In an ELA classroom, there is often so much on the plate, we don’t always give our kids enough time to read. I try to offer a mix of opportunities to read out loud, to be read to (by me), to read at home, and to read in class. I admit that in the past, I probably didn’t give my kids quite enough chances to read in class, but this year I’m trying to give them that time.
What I love about in-class reading blocks is that the kids get a chance to unwind a little and just be with a book. Some of my kids aren’t usually readers outside of the classroom and offering them this time is so important. And yeah, it’s not like reading blocks aren’t enjoyable for me, too. Having a reading block gives me a bit of time also to read my own book (Modeling! So important!), to do a bit of marking or answer emails, and so forth. But ultimately, the reading block is intended to serve the students.
Basically, my approach to reading blocks follows this basic premise: if we want our kids to learn that reading can be enjoyable, we should offer them opportunities (as well as tools and strategies) to enjoy their reading experience.
When I was in school, reading blocks were set up so that everyone was sitting in a desk, facing forward in rows, in complete silence. Because the way we were expected to read in school felt very regimented and forced, the act of reading—which I normally would freely choose to do for fun, even as a child—was now drudgery. Compare this reading experience to the kind I’d have when I was at home. When I was home, I would never sit in a chair at a table and read in silence. My favourite way to read involved grabbing a snack, putting my favourite cassette tape into my Walkman (!), and settling into one of my preferred reading positions.
My favourite reading position has always been laying down on my tummy — on a couch, bed, or even on the floor — with a cushion propped up under my chest. Second favourite: sitting with my right side body pressed against the arm of a chair or sofa, my right elbow propped up, and my right leg curled under me. Neither of these positions are easily offered by a regular student desk/chair. So, when I decided to start implementing reading blocks in my school schedule, I took all of this into account. Many of my kids — aged twelve through fourteen this time of year — are just being able to figure out how (and if) they like to read and how to be comfortable with a book. Some of them are like me: book lovers who seek out opportunities to read, but whose favourite way to read is not at a desk. For all of these reasons, I give my kids complete freedom within the classroom space during reading blocks and let them engage as organically as possible in their reading experience.
When I first moved into this classroom, I inherited a decrepit, wood-frame couch; while the frame eventually fell apart, I decided to keep the cushions. During reading blocks, some kids like to sit on them, others like to lay a cushion on the floor and sprawl out on their bellies or backs (exactly what I would do) or curl up in fetal position. Some kids like to stay upright in their usual seats. Some slouch in their chairs and put their feet up on a vacant chair next to them. I’ve seen students retreat to a pod of desks as a group just so they can read in the company of their friends. There are two girls in my grade nine class who curl up each in her own corner of the classroom to read in relative solitude. Others sit against the wall and some students even sit/lay under desks (and yes, I permit this). A few of my kids like to try out different locations/positions from block to block while others find their favourite space and predictably choose it time and time again.
I allow my students to snack/drink and listen to music while they read, too, because like I said, I like to snack, drink, and listen to music when I read. I often will play soft music in the background while they read; my favourites include instrumental tracks from Disney films (“King of Pride Rock” from The Lion King, “Short Hair” from Mulan, and “Transformation” from Beauty and the Beast are fantastic), any softer tracks by Jesse Cook, John Williams, the Vitamin String Quartet, and other music that kind of “fits” this mold. I try to avoid upbeat songs or songs with lyrics during reading time because some kids have a hard time processing two streams of language simultaneously and my goal is for them to focus on their reading.
“You play music while they read? But what about kids who don’t want to listen to music?” you ask. Recently, I purchased a few cheap sets of ear plugs to give to students who prefer complete silence. They aren’t expensive, and I don’t mind giving them away (who wants to reuse someone else’s ear plugs anyway?). I provide these because I believe that kids who crave silence have just as much a right to read in an environment that is comfortable to them as the kids who crave music.
At literacy PDs, they’ll tell you that many young readers and non-readers come to dislike reading because they aren’t exposed to books that are relevant or interesting to them. While this is definitely true, I think that while we are on the hunt for great stuff for our kids to read, we should also be mindful of exposing them to reading experiences/contexts that are relevant, engaging, and comforting.
Above all, my hope is that my students learn that a reading experience should be something they can choose for themselves, and that with a little freedom, they can discover their own favourite way to read, too. 🙂