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In my previous articles, I’ve explored how we can empower students with voice and choice in reading. However, today’s article provides some nuance. While we need to empower readers to own their learning and we need to create extended periods of choice-based independent reading time, students also need to read together. Sometimes the best way to empower a student in reading is by exposing students to new texts that will broaden their worldview. This was a lesson I learned the hard way in my fifth year of teaching. This is part of a series on empowering readers. If you’re interested, I also have a self-paced course  where I walk you through practical ways that you can empower your students in the reading process.

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My Failed Personalized Reading Experiment

As my students filed into their seats after their elective, I posed the question, “What is your favorite part of reading in school?” Students jotted down their ideas. Themes emerged around characters and plot and genres that they had recently discovered. But the biggest overarching idea was that students loved reading when they got to choose what they read. They also tended to enjoy reading when they didn’t have to stop to complete an assignment.

I then had students complete a quick Google Form where they rated how much they enjoyed various reading activities, including Socratic Seminars, free reading time, reading groups, whole class novels, book previews, and book reviews. Choice-based independent reading scored a 4.3 out of 5. My students really enjoyed independent reading. By contrast, book clubs scored a 2.1 out of 5.

After analyzing the data as a class, I decided I would try something new. We would go fully personalized in reading. Students would continue with choice-based independent reading. However, they would also get to choose which short stories they read instead of doing read-alouds as a whole class. I scrapped the book clubs and instead increased the amount of free reading time followed by short partner discussions where students would compare and contrast what they were reading.

My plan worked. Students seemed to enjoy the reading more than they had in the previous quarter. However, as the weeks progressed, a few students told me they missed the book clubs. One student said, “I didn’t like being forced to read a book I wouldn’t normally choose but I did like the conversations we had.”

Another student said that she felt distant from the class during reading. “Everybody just does their own thing and it feels like we’re not really a class, you know?”

I noticed other trends emerge as well. Students were growing narrower in their choices. They were sticking to the same authors, the same genres, and even re-reading the same stories. While I am a huge fan of re-reading a text and gathering new insights, in this moment, my students were no longer discovering new texts or trying out new genres. My students were growing comfortable in their reading routines.

It was here that I realized that my experiment had failed. Or rather, it hadn’t failed. This personalized approach had actually increased student enjoyment of reading. But I had forgotten that reading isn’t always about enjoyment. Sometimes reading is uncomfortable and disruptive. Certain texts will make us angry or sad and push us to think more deeply about life. A child might choose Diary of a Wimpy Kid every time but when they read The Hate You Give, it has them questioning so much of their world.

Emily Styles describes the need for “windows and mirrors” in literature. A mirror is a reflection of a child’s own culture. They need to see themselves in what they read. I still remember a student smile when she was reading The House on Mango Street and saying to me, “She’s writing about me. I can see myself in the book.” She needed a mirror. A window, by contrast, offers students a view into another person’s experience. This is a chance to broaden one’s worldview and gain empathy. When I shifted toward personalized reading, my students found many mirrors but very few windows.

Sometimes a lack of choice can expose students to an entirely new style of writing. A text just seems off and weird and you don’t really get it at first but somewhere in the second or third chapter you fall in love with it. That was my own experience with magical realism when I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Similarly, I hated Shakespeare until we began to immerse ourselves in it by reading aloud, performing it, and eventually seeing a live performance. There was a moment when it just clicked. But I never would have sought out that moment on my own.

Sometimes less choice can lead to more empowerment because it pushes us to be more creative. We are forced to work within creative constraints.

I love the way that Barry Schwartz put it in The Paradox of Choice. “The fact that some choice is good doesn’t necessarily mean that more choice is better.” True, we need choice but we also need a lack of choice. Sometimes this lack of choice exposes us to new ideas and we end up surprised and delighted. Sometimes it teaches us patience, humility, and gratitude. Schwartz describes the difference between “maximizers” who focus on getting the best option versus the “satisficers” who are content with “good enough.” In the long run, satisficers tend to be more content but also highly productive. Having fewer options can help students become satisficers.

This failed experiment also reminded me that there is a value in having students read the same text together. These shared experiences help build community. We grow closer as a class when we read that epic short story together. Shared reading can also create a shared language that we can access. We end up referencing these stories as we make sense out of challenging ideas. My students understood the human side of the Holocaust at a deeper level when we read Night together.

Shared reading is a chance to add layers of interpretation to the fabric of a text. The end result is a richer tapestry with more perspectives, ideas, and questions than anything one could create on their own. I tend to view reading a solitary endeavor but this failed experiment reminded me that reading is inherently social. We read, in part, because it connects us to others. When experience a shared reading as a community, we grow closer to those around us.

Making the Most Out of Shared Reading

When I was a kid, I hated whole class read-aloud activities. Typically, teachers would use a “popcorn” reading approach, where the entire class would read the same text and the teacher would randomly call on certain students who would then read the text aloud. Sometimes the teacher would use a popsicle stick or simply tap the student on the shoulder. Other times, students would call a name and say, “next” and that student would have to read.

As an early reader, I hated this activity because I was shy and embarrassed by my lower fluency level. I dreaded pop corn reading because I felt exposed as a bad reader. In the second grade, as I emerged as a stronger reader, I still hated this activity but this time it was because I found it boring. As a stronger reader, I would often read ahead and then have to go back to see where the current student reading aloud was actually reading. Researchers have actually studied this phenomenon. In pop corn reading, students tend to read at a slower fluency rate, which makes the text harder to comprehend. This is a something Opitz and Rasinski explored in their brilliant work Good-bye Round Robin.

So, I’d like to explore some practices that we can do instead of pop corn reading.

Shared reading means students will have times when they will read aloud together. The following are a few strategies that work better than pop corn reading:

  • Reader’s Theater: Students read a section of a script aloud. Unlike pop corn reading, in a reader’s theater, students have the chance to read and re-read the text independently or with a partner before they perform it as a whole class. This rehearsal process helps reduce some of the fear and the shame attached to pop corn reading but it also provides a chance to practice a text and increase fluency as a result of repeated readings. Along the way, students see that reading fluency isn’t merely about words per minute. It’s also about accuracy, pace, and expression. It’s about reading at a pace that’s similar to how we speak.
  • Reciprocal Reading: This process often occurs in partners. Each person reads a short section and then a partner gets the chance to read. Sometimes they stop to summarize what they’ve read or the listener might ask the reader a question. Reciprocal Teaching is a variation of this where students engage in a shared process of predicting, clarifying, questioning, and summarizing as they read (Palinscar & Brown, 1984). This strategy works well with students who have solid fluency and can decode text but struggle with comprehension and analysis (Lysynchuck, Pressley & Vye, 1990).
  • Peer Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS): The PALS strategy was developed by Fuchs, Fuchs, and Burish in 2010 but I just recently got into it. Students work in pairs with a high-need and low-need reader. As they read aloud, the pair alternates between the role as a coach and a reader. It’s similar to Reciprocal Teaching but it tends to be faster and more loosely structured. Students spend more time reading and less time talking. In some cases, the coach will correct a fellow student in the moment and give immediate feedback. Here, students engage in reading, re-reading, and finally re-telling (where they summarize the text).
  • Choral Reading: This was honestly the hardest strategy for me to get into. It felt chaotic and noisy. However, when our reading specialist showed me the research on choral reading, I tested it out and it actually worked. With choral reading, the entire class reads the text aloud, meaning every student gets a chance to read aloud while also getting immediate feedback from the larger group. Unlike pop corn reading, students aren’t stuck listening to poorly modeled reading strategies and they aren’t put on the spot to read in front of the group. During choral reading, students can hear themselves but other students can’t hear them. For what it’s worth, most of my students didn’t enjoy choral reading. They described it as boring. However, it’s still a strategy I would recommend using.
  • Echo Reading: This is similar to choral reading but instead of having the whole class read the text together, a teacher will read a section of the text aloud and the whole class reads it chorally. This is a chance for teachers to model reading fluency and have students practice it immediately afterward.

Sometimes shared reading might involve a teacher read-aloud while students either listen or read along silently. This process exposes students to quality reading fluency while allowing teachers to model reading strategies, including questioning, clarifying, predicting, and summarizing the text.

  • Novel Read-Alouds: This is the one we tend to think of immediately. Here, a teacher reads a text aloud over a long period of time and students get the chance to hear what reading fluency sounds like. While a teacher might break up the novel with chances for students to read the text silently or engage in peer reading, I’ve seen teachers read a single book for 10-15 minutes a day over weeks and it creates a rich shared experience.
  • Book Previews: The teacher reads a snippet of a book that students might read independently. While this isn’t the same as a whole class novel, the process creates a shared experience where all students are exposed to new texts. Literacy expert Bonnie Hamer used to run a First Chapter Fridays activity where she would read the first chapter from a different book each week and hype up the book for students to check out.
  • Short Stories: Time is scarce and a full novel read aloud can be a challenge. However, short stories can be a great opportunity for students to analyze a text in a shorter period of time. With the short story, the entire class can listen and read along to a text in a single class period and follow it up with a Socratic Seminar or a literature response. In some cases, the teacher might break up the read-aloud and have students to a choral reading for part of the text or engage in a Peer Assisted Learning Strategies activity.
  • Picture books: While we tend to think of picture books as being a “primary grade” activity, I have read certain picture books aloud to my students (such as The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds). Picture books are great for launching deep conversations or for having students analyze the author’s use of language. Plus, I love the shared experience of a read aloud. I’ve seen entire classes moved to tears when a teacher brings them group together and reads a picture book with a profound message.
  • Poetry: So much of poetry is about sound and rhythm. We do a disservice when we dissect it for figurative language without breathing it in completely first. True, we need to think critically about poems but we need to hear them and feel them and let the poems move us first.

The shared experience goes beyond the act of reading. It also involves responding to what we read in an ongoing dialogue. The following are some ways we can engage in discussions together:

  • Socratic Seminar: Members meet in a circle (or more likely an oval, because, let’s be real, circles are really hard to create) and share their insights from the text. Participants do not raise their hands or call on names. Because there’s no discussion leader, each member can comment or ask follow-up questions to one another. This can be really empowering for participants. However, there is a risk that certain people will dominate the conversation and quieter participants won’t speak up. Similarly, members of marginalized groups might be more reluctant to share their thoughts, so it’s really important to pay attention to the norms. You might need to have a reflection time before the seminar starts to allow students to process the text individually first.
  • Book Clubs / Literature Circles: Students meet in a small group and read the text together. In some cases, they might use peer reading strategies, such as Reciprocal Teaching or Peer Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS). However, they might get together as a group and read silently while sitting together. When they’re finished with the text, they engage in a conversation. They might use a study guide with specific questions or a protocol such as connect-extend-challenge. However, it might be more open-ended with students asking questions and engaging in discussions that they generate on their own. I’ll be taking a deeper dive into book clubs in an upcoming article. As teachers, we can also model this process by creating our own book clubs with colleagues.
  • Book Podcasts: At its most basic level, a podcast is a series of audio files that you can download and listen to on pretty much any device. Most podcasts come in a series, with a schedule (daily, weekly, or monthly) but there are podcasts where all the files are available at once. There are two types of book review podcasts. The first is individual. Students can write out a script for an engaging book review and then read it into their smartphone. They can review the plot, setting, conflict, theme, pacing, etc. Then, they can give it a rating and discuss what type of reader they would recommend it for. It’s simple but highly engaging. The second is a book discussion podcast where students read the same book and discuss in a style similar to a literary circle but with a clear sense that there is an audience in mind.
  • Online Discussions: As a teacher, you can post reflection and analysis questions on your learning management system and let students engage in a discussion. Or you can have students create their own discussion questions for additional student ownership.
  • Book Projects: A shared reading can lead to bigger projects such as a fan fiction work, a creative extension, or a longer project. We’ll be exploring book projects and fan fiction in an upcoming article in this series.

Shared reading adds layers of understanding to the text while helping form and maintain a classroom culture of reading. Reading is inherently social and we can use shared reading in a way that might limit choice a bit but can still lead to deeper learning and more student empowerment.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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