Every school I’ve ever worked at wanted to encourage students to read more. Some of the schools tried various programs including using reading logs as homework, Pizza Hut’s Book It! program, Accelerated Reader, and many others. Some worked better than others, but none were as effective as we had hoped, especially for our English language learners.
I’m sure there were many reasons why these programs weren’t as effective for our ELLs, but the two I heard the most (at least from students and parents) were location/economics and language barrier. Our school was located in a low socio-economic area, mere blocks from the Detroit city line. Many of our families did not own vehicles, some did not possess a single household member with a driving license, and public transport was basically non-existent. This made accessing rewards (such as free pizza) nearly impossible, and even getting to the public library (a couple miles away from the school) was difficult. Nearly 80% of our students were classified as ELLs, or former ELLs, and many of our parents and students were first generation immigrants. Many of our families didn’t have a single person at home who was fluent in English, and quite a few of our parents were not literate in their first language either. This made the prospect of having to supervise and help their children read anything, let alone something in English as books in their native language were not readily available, very daunting for our parents.
One of my colleagues and I were discussing this over lunch during summer school one year, trying to think of a way to encourage our students, especially our ELLs, to read for pleasure more. The school day had already been extended and packed full of regular learning, interventions, and remediation, so we knew we’d have to look outside of it. Most of our students walked to school and the older ones often needed to be available to help the family financially, or to watch preschool aged siblings so their parent could work, after escorting younger siblings home from school, so after school was not a viable option either. It was later that week, as we were dealing with the post-breakfast, pre-school-start chaos that it dawned on us–nearly every student in our school arrived at least 30 minutes early in order to eat breakfast, an activity that took them approximately 5 minutes. If we provided them with the location, and some rewards they did not have to travel to claim, they might be willing to use that extra time to read. Thus, the idea for the Morning Reading Club was conceived.
The ESL “classroom” at that time was a storage closet just off the gym/cafeteria, so it was the perfect location. It was a very small area, but our students were used to squeezing into it. We quickly worked out a point system for rewards. Students would earn one point (tracked with stickers on a chart in the room) for each day they came and read for at least 15 minutes. Students could bring their own book, or choose one from the very small library in the classroom, and the book could be anything that interested them: fiction, nonfiction, graphic novel, etc.
Their points were used in two ways. Students could use them to “purchase” various school supplies: pencils, notebooks, erasers, etc. All of them were fun designs and colors but things the students needed to be successful in class. They could also choose to save up their points and “purchase” books. The rewards were purchased with title funds and a small grant we received for helping our immigrant families. The second use of the points was cumulative (including the points they used on supplies and books). We figured out how many days a student would have to participate to have read for 80% of the mornings and this became the ultimate goal. For an ultimate goal we needed an ultimate prize.
We knew we wanted the ultimate prize to be something that was fun but still educationally valuable in some way. Most of our students’ families did not have much in the way of finances before immigrating to the USA, and none of them had money to spare here in the USA. This meant things such as trips to the zoo, museums, and other learning experiences were not part of their lives. The summer we were planning all of this was also the summer we did our week of Cricket vs. Baseball themed learning. This got us got us thinking, the professional baseball season is underway at the end of the school year, none of our students had ever been to a professional baseball game (only a few had been to any professional sporting event at all). Taking in a professional baseball game would be a lot of fun, connect back to their academic learning, and be a cultural experience. Our principal agreed and said she would find the money for the tickets to send two teachers and whatever students earned the opportunity to a Detroit Tigers game.
That fall we launched the program and it met with great success. Our only problem was finding enough space for all of the students who wanted to read! They didn’t mind crowding in, sitting on the floor and in the hall, or even under tables though. Only a few came every morning, but most were there at least three mornings a week.
By the end of the year we’d passed out countless school supplies (which their classroom teachers were thankful for) and quite a few books as well. Only a few earned the trip to the baseball game, all middle schoolers, but we had a great time (my colleague and I watched them more than the game) and it’s something they talked about for years after. The classroom teachers also got behind the program and allowed the ESL teacher in charge of monitoring the room (usually me) to sign students’ reading logs for homework credit.
Beyond the space issue I can’t think of a single downside. Students developed a love of reading and got in some sustained reading time. Discipline issues in the cafeteria went down because students had something to do when they finished eating. Teachers had a fewer students wandering into the classroom early (we sent them up to classrooms about five minutes before the first bell), giving them a few extra minutes to prepare for the day. And I, as room monitor and example to follow, had time to do some fun reading myself! Did it take extra work on my part to track everyone’s participation and reward redemption? Yes. Was a fair amount of classroom management necessary to keep that many students on task before school even started? Yes. Were the results worth it? Absolutely!
I know such a program is not always possible, but it was a wonderful success for us and I feel privileged to have been a part of it. Even if you can’t do the exact same program, I encourage you to brainstorm with your colleagues and come up with something that will work for your specific situation. Happy teaching, everyone!