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For Teachers: A Reading Program That Works

Getting teens to read was my most important mission as a teacher. When I realized how many of my high schoolers had NEVER read a book and bragged about passing tests on assigned classics by reading Spark notes and watching movies, I knew I had to act. We were losing them as readers, and once they left my class, my opportunity to change that would be lost. That's when I discovered the simple secret: CHOICE! If I wanted to teach kids the meaning of "reading for pleasure," I had to include young adult books in their assignments - books that were engaging, books they could relate to. Kids who've never read anything except the difficult assignments that are required for school don't understand what we're talking about when we say, "reading for pleasure." So I spent many years building a reading program that would help them become life-long readers. I'm happy to share the logistics of my program here, and I'll be traveling with Perma-Bound reps Kristen Ives and John Zeller to schools across the Southeast this fall to share tips and answer questions and getting kids to read. Also, you can visit the Perma-Bound website to find the books I recommend for reluctant readers, feature here on the blog - at a discount to you. Here's the step-by-step process I used: 


The Program

Step By Step with Beck McDowell


1. Get administrators on board with the idea that aesthetic reading (for fun) is just as important as efferent reading (for information.) Reading practice improves skills and increases vocabulary and comprehension levels. Many high schoolers have NEVER read a book. They brag about reading Spark notes and watching movies to pass tests on assigned classics. If we convince them to read through offering them a CHOICE, we can turn them into lifelong readers.

2. Send out Parent Letter. When parents understand your motives, they’re more likely to support you. Invite their input and be open to questions. If a parent objects to a book (which happens very rarely,) remind them that the list is OPTIONAL and no student is required to read any book. Let them know they don’t get to control what other students read – only their own. Be firm but friendly.

3. Hand out the list to students. Explain that they’ll still be reading classics as a class, but they’re now required to read two “choice” books per grading period. They may also read other books by authors already on the list. They may opt to read books not on the list, but only with prior permission from the teacher.

4. Read the annotated list aloud and have them mark books that sound interesting to them. Suggest that they check out  blurbs online for plot information and that they read a few paragraphs of the free sample chapter offered online to see if the writing style appeals to them. Remind them they don’t have to finish any book they don’t like.

5. Read aloud twice a week. Take 5-10 minutes to read from books on the list or others you bring in to entice reluctant readers. This is critical to the process. Some have no idea what’s inside a book.

6. Allow class time to read. Set at least aside one or two 10-20 minute reading sessions per week so you can monitor their progress. Use this time to assess levels of success by walking around and occasionally asking questions (very quietly) about the books they’re reading. Help the strugglers find good books. Encourage all with enthusiasm for reading and pride in their progress.

7. For grading, you have four options.

            1. Book Trailers – see NRR instruction sheet and grading rubric. Grade leniently, but let them know points will be deducted for spelling, punctuation and requirements on instruction sheet. (One note: when students have used popular music in the past, YouTube has allowed it and provided a link to viewers to purchase the music. If they use copyrighted music, they do so at their own risk, but most musicians allow it for the promotional opportunity. Just make them aware of the possible penalties. Maybe YouTube will make a policy statement about this soon, but royalty-free music is the safest route for now.)

            2.  Participation Grades – monitor progress informally during class reading periods and grade accordingly. Be lenient. The goal is to make reading fun. But insist that everyone reads and show them point deductions when they don’t.

            3. Book Interviews – If you prefer individualized assessment, choose several of the Not Required Reading discussion questions for oral “interview” assessment. Grades are 100 if they completed the book and 0 if it’s clear they didn’t finish by the deadline. If a student receives a 0, he may finish the book within three days for half credit, which is still a failing grade – but a “50” that can be pulled up more easily. Most students will finish after they realize how much a 0 affects averages.

            4. Reviews for NRR and other sites - If you prefer written assessment (or for extra credit to those who choose to do it,) have students first read three reviews in credible sources like NYT, LAT, NPR, etc. Then have them write 500-700 words on the book they’ve just read – with special attention to originality, personal response, and avoiding spoilers. Reviews should not be just plot synopses. 

            8. Early Bird Incentives - For Book Interviews, try offering Early Bird Incentives to spread out your workload. When students earn 5 extra points by coming before the deadline (after school, between classes, or during lunch,) the teacher is not overwhelmed on deadline day. Some students will “read ahead,” finishing an entire semester of “choice” reading in one grading period. This is fine. Those kids will usually keep reading even after they’ve completed requirements for the year. (Remind everyone that this is a flexible assignment. If they have lots of other homework one night, they can skip reading, so long as they catch up on the weekend or when other work is slower. On slower homework nights, they can “read ahead” and possibly finish early.)

            9. Extra Credit – Offer one extra “choic” book as the only extra credit allowed in your class. Make it worth their while points-wise. This is the very best incentive for reluctant readers who need to pull up a low test score or make up for missing homework assignments. Once you get them reading, lots will do this.

            10. You/Guest Readers – Your own enthusiasm for reading is key to the success of this program. Let kids see you read and tell them about books you love. Also, invite other teachers, coaches, local celebrities or officials or sports stars to come and read to the class. Show them that reading is for everyone!

Thank you, faithful teachers! It’s not too late to entice even 11th and 12th graders to the idea of reading as a legitimate leisure activity of choice. Build a classroom library by buying at used bookstores and library cast-off stores, surround your students with exciting covers, talk about books, read to them, and give them time and grade incentive to read and you WILL see a HUGE difference! And write to me at mcdowell.beck@gmail> and let me know how it’s going! I’m happy to answer any questions you have as you move forward with Choice Reading.











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Posted in 2013


We Can't Lose Those Middle and High School Readers!

Middle and high school teachers know what a fight it is to lure reluctant readers (who once loved reading as children) back into the fold. When I spoke at a school outside Atlanta last month, I met two wonderful teachers who are spreading book love in their school - with phenomenal results in their test scores and library circulation. I encouraged them to write about what they're doing to inspire other teachers to try their methods. Here's the link to the details of their highly successful program. Please pass it on to teacher friends. Thanks, Dennis and Justin, for sharing. And thanks Nerdy Book Club for hosting the article and serving as a wonderful resource for educators at all levels! (Teachers, you can find Nerdy Book Club on Facebook and Twitter.)

Muggles Can Make Magic Too! Turning Non-Readers into Readers and Writers


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Posted in 2013


Book List for Sandy Hook Project

I'm thrilled that so many of you asked for the completed list of books for the Sandy Hook project and are considering donating to your community or school libraries, too. Just FYI, I found it's best to give the money and the list to the library and let them order, as it speeds up the process when they get "shelf-ready" books from their own sources. They were happy to use my list; in fact, our librarian said it was a "great list" of books that would circulate well - hooray! The cost is about $340, so maybe you could get a few other friends to join with you (or suggest it as a project for your book club or faculty or church or college group or civic organization.) Thanks so much to my mom, Martha Brigman, who wanted to join with me and helped out with a portion of the cost. Thanks also to my teacher and librarian friends who offered advice and book suggestions. I included the characteristics of the victims shared by parents, relatives, and neighbors that led me to choose each book, but please contact me if you have questions. Again, I don't presume to know them, but I took great care in choosing books I thought they might like from what little I know about them.


Books to Be Donated in Honor of Sandy Hook Victims 

For Charlotte BaconMy Heart is Like a Zoo, by Michael Hall

Never met an animal she didn't love, wanted to be a veterinarian; loved dresses and wearing pink; was learning Tae Kwon Do with father and brother

For Daniel BardenDrum City, by Thea Guidone

Played drums in band with brother and sister (dad – musician); swam and played soccer; loved foosball and making s’mores; dreamed of being a firefighter; would sit with kids who were alone in school

For Olivia EngelAngelina Ballerina, by Katharine Holibird (25th Anniv. Ed.)

Loved to dance, twirled in her pink tutu; loved to sing and do theater; was to be angel in church Christmas play; played soccer and swam; liked to draw and paint; favorite toy was stuffed lamb 

For Josephine GayThe Best Bike Ride Ever, by James Proimos

Loved riding her bike in the street; set up lemonade stand in summer; favorite color-purple; nicknamed “Boo” for resemblance to Monsters Inc. character

For Ana Marquez-GreeneJazz Baby, by Lisa Wheeler

Had gift for melody, pitch, and rhythm; from musical family (dad - jazz musician); loved to sing even before she could talk; “danced to all the music she heard … in air or in her head; loved God and reading the Bible

For Dylan HockleyFirst the Egg, Laura Vaccaro Seeger

When asked why he flapped his arms when excited, he answered, “Because I’m a beautiful butterfly.” Loved to cuddle, bounce on trampoline, watch movies, and look at the moon; was so proud when he read book each day

For Madeline F. HsuAnd Then It’s Spring, by Julie Fogliano

Loved bright flowery dresses; neighbor said eyes lit up when she got off bus and saw neighbor’s dog; upbeat and kind; shy, always had a smile

For Catherine V. HubbardThis Moose Belongs to Me, by Oliver Jeffers

Passion for animals; asked for pets every Christmas; had asked Santa for a pair of fish; was taking horseback riding lessons; pink was favorite color

For Chase Kowalski Pete the Cat, Play Ball! By James Dean

Budding athlete who recently completed and won his first mini-triathlon; ran in community races, played baseball and loved riding his bike; Cub Scout

For Jesse LewisRose’s Foal, by Scarlett Lewis (written by Jesse’s mother and read to him often; the last sentence is “Love never ends.”)

Was learning to ride horseback and loved family’s horses, dogs, and chickens; liked to ask “What if . . . and spin hypothetical tales; wrote “I love you,” on the car window in the frost the day before he was killed.

For James MattioliPress Here, by Herve Tullet

Loved math and came up with insights beyond his years to explain relationship between numbers; sang at the top of his lungs; loved swimming, diving, biking, and wore shorts and t-shirts no matter the weather; always said, “I need to go outside, Mom. I need fresh air.”

For Grace McDonnellThe Secret World of Walter Anderson, by Hester Bass

Wanted to live on the beach and be a painter; loved seagulls and shells and lighthouses and painted fish; danced, worked at gymnastics, and was a “fashionista” with a love of sparkles and a passion for cooking and cupcakes

For Emilie ParkerEach Kindness, by Jacqueline Woodson

Always had something kind to say; carried around markers and pencils and would rush to draw a picture or make a card if someone was feeling sad or frustrated; gave hugs and kisses to younger siblings when they would fall

For Jack Pinto -  Sports Illustrated Kids 1st and 10: Top Ten Lists of Everything in Football 101, by Sports Illustrated

Huge NY Giants fan; loved football, skiing, baseball, and wrestling; described as having a “steely determination;” loved reading and his school

For Noah PoznerDragons Love Tacos, by Adam Rubin

Loved tacos so much he wanted to be a taco factory manager; loved to read, build Legos and have pretend sword fights with twin sister Arielle; liked to figure things out mechanically; when his mom told him she loved him, he always said, not as much as I love you

For Caroline PrevidiHappy, by Miles Van Hout

Always wanted others to smile; sat with neighbor child on bus to cheer him up when he was scared; emptied piggy bank to give money to church for presents for less fortunate children; loved to draw and dance

For Jessica RekosHello, Hello, by Matthew Cordell

Loved everything about horses and wanted one of her own; watched horse movies, read horse books, drew horses and wrote stories about horses. “CEO of family” - looked up YouTube video to teach self to tie shoes; left love notes all over house for her family - one was found the day after they lost her.

For Avielle RichmanEvery Cowgirl Needs a Horse, by Rebecca Janni

Happiest when she was on a horse; giggled when she trotted in her pink cowboy boots; loved swimming, archery practice, kung fu- also music, the library, telling stories and participating in super-hero adventures

For Benjamin WheelerSubway, by Christophe Niemann

Loved taking 7 train to NYC; “more interested in subways than museums and zoos;” played piano, sang; loved lighthouses, swimming, soccer, big brother Nate, and the Beatles; blew kisses and said, Catch it and put it in your heart.”

For Allison N WyattSky Color, by Peter H. Reynolds

Wanted to be an artist; turned her room into a studio and covered the house with her drawings; wonderful sense of humor that left family crying with laugher; generous – offered snacks to stranger on airplane

For Rachel D’avinoGiraffes Can’t Dance, by Giles Andreae

Boyfriend was about to propose; passion was work with autistic children as behavioral therapist; loved karate, cooking, animals, and photography

For Dawn HochsprungOlivia and the Fairy Princesses, by Ian Falconer

Dressed as book fairy once; led conga line at sock hop; infectious smile, pride in her work, accessible and welcoming, knew names of all 600+ students

For Anne Marie MurphyBeautiful Oops, by Barney Saltzberg

Artistic, fun-loving painter; witty and hardworking; loved walking outdoors; a happy soul

For Lauren RousseauThe Very Busy Spider, by Eric Carle

Always busy, always working; boyfriend called her Busy Bee; would change clothes in car between jobs; always wanted to teach; ecstatic to land full-time sub job; her mom said it was best year of her life; so kind she wouldn’t honk horn at people - said it was mean; loved Broadway shows and her cat, Laila

For Mary SherlachThe Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn

Cared deeply about the children she counseled; looked forward to retirement in a year and time at lake cabin with husband; sat on porch in wicker loveseat

For Victoria SotoSylvie, by Jennifer Sattler

Loved the beach, flamingoes; was the organizer of Christmas for her family; her black lab, Roxie waited for her every day and is lost without her; loved the NY Yankees






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Posted in 2013