There are few things I love more than reading–maybe you can relate, maybe that’s even part of why you wanted to get into education. So, being such a book lover, it was hard to hear my middle school students complain about reading. How could they not see what a wonderful opportunity they had during the school day, and at home, to read? I couldn’t let them miss out on the joy of reading, and I knew I could help them learn to love it.
Curating Your Classroom Library
Again, as a book lover, I see libraries as one of the most exciting, inspiring, and magical places. Part of that is the beautiful book covers, the organization of a library that allows me to easily head towards the genres I enjoy, and the ability to simply pick up a book and read the back cover. I wanted to bring that experience into my own classroom.
To begin curating my classroom library, I asked other teachers what books their students had really enjoyed when they were in 6th grade. I also asked my students what types of books they wanted to have in their library. This gave me a solid foundation of specific titles, authors, and genres to work with. I then got to work organizing the library. I created genre labeled sections with a few selected books facing outward so students could more easily see, and get excited about, the covers.
To help ensure the library felt personal for my students and easily navigable, I included little book recommendations post-its on various book covers. This was a great way to not only share with students why I thought a particular book would be a great read, but also encourage students to make recommendations for one another. If a student liked a book, I would ask them to write a short recommendation and stick it on the cover so other students could find out what was interesting about the book. This also allowed students to know who they could talk to as they got more invested in a given book or series.
As the year went on, I wanted to continually reinvigorate our library and encourage students to explore new texts. This often meant identifying a theme and ordering a few new books to add to the library. However, rather than just stick the books on the shelves, I would make a big deal about announcing the arrival of our new books and leave them all propped up on a table in the back of the classroom or on the windowsill for students to explore.
During Women’s History Month, I featured a combination of new books and ones that were already in our library to encourage students to try reading something they may not otherwise have selected.
You can also rotate the featured books based on the topics students are studying in a particular class. To make this easier for you, each Fishtank ELA unit includes a list of thematically aligned independent reading books–and an Independent Reading Teacher Tool to help you make the most of it. By swapping out the featured text with the shift in unit, you can more directly invest students in the new unit’s themes and build excitement about a new unit.
You can find the Recommended Texts for Independent Reading in the Texts and Materials section of the unit page.
Creating a library that felt inviting and personalized for my students helped them see that selecting a book could be joyful, exciting, and an opportunity to build community across our classroom. I watched as they began to uncover a love of books, an experience every student deserves.
Engaging Students in Independent Reading
As students got more comfortable with selecting books to read independently, I wanted to further engage them in actually reading those books, and empower them to talk about the stories.
If you want a student to read a book independently, it’s crucial that the student is selecting an appropriate book for themselves. I encouraged my students to read the first few pages of a book and monitor how many unfamiliar words they came across. If they found more than 5 unfamiliar words on a single page, I encouraged them to select a different book. While this wasn’t necessarily a foolproof rule, it gave my students some autonomy in deciding what felt appropriate.
As students found books that they were interested in and that were appropriate for them to read independently, I shifted my focus to modeling the joy of reading and creating a space that fostered a love of reading. During the school day, my students had a designated independent reading block that lasted about 30 minutes. Rather than immediately shutting down any conversations and requiring all students to sit silently, I would ask if any students were reading books they were excited about or share out my own excitement about something I was reading.
Often, this led to students sharing recommendations that would end up posted in our library. By encouraging students to share, and modeling how to talk about a book without giving away too much, my students were more invested in and excited about reading their own books when it was time to do so.
To ensure students could focus fully on their independent reading, we worked together as a class to decide how the environment should look and sound. Students were allowed to sit where they wanted during this time, as long as they continued reading independently, and I would play instrumental background music. Depending on the setup of your classroom and your students’ preferences, there may be other things you want to do to create an ideal reading environment.
Texts You’ll Love to Teach and Students Will Love to Read
While I often focused on building a love of independent reading in my classroom, many students build their perception of and relationship with books from their ELA class. That is why the texts studied are so important; they can play a huge role in determining whether a student becomes a lifelong reader or not. At Fishtank, we take text selection seriously and have seen the positive impact it has on both teachers and students.
During our visit to CS 300 Elementary School, kindergarten teacher Ariel Brisman shared that, “The Falling In Love with Authors and Illustrators unit for us was the biggest surprise, because those aren't authors or illustrators that I would have chosen and I'm glad that those are the ones that they focused on. I learned so much, and I think the kids did, too.” Meagan Kelly, a 3rd grade teacher at CS 300, was initially nervous that the text Garvey’s Choice might be too challenging for her students. To her surprise, students not only rose to the challenge, but excitedly claimed it their favorite book of the year!
Similarly, when we visited New Heights Middle School, principal Michael Wiebusch shared that, “I just see joy around the texts that the scholars are reading. I see scholars bringing their books to the cafeteria, and I hear them actively engaged, having discussions about what they're reading. They are genuinely excited about the texts in ELA."
Fishtank ELA helps students learn to love reading by selecting texts that students can truly get excited to engage with, and texts that teachers love to teach. By inspiring a love of reading both in the ELA classroom directly and through independent reading, you can show your students the power reading has to transcend classrooms and bring joy no matter where they are.
Want more ideas to set your students up for success this school year? Dive into the Fishtank Blog to find strategies for engaging every student, guidance on using Fishtank resources, and the latest on what works in the classroom. Create your free Fishtank Learning account today to access thousands of free, standards-aligned lesson plans in ELA and Math.
Rachel Fuhrman is the Curriculum Marketing Manager at Fishtank Learning. Before joining Fishtank Learning, Rachel spent 5 years as a Middle School Special Education Teacher in New Orleans, LA and Harlem, NY. Outside of the classroom, she has been a frequent contributor to multiple education blogs and focuses primarily on student engagement and instructional practice topics. Rachel earned both her Bachelor of Arts in Economics and her Master of Science in Educational Studies from The Johns Hopkins University.