In “Dropping Everything to Read? How about Picking Some Things Up!,” Jennifer Serravallo (2017) posits that teachers need to be intentional about how they engage students in independent reading. For Serravallo, it’s not simply about students reading whatever they want and however they desire; it’s about teachers creating independent reading experiences that lead to successful student learning outcomes and reward experiences. Independent reading time for students, if executed effectively and thoughtfully by teachers, Serravallo argues, can lead to the evolution of “a reading life” (p. 24).
Be Intentional about Independent Reading
If teachers desire to see their students develop “a reading life,” the scholar asserts that they have to think strategically about how they engage them in independent reading. Serravallo recommends teachers to use “whole-class lessons that offer students strategies for focusing their attention and building their stamina” when reading (p. 24). Also, she contends that these strategies can be employed to instruct small groups “in strategy lessons, which are essentially conferences for two or three students at a time” (p. 24). In these strategy lessons, students are given a strategy to support their work or reading, and then teachers provide individual “coaching” while the other students in the group read or work independently.
Another strategy Serravallo offers is using booktalks to trigger the interest of students in trying new authors, series, and/or genres. She recognizes that many teacher deliver these booktalks to the whole class, but she encourages them to use these strategies in small groups as well. Although whole class booktalks permit teachers to incorporate interests of their students, small groups are easier to tailor these booktalks to students’ interests. Also, the scholar divulges that booktalks in small groups allow teachers to select books appropriate for the reading level of each student.
Serravallo’s 5 Strategies for Supporting Reading Engagement
Longer texts and shorter texts take different kinds of reading attention and focus. It may help you to plan stopping places in your longer book and have some texts at the ready for briefer break reads. Articles, short stories, and poems are good texts for this kind of reading.
When you get distracted, stop and notice where your attention first started to drift. Go back to the last thing you remember not just reading but really understanding. Reread from there to get back into your book.
Being engaged means keeping not just your eyes but also your mind on the book. As you read, be aware of your attention shifting. When it does, back up and reread. If you notice attention shifting very often, consider whether the book isn’t a good fit or something in your environment is causing you to become distracted.
It’s crucial that you are always sure that you’re making sense of what you’re reading about. Check in with meaning by asking yourself, What’s happening, who is in this scene, and where are they? Can I see what’s happening? Am I thinking about, having feelings about, or reacting to what’s happening? If you feel like anything is fuzzy, back up and reread to make sure you’re understanding.
Engage your mind by asking questions as you read. In fiction you might ask, What comes next? Why did the character do that? In nonfiction, you might ask questions about the topic. Read on to answer your questions.
Setting Reading Goals in Reading Conferences
Serravallo explains that teachers need to set a reading goal(s) for students while they are enjoying their books. The reading goal(s) should be generated with students’ input during reading conferences. For the plot and setting, she suggests students can engage in “understanding cause and effect, identifying problems and solutions/resolutions, retelling the most important information within a chapter or across a book, and visualizing where the story takes place” (p. 25). In examining characters, she recommends “working to understand main and secondary characters’ traits, feelings, and motivations; relationships between characters; and character change” (p. 25). To explore themes and ideas, the scholar encourages “interpreting lessons and messages in stories, being alert to symbolism and inferring the deeper meaning behind the symbolism, and considering how social issues are present in the text and relate the book’s themes” (p. 25).
The main idea of a book should be investigated to understand what it is mostly about and to learn the author’s angle on a topic. When examining key details, teachers can involve students in “collecting and synthesizing relevant facts and information related to the main idea from across the main text and text features” (p. 25). She recommends that teachers engage students in identifying text features to learn important information the text reveals. Exploring text features extends opportunities for students to make valuable connections. The scholar champions giving students opportunities to analyze vocabulary closely, including “inferring the meaning of those words and phrases” (p. 25). Every effort should be made to involve students in conversations about the books they read, including advocating for them to extend the conversations into a book club.
When a student reads, Serravallo asserts that students need to write about what they have read. For the scholar, teachers should develop “a repertoire of ways to respond to reading with purpose and intention, including short in-the-moment jots and longer responses to reading” (p. 25).
Overcoming Reading Conference Challenges in Middle School
Recognizing that middle school classes are often short, and teachers often have many new classes of students across a day, reading conferences can be challenging but Serravallo encourages teachers to have students write to reflect on their strengths and possibilities for next steps. A questionnaire connected to each possible goal is one method of writing she suggests that can be used. The questionnaire enables teachers to have shorter reading conferences with students.
Establishing Conferences as a Regular Instructional Practice
Serravallo recommends that teachers establish a regular conference practice with students. Constant and substantive feedback is critical to high student achievement, and a regular conference practice prioritizes feedback in the classroom and gives it an authentic home, an authentic space in the classroom. Small group strategy lessons during independent reading time also give teachers a space to deliver ongoing and substantive feedback.
The scholar acknowledges that many teachers will feel uncomfortable with students reading different books, books that they probably will not have read, but this reality should not alarm them. When having conferences with the students, make them feel like conversations, balancing the talking time between students and teacher. Even though a teacher may not have read the book the student is reading, teachers know a significant amount about books in general, including about young adult literature. Teachers, therefore, should enter into the conversations with this confidence.
In each conference with students, Serravallo likes to introduce a new strategy to students or revisit a previously introduced strategy. When introducing the strategy, she places an emphasis on the “how” and the “why” of the strategy. After introducing the strategy, Serravallo gives students an immediate opportunity to practice the strategy in front her so that immediate feedback and support can be given.
Dr. Antonio Maurice Daniels
University of Wisconsin-Madison