Working with Advanced Readers

I recently spoke with a 10-year old 5th grader who told me that she enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird more on the second reading than she did on the first. Then she described Animal Farm as a decent story, but she thought it would mean more when she understands more Russian history. Those are books typically read by high school students as class assignments. This 10-year old read them on her own partly because she was running out of books to read at home. Her school and her parents had measured her fluency at approximately 185 pages per hour. To be clear, that is really fast reading. She typically finishes normal length novels in one or two days. The longest book she’s completed in one day (at this point) is 751 pages. It might be normal to question how deeply she is comprehending these books, but her teacher and I have both heard her discuss the books and quote from the books from memory. She loves reading so much that when her parents punish her at home, they prevent her from reading.

While we might talk about advanced readers in anecdotes and myths, the research on what really qualifies a student in the advanced reader category is somewhat vague. For instance, schools often look at reading achievement tests or cognitive ability tests in language to classify a student as an advanced reader. Some schools might consider 90th percentile reading scores as advanced. Other schools might be more selective and expect 95th percentile reading scores for the advanced reader label. However, I think advanced reading is more than comprehension and fluency. Advanced readers are students who read widely and read constantly. Advanced readers consider reading a fundament aspect of who they are and what they do. They project narratives beyond the books as mediated interpretations of the day-to-day stories of their lives. Reading is more than an activity, it is a way of being—an interpretive framework for making meaning at the intersection of personal and social development.

What are we to do with advanced readers in school? As one teacher recently stated it, these are the kids who rush through assignments just so they can take out their books and read. It is both possible and likely that in the educational environment where teachers are held accountable for all students demonstrating reading proficiency, the advanced readers become invisible. They read book after book, master the state test, and rarely attract instructional attention.

Here are four ideas teachers might consider when working with their advanced readers—those students who demonstrate high reading scores and, equally as important, an independent desire to read everything in sight.

1.     Book Club
Book clubs appeal to readers of all ages, and many adult readers find book clubs both socially and intellectually engaging. Teachers can organize book clubs in a number of ways at school, and book clubs can appeal to readers from elementary to high school. I know an upper elementary teacher who for years has organized an advanced reader book club that meets in her room at lunch one day a week. Logistically the students (with parent permission) forego the cafeteria and bring a sack lunch to her classroom every Friday. The students sign a short agreement when they are invited to join the club. They agree to three things (a) regular attendance every week, (b) reading the agreed upon texts, and (c) respectful, shared discussion. The students take turns selecting books, and in her case they are responsible for buying and bringing their own copies. Typically, they have an ongoing schedule with the next four books identified and scheduled so that students and parents have time to purchase them in advance. She participates in the book selection process making recommendations, and she establishes upfront that she reserves the right to overturn a selection if she deems it not appropriate for the school book club. I know another teacher who wanted to do the same thing, but worked in a school where students’ parents might not have the means to be continually purchase books throughout the year. She partnered with a group of private donors who purchased all the books for the students in the club. I know a high school teacher who organized an advanced reader book club that met after school once every other week. It began with regular meetings in his classroom, but the school librarian eventually got involved and provided the group a cozy place to meet in the library with comfortable sofas and chairs. In the high school book club, the students also created a social media group and the discussion of the books often continued beyond the regularly scheduled meetings. I met an English teacher a couple of years ago who organized a book club that met at a coffee shop in the community once a month. For the most part, the location and frequency are flexible based on student age and local norms. Generally, students enjoy ownership in book selection, though teachers may want to maintain a final say, especially with younger students. It is helpful for the teacher to establish some norms regarding respectful and appropriate discussion, using book club time for book club talk, or turning off and putting away devices. Book clubs can be powerful ways to engage readers.

2.     Taking Book Talk Live
Booktubing is a new phenomenon. Booktubers are generally adolescents who develop a personal social media channel (e.g. YouTube) and make and post video book talks on a regular basis. They recruit and build a group of followers who watch the videos, share the videos, and comment on the videos—stuff that adolescents already do about cats, zombies, and unsuspecting adults. Many booktubers complement their tubing channel with other social media (Twitter and Instagram) so that they can increase awareness, grow their followers, and notify the public of new videos as they are published. Popular booktubers (e.g., @frolic_fiction, @LucyTheReader, and @HowlingReviews) have thousands of follows from around the world. The build social identities around themselves as readers who like to talk about books. Their videos include individual book reviews, talks about what they are reading, and recaps of their most recent book hauls (buying an armload of books). Typically Booktube videos range from five to fifteen minutes and they require low levels of technical skills. Some booktubers even post videos on how to start your own channel using the camera on your phone.

3.     Book Blogs
Book blogs are great ways for students to share their ideas and reviews through writing. Blog sites are easy to start (Squarespace, Wordpress, etc.) and it is possible that older students have already started their own blogs. Some schools have learning management systems that might already include a platform for student blogs that are intranet (only available to those inside the system) which is a great place to begin book blogging with younger students. Book blogging is a way for students to discover their voice and shape their identity as readers. For instance some book bloggers become their blog posts to one genre in which they are deeply interested (fantasy, science fiction, or on one particular series). I have a friend who still blogs about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Book blogging can help advanced readers develop their own sense of identity as a book expert. School librarians might even recruit a group of advanced readers to regularly write blogs about what they are reading to share with other students at the school. No offense to my teacher friends, but sometimes a book recommendation from a peer trumps the last twenty books that you and I have recommended to our students. The side benefit of book blogging is that students develop some serious writing skills such as voice, proofreading and editing, and sense of audience. But do not mention that to the students or you just might take the cool right out of blogging.

4.     Goodreads: The Original Book Social Media
Goodreads was a genius idea spawned from a couple of advanced readers a few years ago. They eventually sold it to Amazon, and they now probably live on an island somewhere with their own 50,000 volume library and a card catalog just because they can. Goodreads is still awesome even though it went corporate. On Goodreads people create their own profile similar to any social media profile, except the Goodreads profile is all about what you read—past, present, future. Goodreads forces (in a pleasant sort of way) students to develop a reader identity as they make lists of what they have read, what they are currently reading, and what they want to read in the future. Teachers can create groups on Goodreads and have their students join, most importantly, you can make those groups private so that you can have a class group or even sub-groups within your class. Goodreads provides a platform for social media interaction about reading and books—doesn’t that almost bring tears of happiness?

I recently completed a research project with a group of advanced readers in early adolescence. Some of them read like rock stars—three or four books a week. Every student in the study distinguished between school reading and good reading. As teachers, we should commit to reducing or eliminating that distinction for our most advanced readers. 

Todd KettlerComment