The fourteen boys walked into the room, immediately sat down in small groups, books and notes in hand, and began discussing and gesturing. They turned pages and pointed to passages in their novels. For twenty minutes, they discussed. Then they grabbed snacks off a table and settled into the comfortable pillow-chairs, desk chairs, and window seats around the room —and read, for the rest of their time together...
An advanced high school literature class? No. These were middle school boys that their teachers had labeled “reluctant readers.” Students who knew how to read, but chose not to. Students who admitted to rarely finishing a book, even if assigned. Their principal had invited me to come to their school, one afternoon a week, to “encourage these boys to read”-- or words to that effect.
My solution? Letting them read what they wanted to -- in supervised book clubs.
Why book clubs? Because they offer countless advantages.
• Book club meetings are social.
• Book clubs are supportive. When you have peer support, your reading skills grow.
• Book clubs spur deeper discussions. The smaller, relaxed size allows for increased participation and the sharing of multiple perspectives.
• They spur collaboration. Readers get the social-skill practice that’s so necessary in the real world.
• They grow literacy skills. Members must read, comprehend, and prepare, to participate in discussions.
• Book clubs increase intrinsic motivation. There is peer pressure to read and have something to say.
• Book clubs meet not only state reading standards, but also listening and speaking standards.
• They provide differentiation. Classes can read at multiple reading levels, while students read at individual reading and interest levels.
• By being student-led, book clubs promote leadership skills. (The teacher is only a facilitator-observer, not a leader or member.)
• Book clubs offer choice. Students can choose the books that interest them at the level they wish – thus they have more motivation to read.
• They offer versatility. By offering smaller book clubs, an overall classroom can read multiple formats at the same time (prose, verse novels, graphic novels). Classes can read different books on the same topic, so they can research and meet for inter-book-club discussions. Or read multiple topics/titles within the same genre or format.
• And last, a whole classroom of readers can learn about four or five other novels they may want to read, by listening to the book-club presentations/booktalks.
Many teachers attempt book clubs by simply dividing students into groups and assigning the books. After the discussions fall flat, they proclaim they will “never try that again.” To make book clubs a successful endeavor, I have found three elements to be of primary importance.
1. Allow each student to choose their book. First, classes can conduct some research on a topic, such as mental health or bullying, which students can relate to when choosing their books. Having a common topic also allows students from book clubs to meet with members of other book clubs to compare/contrast novels.
I suggest that teachers or librarians book-talk each of the agreed-on choices, and allow students to peruse each book, noting the title, author, and plot synopsis, and reading a page to note the author’s style and vocabulary for reading comfort level. Students then write down their first, second, and third choices.
2. Teachers/librarians must teach some discussion skills. Students need to learn how to create an effective discussion question to bring to each meeting—a question that will promote conversation, and the sharing of perspectives, a question that will cause readers to dive deeply into the text. The questions should come from the readers, rather than the facilitator.
Facilitators should also teach skills such as how to disagree respectfully, and how to back up answers with text evidence. Discussions need to allow the opportunity of agreement and disagreement, and honor diverse viewpoints.
3. Readers must come to meetings with notes and reflections on their reading. Short, informal written reflections help students interact with the text, thereby increasing comprehension. Facilitators can suggest a variety of ways to respond -- journals, sticky notes, or even drawing their way through the text. Writing out their responses gives readers something to refer to during discussion, and proof that they have completed the assigned reading for that meeting.
After students have read and discussed their novels, book clubs can prepare a presentation of their books for the rest of the class -- through skits, puppet shows, narrative poetry, talk shows – a whole variety of ways.
Here are some examples of book choices of different reading levels and formats with diverse characters that could be offered on a single topic:
Mental Health Issues—YA Novels:
• Saving Red by Sonya Sones (verse novel)
• Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy by Sonya Sones (memoir)
• Guts by Raina Telgemeier (graphic novel)
• Words on Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton (prose novel)
• After the Death of Anna Gonzales by Terri Fields (verse novel)
• The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B by Teresa Toten (prose novel)
Autism — MG Novels:
• Counting by 7’s by Holly Sloan Goldberg (prose narrative)
• The Someday Birds by Sally J. Pla (prose narrative)
• Planet Earth is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos (alternating letters and prose narrative)
• Same But Different by RJ and Ryan Elizabeth Peete (alternating nonfiction narratives)
• M is for Autism by students of Limpsfield Grange School, a school for girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder (prose narrative)
• Rogue by Lyn Miller-Lachmann (prose narrative)
More ideas, from Talking Texts:
For even more strategies and additional ideas for book club planning, reading, lessons, and assessments, as well as a sample book club unit, see Talking Texts: A Teachers’ Guide to Book Clubs across the Curriculum (2019).
A middle and high school teacher for twenty years, Lesley Roessing was the Founding Director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project at Georgia Southern University (formerly Armstrong State University), where she was also a Senior Lecturer in the College of Education. In 2018-19 she served as a Literacy Consultant with a K-8 school. As a columnist for AMLE Magazine, she shared before, during, and after-reading response strategies across the curriculum through ten “Writing to Learn” columns. She has written articles on literacy for NWP Quarterly, English Journal, Voices from the Middle, The ALAN Review, AMLE Magazine, and Middle School Journal. Lesley Roessing is the author of five books for educators:
• The Write to Read: Response Journals that Increase Comprehension
• No More “Us” and “Them”: Classroom Lessons & Activities to Promote Peer Respect
• Comma Quest: the Rules They Followed; The Sentences They Saved
• and has contributed chapters to four anthologies for educators:
Young Adult Literature in a Digital World: Textual Engagement though Visual Literacy
Queer Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the English Language Arts Curriculum
Story Frames for Teaching Literacy: Enhancing Student Learning through the Power of Storytelling
Fostering Mental Health Literacy through Young Adult Literature.