6 Elements to incorporate into your Free Reading Program

Last year I stepped up my FVR (Free Voluntary Reading) game. In the past I always had lots of children’s’ books available but it didn’t feel like a very good use of class time because they are too difficult to be comprehensible (and I suspect my little darlings were just looking at the pictures.) After attending NTPRS in Reno, I was convinced that free reading was the missing piece in my language instruction and I dove right in…and at the end of the year, I noticed that my students’ output was better than years past. Their timed writings were richer! They were writing in the past tense without any other input! I was finding words in their writing that I didn’t teach them!  You guys, I didn’t do anything differently other than give my kiddos time to read and their Spanish got better! I didn’t do anything! In fact, I just sat on my stool and read too! Easy results! Score!! 

Here are a few elements of my reading program that I feel like are helping my little darlings acquire Spanish and enjoy reading:

1. Expectations: I think 99% of kids will do what we want them to do, as long as they know what we want them to do! The first and most important element is setting up the program for success:

a. Students can select any book they want and read it for as long as they want. If it’s too hard to get into or not interesting, they should put it back and try another. There is no penalty for book shopping! I tell them that I’m happy to recommend books if they’re having trouble finding something good and it just tickles me pink when I pair them with a great book at their level.

b. We read at the beginning of most classes. It’s such a peaceful way to start class and get their Spanish brain activated. I have a “Vamos a leer” laminated sheet that I magnet to the board so students know to get their book on their way into the classroom. (The back of “Vamos a leer” is “Vamos a cantar” because we sing on the days we don’t start with reading).

c. They are to be totally silent during free reading. It’s sacred time and I don’t want any interruptions. And besides, I want to read too!


2. Rain gutter book shelves: It makes it easy to see the books covers and easy to find the book you’re looking for. I have 3 rain gutters that are organized by level:

3. I leveled my books with a sticker on the front cover. It is not a scientific method at all…I just read a few paragraphs and decided a letter: A is easiest and H is most difficult. There’s probably a formula for leveling books but I don’t know what it is. I just wanted them to be able to choose a book they can read easily, so if they started a book that was too hard, they could try a lower letter. I choose letters intentionally rather than numbers because I didn’t want students to feel like since they were in Spanish 2, they had to read a Level 2 book. One of these days I’ll type up a document with all my book titles and their corresponding letter….but until then, here’s another picture. Here’s the list of my titles organized by level. 

4. Bookmarks: I wanted an easy way for students to keep track of their place  that would allow other students in another class to read the same book. Pintrest didn’t let me down and I made (ok, let’s get real here, I didn’t do it, I made asked my TA make 185 book marks!) book marks with large paperclips and ribbons. Each class has a different color, and students wrote their names on the ribbon with a skinny sharpie. When students finish a book and are looking for another, they know not to choose a book that already has their colored bookmark in it, signifying that one of their classmates is reading that book. Students are careful to not disturb another student’s bookmark while they’re reading, but if it falls out, they’ve been trained to attach the paperclip to the front cover (rather than just putting it in randomly!).  I also have a jar at the front of the classroom where students put their bookmark if they finish a book and haven’t yet started another and it’s where I put bookmarks that fall out and I find on the ground. It’s working out great and how cute are they?

Update! After a year of picking up adorable ribbon bookmarks off the ground, I switched the mini post it’s and it’s working WAAAAY better! They don’t fall out, each class has an assigned color, and each time students read, they just move their post-it to hold their new place. When their post it looses it’s stickiness or if they can’t find their post-it, they just grab another from the container and create a new one.

Not as adorable but much more functional:

5. Accountability: The experts agree, students get the most gains out of reading when it is enjoyable! And what do teachers do when it comes to reading? They think of ways to kill the reading joy: Make it an assignment! Book reports! Reading logs! Summaries! Reading comprehension quizzes! DON’T DO IT!!! My kiddos enjoy their reading because that’s all they have to do! There’s no grade attached…all I ask is that when they start a new novel they write down the title on their YELP SHEET and when they finish it, they give it a star rating.  (Here’s the YELP SHEET in French, thanks to Nettie Sechrist!) That’s it. They record all the novels they’ve read and they turn it into me at the end of the semester. I look at their ratings (OK, let’s get real, I don’t, my TA does) and compile the results to hang in my classroom. In the picture below you can see a highlighter line that divides semester 1 from semester 2:

We also Chit-Chat about our novels at the end of each reading session which became it’s own post. 

5a. What about kids who are not reading?: Well… I watch them, if I suspect a student is zoned out and not reading, I’ll walk by and snap them out of their trance. Usually they apologize and start reading. If I look at them again and suspect they’re just pretending to read, I’ll say quietly, “you can read now during class, or we can read together today at lunch.” That almost always works! Only once did I have to “invite” a little darling in for “mandatory” lunch reading…and guess what? We didn’t have any reading issues after that! In January I asked all my kiddos to give me some feedback on an anonymous survey. One my my questions was: “Are you really reading? Out of 180 kids, only 1 kid checked the option “I’m just pretending to read so Mrs. Chase won’t get mad at me.” The vast majority reported “I’m reading the entire time and working hard to stay focused”. I’ll take that…and I will make it my life’s mission to figure out who is that one kid who is pretending to read!

6. Yelp ratings: My wonderful and hardworking TA averaged the star ratings of every novel that my students read after 1st semester and created posters with the star average. These are hanging below my rain gutter book shelves and students are able to look at which books have good ratings and which don’t. I think it gives legitimacy to rating the books on their yelp sheet; they’re a reason why they rate them. I plan to update the posters each semester. (OK, who am I kidding? My TA will do it…)                 

Before I started FVRing I was skeptical that something this simple (give them books to read and time to read them!) would have such a big impact! I honestly feel like it’s the most worthwhile activities we do in class (and it gives me a break from talking for 90 minutes straight!)


    • We’re on a block schedule, so I see my high schoolers 2 or 3 times a week. We read 2x a week. In Spanish 2 we read for 10 min and Spanish 4 for 15 min. I’m started with my Span 1s after we get back from Feb break and I’m planning on 5-7 min once a week.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Great post. I am wanting to start this and your strategies will definitely help. Question: How did you acquire your books?


    • The State of NV passed a bill that allows teacher to be reimbursed for classroom materials, up to $120 per year. For the past 2 years I’ve spent every penny on books! I know a lot of teachers have good luck with Donor’s Choose to fund their classroom libraries. Good luck!


  2. Just discovered your blog, love it! I too share the desire to simply load them with input, and then have very few grades as a result…One question- can you share you list of novels for Spanish 1? I only have 6 and I need more ideas. Mil gracias!


  3. Hi. How many books do you display? I’m glad I found your post. And yes, please can you upload a list with titles for Spanish 1?


  4. […] Here are lots of details about my FVR program. One of the ways I help my little darlings pick the perfect book is by writing the reading level on the front cover on a mailing label. I noticed that it was hard for students to select a book at an appropriate reading level without any assistance, so I started leveling them. I strategically chose to level them by letter, rather than number.  (I didn’t want a student in Spanish 2, for example, to feel like they must read a book marked Level 2) The labels also help the books to get back to the correct shelf (errr…rain gutter) after we’ve finished reading. […]


  5. Señora Chase, new to the world of CI. Starting next year. Your website is inspiring and so helpful now that I am getting myself ready to start the journey! About the reading, for Sp. 1 or beginner students in middle school, how do you deal with students who would tell you: “I don’t speak Spanish, I can’t read…”? I just see myself telling them “You’ll be surprised how much you will understand. You are using beginners books with lots of pictures. Just enjoy!” ?


    • I haven’t heard that comment from my students but I don’t start Free Reading until Feb with my ones, so maybe by then they feel like they’ve got enough Span.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hola,
    First of all, I love this post. Very inspiring! I was wondering if you teach a class for heritage/native speakers, have you done FVR with them, and what “letter level” would you typically recommend for a heritage/native speaker who is just starting to read in Spanish. We use Newsela in my class, which I love, but I was hoping to incorporate more fiction pieces for FVR outside of our novel units.

    Muchas gracias 🙂


    • I don’t teach our heritage class, but before we offered a heritage class I’d teach our heritage students in Span 4. Depending on their story, they’re all over the map as far as reading levels… I’d recommend books based on interest rather than level for them. “You like baseball, you might like this book about Felipe Alou”…especially kiddos who didn’t learn to read in Spanish, starting lower and boosting their confidence is a great place to start! Not sure if that’s very helpful… sorry!!


  7. What if students ever want to take a book home to read? Do you allow this or would the “check-out” process be too messy?


      • I saw a post once by an elementary teacher who made the kids take a selfie with the book they were checking out plus an index card with the date. The kid emailed the image to the teacher.


  8. I LOVE the bookmark idea! I’ve wondered how to have multiple kids read the same book w/o someone coming in (from their own class) and taking it first. The different colored ribbons for each class – pure genius! Thank you! 🙂


    • Thank you!! Train your kiddos what to do if someone else’s bookmark falls out: (sometimes it happens!) if they know what book it came out of, clip it to the front cover (rather than guessing what page the other person was on!!). If they find one on the floor, have a designated spot to put them in (and that’s where they look if they can’t find theirs). I’m starting Free Reading with my Spanish 1s in January, so fun!!!


  9. […] One of my favorite Christmas presents arrived totally unexpectedly…a new CI Reader, Libertad, written by my dear friend Rita Barrett!  Rita first told me about her idea for a novel years ago the NTPRS Conference in Reno, then I was honored to read an early draft of her work last year, and  now to finally hold it in flesh and blood, errr… ink and page, it’s so amazing! I’ve already added it to my library list and I’m excited to share it with my kiddos during Free Reading when we go back to school! (If you’re hoping to add more Free Reading in your classes next semester, here are a few tips … […]


    • In Sp 1 we read Bart quiere un gato as a Whole class. We also do lots of reading of reading discusses, and a couple other short stories and articles that I’ve written.


  10. Hola Sra. Chase,
    I love your idea of FVR!!! I’m ready to try it in my class but I have a “logistic” question. I have a class of 30 students. How many books do you think should at least start with? How many copies of each book should I have? (just to have an idea…roughly)As you mentioned, I want them to find a book they enjoy and I don’t want them to be discourage because they can’t find something they are interested (I don’t want to be short on options but money could be an issue with such a big class 😦 Thank you very much for your input 🙂


    • I think 40 books, at least, so there are a handful of available books, for anyone who doesn’t like theirs and wants another. I usually but 2-3 of each new book so I have a few copies of each. Good luck!! Let me know how it goes!


  11. I’m curious whether you find that the paperclips cause damage to the books? Trying to think of another method that might not have that risk….


  12. I am putting together and FVR library and making my set up plans. I love all of what you have shared here Sra. Chase.
    I have a question about when the students are reading and come across a word that they do not understand. What do you allow them to do in order to find the meaning of the word. I will encourage them to use context clues and the glossary in the book. Do you have any other strategies that you used and found helpful?


    • I tell them if they think it’s a critical word to first check their glossary. If they still need help, they raise their hand and I’ll help them.


  13. How do you explain your levels to the students? I have the Book Testigo la historia de Brayan and I want to label it but also didn’t find in your post how you decided what letter something got. Could you expain?


    • When we start free reading, I show them where the A books are and explain that they are the easiest, then B, then C…so if they start reading something that is too easy, they should move up a level, or if something is too difficult to understand they should move to the previous letter.

      There really isn’t any science to my book leveling…I just browse something and ask myself if my Level 1s could read and understand it…if they can read almost all of it, it’s an A. If they can understand most of it by 2nd semester, its a B. My weaker level 2 students should be able to understand the C books and the average level 2 students should find the D books accessible. Does that make sense? Just follow your heart 🙂


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