Three Ways to Increase Student Engagement in Reading

The research is clear: If a student is not motivated to read and is not engaged in the text, all of the strategy instruction a teacher might provide may be for naught (Guthrie and Klauda, 2014; Ivey, 2014; Wanzek et al, 2014). That is why it is critical that we make reading meaningful so that students make meaning out of what they are reading and become lifelong readers.

The following three activities are excellent beginnings for increasing reading engagement.

1. Reading Aloud

This is quite possibly the most underutilized practice K-12 that also has the greatest potential for developing engaged readers. It’s how I got engaged in reading – my 3rd grade teacher read aloud Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. I was hooked. I don’t know how many times I reread that book after hearing it read aloud (my parents could verify).

When I was a 5th and 6th grade teacher, one of my go-to resources was The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. The treasury of recommended read alouds in the back of the book was indensible to me as a busy classroom teacher. Whatever he recommended, I know I could count on as a quality text that would create an excellent shared reading experience with my students.


As a school principal, I continue to utilize reading aloud. For example, I read favorite poems, jokes and quotes during morning announcements. Also, teachers invite me to read a favorite picture book in their classroom. It’s a great way to share an excellent story while also getting to know the students better. In addition, I model for everyone – students and teachers – the importance of creating shared experiences around the written word.

2. Speedbooking

The purpose of this activity is to introduce students to new titles they might want to read and add them to their to-read list. The power in this practice is that the students are the ones recommending the books, not the teacher. This idea comes from an article out of the Wisconsin State Reading Association journal. It is an activity designed for English language learners, but as with most better practices, it is excellent for all students.

To start, I explain the purpose for the activity (to discover new books to read; to build a stronger community of readers; to learn how to write and share a short book review). Then I model for the students how to prepare their reviews. Recently, I used a favorite chapter book/read aloud of mine, The Smartest Man in Ireland by Mollie Hunter. Here are my notes I wrote under the document camera for 5th graders.

The students write their own short summary notes as I write mine in front of them. I make the point that the focus is on being able to verbally share a book review. The notes are there as talking points. Also stressed is the importance of stating the author’s name and considering why the audience might want to read the book. Students are apt to describe why they like something without thinking about their listeners in their review.

With notes and book in hand, students get into two circles facing each other. For some humor, I share with the students that adults used to participate in speeddating to meet someone they might want to date (“Ewww!” is the common response). To draw the analogy, I explain that they should be particular about which book(s) they might want to read and to be a critical consumer if they don’t find a title appealing.

This leads into each student getting 1-2 minutes to verbally share a book revew of their favorite title with their partner and then switch. One side of the circle moves either to the left or to the right, and the process starts over again. When a book strikes their fancy, they should write it down to consider for later. They may not hear every book and that is okay. A final product is a to-read list on an index card they can use as a book mark.


3. Book Raffle

In 2013 I wrote about hosting a book raffle in a 5th grade classroom (click here for that post). The idea comes from Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits by Donalyn Miller and Susan Kelley. Here is how it works:

  1. Select books from the school library and bring them into the classroom.
  2. Provide a list of the titles for each student + sticky notes for the raffle.
  3. Recommend each book to the students while they note which ones they want.
  4. Students put raffle tickets in for the texts they want to read.
I have read all of these books. I could not recommend them without having read them.
Students note which books they want on the list and prepare raffle tickets.
The cups in front of each book will hold their raffle tickets.
Students put in their raffle tickets for the books they want to read

All of the titles are from our school library. With the lists the students now have, they can check out any book they want but couldn’t get right away at a later date. I encourage students to “bug” their classmates to finish a book they want to read next.

All three of these activities are only the beginning for building reading engagement in a classroom. Teachers have to keep the momentum going, by reading aloud daily in the classroom, by frequently checking in and conferring with students during independent reading time, and by celebrating their literary accomplishments, such as number of books read and how widely they are reading. Donalyn Miller’s two resources (The Book Whisperer, Reading in the Wild) are filled with excellent ideas for any teacher looking to build reading engagement in their classrooms.


Rethinking Reading Logs

In another lively #educoach Twitter chat, we discussed the first chapter of Donalyn Miller’s book Reading in the Wild. This excellent resource provides educators with many ideas on how to raise readers for a lifetime, and not just for that next test or quiz.

A topic that came up near the end of the discussion was reading logs.

There were multiple responses. Most of them were not favorable toward this practice. I realize why educators use reading logs: We want students to become habitual readers. But why do we develop habits? A habit is a behavior that we repeat over and over because we experience something positive from it.

Reading logs do not develop lifelong readers. It is the act of reading itself – the entertainment to be had, the information gained, and the subsequent socialization we experience – that keeps us coming back for more.

So how can we rethink this assessment tool, so that the accountability we place on students to become more regular readers augments instead of detracts from the experience?

Reading Graffiti Boards

Our 4th and 5th grade teachers all attended a one day workshop with Donalyn Miller last fall. Reading graffiti boards is an idea suggested by her. The teacher puts up black butcher paper. He or she then models how to write favorite lines from their book they are reading on the board. Metallic markers make the writing pop out.


During my regular walkthroughs, I enjoyed watching this graffiti board expand with student contributions. This tool for sharing led to students having more authentic peer conversations with each other about what they were reading. It also served well as a natural way to recommend titles.

Would this have occurred with reading logs?

Blog Instead of Log

My son hated filling out his reading log as a first grader this past school year. It was like pulling teeth, as they say. Because he liked technology (just like his dad:), we tried blogging about his reading instead.

We used KidBlog as our writing tool. Initially, it was still the same process of forcing him to respond to his reading. But once he started getting comments from family members, such as his grandmother, he became more motivated to share his reading life.

We hit pay dirt when one of his favorite authors, Johnathan Rand, posted a comment on his blog post about his book series Freddy Fernortner: Fearless First Grader. (I had emailed the author my son’s post about his books, in hopes of him responding.) After a discussion in the comments, including many questions from my son, I suggested hosting a Skype chat between the author and his classmates.

Before the Skype chat, the classroom teacher had the students suggest several questions for Mr. Rand. When they finally did connect with him, students had the opportunity to come up and speak with the author, each with a question in hand.


After this experience, I was told that many of my son’s 1st grade classmates were much more motivated to read, especially the Freddy Fernortner chapter book series. This included one student who last semester was in Reading Recovery.

Would this have occurred with reading logs?

Create Book Trailers

In another one of our 4th grade classrooms, a teacher had discovered Educreations. This is a simple web-based screencasting tool that can be used on iPads and other mobile devices. Students in this classroom still had reading expectations, but they were to create a book trailer for a title they had recently read.


Book trailers are visual and audio summaries of titles, with the purpose of convincing someone else to read that book. The students in this classroom regularly shared their creations with their peers by mirroring the content onto the whiteboard. I was told that one of the more challenging students in this classroom, who refused to do much of any other work, was highly motivated to create these book trailers.

Would this have occurred with reading logs?

I realize my repeated question is rhetorical. The reactions, products, and feelings toward reading that I listed would not have occurred with the outdated practice of paper-based reading logs. There needs to be an authentic audience for the responses students are asked to produce about their reading. This audience creates a more profound purpose for these types of assessments and accountability tasks.

What is your opinion on reading logs? In what ways have you augmented how students respond to their independent reading? How do you know it is working, in that your students are becoming lifelong readers? Please share in the comments.

Making Our School’s Learning Visible


Our wall of effort has gone digital. Instead of posting the great efforts of our students on a wall by the cafeteria, we now proudly recognize them on our flatscreen. Using a digital media player, slides now rotate with names of students who have shown strong growth in reading and mathematics. We also celebrate the efforts of our students that have affected others through acts of kindness and service.

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So now we have this semi-barren wall. In the future, it will be drywalled so that it provides for a cleaner aesthetics. While several of our accolades adorn some of this space, there are several empty sections that could be displaying something important. I don’t know an educator that felt comfortable leaving a wall blank.

So what are your suggestions? Really, I don’t know what should go here. Here is what we have for ideas so far:

  • Take Donalyn Miller’s idea from Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013) and create a Reading Graffiti Board. The gold spaces you see in the middle would be covered with black paper. Then, students and staff members could use metallic markers to write their favorite quotes from books they have read or are currently reading.
  • Classrooms could print and post pictures of the students at work, creating a Visual Learning Mural. Parents often express their desire to see what is happening in school. Grades and assessment reports don’t provide the whole picture. And as we know, students are not always very good about articulating what they learned on a daily basis with their parents.
  • Our focus this year as a building is informational writing. Our expected outcome is for the vast majority of our students to produce at least one quality explanatory paragraph. What if this space was designated as a Writing Mastery Wall? Teachers would submit what they felt was exemplary writing to me, and I would attach that piece of student work to the wall with the student’s grade level noted. The purpose of this project would also posted on the wall. Teachers would be encouraged to refer to the Common Core State Standards and the district curriculum when they determined as a team what was worthy for the wall.

What are your thoughts? Do you think one of these ideas works best for our wall? What other ideas do you have? Please share in the comments.

A Principal’s Bookbox


I never really understood the purpose of student bookboxes until I spent the day reading in the hallways of my school.

On November 15, 2013, I participated in the Principal Challenge. It is hosted by the Book It! program. Principals who choose to read all day at their building qualify their school for a chance to win 101 copies of Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck by Jeff Kinney. Unless you have zero interaction with elementary students, you know how popular these titles are. Besides the fact that I can win books for students, this was a good opportunity for me to model what life long readers do.

So here is my day. I list the time, the title, and the location of my reading spot in the school.

8:45 A.M. – I Must Have Bobo! and I’ll Save You Bobo! by Eileen and Marc Rosenthal (Kindergarten)

I had several books to choose from in my bookbox; Everybody books, professional resources, children’s literature, personal nonfiction and fiction titles. I chose the Bobo series to read because a) I needed a good laugh, and b) five and six year olds love the antics of Earl the cat trying to steal Bobo the sock monkey away from his young owner. I brought these books out later, when I was hanging out in the 1st grade wing at the end of the day.

10:00 A.M. – Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller (2nd grade)

I think there were a few jealous teachers when they heard I already had a copy of this new release. My 4th and 5th grade teachers plus an interventionist heard Donalyn speak not long ago in Wisconsin. Her wise words and practical advice resonate with all educators looking to bring authenticity back into their classrooms. My purpose for reading Donalyn’s new title was to find some ideas of how to better facilitate our after school book club. Here are the notes I have taken through Chapter 1:


11:30 A.M. Online Stories, Lunch with the Student Leadership Club (LMC)

Book It! is sponsored by Pizza Hut. Our local franchise heard about me participating in this challenge and offered pizza for select students. I invited the student leadership club because of their various volunteer work, including setting up a book swap in our school. Their advisors do this without getting paid or expecting recognition. We had a nice lunch, just enjoying each others’ company. We also watched and listened to the digital books on the Book It! website via the SmartBoard.

12:30 A.M. No More Taking Away Recess and Other Problematic Discipline Problems by Gianna Cassetta and Brook Sawyer (playground)

Very appropriate location. This book is a part of the “Not This But That” series from Heinemann, edited by Nell Duke and Ellen Oliver Keene. I have already read No More Independent Reading Without Support by Debbie Miller and Barbara Moss. I found this resource well-researched and easily applicable, so I looked forward to reading this next title in the series. I walked around, part of me being present while I read. Kids came up to me, asking what I was reading, much like I experienced throughout the morning.

1:30 P.M. Student Writing, by 3rd graders (3rd grade)

When I came back in from recess, I had a message waiting for me. A teacher requested that I read some of her students’ writing about pumpkins in the hallway. Once I arrived with my bookbox to the 3rd grade wing, I was tasked with identifying the writing that had the strongest voice and word choice. It was a hard decision. There were several pieces that were strong. Here is one of them:


2:30 P.M. Loser by Jerry Spinelli (4th, 5th, and 1st grade)

The end of the day was filled with some odds and ends. As a principal you don’t get a sub when you are gone. However, I did manage to start this novel for older elementary students. It’s been sitting on the shelf in my office for years. I think I haven’t tried reading it because there isn’t a summary on the back or in the copyright page. The Principal Challenge, plus various recommendations, made for a good opportunity to start it this day. After getting through about 25 pages, I found that this novel somewhat resembled Spinelli’s Newbery winner, Maniac Magee. Having fond memories of teaching reading with that title, I look forward to finishing Loser when time allows.

A Principal’s Reflections

As I stated, I didn’t truly understand bookboxes until after I took on the Principal Challenge. Having options for reading was really nice. Sometimes you feel like reading nonfiction, sometimes fiction. That my school staff strongly supports this practice is affirming. I hope to continue to allocate a significant amount of school dollars toward this essential element of the literacy block.

I guess this day of reading would constitute a no-office day. it definitely felt like a no-office day. Because I was expected to read, I wasn’t checking email or falling into other distractions. To be honest, I almost felt guilty just sitting around and reading. Was I shirking my duties? I don’t think so. Many kids came up to me, asking me why I was reading in the hallways or on the playground. Just starting that conversation about a book is at the heart of what we do as educators.

I hear about no office days being taken by other principals. Are they really no office days? That is, are they taking the time to leave not only their physical space, but also all of the tasks that come with it? I wasn’t in classrooms doing walkthroughs or having coaching conversations with teachers. I was reading about best practice in the classroom, and thinking about how I could convey these ideas with my staff. It was about me becoming more reflective and well-rounded. I don’t know if we as principals are taking a no-office day if we bring our office with us.

Another moment of clarity I had during the Principal Challenge was my selection of texts. All of them were self-selected. Yes, a number of them were related to school. But they were on my terms. To be clear, every day is a Principal Challenge day when it comes to reading. I read all the time – email, letters, my own writing for newsletters and correspondence, student writing in the hallways, professional articles, current events, and so on. The only difference between today and every other day is who chooses what I read. Obviously I cannot self-select every text for my position. But I had a lot of fun with this challenge. I think it is important that I start carving our more time in my day for at least professional reading, even personal if the situation is right.

I learn so much from the recreational reading that I do. Take my current selection, Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. It is about a strange bookstore that houses tomes that cannot be read by the newest employee, also the protagonist. That’s all I know so far! But from reading the reviews, this book explores the virtues of both print and digital texts. How this type of reading may be viewed by others could be considered less than academic. But I think it is essential for us as educators to be well versed in a variety of knowledge areas. I am a better principal, educator, and overall person when I explore different genres. These habits are a hallmark of life long readers. Donalyn Miller and many other respected educators encourage these types of expectations for our students. I am not sure why this should stop when we grow up.

I would like to make more time beyond the Principal Challenge to engage in reading as a real reader. Not necessarily just as a principal or as an educator in general, but as a learner who seeks both information and enjoyment. The explorations, the discoveries, the conversations, and the reflections that lead to new thinking: This is true learning.