How We Help Students Develop Their Identity as Readers

Including four questions to guide this process

A 4th grade student from Florida arrived with his mother at our school over summer. Not far into our enrollment conversation, he asked me, “Do you guys have baseball?” I explained that there were some city teams he could join. “Do they play baseball over there?” he asked, pointed toward a practice field. “No, on the other side of town.”

At the end of the conversation, I asked them if they had any more questions about registration. “Register…for baseball?” I laughed. “No - school!” I would not know any more about this student, other than his affinity for baseball, as his family moved back to Florida. (Their job in Wisconsin was temporary.)

This student believes he is a baseball player. He loves the sport. How can we develop a similar level of identity and enthusiasm as a reader? Consider the four questions as you prepare your literary space for kids, with baseball serving as an example.

1. What might we leave for kids?

The beginning of the year is exciting. Bulletin boards are bare. Books and shelves are waiting to be organized. So much possibility.

Our tendency is to fill these spaces up. Make them perfect before our kids arrive. While the intent is noble, the potential outcome is a lack of ownership in the space. When I coached baseball, the field had bases, lines, and…that’s about it. Students were in positions or at the plate, but they had freedom to make their actions their own.

So what might you leave for kids? Consider:

  • Posting only a title on the bulletin board, such as “Our Reading Life”.

  • Starting the school year by asking the students to help you organize the classroom library.

2. How will we know students as readers?

This is vital information. What are their interests and strengths? Where have they struggled in the past? What is their history as a reader?

As a baseball coach, I would start a season by simply watching the players scrimmage at practice. While they played, I would ask questions and offer a few pointers, but mostly it was about knowing who they were as hitters, pitchers, and position players.

In school, surveys can give you information. Donalyn Miller1 offers some nice tools for this purpose. Getting to know your students as readers can also be facilitated as a whole class. Pernille Ripp asked students what they liked and disliked about reading instruction from the past, then posted their preferences on the board.

3. How will we keep readers engaged throughout the school year?

So much responsibility is placed on teachers to ensure students are successful. But what about the students, for themselves and for others? When I sent players onto the baseball diamond, they were expected to independently manage their positions. They also needed to talk to each other, for example to know who is taking which base.

Students remain engaged when they have ownership in their reading lives, and see the purpose for themselves and for others. Maintaining the classroom library throughout the year, reorganizing books and keeping it presentable, is one way.2 Related, students can make requests to the teacher for new books to add.

4. How can students show transfer as effective and lifelong readers?

This is the ultimate goal, right? If we continue with the baseball example, can the players perform during game without your guidance?

It comes down to observing how students manage their reading lives: what books they pick, whether they stick with them, if they have favorite authors and genres, how they are challenging themselves, and how well they understand what they are reading.

This is why conferring is important. It is a scaffold for independence, with the teacher responding to where the student is. Once kids can read with abandon, like being in flow on the baseball field, they see themselves as readers and a part of who they are.

What do you find effective for helping your students identify as readers?

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Miller, D. (2013). Reading in the Wild: The book whisperer's keys to cultivating lifelong reading habits. John Wiley & Sons.