I was in a reading frenzy the first week of summer vacation. Lounging on my nap couch, bringing a book to the pool, lying in my hammock, and feeling on top of my reading life. And then we went home to Denmark, jetlag and worries of the future crowding my mind, and all of a sudden the reading bonanza I was in disappeared. Just like that. I finally finished a book yesterday, a 10-page slog at a time, wondering where my concentration and drive went. It’s not that I don’t like to read, it is that I don’t have the energy to.
The guilt of not reading is a constant companion because I see the books staring at me and the time beckoning. Yet I know that once my sleep gets figured out, once a few major decisions fall into place, once my brain believes that I am resting, then the reading will continue. I am secure in my own identity as a reader, it may be on pause right now, but I will restart it soon.
I see these same emotions play out in our classrooms as well; kids who were reading champions, who never went without a book, all of a sudden floundering. Losing the drive, the motivation, the love of settling into the pages of a book and seeing only work, stress, and perhaps even guilt like me. But a major difference between the students in my care and myself is that for some reading appears to be lost for good. An activity they were good at, something that has now slipped out of their grasp. And for some they don’t think it will or even want it to ever come back.
So many of my students believe that to be a reader, one must be actively reading at all times or making plans for their next read, and these false notions of what it means to be a reader can lead them into further disconnection with reading and seeing reading as part of their future identity.
This is why we must consider and change how we speak about reading and the act of being readers. This is why we must actively share our reading journey, leaving no part untold, so that the readers in our care can truly see and understand that once a reader, always a reader, even if it lies dormant. I share my reading pauses with my students so they can see how I slowly get back into active reading. I don’t stop calling myself a reader just because I do not have a book in my hands, just because I do not feel like reading. I am merely at rest, still solid in my knowledge that I am a reader.
So how do we make space for these conversations?
Step 1: We first discover how each child sees themselves as a reader. If they declare themselves non-readers, then we ask when this started? What caused it? What actions did they take? How do they feel about that? Having surveys and follow-up conversations allow us to start these conversations from day one, but that doesn’t mean that every child is ready to share honestly with us. Why should they? They have no reason to trust us on the first day of school. So make sure to come back to these conversations as the year progresses, this also recognizes the damage that can be done to their active reading lives in our care despite our best intentions. Children stop reading all the time for many reasons, we should have a way o uncovering that throughout the year. I plan 6-weeks check-ups throughout our year so that this conversation will be checked on at least every 6 weeks but we have lots of other informal check-ins as well.
Step 2: Create action plans to reframe their language. While children are often at the mercy of adult plans, it is vital that we activate them as problem-solvers and active participants in their own goal setting. What is a realistic goal? Can they try a book on in our independent reading time? How many pages are they willing to try? If not reading with their eyes, will they read with their ears? Will they read with a partner? Will they listen to a read aloud? Also writing down these plans and goals is important because we often forget the nuances of how we got to this plan. Accountability is also built through check-ins. This helps us reframe the language that they use about themselves. Adding partial sentences such as “not yet” or “right now” can be a way to start the refrain. So when a child says they hate to read it can be reframed as ” I hate to read right now.”
Step 3: Give it time. We often confuse our power thinking that if we tell kids to read then they simply will. Some will for sure, and as we know, others will dig their heels in and refuse every positive attempt we make to give it a try. This can be an indication of how comfortable they feel as readers who are disconnected from the act of reading. It can also be a window into the reading trauma they carry with them, or even just disdain. Whatever is the root cause, it can sometimes take months for some children to even try to reactivate as readers and while our own rush to help them become active readers again is a driving force, we cannot let that cloud our decisions. Forcing someone to read through the use of grades, computer programs, or other negative external measures will most often backfire in the long run. What we are looking for here is an initial activation or reactivation of feeling like a reader. So meet them where they are at and take small steps together, be mindful of the child at the center of this, not just the adult pressure to “make them a reader.”
Step 4: Reworking mindset long-term. How do we speak about reading and who our readers are? What is the language that our curriculum wraps them in? How do we show the importance of reading through the actions we take? I constantly have to remind myself that the year I have with students is only one small part of their lifelong reading journey and that my well-meaning intentions can lead to significant long-term behaviors in reading, both positive or negative. So how I invite them into this work matters greatly; am I judgement-free, am I firm in my conviction that they too can find value in reading (notice that I am not using the word joy yet because for some joy can be too big of an ask in the beginning), and I am calm in my approach. Yes, this work is urgent but it must also be centered in peace in order to make space for the many components of a child’s life. Am I holding them to high expectations while also supporting them in an individual plan? Checking in with students through both casual and planned conversations is a great first step but also tracking what we discuss and the ideas we have is another. I keep a binder with my noticing and conversations so that I can track how I am supporting them and also how they speak about themselves.
Step 5. Celebrate small growth. Too often we are intently focused on the major transformations and miss so many milestone moments along the way. This is why I am not in favor of many major individually-based reading celebrations where children have to reach an adult-determined milemarker that automatically excludes those who are developing at a different pace. Each child has something to celebrate, whether it is trying a book for the first time in a long time, actually reading a page on their own, actually engaging in conversation for the first time about their reading identity, or even just being willing to speak to you at all. Paying attention to all of these mini-milestones and recognizing them in genuine ways through positive interactions can make a major difference in how children view their reading journey. Being an adult cheerleader as they reconnect, reactivate, or finally activate in the first place is a necessary part of the adult support we provide.
Seeing the determination in a child that has declared themselves a non-reader as a force of good rather than bad, can be a powerful tool as we help children see their own power. Their convictions and dedication to not reading are a sign of the strength they have and what we can potentially help them tap into as they envision themselves as readers. It takes motivation to be a dormant reader in a classroom filled with books, how can that motivation be used in a pursuit of reactivation?
Helping a child recognize and see a path forward back to reading is not just a central tenet of the work I do, but it also encapsulates the humanity that is the center of the classroom we co-create. Every child, no matter where they are at on their educational journey, deserves respect from me – whether they love to read or not. So making space for identity formation, for reframing the language children use to describe themselves, offering that up to other adults who support them, and then taking actions based on the notion of possibility is what we can do as we plan for future students or reconsider our own reading curriculum.
As for me, I have a new book to read, a shorter one that will be out in the fall. One whose cover called my name and whose pages seem manageable even in my sleep-deprived state. I am going to give it a whirl and pay attention to how I feel. I know my inner reader is still in there, waiting to be reawakened.
I am excited to be heading out on the road again to be with other educators in-district or at conferences, while continuing my virtual consulting and speaking as well. If you would like me to be a part of your professional development, please reach out. I am here to help. For a lot more posts, resources, live and recorded professional development, please join my Patreon community where most of my sharing takes place these days.