*this post was originally published in March 2010, when I was teaching middle school. However, I have the same experiences with my high school students*
As a sixth grade teacher, I meet many students who immediately profess their hatred of reading to me on the first day of school. While I do everything I can to draw a passion for reading out of them, nothing is more powerful than the recommendation of a friend. Social reading, the act of one person recommending a book to another, has caused books to literally fly off my shelves. It’s my most powerful secret weapon in the fight against reading hate.
If you take a look at the list of books my students last year thought shouldn’t be missed, you’ll see many books that might not be familiar at first glance. But they are familiar to my students. More than familiar. Each of those books 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. However, the power of recommendations from fellow students was what made each book a “must read” for the rest of my classes.
So how does a book become a social read? How do we harness this power and repeat it over and over, year after year? Back in June, I took a few minutes to look over my classroom surveys and tried to find an example of a social read in my classroom. One of the most popular student recommended books in my classroom for two years running is the Cirque du Freak series .
I read the first book in Darren Shan’s series a few years ago. While I enjoyed it, it’s definitely not my kind of book. (Too much gore and horror!) 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 dormant readers, especially boys.
Last 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 former 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 and he asked me why, getting me to outline why I didn’t enjoy them. 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. This was a reader who previously met me head-on whenever I tried to recommend a book, circumventing everything I tried.
Over the course of the week, while conferencing about his reading, I noticed a few of my other students leaning closer to us, listening in. On the Friday of that week, 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. I had nothing to lose! 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 constantly- all requesting to read Cirque du Freak: A Living Nightmare.
At the time, 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. As it was still early in the year, I didn’t know my readers very well. To my eyes, Darren Shan’s books didn’t seem like the right match for them. Having nothing to lose and wanting all of my students to try books that they thought they would enjoy, I passed out all of my copies. 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? All 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. He did more than I could have ever done to inspire a passion for reading.
Over the course of the year, Cirque du Freak became a “best-seller” in my classroom. I give all the credit to the students who spent the whole year 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. While that may seem to go against everything we have been taught about SSR (one of those S’s is supposed to stand for Silent!), but allowing students to share and discuss books meant even more students READ the books!
Social reading is such a powerful concept and one of the best ways to get students to enjoy books and reading. Howcan we capture that in more classrooms?
- 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! My current students are currently passing around The Lightning Thief. Everyday another student asks for a copy, so I own 4 copies. I just placed an order with Scholastic for 5 more copies. Anything to keep them reading!
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!