being a teacher, Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity, student choice, Student dreams, student driven, Student Engagement, student voice, Student-centered

The Reading Identity Challenge


At the beginning of the year, I asked my students to tell me how they felt about reading.  I do this every year as it offers me a baseline, a glimpse into their reading truths.  I was not surprised at the results, 25% told me they loved it, 50% told me they didn’t mind it, and the final 25%?  They told me they hated it.  Perhaps slightly higher than normal, but nevertheless, teaching 7th graders, I was not worried.  After all, every year it seems this happens and every year, children change their minds.

This year, though, some have proven to be stubborn.  Those kids that hate reading, they still were fighting me every step of the way.  Abandoning books, which we do embrace, every single day.  Refusing to book shop even.  Flipping pages aimlessly day in and day out.  Not having any desire to change their hatred, content with being part of the statistics of kids that don’t read.

So I created the Student Reading Identity Challenge.  Not just for the kids who still hated reading, but for those that needed a spark, those that needed to stretch their reading legs a little.  For myself to challenge my own reading life, nervously glancing at Hatchet and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry as two books I had no desire to read but knew I should.

A reading challenge for us all, so we all could get better, whatever better meant to us.  The concept is simple; over the course of three weeks or so students would select one aspect of their personal reading life and challenge themselves to make it better or change it.  Much like a personal goal; there was no right challenge, instead, it was based on the individual’s needs, the hopes for the future.   There was no limit to what they could work on and they would be given around twenty minutes every day to read, rather than our usual ten.

We started with this five-page survey; yes, five pages.  I needed students in all their stages of reading relationship to uncover new truths about themselves.  It needed to go beyond whether they liked to read or not and into their actual reading habits.  Where are they reading, what are they reading, why are they not reading more?  Where are their book gaps?  Where do they get book recommendations from?  All those little things that play into who they are as a reader.  It took the kids almost two days to fill it out because I asked them to please slow down, please really think about it, and then show your goal to me.

The goals varied; I want to enjoy reading again, I want to try a new genre, I want to read every day.  Some couldn’t think of one until we looked through all of their answers and something jumped out at us.  Whatever the goal was there was a reason, a personal one, that this was the one thing they felt would help them become a better reader.  Some kids even chose a read aloud with another teacher so they could have a shared experience around a book, trying to help them actually like reading more.  For every goal there was a story; a story of reading blossomed or reading gone wrong.  For every goal there was either excitement or reprehension; how would this actually change anything?  Once all the goals were in place, I asked the kids to somehow keep track – how will you know you are working on your goal?  Some chose a calendar to write down minutes or rank their reading of the day, some chose a peer to speak about their reading.  This is the one component I am still working on, I did not want it to be a writing experience, one where the students would have to jot down their thoughts every day, but instead, an organic process for them that helped them have a great experience, not one more thing to do.

So we began; some kids book shopped the first few days, having to find a great book as part of their goal as well,  others dove right in.  I taught a mini-lesson every day and then the rest of the time was for them to read.  I pulled small groups, conferred with students, and otherwise watched.  Were they actually reading?  Was this actually working…

One child told me she was so confused in her fantasy book and this was exactly why she never read fantasy because “It doesn’t make any sense!” and yet because of the challenge she read on, declaring at the end of the book that she couldn’t wait for the sequel. Another told me she was stuck in the boring part and this was always when she abandoned a book, but now because of the challenge, she read on.  A child who has yet to read a single book this year, no matter my support, is on page 60 of Hatchet, telling me yesterday that he read 20 pages in one day.

Whatever their goal, I saw it gradually start to happen; kids finding a way to make reading better for themselves.  Kids realizing more deeply who they are as readers, where they are on their reading journey.  For some, it has proven to be a huge revelation, for others just a small one.  But for most, it has changed something in them as a reader.  For most, there is a deeper urge to make reading enjoyable, no matter what they are reading.

So yesterday, I taught my first two classes, followed my lesson plan to the tee.  But in my 5th hour, the students asked if they could please read for ten minutes today, knowing I had only allocated ten.  Of course, I said.  When the fifteen were up, they asked for five more minutes.  Of course, I said.  When the five were up they asked if they could please just read the rest of the class.  As twenty-five students stared at me, seemingly holding their breath, I said, “Of course.”  And then watched the thickest of silences fall over the room as they each retreated into their books.  Even the ones who tell me they hate reading.  Even the ones who used to flip pages.  I did the same for the rest of my classes, and it didn’t change; silence, except for the pages being turned, and one child telling me triumphantly that they had read fifteen pages today – more than they read all of last week.

The reading identity challenge is not the end all be all, but it is another step in helping students uncover another aspect of who they are as readers.  It is another tool to help them become empowered in their own reading journey.  It is another step to tell all of my students that reading matters and that they control so much of their relationship with reading.  That new genres await, that it is possible for reading to be fun, that they can make it through the boring parts, that they can go deeper in their text.  That reading should be a part of who they are and therefore also should be something they mold and shape as they develop further.

As for me?  It turns out that Hatchet and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry were amazing books.  That I have realized that perhaps I should be looking at other classic children’s book gaps to make sure I am able to recommend them to kids.  That even though I love reading, I still have things to work on.  Just like my students, just like we all do.

PS:  Here is the reflection sheet I had them fill out at the end.  The standard referenced is one that measures providing evidence for their thoughts.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 .   Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.



12 thoughts on “The Reading Identity Challenge”

  1. In case you’re wondering about your positive influence, you ARE making a difference! This reminds me of when my own daughter was in 7th grade. She hated reading, even though I thought I did everything in her earlier life to ensure she would love books as much as I did. Then she met her 7th grade teacher, and it all turned completely around. My daughter is now 27, and she devours books. It is her favorite past time, and she is doing everything she can to turn her own 6 year old daughter into a reader. As the saying goes, “A teacher never knows where their influence ends….”.

  2. I love the 5-page survey questions. At first I questioned if my 5th graders would be able to responsibly respond to the survey. I wanted to abandon this post and look for something more specific to elementary education. Upon further reflection, I fell in love with the idea of asking my students these questions. Thank you for sharing them!

  3. The survey that you created is terrific! What a great tool to get students really thinking about their relationship to reading. I am happy to hear about the positive repercussions your challenge is having with your students. I will be checking back for an update!

  4. One of the most challenging barriers involved with reading is lack of motivation. This lack of drive is most apparent within school systems as the opinion of reading often turns negative for students as they lose their freedom to choose what to read and instead, must shift into reading specific, potentially uninteresting texts (McKenna et al, 1995). The Student Reading Identity Challenge allows students to reframe reading as an opportunity for growth in reading skills and a method of overcoming hesitancy, or even hatred, of reading.

    Reading is a necessity that is only achievable when a foundation of phonological awareness and knowledge about letters has been established. If a child beginning to read has difficulties grasping the finer details of either the two aspects, they will struggle and fall further behind their peers, especially as the expectations for independent reading increase (Treiman 2000). As these children fall behind, they might begin to associate themselves as failures, as intrinsically less competent than their classmates, leading to a “why bother” mentality. If a child believes that their reading ability is a fixed trait, they might assume that they have no potential and lack the capacity for success, while the students who view intelligence as malleable understand that development improves performance (Dweck, 2002). Thus, the students who struggle with reading from an early age might lose belief that they possess any potential in reading, leading to an apathy or antipathy of reading, a process that is a constant proof of insurmountable failure. These different mentalities on intelligence lead to the formation of different goals specific for each intelligence type: fixed typically having goals centered on sacrificing learning in order to appear intelligent and malleable typically focusing on learning despite the difficulty level or risk factor (Dweck, 2002).

    The nature of the Student Reading Identity Challenge encompasses the students who perceive themselves as good readers and those considered poor readers, as the goals are personalized to reflect each student’s need. By having the students create their own goals, there was a risk that their goal would not push the student to succeed, however, the five-page survey allows the children to focus on the small details and, as you said, “to uncover new truths” specific to each student. By encouraging the students to take time and think about their desired goals, the students were able to think about the individual aspects within the expectancy-value theory to ensure a more motivated response. The expectancy-value theory cites that motivation is based on the perceived value of the outcome and the expectation that the outcome is achievable (Anderman, Gray, & Chang, 2012). By allowing the students time to think and consider the best personal goal, the students are able to truly understand the goal of the assignment and choose an achievable goal. Another aspect of the Student Reading Identity Challenge that allows it to encourage students to form a more motivated view of reading is the phrasing of the project as a challenge. A challenge implies that the project will be comprised of “clear goals, achievable challenges, and accurate feedback,” a difficult task that pushes but is not an impossible feat (Habgood et al, 2011). With the phrasing of a challenge, the project pushes the student to rely upon an intrinsic motivation of achieving goals and, ultimately, gaining a better outlook on reading without extrinsic rewards.

    One aspect I wish you included was more of the logistics of your project, such as the grading system and the length of the project. The assignment reflection sheet states the project as summative, but I am curious if that summative performance was based on completion or if there was another assignment to mark growth. Also, I’m interested in whether you planned for the project to be completed monthly over the course of the school year or a one time reflective assignment. The Student Reading Identity Challenge offers a great opportunity for both motivated and unmotivated readers to expand their reading skills and further a new goal.

    1. The challenge itself is not graded as that tends to once again punish the children who are unmotivated to read, instead sprinkled throughout our days the students would do other small assignments – such as discuss the theme of their book – and those aspects would be graded. The timeline of this was mentioned, it ran for 3 weeks in our classroom but could also be done for four. This is a stand alone project and not meant to be repeated as it will diminish the investment into the challenge. My students continuously challenge themselves in their reading throughout the year but this intense of a challenge is only once.

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