I know virtually nothing about basketball. This isn’t something you admit when you live in the state that has produced successive NCAA women’s and men’s basketball champions something like a zillion years in a row. But I do know something about the power of good literature, something I wrote about in a previous article for Really Good Stuff a few years ago. Getting children to revel in the joy of listening to a really good read aloud is something I believe is one of the keys to helping them embark on a life-long love of literature. When kids see teachers read with passion, they can’t help getting drawn in themselves. One of the best ways to encourage reading in our young learners is for them to hear good literature read well, for them to get wrapped up in the magic that is story-telling. And that’s where we come in.
In my 28 years as a teacher, I have found no single way to engage my students and to encourage their life-long love of literacy and learning, than the read aloud. It’s something those of us who have taught kindergarten and first grade do all the time. Unfortunately, with the demands of high stakes testing and hectic schedules, as students get older, teachers often can’t find the time to read to their students for no other reason than to have them lose themselves in a story. No note-taking. No turn and talk. No stop and jot. Children need to see reading as a joy and a privilege rather than a task.
Break Out the Chapter Books
I always begin reading a chapter book every day to my 3rd graders beginning on the first day of school during snack, which kills two birds with one stone. It keeps the noise level at bay, which at snack time can get to levels approaching a jet engine about to take off, and gives me a spare 15 minutes where I have everyone’s undivided attention. I am thrilled every year when my students, even those “I-hate-reading,” kiddos argue–yes, argue–in the library over who can get to the Roald Dahl books first after I have read The Witches to them or who will get the last copy of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, my favorite book of all time. Students see how much pleasure their teacher gets from reading–whether I’m laughing crying, or reading in the demented voice of the Grand High Witch. My hope is that this enthusiasm translates to my young students.
But how else can we help motivate students to read? It’s easy for those students, who already enjoy books, to become entranced by what they read. But what about those reluctant readers in our classrooms who are more content to listen to stories rather than to actively choose to read for themselves? Most of us have at least a few students each year, who, for whatever reason, just don’t like to read. Whether its due to personal struggles with decoding and comprehension or a simple lack of interest, some students just need that extra motivation to fall in love with books.
March Madness Tournament of Books
So here’s where basketball comes in. Each March in conjunction with our Writer’s Workshop unit on persuasive writing, my students spend the month celebrating reading with a March Madness Tournament of Books. We begin the month-long project with each child choosing a favorite book, anything from a picture book to a novel. Books can be fiction or non-fiction. Since children get to read a book of their choice, no student has an advantage over the other. My struggling and lower level readers, who choose picture books, have just as much a chance of winning as my superstar readers, who tackle thick novels. Each student presents a speech convincing the class to vote for his or her book. Students learn about advertising and create posters and ads “selling” their books to the class. I set up a giant bracketed bulletin board a la the NCAA Basketball Tournament in the front of the room to drum up enthusiasm. Each week, students work on a new project–speeches, advertisements, and skits and plays all designed to persuade their classmates to vote for their books. Every Friday, the children excitedly vote for their favorites as we narrow down the books from the Sweet Sixteen down to two final books for the championship.
The enthusiasm for reading this project generates has been incredible over the past three years I have done the tournament with my kids. Students are exposed to and become interested in a host of different books based on the recommendations of their classmates. They rush to the library eager to try out new books, genres, and authors they might never have considered before. My most reluctant readers begin new series of books, discuss books with their friends, drag books to recess, and beg me for extra time to read in class. By the time the month of March closes, we have chosen a Champion. I buy a copy of the winning book for each student in the class and add copies of books from the Elite 8 to my classroom library (thanks to a mini-grant from our generous PTO). We wrap up the tournament with a Celebration of Reading day where students bring in books and blankets and spend the day snuggled up reading to their heart’s content. Our Day of Reading celebrates everyone’s hard work over the course of the tournament, but the carry-over afterwards is the real reward: a classroom of eager, enthusiastic readers and learners!
What types of activities do you do with your students to encourage a love of literacy?