts in which your class can participate. A couple of years ago, Charlie Higson presented a webcast on ‘fear’ on October 31st. It aired in the afternoon in England, but in my region, it was on at about 10:00 at night. I held a Halloween event in my classroom, late at night. Kids came dressed up, bearing candy and Halloween treats. We submitted questions to Charlie Higson, and the kids were thrilled when he answered one of our questions and named our school. Afterwards, we watched the 1931 version of Dracula. It was a hoot. Warning: school is rather scary at 1 a.m.

22. In the US, you can occasionally obtain Advance Reader’s Copies of new books from publishers. This is advertised sometimes in Publisher’s Weekly newsletters, or you can approach publishing houses directly. Reading something before it’s publicly available is quite motivating.

23. Wherever possible, give students autonomy in their responses to what they’ve read. When it’s time to do a reading response to their home reading in class, make it engaging. Use hotseating, create videos, write scripts, or let them choose.

24. Be flexible in what students can read. Allow manga, comics, newspapers, magazines, foreign language books, graphic novels, and websites as a part of a balanced reading diet.

25. Make friends with local booksellers, or your school librarian ( I hope you have one…) and ask for book posters to put up in your classroom.

26. Every year, Teen Sync gives away two free audiobooks per week over the summer. Tell your students! Look for other local opportunities like this.

27. Teach students to look at ratings on Goodreads and Amazon and check out reviews.

28. Build a collection of excerpts (links to Amazon or publisher pages) so that students can read the first few pages before borrowing.

29. Introduce students to and other platforms on which students can publish their own writing and read and review the writing of peers.

30. When a student recommends a book to you, read it. In the last twelve months I’ve read two thrillers set in Cold War Russia and a novel in blank verse about the Manson murders, neither of which I would probably have chosen myself. If I want students to read some of my recommendations, I should be prepared to read some of theirs. In a culture of reading, you’re building a community.

Now I’m thinking about the copy of Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, waiting for me on my bedside table…


I know what you read last summer

A week or so ago, I followed a link from Twitter to Slate Magazine. I don’t remember what I wanted to read, but that’s not really a problem, as you’ll see.

Over on the righthand side, Slate told me what my friends had been reading. Curious, I discovered that each friend’s article was a snapshot of how I see her. No one can be summed up in a news headline, but I think they’re all a perfect match. Another friend has been added since I originally checked, and her choice, once again, is spot on.

Meet the friends:

1. She has a Master’s degree in political science and she’s working on a second Master’s while she energetically mothers her young children. This warm, brilliant woman can do anything.

2. A long-time educator, she is active in promoting social justice. She conscientiously stands up for what is right, with a particular passion for women and girls’ rights.

3. Also an intelligent, wonderful teacher, this woman loves to bake. It brings her great joy, and she loves the joy it brings to others.

4. This woman might be the most like me. (I’m flattering myself). She loves the classic and popular, she finds humor in unexpected places, and one day we hope to do some urban exploring together.

Here are the news articles:

A. Female Athletes Still Having Sex Appeal Put Ahead of Performance.

B. What I Learned About Baked Goods—and the Human Condition—by Trying Every Variety of Pepperidge Farm.

C. Hollywood’s Most Uncanny Portrayals of Robots.

D. A Fabulous Postal Experiment That Explains Why Some Governments Work and Others Fail.

See? It’s easy, isn’t it? In case it wasn’t, the answers are at the bottom of this post.

After I posted this on my facebook, understandably, most of my friends were concerned that their reading history was public. When you started reading this blog post, did you instantly wonder what you’d read and hope no one knew you looked up that article about latest advances in toenail fungus treatments? Or maybe the secrets of the Kardashians?

Shortly after I posted, one of my friends posted to say that according to her Slate feed, I had recently read “Do Olympic or competitive swimmers ever pee in the pool?

Do I wish it said, “The BLS Just Discovered Almost 400,000 Missing Jobs in Its Rebenchmarking”? Maybe, except I don’t know what that is or who they are, and while I was looking for an impressive article to quote, I was distracted by the titles including words and phrases like ‘UFO’, ‘Liam Neeson’, ‘mountain goats’, ‘quackery’, ‘creatures’, and ‘bacon’.

It’s true. I’m more interested in what goes on in the pool filter than in who’s getting the gold at the Olympics.

This whole ‘reading history’ notion gave me an idea for character building or exploring. What news article would fictional characters be reading? You can look at this two ways: work from the titles, or from the character.

While I mean this as a serious exercise in character construction, I couldn’t help wondering if Anna in Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper would have zeroed in on “Your mother has a favorite. It may not be you.

What about the characters in your own writing? Take a look at today’s Slate articles. What would your MC read?


1 D
2 A
3 B
4 C

So that’s what that feels like.

In The Dark Knight, there’s a scene where Catwoman disappears over the side of a building while Batman’s not looking. He sees she’s gone, and he says, “So that’s what that feels like.” It’s an endearing moment in which the masked crusader’s brief sense of empathy makes him instantly human and likable. For a second, he’s like us.

I had a ‘so that’s what that feels like’ experience this week. A friend recently introduced me to the Dragon Ball Bakery in North Point, here in Hong Kong. I had to have more of those creamy coconut buns and pineapple pastries, so I went back for more. In areas of Hong Kong that are expat-dense, many shopkeepers speak some English. Signage is in Chinese and English, and  language isn’t a problem. You can get by without speaking Cantonese.

I know. I’ve lived here for five years. I should speak the local language. I do, actually. I can ask a taxi driver to turn left, turn right, go straight, and stop. I can say thanks, no problem, sorry, next bus stop please, and lunch. (The very helpful cleaning ladies at my school feel it’s their duty to teach me Cantonese. So far all I’ve succeeded in is ‘lunch’.) I admit I’ve felt particularly proud of my “Excuse me. One egg waffle, please.”

It’s always been doable. No one ever shouted at me. Until last Saturday at the Dragon Ball Bakery. Some people really do believe that if they don’t speak your language, if they shout increasingly loudly, you just might get it. I did get it, finally. The shopkeeper was telling me (and everyone within a hundred yards) that she doesn’t like coins smaller than fifty cents. In order to make me understand this, she had to point to my coins, and then to the fifty-cent coin she was holding up, and shout at me, about 37 times. Finally I got it. So that’s what that feels like.

I was embarrassed, but I left with a bag of coconut buns, pineapple squares, and egg tarts. My family appreciated the fruits of my humiliation.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been making my way through Brené Brown’s book, I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame. She explains that empathy is a powerful tool for becoming shame-resilient. When people experience shame, it’s comforting and empowering to know that someone else understands. We’re not alone.

This idea of empathy and of sharing common experiences and feelings has given me insights into my characters. I can give them a rich layer of realness that will help readers make deeper connections with them. Interesting stuff for writers.

My son observed on the weekend that the most popular memes are the ones that identify a common experience or feeling. We talked about standup comedy and how it depends so much on tapping into shared experiences. I think an empathetic link is often what binds us to a story, art, music, or any creative expression.

Have you ever felt an author was actually in your head? That he or she somehow understood ideas and feelings you’d never even articulated in your own mind? That’s a deep and powerful connection.

That’s beauty. I love to read it. I hope I can write it.