Despite all the literature read in her classroom, Joan Kernan Cone, El Cerrito High School, El Cerrito, California, realized that she was not producing the kind of independent readers who choose to read on their own for pleasure and knowledge.
Cone tried many things to encourage good reading habits and develop a joy of reading. She introduced multicultural literature alongside such traditional classics as Shakespeare and Steinbeck. She allowed students to choose their own books for independent reading. But the results were disappointing. The majority of students did not complete their books.
She asked students why they had or had not finished the books they had chosen to read. She discovered that many students had trouble choosing books they would be motivated to continue reading. She began helping them with ideas and set aside a few class periods for silent reading at the beginning of a new independent assignment so students could get a good start in their books before being expected to continue on their own.
When students showed up without books, she gave them something to read. Cone assigned questions for them to answer to keep them reading and she continued to interview them about their process for reading a book and how they felt about it. This approach proved more successful, with slightly more than half the students finishing their books and written assignments. She led discussions based on their descriptions of their reading experiences. Students began talking about the books they loved and began recommending books to one another.
Despite these experiences, Cone still did not feel she was effectively transforming students into independent readers. Determined that all her students would read independently, Cone chose one of her classes — the one with the greatest range of ability and one that included all the racial and ethnic groups at the school — to further experiment with cultivating independent readers.
Cone made independent reading the focus of all the instruction in this class. First, she asked students to read a book by or about a member of an ethnic or racial group with which they identified. They had three days to chose a book and then were allowed two days of silent reading in class to get them into the book. Students were regularly asked to tell Cone in writing about their books, which kept her informed of their progress and encouraged them to continue reading at a steady pace.
The next assignment was to read a book by or about someone from a racial or ethnic group of which they were not a member. Again, they had a few days of silent in-class reading to get them started. Cone was encouraged by all the book talk she heard in the classroom and by the quality of the books chosen by the students. However, not all the students were reading. Six of her thirty-five students did not finish either the first or second books. What would motivate these most reluctant readers?
Talk Creates Readers
Cone asked an assorted group of students who had completed both independent reading assignments to sit in a room with a tape recorder and to talk about themselves as readers. Left to themselves, they talked animatedly about their most loved and hated books. They said they wanted to read more current literature and they wanted to discuss the books they read. Although discussion had been the main focus when literature was read by the whole class, Cone had not thought to use discussion when students were reading self-chosen books independently.
For the next independent reading project, Cone allowed students to choose books they wanted to read, with the stipulation that they bring their suggestion to class and convince a group of classmates to read it with them. Students chose such books as Disappearing Acts, Slaughterhouse Five, The Color Purple, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Groups read together either aloud or silently. A deadline was set for discussions to start. Cone reports increased participation in this assignment.
As a final assignment and to measure how many students could function independently, Cone assigned a book that students were not given any class time to read and only one week to complete. Only a few students did not complete the book on their own, and most students participated enthusiastically.
At the end of the year, students were asked to summarize their feelings about books read for class and to suggest ways for Cone to improve her teaching. Cone concluded that it was not the freedom to choose books, or any specific assignment, that brought about the substantial change she saw in her class by the end of the year.
Independent readers were created in her classroom by establishing a community in which students discussed books. They helped one other find good books to read and on-going discussion encouraged students to complete books. Most importantly, students created meaning together and taught one another — something she had previously stressed only in her advanced classes.
Cone concluded that students gained confidence as readers by initially working together on a book. In this way, they learned how to summarize, formulate questions and discuss the story in a group setting that encouraged discovering meaning together. Besides these structured group experiences, getting to know her students in order to help them find writers that they enjoyed and books that related to their lives, was critical in creating independent readers.
“Appearing Acts: Creating Readers in a High School English Class”, Harvard Educational Review, Volume 64, Number 4, Winter 1995, pp. 450-473.
Published in ERN September/October 1995 Volume 8 Number 4