When I first started an FVR (free voluntary reading) library and gave my students time to do free reading during class, I have to admit that there was a part of me that thought, “They’re all just sitting here silently, reading…couldn’t they be doing that at home? Is this a waste of class time?”
But as I’ve continued giving my students this time to read, I’ve become more and more confident that it is a valuable use of class time. I’ve made a list of six reasons why I think it’s worthwhile to give students access to books and time for free reading in class:
1. It helps students experience the feeling of reading for pleasure. Many teachers tell their students, “Reading is fun!” but a lot of students don’t really believe it because they have never experienced it for themselves. But giving students that experience—giving them time to read books that they truly enjoy without having to answer comprehension questions or closely analyze the text—is the best way for them to discover for themselves that reading truly can be fun.
2. It gives students very easy access to books that are at the right level for them. A few students might be able to find their own books even if we don’t provide them. But most won’t. Most of them won’t go to the effort it takes to go out to a library or a bookstore and spend time searching for books. And for language learners, finding reading material can be extremely difficult. It’s not as though most ESL students can simply walk into a library, pick up a book off a shelf, and be able to read it easily. For anyone other than advanced-level students, it’s hard to find books at an appropriate level. (When I surveyed my students, the #1 reason they gave for why they don’t read on their own very often is that it’s hard for them to find books that are at a good level for them.)
3. It gives students a choice in what they read. Since students can read anything they want to, they can choose something that truly interests and engages them. Often in language classes, students only read what their teacher requires them to read, and all the students have to read the same thing. Even if the teacher tries hard to find interesting things for the students to read, it will never be possible to find something compelling for every single student. But if students are allowed to choose their own books and if they are able to find books that truly interest them, they will pick up more of the language, remember more, and will build up their intrinsic motivation to keep reading. And giving students choice in what they read can help them discover what they like. There are some students who don’t even really know what kinds of books they like because they’re not used to being given a choice. But when they are given that opportunity, they can experiment with reading different types of books and gradually start to discover their own reading tastes and interests.
4. It establishes a reading habit. As students start to experience pleasure reading during class, they want to continue it at home. This, of course, is the long-term goal of FVR. In order to continue progressing in their language abilities, students will need to continue reading regularly, not just during class. Giving students time in class to read can spark their interest and “hook” them onto a good book. For many students, one of the biggest challenges is just getting them started in reading a book. I know I experience this myself, too. Even though I enjoy reading, it’s sometimes difficult to get started on a new book. After I read the first few chapters, I usually get hooked and want to continue reading. But starting a completely new book can be difficult, especially when I have lots of other things I need and want to do with my time. So giving our students some time during class to read gives them the opportunity to start a new book and, hopefully, get interested enough in it that they’ll want to continue reading at home. One important note: As Janice Pilgreen explains in her book The SSR Handbook, a comparison study she did between two FVR programs showed that students who were allowed to take books from the classroom library home were much more likely to read outside of class than students who were not allowed to take books home.
5. Students get social support while reading. Since they’re doing silent reading, the students aren’t directly interacting with their classmates while reading. But there is still some degree of social support since they are all sitting and reading together at the same time. And after they read, students can talk to each other about what they are reading and what they like or dislike about their book. They can make book recommendations to their classmates. And if they want to, students can read and discuss a book in a Literary Circle. All of these forms of social support can help encourage students to keep reading and help them to find new books to read.
6. Students get support from a teacher. During FVR time, students have a teacher who can help guide them in finding books that they will enjoy and that are at an appropriate level for them. Teachers can also provide support and encouragement to students who are feeling frustrated or discouraged. Students who only read alone at home don’t get this support.
For an example of the amazing impact of an FVR library, watch this video from Penny Kittle showing the changes in her high school Language Arts class after she started an FVR library. Her students went from reading almost no books to reading TONS of books, and many of them dramatically changed their attitudes toward reading. You can also read about all of the many research studies supporting free reading in Stephen Krashen’s book The Power of Reading or in the many articles posted on his website. Donalyn Miller also compiled a nice list here.
In an ideal world, maybe we could just say to our students, “Reading is good for you! Go home and read a lot!” and all the students would do it. But we’re not living in an ideal world. In reality, people have busy lives, and it’s difficult for them to take the time to find books they like and to make time to read regularly. Giving students time to read in class helps them to discover the joys of reading for pleasure, which helps them establish a life-long reading habit.