achievement, Be the change, students choice, students teach me

Helping Students Set Better Reading Goals

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An often asked question I receive is, “How do you help kids set a reading goal?” And while the answer really could be an entire book, I promised the Passionate Readers Facebook group that I would write a little bit about my process here. After all, perhaps something I am doing as I try to figure this out myself can help someone else, or perhaps, and this is often the case, somebody else has great ideas that they can share in the comments.

In the past, I used to set the reading goals for all of my students, after all, as the adult in the room I thought it was part of my job to set attainable goals for all students in order for them to read more, comprehend more, be more. And yet, whenever I sat with a student and we discussed these goals that I had pre-determined based on what I saw as their needs, unsurprisingly there wasn’t always full buy-in. Sure, some kids were onboard and appreciated the goals, some even took them to heart and really worked on them, but some also (sometimes many) forgot everything about the goal the minute our conversation ended. This then began a chain of reminders, notes, and post-its for their notebooks as I tried to somehow get them all to not just remember their goals but actually invest in them. Perhaps you have been in this situation as well?

It took me a few years to realize that part of the reason these goals failed was that they had little student input. The goals were, mostly, determined by me, and while many of them were sound and based on best practice within reading instruction, they offered students little chance for ownership or engagement with the goal. This meant there was no skin in the game for our students and the goals were easy to dismiss. There was also a distinct lack of conversation surrounding the goal, sure, we conferred, but it often followed a “script” in a way and didn’t allow for a lot of natural conversation to occur. While I liked having a format as a newer teacher, it stopped me at times from really listening and reacting to what they were saying.

Realizing these two things was a huge step and yet it still didn’t solve my problem; how do we create goals that students may actually want to invest in? Well for me the answer was student reading identity. Not the goal itself, but instead students (re)discovering who they are as a reader because without any kind of realization of this, they won’t do well setting goals.

Knowing this, we start every year with a survey, a reflection, and a discussion of who they are as a reader. The survey changes every year, as it should, but it still creates the foundation of our very first discussion the first time we meet. It allows me a small peek into how they view themselves as readers as we get to know each other. And so the very first goal is typically many-pronged. Many of our students need to increase their reading and so for many that is part of their goal, and yet, that in itself is not a great goal for many. There are many of our students who should be reading more but they have habits that need to be changed first before they can even accomplish that goal. Our conversation may then center around the following items:

Desire – to increase reading stamina, success, and better relationship with books.

Barriers – Doesn’t know how to select a great book, doesn’t take books home, doesn’t have “book people,” and doesn’t actually read outside of class, in fact, some days doesn’t even read in class.

Old goal: I would have asked the student to increase their reading outside of school without realizing which and how many barriers they may be facing.

Potential new goal: Figure out which books they like to read. OR add more titles to their to-be-read list. OR…. (this is where the conversation comes into play – what makes sense for them in order to challenge themselves as readers?)

Questions I (may) use when discussing whether a goal make sense:

  • Is this a goal that will actually work for you?
  • How will this goal challenge you?
  • What barriers are in place for you to reach this goal?
  • Which habits do you need to change in order to reach this goal?
  • What is your next step toward this goal?
  • How can I support you in reaching this goal/What would you like me to do?

The thing is, we need to give students more opportunities to discuss what they know about themselves as learners. And when some students inevitably tell us that they don’t know who they are as readers then that is where we start our conversations. We become detectives trying to help them recognize and then further their own reading identity, this then leads to them discussing and then choosing potential goals, even if for some it is a reluctant goal. The one they set for themselves is recorded and then discussed whenever we meet. This goal may be a goal that some of our students work on all year and while this may seem disheartening, I don’t think it is, in a way it makes sense; after all students sometimes have well-established habits that can take years of great experiences to undo – don’t we all?

What I have learned in goal-setting with students is simple yet has once again transformed how I treat our year together. Conversation and uncovering/rediscovering their reading identity and then basing everything on that is what will fuel our goal setting. The students have taught me that everyone needs a unique goal. That the best goals start with reflection, conversation, and then are set. That goals only mean something if students are part of the conversation. That goals can change. That we should not set the goal for them if we can help it because this transfers the ownership. (Note: I have goals I set for kids privately but that is to inform my teaching and not part of our conversation.) That goals need to mean something.

So as I sit with kids every day discussing what they are working on as readers, I am always amazed at the conversations we have. On how they reflect on themselves and what they need to do. On how more are realizing why this goal setting is actually worth their time. On how proud they are for reaching goals that matter to them. And while I am proud of all of our readers, I cannot help but smile the widest when a child discovers just how much they have grown. Not because a test told them so but because they realized it by thinking about themselves and their progress. Isn’t that how it always should be?

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book, Passionate Readers β€“ The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  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.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

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