Slice of Life 23: How much reading is enough?

(During March, I am blogging daily as a part of the Slice of Life Story Challenge!)  Special thanks to the hosts of the Slice of Life Challenge:  StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna and Beth.   More Slice of Life posts can be found at  Two Writing Teachers .

I LOVE to read.  I LOVE reading.  I typically READ just about anything. Reading is my preferred activity over cooking, cleaning, or crafting. I could be considered a voracious reader by some.  I read quickly when I am reading for fun.  I will read almost anything but I do not like vampires, fantasy or science fiction very much.  When I find an author that I like, I devour ALL their texts.  When I find something I really like, I may reread it.  There are times during the year when my reading life seems to suffer.  While writing blog posts every day, I do have less reading time. Is it “okay” that my reading seems to have an ebb and flow?  How much should I be reading? What should I be reading?

I believe that I need to be familiar with authors and texts in the field of literacy.  I have my favorite authors and this year they all deal with loving literacy:  Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts, Donalyn Miller, Penny Kittle, Kylene Beers, Dorothy Barnhouse and Vickie Vinton, Jim Burke, Kelly Gallagher, and all the authors of the fabulous Units of Study in Writing from Teachers College. My reading of YA varies according to the favorites of students in the buildings where I work.

How does reading play out for our students?  How much should they be reading?

In Book Whisperer, Donalyn Miller challenges her middle school students to read 40 books per year.  That is basically one book per week, including reading over holidays and school breaks.  A student who has developed those “reading habits” is likely to be successful as they move through life.  In Reading in the Wild, Donalyn is more specific about the “habits” that students need in order to be life-long readers.  Those numbers seem to make sense because a student will “be in the story” and stay connected to the text in those time frames.

For our struggling Middle School and High School students in Second Chance for Reading, I have suggested teachers set 30 books per year as the goal for students.  If teachers have expectations and are carefully monitoring student work, 30 books is ambitious for students who have been less than successful in reading for years. It’s doable, a stretch but yet highly possible if the habit of reading becomes a part of a daily routine.

But is that “good enough” for our children? How long to read a book?

I was following the Twitter stream from the Saturday reunion at Columbia’s Teachers College and several tweets caught my eye. Exactly what books should students be reading and for how long?

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So taking Hatchet and spending a week and a half on it would fit with Donalyn Miller’s goal of 40 books per year. Is this happening?  Are students allowed to read a book like Hatchet in a week and a half?  I believe this also fits with the belief behind CCSS Reading Anchor #10:  “Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently. Yet, it seems like I should be doing more in order to have teachers and students consider the “sheer volume” of what they are reading.

Are there books that should be “whole class” books in grades 3-6?  If yes, what would be the characteristics of such a book? And how “many” of these would a child read during any given year?

I remember working on Language arts curriculum 20 years ago when teachers wanted certain books to be on a “protected list” so teachers in grade 3 would not use a book reserved for grade 4 because then it could not be used for prediction.  But what is the real goal of a “class book”?  If it truly is to have all students explore specific texts, will the class read at the same pace? Is it about the “activities” that accompany the book and its reading? What about a book club approach?

This tweet of a quote from Kelly Gallagher caught my eye:

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So Kelly would agree with Donalyn Miller that students should not be spending forever on a class book.  Dragging a novel out into 9 weeks’ worth of work turns it into a “9 week worksheet”!  That belief has also been espoused by Richard Allington who has said that students need to read “more” in order to be better readers!

Are there some books that every fourth grade student should read?  That would be a great source of conversation for a team of fourth grade teachers.  What literature is that important and that interesting for the students?  The same question would apply for informational text, poetry and drama.  Those decisions can and should be made at a local level.  The caution would be in “not allowing” a whole class text to be the only reading at the time and also not to be drug out as Gallagher’s quote reminds us.

How much should a student read every day?

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The original source of this quote is not listed but think about this for a minute.  To stay on the same level (maintenance), a student needs to read just right books for an hour each day and a common expectation in about 3/4 of a page per minute. So a quick check by a teacher 5 minutes into a silent sustained reading time would suggest that all students had read at least 3 pages.  If a reading log/goal setting page includes the page started, a teacher could quickly move about the room conducting a visual scan.  This would be data that could allow the teacher to form groups to discuss goals and purposes for reading.

The goal would not be public humiliation.  I have used “bribes” for reading – pizzas, food, parties, etc. in order to encourage students to read more.  Sometimes the food begins as the “reason/purpose” for reading until a student becomes “hooked” on reading and then begins to ask for books for gifts!  Students do not need to take quizes to show their understanding of books.  Carefully remove barriers or practices that are “counter-productive” to reading MORE!  Consider how you can help your students be daily readers who will carry that habit over into the summer even when you, the teacher, are not around!

How much are your students reading?  How do you encourage them to set HIGH expectations for their own reading?
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23 responses

  1. Fantastic post! Really makes me think… I hope other teachers are thinking about these questions as well!

    1. I strugle with trying to “quantify the amount of reading” because I really believe that it is not a “race” to just read a lot of books. But I also believe that this is NOT on enough teachers’ radar as they consider the work that students are doing in their classrooms!

      Thanks for commenting, Michele!

  2. I am so glad I do not teach the older grades. My first graders read A LOT but it’s new and exciting for them…still fun. We talk a lot about why we read too, and have 30 minutes of just silent reading every day…I wonder do picture books “count” as reading in the upper grades or do they all have to read chapter books? You’ve given me a lot to think about, and to be thankful for my firsties!

    1. Definitely picture books count. And informational books do NOT have to be read cover to cover! So much to think about!

  3. I don’t think that there are any easy answers to this, Fran – no one solution fits all. My kids average a new book every week and a half – but that’s something that’s achieved slowly for some. These are the kids I work with from day one to bring this about – and I use all means necessary, even staying after school for an hour (with treats – so it’s not detention, technically) to make sure they read. My kids play multiple sports and have so many extra curricular – that after school reading time at home has been seriously cut into by all the adult-directed activities my kids are engaged in. It makes things very hard.

    1. Tara,
      There are absolutely no one size fits all solutions but teachers across the grades need to have conversations about expectations, choice and “joy of reading” – not just reading to answer quiz questions or fill in logs.
      It is very complicated!

      1. Agreed! This is a sticky issue (especially those logs!) because every teacher has their own take on what constitutes “real reading.” Two of my colleagues have the log/q&a/page requirements format – it totally kills the reading joy, but they swear by it. I proposed a reading of Donalyn’s books as a team book club – but, no interest. My suspicion is, they don’t read themselves. How can you convince kids that there is joy in reading when you don’t have it? Right?!

      2. So true! I am often aghast at the number of teachers who tell me that they don’t have time to read during the year, but assign reading all year long to their students! Reading is all about the joy and learning that comes from that book that reaches out, grabs you, and just does not let go!

        Fullan says – accountability is the wrong driver! Sometimes students will choose the pages/log requirement as they have gotten used to it. Not sure if that is a good thing! No system should be onerous!

  4. Fran,
    You peppered this post with just the right thought provoking questions and thinking. Getting kids to read is a challenge these days with so many other distractions. I keep in mind the whole “are you buying what I’m selling?” mantra which is why teachers who are readers (like you) can sell the product!

    1. Thanks for commenting! Reading and writing are both challenges but the kids will NOT get better without practice. Should practice be at school? Absolutely! But can it all be done at school???

  5. So many interesting questions here. I’m always a little unsure about setting reading goals by numbers. I know it works for many, but numbers can mean a lot of things. I know many avid readers read very long books compared to their peers short books. Reading rates are different for people. I read slowly and enjoy savoring books and characters. Additionally, I read for several hours a day, but I don’t spend all of my time reading books. I enjoy reading professional magazines, blogs posts, and other internet texts. How do we measure the different types of reading our students do? How do students balance their personal reading with expected class readings? The questions are many. The solutions likely as a diverse as our readers. Thanks for giving me something to think about.

    Cathy

    1. Thanks, Cathy!
      It is so complicated. A short picture book can be complex but is often overlooked as a “worthy book” due to its brevity. However, we do count “Harry Potter” or “Twilight” as at least two books because of their length.

      Numbers don’t tell the whole story. But how do we set goals without “some number”?

  6. As others have commented, these are challenging questions, Fran. I’m usually less concerned with the numbers around reading and more concerned with the fact that kids ARE reading. I also struggle with the whole class novel issue. If a book is that central to a teacher’s goals, why not choose that book as a read aloud? On the other hand, there are teachers who are only comfortable with this style of teaching, and it’s hard to break that habit, no matter how much support or evidence you offer. Not sure what the answer is, or if there is one right answer. Your response to Tara, choice and joy of reading, seem like a place to start, though. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

    1. Thanks, Catherine!

      I will admit that I did use whole class books 20 years ago, but I wouldn’t now! There are so many quality books that will keep kids interested in reading if they have some choices and don’t feel that they are always “forced” to read what someone else picks out.

      I love book club choices and yes, I might add in some titles there that would not be the students’ first choice but those would only be one of many choices. Huge topic, with no easy answers!

  7. Fran,
    You are speaking to my passion and concern with students. I am constantly tweaking and rethinking how to get students to become real readers, and to grow as readers. Seems I have tried every approach imaginable. Nothing is perfect and we are always looking to meet the student’s needs, whatever they might be. I love the responses your post has gotten. Lots of us are thinking and struggling with the same issues. Reading is a passion for some students, but in my experience, not the majority. Perhaps it is developmental. Perhaps students don’t have enough time to find that passion (Tara’s mentions the adult-directed activities). I feel like many grow into being readers as they age. My goal is to make sure students have the ability and the understanding of what reading can be for them.

    I adopted Donalyn’s Reading in the Wild 40 book approach this school year. As to book length and speed of reading concerns, I try to accommodate reader’s needs by acknowledging their growth (all won’t meet the goal and some have already exceeded it). I tend to count a book regardless of length as a book and if students read a longer book (think 200 pages) they get credit for more than one. So far the results have been positive. Most are meeting the goal and all care. It isn’t perfect and I worry that they aren’t reading their books closely. So the balance of volume and deep thinking about reading is a tough call. But when I do the math, a 150 page book read at the rate of 3/4 of a page a minute, would translate into one hour and 53 minutes. If you allow for reading in a class and assign reading as homework, this is a completely reasonable goal. Given a week’s time it allows for re reading and writing about the text.

    At least that is what I’m thinking and seeing now….Thanks for the post, the questions and all the responses this generated. Hope you won’t mind me sharing this with my staff.
    Julieanne

    1. Julieanne,
      Yes, you are more than welcome to share with your staff. My goal was to provide a place for conversation and thinking to begin. If teachers will think about “WHY” they use specific practices to encourage reading, then perhaps the conversation can also include the kids and what they think, know, and want! I’m not sure that everyone is ready for this conversation YET! But I’m hopeful that this will continue the conversation!

      Thanks!

  8. Amazing conversation here, and it never ends: What is best for the kids? I have found that 25-35 books a year is completely realistic, and yet when you say that out loud to a student, he/she may feel overwhelmed and not really read. Also, Kylene Beers said something in a workshop last year that stuck with me: “If the STUDENT is not reading by him/herself, it’s not reading.” The student has to do the work of comprehending, reading, holding a conversation with the author and the text.

    1. Jennifer,
      Any student who does not view himself/herself as a reader will absolutely “freak” the first time they hear a “number” for a goal. But when students introduce the concept (last year’s), it more quickly becomes a “oh, yeah, I can do that” and it isn’t all about peer pressure!

      Love the Kylene Beers quote. She always has a precious gem or 2 that will stick with you forever!

  9. I have this discussion with myself, and anyone else that will engage in it with me, all of the time! I am so excited to have found your post. I hope that I can pass it along and let it stir up further discussion with colleagues, that we might do what’s best for our kiddos! Thank you for writing such a thoughtful post!

    1. Jen,

      Feel free to pass it along. It’s a complicated topic that needs lots of discussion. Thoughtful conversations will help students learn to love reading rather than “racing through books” for the current “reward!”

      Thanks for commenting!

  10. Yes! Yes! Yes! to this post. That independent reading is so, so, so important. And sometimes hard to develop in kids.

    1. Thanks, Carol.
      It is so important for the successful reading lives of our kids but as you said, sometimes “hard to develop.”

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