Going Schoolwide with Reading Engagement: Start with Success (and lots of interesting books)

This is the third entry in a series of posts I have written about my experiences in increasing literacy engagement at the schoolwide level. Click here and here to read the first two installments.

I have been meeting weekly with a group of 5th grade boys as part of a book club. We have lunch together and talk about books, at least when it suits them.

Their teacher emailed me recently. “Do the boys have to read The City of Ember? They aren’t reading it at home. I think it is too challenging for them. Plus, I have finally got ____ reading another book independently.” We had selected, together, to read this science fiction book out of a preview stack provided by me.

Fresh Starts

Students who struggle with reading struggle for a variety of reasons. Maybe they lack reading role models, or there aren’t a lot of books in the home. Decoding, fluency, or language processing might be a challenge. The culture in a classroom or school may not conducive to lifelong reading as a habit, a shared belief that this is something “we all do”.

I think all of these situations can be traced back to a common theme: Lack of success. Students who are nonreaders do not equate reading with positive consequences. Their previous attempts to become better readers have resulted in perceived failure due to the reasons listed previously. As these nonreaders grow older, their peers too often do not value reading, and therefore it becomes cool to not read.

Nah, I don’t read on the weekend. It’s the only chance I get to play on my PS4!

I doubt the validity of this student’s response. Even so, reading has never had more competition in students’ lives than in today’s connected world. So how do we connect reading with a student’s reward center?


I am not a big fan of house projects. “Hate” would be too strong a descriptor, but let’s just say my family knows not to bother me when I am trying to fix an appliance or a household item.

One area in which I do feel confident regarding home repairs is light fixtures. I’ve successful replaced three different ceiling fans/lights in our current house. This didn’t happen by accident. My father-in-law helped me with the initial projects. These forays into home repair were easier tasks: Uninstall the old fixture, rewire the new one, and secure it to the ceiling. What is important is that I was doing the lion’s share of the work. My father-in-law was there to help hold up the light fixture and offer suggestions for tools, but I was doing the repairing and installing.

Scaffolding in reading obviously looks different than a home project, but the premise is the same: Offer opportunities for initial success, and then gradually raise the complexity for the tasks with the right amount of support. With this idea in mind, I had the three students in our book club read the graphic novel adaptation of The City of Ember. They devoured it within a day or two. I also suggested the movie adaptation, which one of the students watched over holiday break. In addition, the audiobook version was made available to them through our school library.

Our conversations blossomed after their initial exposure to the story line. “Do you think it was a good idea for Doon to trade jobs with Lina?” one student asked a friend. We had a lively debate about how the story might have been different had Lina not been a messenger and subsequently did not discover some of the secrets of Ember. No, we had not read the original novel. But our group still enjoyed the story itself. How we experienced the story was what changed.


While the story was known to our club, they still had not “read it” in its truest form. The little details that only a novel can provide were still left uncovered, unknown, and unappreciated.

However, our group’s purpose was not to read The City of Ember, but to become more habitual about reading. They now had a connection between a story and enjoyment, so we decided to capitalize on this.

I brought in a box of books from a local children’s book store. The owner was familiar with high-interest texts that were also accessible for many readers. Over break, I read a number of the books both with my own children and independently to become familiar with them before making recommendations to the book club and the students’ peers.

This led into our first project: Bless a bunch of books. Two copies of each book from the Joey Pigza and City of Ember series were purchased, along with a variety of other texts. Most were fiction. A few of the novels, such as Zero Tolerance, contained content that were appropriate for a middle level audience. These “edgy” books was sure to pique students’ interests.

Our group’s jobs included stamping the books with the Howe Elementary School logo and discussing how we might present these texts to our classmates.

Student 1: I will share the first City of Ember and then you two can do the second and the third.

Student 2: You haven’t read the first one yet? How can you share it?

Me: Maybe not having read all of the book could be a benefit? I mean, he’s (Student 1) not going to give anything away, plus he can show how much he wants to finish it.

Student 2: Hmm…good point. Mr. Renwick, you can share the fourth one in the series?

Our conversations were very informal, yet authentic and directly related to our goal of increasing reading engagement. How often does this happen in classrooms? My guess is not a lot. We are busy doing so much of the work for students, such as cataloging and blessing the books, activities that really belong to them. Giving students ownership in the entire reading process in a classroom can increase their self-concept because we show them – not tell them – that we trust their judgment.

Supply and Demand

In a blog post on Stenhouse a few years back, Peter Johnston summarized the findings he and Gay Ivey observed when adolescent students are given few reading requirements other than to read a lot of books and talk about their reading with peers. One of the tenets of this research was to intentionally limit the number of high-interest titles available to students to 1-3 copies. The purpose was to create an artificial demand for these books, forcing students to have conversations about what they were reading and how far they were along in them, i.e. “When you are going to be done with that book?”.

On our big day, the students took center stage.


Standing at the front, these three students were now seen as readers. How might this have changed their perceptions about themselves?

Once all of the books were recommended, we let the 5th graders have a look at what was available now in their classroom library.


The few remaining titles was evidence that our student-led book talk was a success.


Following Up

As I saw students from this classroom in school after our book talk, I asked them about how their current reading was going.

I couldn’t get Zero Tolerance right away, so I am reading Jungle of Bones instead.

Right now I am reading Sunny Side Up. Michael let me read it next because he was already done with it.

Can we read the Joey Pigza books out of order? Someone said I shouldn’t, but the first one isn’t available yet.

These comments served as helpful data to assess the level of engagement students were experiencing with independent reading.

So…where do we go from here? First, this is one snapshot. Today’s success is not necessarily tomorrow’s results, although this classroom is set up to let readers read with abandon. Second, what happens in one classroom does not translate to the entire school. It certainly doesn’t mean that these practices aren’t happening in other classrooms. But for a school to go building-wide with any change, there has to be a level of dissemination among faculty, a sharing of ideas that will lead to building a collective capacity for increasing reading engagement.

Until next time!



Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District (http://mineralpointschools.org/). Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

6 thoughts on “Going Schoolwide with Reading Engagement: Start with Success (and lots of interesting books)”

  1. Love this example of doing whatever it takes to get children hooked on a book. Thank you! Each teacher, classroom, or student dynamic will likely be slightly different, but we can get more and more of our students to read when we focus like a laser on adapting the context and materials to suit their interests. I hope we have a lot more examples like yours. We should make this interaction an everyday occurrence.

    Really fulfilling the promise of your blog name here.


    1. Thank you Marnie. This work has been done before, so we are merely trying to replicate it at a small scale (for now). I agree with you, that “each teacher, classroom, or student dynamic will likely be slightly different” when improving our practices. That’s what makes school reform such a challenge: We cannot use a cookie cutter model to improve education. We have to invest in teachers, facilities, and leadership to realize these lofty goals.


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