Ignite the Reading Spark in Young Adolescents

Speed date a book? Let students give it a try!

By: Leta Simpson


Although it's been said that all learning should come from the teacher, sometimes it's the students who do the teaching. In my second year of teaching, Chad, an eighth grade student, taught me my first lesson.

Under a district mandatory reading program, all students, regardless of ability or stamina, were required to read a specific amount of literature in addition to class assignments—and largely on their own.

Chad lacked some of his peers' reading skills, and when we went to the library, he picked out a book far below his reading level. His choice mystified me at first, but then I realized that the books at this level fell within his comfort zone. They reminded him of the last time he felt safe as a reader.

As a teacher, I knew that if he continued reading books at this level he would not make his mandatory district goal nor would he become a stronger reader. But Chad wasn't unique. Many of my students selected books at a much lower level than they were capable of, and wouldn't push themselves to become better readers.

How could I push Chad without his becoming frustrated and giving up?

Lessons from Chad

The next time the class visited the library, Chad approached me in his quiet, respectful manner. "Mrs. S., I read all the books in this series and I don't know what else to pick. Can you help me?"

"Sure!" I responded enthusiastically. This is what I was trained to do! I was trained to help kids read. I jumped in with the exuberance of a young teacher but I didn't have the wisdom to guide his choices.

"What do you like to read?"

I asked.

"I don't know?"
"Well, do you like books about sports?"
"Nope."
"Action?"
"Not really."
"Funny?"

"Nope."

This back-and-forth continued for several minutes. He had no idea what kind of books he liked. How could I, with the benefit of my college courses, guide him to the world of books if he didn't even know what he liked?

We didn't pick a book in the library that day. I told him we would find one in my classroom library. Really, I just wanted to buy time because I had no idea how to help him. I talked with one of my colleagues that night, and she suggested I try something: "Ask him what kind of movies he likes. If he can tell you that, you can pick a genre for him to read."

I tried it, and lo and behold the next day Chad and I chose a book he simply couldn't put down. His mom and I couldn't hide our excitement. Both of us had struggled to get him not only to read on his own but on his grade level and now he did it with no prompting from either of us.

Spreading the Love


AMLE talks with author Leta Simpson talk about Igniting the Reading Spark

The following strategies, teacher-developed and tested, can help foster a love of reading in students.

1. Ask them what kind of movies they like.

This simple question can help you guide even the most reluctant readers toward books they like. If they can't think of a type of movie, ask them to name the last movie they watched and enjoyed.

For example, a student said that he liked Fast and Furious 7. I asked him what he liked about it, and he said he enjoyed the action and the cars. Based on his responses, I was able to guide him toward a particular author and series.

2. Organize your classroom library.
My classroom library consists of baskets of books organized by genre. Each basket is labeled with the proper term for that genre of book, such as historical fiction or fantasy. Underneath the main descriptor is a list of "Similar To" movies and other books that are similar to the contents of the basket.

This type of organization exposes students to books they might not have noticed in the library. It also increases the chance they will find a book they like. Some of my students have read all the books in a particular basket because they like that genre so much. We've also used genres as a springboard for discussions about other literature or authors based on their choices from the basket.

3. Teach them to date books.

Most students choose a book by its cover. I start off the year teaching kids how to date books.

  1. Look at the title and cover art.
  2. Read the synopsis of the book on the back.
  3. Open to any point of the book and read for two minutes. (But don't read the end and spoil the book for yourself!)
  4. If your book passes the first three tests, read at least two chapters before making a judgment. (It took me 100 pages to get into The Maze Runner!)

If they tell me they don't like a book they've picked, I ask them how many dating steps they got to. They must have completed step D and give me a valid reason before they are allowed to choose a new book.

4. Try speed dating.
Many times, students don't know a book exists unless it's right in front of them. Speed dating exposes students to many different books of many different genres. A speed dating round can be completed in one session or over several days, depending on how much time you have. If you don't have a classroom library, work with the librarian to pull some books for your students.

You'll need books of various genres by a variety of authors. You should have at least two books for each student. You'll also need to develop a graphic organizer on which students can take notes. My graphic organizer typically has a place for students to record book title and author, assign a rating (Yes, Maybe, No), and explain why they gave the book that particular rating.

Place students in small groups—desks pushed together or around tables—and scatter several books in the middle of each table. You should have at the least two books for each student in the group. Make sure the books represent a variety of genres.

Students follow these steps:

  1. Grab a book and write down title and author on the graphic organizer.
  2. Read the back cover. (Give them 60 seconds or less to do this.)
  3. Open the book and read for no more than two minutes.
  4. Assign a rating based on what you read and explain why you gave the book that rating.
  5. Change tables.

Use a timer to signal the end of each step. At the end of the allotted time for step 4, signal that it's time to change tables. Students take their graphic organizers with them and move to the next table, where they speed date another book.

When it is time to pick a book for outside reading, my students consult their "potential dates."

That's Not So Hard

Studies show that students who read just 20 minutes a day tend to score in the 90th percentile of standardized testing; those who read for only 5 minutes a day score in the 50th. But getting students to read on their own, outside school can be challenging.

Once students figure out what they like, they have an easier time falling in love with books. Some of my most reluctant readers have turned into avid readers thanks to these strategies. What's more, I have had many rich discussions about literature and authors with my students simply by tapping into their sometimes-newfound love of literature.

Notable Books for Young Adolescents

Each year a committee of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) identifies the best of the best in children's books. The committee identified these as some of 2015’s most notable books for students in grades 6–8. For more, visit www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/notalists/ncb

Because They Marched: The People's Campaign for Voting Rights That Changed America. By Russell Freedman. Illus. Holiday.

Caminar. By Skila Brown. Candlewick.

The Crossover. By Kwame Alexander. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia. By Candace Fleming. Illus. Schwartz & Wade/Random House.

How I Discovered Poetry. By Marilyn Nelson. Illus. by Hadley Hooper. Penguin/Dial.

The Night Gardener. By Jonathan Auxier. Abrams/Amulet.

Nine Open Arms. By Benny Lindelauf. Illus. by Dasha Tolstikova, Tr. by John Nieuwenhuizen. Enchanted Lion.

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights. By Steve Sheinkin.
Illus. Roaring Brook.

Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes. By Juan Felipe Herrera. Illus. by Raúl Colón. Penguin/Dial.

Revolution: The Sixties Trilogy, Book Two. By Deborah Wiles. Scholastic.

This One Summer. By Mariko Tamaki. Illus. by Jillian Tamaki. First Second.

©Copyright 1996-2015,
American Library Association


Leta Simpson teaches at Stephen F. Austin Middle School in the Bryan Independent School District in Texas. leta.simpson@bryanisd.org
Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2016.

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