How did Just Read begin?
The Just Read story began over ten years ago at a remarkably diverse elementary school in suburban Atlanta. Thirty-three different languages and cultures were represented in this school of a thousand plus students. Over eighty percent of the population came from non-English speaking homes and lived below the federal poverty level. The innovative administration, engaging instructors, and supportive parents gave the school a positive climate that defied attempts to give it any negative label usually attached to such school demographics.
After several years of being secondary school language arts instructor, I joined this staff as the library media specialist. The media center was a busy place that saw the book circulation and classroom usage climb every year. Despite this success, I had a nagging question – were the children actually reading the books they checked out of the media center? A group of interested educators who wondered the same thing met with me to consider this question and the possibility of having a free choice reading time during the school day. We divided up research questions and set out to get the answers. After meeting several times to ponder the results of our research, we designed a program based on the best practices we had discovered. We wrote a proposal and were happy to have an audience with the principal to present our idea. We had the details and the research outlined and told her we were certain it would be a great benefit to our students if all the teachers would follow this program the next school year. I was surprised by her response. She did not say yes or no, but instead suggested we make it a pilot program.
At first we were disappointed that she did not endorse our specific plan, but soon learned her suggestion was a vital key to the success of the program. We promptly found two teachers from each grade level who were excited to try it out. We gave them training in the best practices and celebrated their participation. We called them our Just Read Team and gave them t-shirts and book bags and signs for their doors. We gave them special breakfasts, blue jean days, and as many free books as we could for their classrooms. The effect was that instead of teachers feeling put upon by us adding more to their already overflowing plates, they wondered if they could participate as well. Why can’t we do that? they would ask, and we would reply, you can! The next year participation grew to 30 out of the 60 classrooms. The next year and the years after that we had almost 100% classroom participation with many other educators asking to join the team. Math and Art and Music and PE teachers asked if they could give their kids time to read. Even the lunch ladies asked if they could join our Just Read Team and volunteered to read to classes.
Participation was not our only success, of course. Our intention was to build engaged readers and we evaluated this by giving mid year and end of the year surveys. We asked teachers observe their students and to evaluate engagement using a rubric and prescribed levels of engagement. Every single teacher indicated increased engagement during Just Read Time. Almost every student in our school was free choice reading at least 15 minutes a day and had increased engagement over the school year. Very little was expected of a school like ours, but in defiance of the odds our school met and exceeded language arts goals year after year. We know this was a direct result of excellent teaching, but we can also know for certain that giving students time to read every day did not hinder academic success. In fact, we are certain that free choice reading enhanced and informed reading instruction. Teacher surveys also indicated that teachers believed the daily reading increased student reading comprehension as well as engagement. Visitors to our school often commented on the positive attitude toward reading our students exhibited. We had a built a positive reading culture in the school.
Many teachers from those first days have moved on to other schools, yet still include a version of just read time in their daily schedules. They no longer receive t-shirts and coffee mugs, but they clearly see the benefits of giving students free choice reading every day. Many other teachers are now taking on the Just Read Challenge and seeing what a difference it makes in their students.
Free choice reading has many advocates these days, but these initiatives still meet resistance. Administrators and teachers often need reassurance that free choice reading time is not time wasted. We know it is not and we have the data and the stories to prove it. We are asking them to take the challenge and not let one more child miss the opportunity to become an authentic reader.
Click here to take the Just Read Challenge.
What the teachers say:
After groups, they have 15-20 minutes that I allow independent, self-selected reading. The last 5-10 minutes after that is our share time where they can share and talk about the text with a peer. I have a room full of readers! It is our favorite part of the day.
- It builds stamina, widens their interest, allows them a chance to practice their reading strategies in challenging situations, promotes peer endorsed book choices, and so much more. My most favorite is it increases the love of reading because they have CHOICE!!
We shoot for 15 minutes a day, sometimes more, sometimes less. It is everyone’s favorite time of day! My kids LOVE to read and are constantly recommending books to one another (and to me!). Our librarian even commented on the love of reading my class has.
after we finish reading groups we have up to 15 minutes for Just Read. Today my kiddos were searching for word chunks, cvc words and sight words. Just Read has truly made a difference in my students' reading levels.