Sample Time: A free reading browsing strategy & a few tips

Well we’re 2 weeks into the 2022-2023 school year and I can confidently report that we’re off to a much better start than last year. Halleluiah! Last year was all crisis management…this year I’m actually teaching! My Little Darlings this year are kind and polite and helpful and so much fun! (And they love to sing! And they dance with me! And they’re participating like my students of yore!) Don’t get me wrong, there are a few squirrely ones already pushing the boundaries, but by in large I’ve got a great group, even including the squirrels, and I am so thankful! I hope the same is true for you, that this year feels like a breath of fresh air!

I love Free Reading with my classes, because it’s awesome for their language acquisition and it’s awesome for me because it gives me a break! Already my “big kids” (Spanish 4, AP Spanish and Spanish for Heritage Speakers) have started reading a self-selected book each class, and it’s sheer bliss.

I believe strongly in the benefits of free reading and I even prefer free reading over a class novel. More than anything, I really want my Little Darlings to enjoy our free reading time. This year I tried a new strategy to help students select a “good” book for them, and it worked so well that I woke up early on Saturday morning to tell you about it.

I’m blessed to have a very robust classroom library with lots of titles. (Here are all the titles in our classroom library, organized by level, if you’ve got some department money you’re itching to spend!) The thing about Free Reading is that they have to have choices, but sometimes too many choices makes it difficult for them to find “their” book. We want them reading a Goldilocks book (not too hard, not too easy, but just right) that interests them! They need to be invested in the story or content and it has to feel good too. To support them in this process, here’s how we “Sampled” books on our first day of Free Reading, in all my upper level classes:

  1. Library Tour & Organization Explanation: I started by sharing a bit about my library. “These are the A books, they’re the easiest books. If you’re looking for something just a bit harder, the B books are over here…Then over in this corner you’ll find the C books…” The books are organized by level and the levels are spread out around the classroom. They are not organized in sequential order, because I don’t want all my students clumped in one corner when they’re searching for a book- that’s just asking for trouble!). In addition the the leveled CI readers, I’ve got a whole mess of “Libros avanzados”, that are also spreadout on several shelves, around the classroom. These books are not included in my Library by Level List, and if you’re not teaching Heritage and/or AP students you’re probably fine without them. If you’ve got students who are ready for more “authentic” books, I used these lists to get my “Libros avanzados” library started: Spanish Mama’s YA books for teens and Mike Peto’s Heritage Library. Here’s one more link by Mike Peto, with a ton more reading suggestions!
Books, books galore! Every wall has books, sorted by level.

2. Begin “sampling”: Instruct everyone to pick up 2 or 3 books and then head back to their seats. They should be books that look interesting to them and should be different levels. (So if they grab a D book, their other book should not be a E book…it can be anything else!) Give them a few minutes to find a few books and get situated back at their seats. While they’re browsing, grab 3 or 4 books, also of different levels that you think this class might be into, to highlight. Then, give everyone about 5 minutes to “sample” they books they’ve chosen. They could read the back cover, they could flip through and look at the pictures, they could start reading from the beginning, they could open to a random page and begin reading. The important thing is that they spend a few minutes with each book. While they read, they should ask themselves, “Does this book interest me?” and “Is this book a good reading level for me?”

3. Highlight a few books that they might enjoy: After they’ve had a chance to “sample” their books, instruct them to put the book that they liked best (the one that’s a good reading level AND interesting) on the floor. Then, before anyone moves, share with them the books you selected to highlight. Do this in comprehensible language, of course! “I love this book! It’s called …..and it’s about….. It’s pretty easy to read, it’s a level … and it’s full of suspense. I’ll just leave it right here if you want to check it out. Here’s another one that might interest you, it’s about…” After each “highlight”, I put the books on my chalk rail (dry erase marker rail?!) under my whiteboard. Then instruct everyone to get up, return the books that didn’t interest them back to their location, and then find another book or two to sample. They can take from my highlights or anywhere else in the classroom, then should sit down again. (They get to pick any book! Please don’t tell your Heritage kids they’re only allowed to read “libros avanzados” and your Spanish 2s that they have to choose A-D books! Free choice reading means they get to make the choices of what they want to read!) Again, I grab a few more books to highlight between rounds.

4. Rinse & Repeat: We repeat a few times, and after each sampling, they decide if they like the book on the floor (the one that they’re most interested in, so far) or one they just sampled. Their “most favorite book so far” goes on the floor and all the others get returned to the shelves. Each round they hear a few more book highlights from me and then grab another book to sample.

5. “Reserve books”: After 4 rounds or so (about 20 minutes total) I tell them if they’ve found a book they’re ready to “reserve” they can come to me for a post-it bookmark. Each class has an assigned color post-it and students write their name in their post-it and use it to save their page AND to let other students know that it’s “their” book. For students who haven’t found a book that they want to keep reading, it’s ok! They can put all the books back and try again next class, until they find their just right Goldilocks book.

A word about the post-its: The color of the post-its lets students know which books are “off limits” during a particular class. Let’s say that 1st period is assigned the blue “post-it” book marks. During 1st period, students can choose any books that don’t have a blue post-it. They’re free to read 3rd period’s green post-it books, or any book with a different colored post-it, or the books that don’t have any post-it bookmark at all. They just know they can’t choose a book with their class’s color, because that means someone else in the class has already chosen that book.

At the front of my classroom, I have a paper with each class’s assigned color and a basket of post-its. Any time they need a new post-it (maybe it got lost, maybe it lost it’s stickiness), they can just grab a new one, write their name on it, and carry on.

A word about book selection: My students know at any time during free reading, if they decide that “their” book is too easy, too hard, too lame or too boring, they can take out their post-it bookmark and try another. No one should be slugging through a book they dislike.

A word about book recommendations: I love making book recommendations for my Little Darlings, and I often tell them, if they’re having a hard time finding a good book, to ask me for a recommendation. When a student asks for a recommendation, I try to give at least 2 books I think they might enjoy, that are 2 different levels. Even though I’m pretty good at making book recommendations, I want them involved in the process and ultimately making their own free reading choice.

But what if they’re not reading?!: Wile we’re reading, I’m also reading(How else am I going to be able to make good recommendations for my Little Darlings?!) and skimming the class to make sure they look like they’re reading. If I see someone staring off into space, I’ve got a few different strategies to redirect. First I try to catch their gaze. If I can get them to to look at me, without making an noise, I just give them a big smile, and sometimes that’s enough to redirect them. If that doesn’t work, I’ll stand up, keep reading and move near them. If they’re still not joining the party, I’ll ask quietly if they’re not into their book and if they’d like me to help them find another that they might like more. My last option is to explain, “It’s really important that you’re reading. Would you like to read now, or with me a lunch? I’d be happy to read it together with you during lunch.” I give them my sweetest, most earnest smile, like spending my lunch reading Pancho y las momias out loud would fill me with sheer delight, then I walk away and let them make their own decision. About 99.6% of time time, they pick reading during class.

After reading: Each class, after we’ve read our self-selected books, we do something low stakes with our books. Sometimes it’s as simple as “Tell your partner what your book is about and what happened today” (I love trying to pique other students’ interests about the books!) Sometimes we do the same thing in a more structured way with Dice Book Chat. Some days I use my Magic Cards to call a few students to share with the whole class about what their reading. I always finish up by asking “Do you recommend this book? Is there anyone else in our class you think would like that book?”

When they finish a book: To make life a little more fun, when students finish a book, they get to select an emoji sticker to add to the inside front cover. (The ones I bought are no longer on Amazon, but these look like they would work. These emoji stickers are more like the ones I use, but the reviews aren’t great, so purchase at your own risk!) Students use the emoji stickers to help them make their book selections; lots of 😄 stickers mean that a lot of students enjoyed this book! (To avoid bad press, I only let them rate a book with a sticker after they’ve finished the whole book. Hopefully if they hated the book, they abandoned it long ago so they don’t have the chance to leave 💩 stickers on my books!

Cheers to the 2022-2023 school year! Let’s make it our best one yet!

And how could it not?! Señor Chase helped me string Papel Picado across the patio I share with my Spanish colleagues and it just makes me smile whenever I head into my Sweet Portable.

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