It is not going to happen all at once
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.
When 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. One of the books is mine, but other than that I get absolutely nothing from making these recommendations.