How to Foster Social Reading

A few days ago Jen Robinson wrote a wonderful post at Booklights about “social reading”, after reading my post about student led book clubs in my classroom.  Jen says,

But what I’d also love to see more of is kids recommending books back and forth that aren’t necessarily huge bestsellers. A kid recommending The Magic Thief or Alabama Moon to his best friend because he loves it, and he wants his friend to read it so that they can compare notes, and discuss it. 

This is what should be happening in classrooms across the country and around the world!  While plenty of my students have read Twilight and other popular books because of the social aspects (friend recommendations, movie tie-ins, etc), many more  have read and recommended non-best-sellers. If you take a look at the list of books my students think shouldn’t be missed, you’ll see many books that might not be familiar. But they are familiar to my students. Each of them was introduced to the class either by my booktalk, a personal recommendation to a particular student, or when a student found it in the library.

But how does a book become a social read?  How do we harness this power and repeat it over and over?  I took a few minute to look over my classroom surveys and tried to find an example of a social read in my classroom.  I found the perfect example.  One of the most popular student recommended books in my classroom for two years running is Cirque du Freak series .  

I read the first book in Darren Shan’s series a few years ago.  While well-written, it’s definitely not my kind of book.  However, it’s a great example of the horror genre and I booktalk it every year.  While I may not want to read the whole series, it’s the perfect book for a dormant reader.  

This year, I booktalked the series to the class as a whole.  One student raised his hand and requested to read my copy.  I handed it over and told him to let me know what he thought after reading it.  A few days later, that dormant reader was almost done the book and couldn’t stop talking to me about it.  I explained that I didn’t love the book but outlined my reasons why.  We not only had a great discussion about finding the right book for the right reader, but also about why he loved the book.  Within the week, he had moved onto the second book in the series.

While conferencing about his reading, I noticed a few of my other students listening in.  I decided to take a few minutes at the end of a class period to have the students share what they were reading and some brief thoughts, thinking it might spark an interest in a few other students.  My dormant reader did his own book talk for Cirque du Freak: A Living Nightmare and man, was he good!  He talked it up way better than I could have, because he genuinely loved the book. Before I could even take out the other copies I had, 5 hands were waving in the air. Students who struggled to find a book, students who abandoned books like it was nothing- all requesting to read Cirque du Freak: A Living Nightmare.

At first, I didn’t think much of it. I figured one or two of the students might finish the book, with the others moving on from the book as quickly as they moved on from other books they had attempted. I knew only a little about each student as a reader (it was very early in the year), and Darren Shan’s books didn’t seem like the right match for them.  The students all settled down that day with their copy of the book and began reading.

I did make one change to our reading time at that point. The boys reading Cirque du Freak: A Living Nightmare begged to sit near each other during reading time and I let them.  It was the best decision I could have made.  I watched as that group of boys expanded over the year, with new readers entering the fold every week and the original readers staying put, reading the rest of the books in the series.  They would quietly answer each other’s questions, discuss predictions, and jokingly cover their ears if someone who was ahead of them in the series began to talk about a spoiler.  It was amazing to watch.  The best part?  The only I did was provide the initial booktalk that hooked ONE dormant reader.  His enthusiasm spread to more readers, and then to more.  It was a domino effect.

Over the course of the year, Cirque du Freak became a best-seller in my classroom.  I fully attribute that to the students talking to each other about their books.  At the end of the year four of my students had finished the entire series, two moved on to reading The Demonata #1: Lord Loss: Book 1 in the Demonata series, and about 10 were at various points in the original series.  Why?  Because I allowed reading the books to be social.  They didn’t talk to each other during independent reading, other than to answer questions quietly, but they did talk about the books constantly.  The students carried their books around all day, competed with each other to see who made the best predictions and who read the series the fastest, and they constantly recommended the series to other students.  

Social reading is such a powerful concept and one of the best ways yo get students to enjoy books and reading.  How do we do that?

  • Start with teachers who are enthusiastic about books!
  • Booktalk, booktalk, booktalk.  Make your students aware of their choices.
  • Allow kids to be passionate about their book choices.  Maybe they don’t choose to read the books you think are “literary” or otherwise worthy, but they are reading.  And those books will be a gateway to more books.
  • Kids are social creatures by nature.  If they are talking about books, encourage it!  Give them an opportunity to talk about their books, but without doing a book report or graded booktalk.  Attaching these social opportunities to a graded assignment makes it a pressure-filled situation for the kids and they won’t enjoy it.  They’ll be too busy worrying about their own grade to listen to what anyone else has to say.
  • Cultivate those scenarios where kids are talking about books.  Whether it’s in the hallways, at lunch, or in your classroom- keep the conversation going!  Don’t talk down to your kids or pass judgement on their reading choices.  Just let them read!
  • Make sure books are available!  If they fall in love with a series, figure out a way to get copies of the books.  Let their parents know what they are reading, have the school librarian order more copies, scour garage sales, etc.  I also have my students make book donations at the end of the year, donating books to the classroom that they no longer need.  Needless to say, I now own more than my fair share of Darren Shan’s books.  ;)  But do everything you can to make books available to your students!

Social reading is so very powerful.  It’s also so easy to grow in our classrooms and homes.  Kids are opinionated and they know what they like.  While they love to hear our ideas and recommendations (as long as they believe in us and know we aren’t being fake), they love to hear from their peers even more.  

When my students leave my classroom and move on to the middle school they express concern that they won’t have me to rely on anymore for books.  My response?  I’m just a crutch they are used to having.  Most of them are long past the days of relying solely on my booktalks and recommendations to choose their books.  I remind them that they will always be surrounded with peers and friends and classmates.  That’s a huge pool of resources just waiting to be tapped!  As long as everyone does their part, continuing to read and share their books, my students will always have books to read.  It’s a culture- a reading culture- and we need to start cultivating it in our schools!

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