The other day I was keeping an eye on my 8 year old, who is learning virtually, while I was simultaneously attending a Zoom meeting, since I’m teaching virtually. Ah, the joys of 2020.
Anyway, on this particular day my daughter was in library class. I looked over and she was sitting in her chair with her head back, eyes closed, breathing slowly through her nose. She had her headphones on so I couldn’t hear what was happening, but I was intrigued. I peeked at her screen and saw the librarian, a veteran teacher, sitting in a big rocking chair on what looked like her back porch, reading a story. I found out later it was a story involving cooking and lots of smells, so the students were breathing in the smells of their home and describing them before they started reading.
This is the majority of what this veteran teacher does in her virtual library class. Sure, she still pushes in during Language Arts class to teach about digital citizenship or non-fiction book features, but during library time, they just read and try to fully experience and enjoy books through their computer screens. She’s doing this because many students, especially those whose parents are non-readers (some 30% of American adults according to Pew Research Center), are not getting these fun reading experiences outside of school.
Why reading for fun is so important, especially for kids
Oh, I could write pages to answer this question, but I’ll keep to just the highlights here. To begin, according to a 2014 study highlighted in Psychology Today, reading a fictional novel helps people develop empathy and use parts of their brain associated with imagination. This makes complete sense, since readers have to use their brain to imagine and enter the world of the characters in a novel. The cool thing is that researchers found that by reading for fun, connectivity in the brain increased and brain function improved overall.
Furthermore, reading for fun is a great way to reduce stress, which is something I think we can all agree we need to do now more than ever. A 2009 study from the University of Sussex found that even just 6 minutes of reading could lower blood pressure and reduce stress by 68%. That’s more effective than listening to music or going for a walk.
Even more important than these immediate positive effects are the long-term effects reading has on kids. In their book Reading Unbound, Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, Michael W. Smith and Sharon Fransen make the strong point that multiple studies done over the past 40 years indicate pleasure reading as a child is a major factor in cognitive progress by high school and overall social mobility. This is why they go so far as to claim that getting kids to read for fun is actually a civil rights issue.
How teachers and parents can keep kids reading for fun during virtual learning
Read Across America and Scholastic offer some simple ideas. Teachers can emulate exactly what my daughter’s library teacher does and work in read-aloud sessions on a regular basis. And this isn’t just for elementary schoolers; even my high schoolers enjoy being read to, and many prefer listening to audiobooks than reading from print. Teachers could also bring in virtual guest readers, like parents or other community members. These can be pre-recorded to better work with everyone’s schedule. To make this even more fun, you could turn it into a mystery reader, and build anticipation about who will come to read with little clues.
Another simple idea is to build in quiet, independent reading time during the school day. My middle schooler’s teachers are doing this very thing during screen breaks. Most of these breaks are only 10-15 minutes. As I pointed out before, you don’t need to read for long to reap the benefits.
If you want to encourage discussion around books, then book talks or book clubs can easily be held virtually over lunch. They are a great way to get kids sharing what they are reading. I also encourage my students to use Good Reads to find books that will interest them as well as to post their reviews of books. If you want to take it to the next level, you could even create a class blog using the free Blogger app and have students share book reviews there.
Finally, there’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned reading challenge. Read Brightly offers some good ideas for fun monthly reading challenges for multiple ages. I just worked with the PTO at my daughter’s middle school to create a reading challenge for winter break. We listed winter-themed reading challenges in a simple Google form that students can fill out electronically to “enter the challenge.” We included both fiction and non-fiction as well as comic books and graphic novels in these challenges to appeal to as many readers as possible. Winners will be chosen at random, and the prize will be a book, comic book, graphic novel, etc. of their choice from a local bookstore. We’re encouraging kids to read and supporting a local business…it’s a win-win.
So what are you going to do to get those kiddos away from their screens and enjoying a good story? I can guarantee that finding answers to this question will benefit every student in your class.