Building a Healthier Reading Diet

Since walking into my classroom, my students have been surrounded by books. Novels line the ledge at the front of my classroom, are stacked on the coffee table in the middle of the reading nook, and occupy space on top of the bookshelves that line an entire wall in my classroom. Books are everywhere.

I reserve the first twenty minutes of my ELA classes for independent reading. As students read, I check in with students, asking them about their reading lives, about the books they are reading. I listen as they tell me about their books and together, we discuss the goals they have for themselves as readers. How many pages would they like to read by the end of the week? What book do they want to read next? Are they keeping up with their to-read list? How are they challenging themselves as readers? Are their reading lives including a wide range of genres? These are the questions used to assess the quality of a healthy reading diet. Overall, students inspired me with their answers.

However, their answers to the last question, the one about reading a wide range of genres, concerned me. Most students were limiting their reading lives by reading books in only one or two genres. This was not indicative of the healthy reading life that I want my students to have. Several of them explained that they weren’t aware that they were reading in the same genre; others stated that they were not really aware of books in other genres that would interest them. How could I inspire them to challenge themselves as readers, selecting books from genres that they had avoided? To help them analyze their own reading lives and inspire them to stretch their thinking about their genres of preference, I decided to have students “data-fy” their reading habits*.

Genre Requirementsgaps in my reading life

Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild, used a genre requirements graph with her students. This graph assisted students in keeping track of their reading lives. I believe strongly in using models to help students’ reading and writing habits. First, I “data-fied” by own reading life, noting the genres that I had read. Strikingly, I realized that I had avoided quite a few genres. Second, I wrote beside the graph inside my notebook. Why had I avoided particular genres? Why was my reading life seemingly narrow? I thought I had read a wide range of genres, but my genre graph proved otherwise. Clearly, the challenge to broaden my reading habits would be for me as much as it would be for my students.

With the help of a co-worker, I made stacks of books that were representative of different genres, namely fantasy, science fiction, memoir/biography/autobiography, historical fiction, poetry, and graphic novels. I included alternative structures into these stacks to add variation to the diversity of genres. After students completed their graphs, I wanted them to peruse the stacks and jot down books that were of interest to them.   

reading gap activity fantasy stack
As students worked, I heard them remark that they were unaware that their reading lives were as narrow as they appeared. I also heard them comment that they had forgotten about particular books that I had book talked earlier in the year, or that they had never noticed certain books on the bookshelves. Reminders are wonderful things, and so are chances to peruse books of various genres.

I encourage you to “data-fy” your own reading life, then give your students the opportunity to do the same. Like us, students need visuals; they need chances to see their reading lives in numbers and graphs. Keeping a list of books that we have read is great, and I require my students to keep a list in their notebooks. However, organizing your reading life into categories, into genres, is a beneficial activity. It allows students to see the gaps in their reading lives.  And it nudges them quite a bit.

Challenging ourselves as readers is essential. A well-rounded, voluminous reading life is diversified and broad. Identifying the gaps in our personal reading lives is necessary. I was honest with my students. I showed them my own shortcomings and embarked on this challenge with them. So, I am challenging you to do the same. Find your reading gaps. Identify the genres that you would enjoy exploring. And create, for yourself, a healthy reading diet.

*The genre requirement graph is from Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild. You can access a copy here.


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