being a teacher

Helping Students Navigate the COVID Reading Slump

One of the most common conversations I have had with students over the last 7 weeks has been a description of what COVID has done to their reading lives. How they haven’t read a book since March, how their attention just seems to not be there, how they cannot seem to find the time, energy, or even the books they want to read. They know they should read but…the world just seems too big right now, their work is piling up, they are just too tired, and they just can’t. And we are not even together, I teach fully virtual, a constant reminder that here in Wisconsin, much like many other places, COVID is exploding and claiming more and more lives. The kids are not okay and neither are the adults.

It’s not just in our classroom that this is playing out. I recognize this disconnect from reading in my own life. Since March 13th, the world has been heavy. The work has been heavy. The books call quietly but I look at my to-be read shelves and it feels like work, not like an escape. Not like something I can do to relax. When I speak to educators globally, they share the same stories; the kids are not reading, how do we help them find joy in reading again? How do we make reading something important to us all when there is hardly any time to do anything?

So in room 203, we have focused on connecting with each other again. We have focused on meaningful work, conversations, and access to books. Is it fully working, not yet, but I am seeing a difference using the following tools to bring them back, one by one, and I think they are seeing a difference too.

Recognizing the enormity of the world. We will never work through this if we don’t recognize and try to understand the unique situations that students are working through. With the pressure to do school like normal when our times are anything but, we can easily forget that this is not normal, that it makes total sense that kids are not reading, and that assigning more accountability work is not going to be the way to bring them back to reading, far from it. So resist the urge to assign more work with their reading so they have to get a grade or get it done, more than likely assigning all of that extra work surrounding their reading is going to push them farther away from wanting to read rather than the opposite. Instead focus on each child’s humanity, recognizing that we are all doing the best we can everyday and that while that means for some reading is not a part of their life at this moment it doesn’t mean it won’t be. But we cannot plan and teach as if the world is not upside down.

Assigning less work. If I want kids to read then they need time to read, this means I need to assign less asynchronous work in order for them to actually have more energy to read. But it cannot just be English class, across the board we should have a schoolwide conversation about the work being assigned because if we are piling on so much work that kids don’t have energy or time to read then we have lost our way on the experience we should co-create for all kids. I know many of us are striving to keep the work challenging and plentiful but let’s not sacrifice reading joy on our way there.

Physical book access. I have marveled before at the comprehensive plan our librarians created to make sure students could still request physical books from our library and how they have helped us get books out to students. And it is working, one book at time, we see kids get excited about the stack of books they are either picking up or having delivered. Students can request both books from our school library or classroom collection using different forms, they can request specific titles or a bag of books that fit their interests and needs. While we also have digital access to books, the physical books seem to be making the biggest difference.

Continued conversation. I have written before about the daily reading conferences I am doing with students and how much hope they bring me. Every child is scheduled via a Google Calendar invite for a 15 minute reading conference every three weeks. We discuss how they are doing, how school is going, and then how their reading goals are coming – in that order. I have Wednesday off as our collaboration day for adults and kids who miss their check-in meeting can either reschedule with me or do a Flipgrid video where they answer a few pre-determined questions and I at least get a small glimpse into how they are doing. Then we try to meet again in the next cycle. The conversation is casual and centered in their reality. It allows me a chance to check in on them as far as how they are doing, if I can support with anything and then we talk about reading. There is no judgment as far as where they are at in their reading and whether or not they have been reading, but instead a conversation about how they can work on their goal. Do they need books? Do they need a new goal? Do they need help in some way? As one student ended our conversation with last week, “This was so nice, I really needed this,” and I couldn’t agree more.

One of the pages of their reading identity digital notebook can be seen above, this is the 6-week reflection page they will be filling in tomorrow.

Setting 6 week reading goals. Within our Digital Reading Identity Notebooks, students have a place to set a 6 week reading goal. We do it in class together, discuss what realistic goals can look like, and then discuss it during our individual reading conferences. Goals range from slowing down their reading to actually reading outside of class time and many other aspects of their reading journey and identity. Tomorrow in class, we will spend time reflecting on their first goal, write about it, and then use their reading data to come up with a new reading goal for the next 6 weeks. Their goals should be specific to their journey, challenging in a realistic way, and also something they actually want to work on. This gives me yet another glimpse into who they are and how I can best support them.

A snapshot of some of the question on their reading survey.

Weekly reading reflection. Every first class of the week, students do a very brief survey that allows them to take stock of their reading habits for the previous week and allows me a quick glance at their reading and what they may need from me. This is the data they will look at tomorrow when they reflect on their last 6 weeks. The survey takes less than 5 minutes, the students think it is easy to navigate and best of all, they answer honestly, knowing that it is a tool to help them not punish them because there is no grade attached to their answers (or to their independent reading for that matter).

Tomorrow’s book talk slide

Daily book talks. I am still doing very casual daily book talks featuring new or old books. While they are not having the same impact as when we are face to face, a few books have been requested after I have book talked them and that is enough for me to keep doing them. The booktalks are short and sweet, I have the cover on a slide and then discuss what I loved about the book, then I read the blurb. It takes us less than 2 minutes but allows the students to get a feel for the books we have available to the them in class.

Book Speed Browsing is coming back in November

Book Speed Browsing. I wrote about the September book speed browsing here and how it gave students a larger glimpse of the books we have available to them. I am currently working on one for November, the major change is that students will be asked to read about each book rather than just choose 5 and there is not a form they have to fill in but instead that students can choose to request books if they would like. This tool is meant to give them a broader access to our library and hopefully entice some more reading for the kids.

Independent reading in class. The first thing we do after I have greeted all students is to read. While we have a lot less time together than we would normally, the most important part of our time spent together is the time we dedicate to independent reading every class. We read at least 30 minutes in class spread throughout our two classes of the week. Students start to read after I have greeted and spoken to them, I ask them to keep their camera on if they can or once in a while they flash me their book cover quick as they read. Are there kids that don’t use the time for reading? Absolutely! We are working on that just like we would in class when kids choose to fake read or not engage at all. But many kids are reading and for some kids it is the only reading they are doing every week. This will always be the most protected activity we do. I cannot tell students that they should read outside of class and then not give them time to do so in class.

Listening to tips from students. As always, our students have great ideas for how they can navigate their reading lives. A few ideas from students have been reading two books at the same time – switch between books as one gets boring in order to actually finish books and keep their attention. Try a new format – what is something you haven’t tried before, now is a great time to try graphic novels, novels in verse or audio and shake up our reading habits. Try a new topic or genre – perhaps changing up the familiar will help you. Find a new routine – our routines have been disturbed greatly and so the habit of reading may have slipped out of routine as well, when does it make sense to let reading happen?

Patience. We are facing uncertain times and even if we feel like we are ready for the Corona virus to be done, it is still here. That means that kids, and adults, will continue to have their mental health affected, that the world will continue to be heavy, that reading will continue to be a chore for many. But we can take small steps, we can continue our focus on it as a central gathering point in our class, and we can continue to encourage our students to find books that speak to them, that connect to who they are, that they can find value in even if joy is not there right now. And we can wrap that up in the best practices we know, not forcing ourselves into more accountability work, but instead allowing the act of reading independently to be something we do as a community, something that we do to take care of ourselves, something that we do because it allows us to transport ourselves to a new world, even if just for a moment, and that can sustain us for a long time.

So I hope this blog post was helpful, please share your ideas in the comments, and allow yourself to breathe. Reading is not lost for all, it may just be hidden right now, but together we can reignite reading for ourselves and help others as well, as long as we start with connections first.

I am excited to announce that I am doing virtual speaking and consulting right now. If your district or organization would like more information, please see this blog post.

9 thoughts on “Helping Students Navigate the COVID Reading Slump”

  1. Thank you for this great reminder with practical ideas! Typically an avid reader, I have struggled since March. I wish more district, state, and school leaders would acknowledge this and adjust expectations for teachers and students.

  2. Re this quote “We have focused on meaningful work, conversations, and access to books.” Would we have a better learning climate/culture in our classrooms if we dropped the word “work” from our vocabulary in this context and instead said “meaningful learning?”

    1. I know you have brought this point up before and I hear you but I also think it is a matter of just semantics. We can call it whatever we want, the students will still see it as work that is connected to their learning.

    1. My apologies, my last response was hurried as I was in the car. you are absolutely right language matters and I think the point you bring up is a valid one. How we frame the learning, the work, matters because when we see something as learning rather than “just” work to get through our attitude can change. I don’t know if the language shift convinces students otherwise as they often will still see it as work even when we call it learning and it is also work in the dictionary definition, but it is one more attempt at engaging. I wonder too if there is value in reframing our relationship to the word work – there is work involved in learning and I don’t want to dismiss that either.

  3. Oh, no! I think the reading check-in form was posted with editing access for all, because it looks different than how you shared it in this post, and has the name “Mrs. Smith” in one of the possible choices! Just a head’s up that the form has been changed!

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