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The Power of Social Reading

Posted by Jen Robinson on June 22, 2009 at 6:00 AM in Literacy News
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A post that I read recently at The Reading Zone inspired me to write about "social reading" for kids. Blogger Sarah Mulhern is "a 6th grade Language Arts teacher who strives to instill a love of reading and writing in her students". Recently, Sarah wrote about a book club that she observed in her classroom between two best friends. The two girls decided, on their own initiative, to read the same book (Gone by Michael Grant). Sarah observed:

"They talk about the book with each other and with me, coming to me to share their responses and exclamations. I LOVE IT! ... It's amazing the power that social reading has. Why don't we harness this in more classrooms and use it? Students reading, recommending, and talking about books is more powerful than any literacy kit, basal reader, or literature set."

I certainly agree with that. I don't remember much about what I was reading in the classroom in 5th or 6th grade, beyond a vague memory of workbooks and reading comprehension questions. But I DO remember talking about books with my friend Holly. We especially enjoyed a book about Gnomes, Fairies, and Elves, and we were thrilled to discover a hidden path to an island of sticks in the swamp behind my house. Surely there was magic there! Holly moved out of the country after fifth grade, and for quite a while we took turns writing a shared story, sending chapters back and forth by airmail. I think that our shared experience with books worked a dual magic - it strengthened my friendship with Holly, while at the same time reinforcing my love of books. And I've been fortunate to have that dynamic with friends in my adult life, too. We benefit from the recommendations that we share with each other, and our friendships grow while we discuss the books.

In The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, Donalyn Miller talks about the importance of her own shared reading experiences with her husband, her children, and her best friend. Talking about her classroom, she says:

"By setting the expectation that reading is what we do, always, everywhere, it becomes the heart of a class' culture. Even the most resistant readers can't fight if all of their friends comply." (Chapter 3)

I know parents who have had good success with parent-child bookgroups (see, for example, or read Heather Vogel Frederick's book The Mother-Daughter Book Club). I think that bookclubs are a great idea. There's no doubt that by talking about books with their kids, parents can have a tremendous influence. Last summer, our own MotherReader hosted a wonderful summer book club for her rising seventh-grader's Girl Scout Troop. (You can find all of the posts here.)

I also think that when kids talk about books on their own, and make recommendations to one another, great things can happen. I'm not sure what can be done to encourage this social reading, exactly. I'm sure that the best response comes from the spontaneous bubbling over of genuine enthusiasm, and you can't orchestrate that. But I would be willing to bet that kids whose close friends are avid readers are more likely to be readers themselves (and vice versa).

Surely social reading has been a big part of the Twilight phenomenon, with girls reading the books because their friends rave about them. It was clear when I attended the signing for The Last Olympian this spring that part of the reason that kids were so excited about the Percy Jackson books was because OTHER kids were so excited about them. And that's great. J. K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and Rick Riordan deserve every iota of success, as far as I'm concerned, because their books have turned kids into readers. But what I'd also love to see more of is kids recommending books back and forth that aren't necessarily huge bestsellers. A kid recommending The Magic Thief or Alabama Moon to his best friend because he loves it, and he wants his friend to read it so that they can compare notes, and discuss it. I'd like to peek into Sarah's classroom, just for a moment, to see those two girls, heads bent together over their matching books. I think that social reading is a beautiful thing, something worth cultivating.

What do you all think? Have you observed social reading between your kids and their friends? In their classrooms? Teachers, is this something that you've been able to harness? Do you have any suggestions for how to do it? I would love to hear your feedback.


Terry Doherty writes...

Sarah has such a wonderful way with kids. She shares her enthusiasm and results in ways that inspire the rest of us.

It's been interesting to watch how pretend play has evolved with my 7YO and her friends. It used to be all princess-y stuff and dolphins. The other day, they were taking roles from The Chronicles of Narnia. C doesn't know that story yet, and I'm sure the girls were relating the movie in suggesting a "part" she could be. Still, I have to hope that they'll be inspired to read the book.

We often think of reading as a solitary thing once we become independent readers. It may be as simple as extending that "read aloud" time beyond those younger years when we read bedtime stories with our kids. A parent and child share reading might be an easy way to start.

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

I am really liking the idea of kids acting out stories, Terry. You see scenes like that in a lot of older children's books. I'm going to have to start keeping an eye out for examples from newer books, too. And of course, I'm always in favor of more read-aloud with older kids!

Mary writes...


I'm a schoolwide Title 1 teacher ...which basically means I push in and help classroom teachers with whatever they need. Reading comprehension was our focus last year. I loved the Book Whisperer and want to grow up to be just like her (even though I'll be 48 this summer!). We gave our 4th grade students more time to read books of their own choosing in the classroom this year and the results were amazing. We had students choose from trade books that we had levelled at the beginning of the ensure they were reading books that they could handle...but gradually phased it out to the point where they chose on their own. At the end of reading time, the kids shared a bit about their book with a partner and then the partners shared with the class. Often we focused on a particular strategy from a mini-lesson. The amazing part was how much the kids enjoyed sharing what they are reading and how POPULAR reading became. It changed the whole culture of the classroom. Often we ended up borrowing requested books from the 3rd and 4th grade classrooms (4 classes) so students would be sharing recommendations even between grade levels. We can't wait to try new ideas next year and I'm reading like crazy this summer so I can make good recommendations to my students. Any ideas for 2cnd, 3rd and 4th graders would be appreciated! It's such a relief to be able to teach with something real! Basals can only go so far.

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

Thanks for commenting, Mary. I'm not even a teacher and I want to grow up to be just like The Book Whsiperer, too. I'm so glad to hear that you've had success with giving kids more time to read books of their own choosing. That is wonderful!! I love that reading became popular in your class. And that it's more rewarding for you, too. What a win-win.

As far as book ideas go, I'd say the Clementine series for the youngest class. Other titles I've really liked for these age ranges include A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban, the Magic Thief books by Sarah Prineas, the Magyk series by Angie Sage, the WIlloughbys by Lois Lowry, the Piper Reed books by Kimberly Willis Holt, the Shadow Children series by Margaret Peterson Haddix, Dodger and Me by Jordan Sonnenblick ... oh, there are so many great titles, it's very hard to choose. I have links to all of my reviews here and some recommendations by age range here. I would also especially visit A Year of Reading and Literate Lives, fabulous blogs by teachers, for other suggestions.

Melissa (Book Nut) writes...

My oldest, M (13), prides herself in getting as many friends reading as many books as she can. So far, aside from Percy and Harry, she's convinced a crowd to read The Ranger's Apprentice Series, a whole bunch of fairy tale books (too many to name), and a bunch of ARCs I have sitting around the house. In fact, one of the best things she likes about my "job" is that she can spread advance word about books. She really likes that. (Like, she's told me about a hundred times to read Coffehouse Angel by Suzanne Selfors because it's awesome.) I do have to admit she's unusual: not many kids recommend books to her, though sometimes it happens...

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

I LOVE that your daughter works on getting her friends reading, Melissa. That's excellent. And the fact that your job helps is, I'm sure, more than just a convenience. You've helped to make her a reader by example, and then provided lots of great books. As for the fact that the recommendations are a bit one-sided (her friends aren't recommending books to her), well, that's the way it is for a lot of us. But I think that she's giving her friends a great gift.

Laura writes...

I've really noticed this among teenage girls using my library's YA collection. The girls who come with a friend or as a group tend to talk each other into reading more, and then they all end up with shared reading experiences that they can talk about. It's something I love to see!

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

That's something that I love to hear about, Laura (teens coming in together sharing reading experiences). I think that libraries are onto something, providing teen-friendly spaces. Thanks for sharing this positive experience with us!

Rasco from RIF writes...

When I taught sixth grade years ago I was in a school that required book reports but I was not told they had to choose certain books or from certain books so I allowed free choice...amazing discussions resulted. When I was the leader of a Brownie and then Girl Scout troop the girls always wanted to have book sessions at least once a month because we made reading so much fun! Many RIF programs promote and foster "social reading" as discussed in your post above, Jen. We hope through email and other digital means to promote social reading between schools as well.

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

Carol, thanks for all that you do through RIF, and on your own, to promote social reading. So much of it is just about making reading fun, a positive experience. Many kids are looking for approval from their peers, or at least sharing of experiences with their peers. When reading helps provide that, we can get a tremendous positive synergy! (I think that you're quite a social reader on your blog, too - I loved your example for your colleagues during the 48HBC).

laura writes...

I am a high school librarian and we see social reading instances every day! One thing we've done in an attempt to harness this is to display "Maverick" (our mascot) picks. We have students write up a few sentences about a book they enjoy and display that with the book. Sometimes we offer an incentive for filling these out or it's tied in with a program we have going on.

One of our most popular displays was "recommended" summer reading from our teachers. We'd display their favorite books and a few comments - the kids loved it.

Thanks, Barnes & Noble, for the inspiration.

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

Thanks for sharing these suggestions, Laura. You aren't the first librarian I've seen, recently, to learn from what the booksellers are doing (see this post). I think that everyone is looking for recommendations from people they trust. "Recommended" summer reading from teachers - such a more positive experience than a "required reading list", and much more likely to be successful, I would think. I'm glad that you've seen this technique work.

Nancy writes...

Why do we divorce writing from the reading process? Why do we go to such great lengths to get kids to read, but never encourage them to write their own stories? Surely one of the best ways to get kids deeply engaged in reading is to get them writing as well? As a writer and a teacher, I find it ridiculous to think that the two disciplines should be separated the way they are in most American schools.

Nancie Atwell gets her kids thinking like writers as well as readers by encouraging them to create literature, and teaches them the elements that come together to form good stories, poems, and essays (her kids write book reviews rather than simple book report summaries). I've used several of her lessons in my classroom to great effect. Kids talking about writing leads to kids talking about reading, and vice versa. We should be taking advantage of this symbiotic relationship rather than stifling it (intentionally or not).

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

That's a very good point, Nancy. I have seen a few articles to this effect recently (for example, this site outlines some literacy adventures, each including reading and writing), but you're right - they are relatively rare in this discussion. I was a tremendous writer as a kid - I still remember some of the stories that I wrote. I'm going to have to keep more of an eye out for ideas to better take advantage of this relationship between reading and writing. Thanks!

Anne writes...

I remember when the first Harry Potter movie came out and I took my son and his friends to the movie (I think they were all about 11). The boys had deep and thoughtful discussion and debate about the book vs. the movie. I was impressed!

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

It's such a great experience, when you really see kids discussing and evaluating a book. I've had some great discussions with my nieces about the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books - but it would be even better to see them discussing the books with their peers. That day watching the Harry Potter movie sounds like a real win for you and your son (and his friends).

Kate writes...

I teach 7th and 8th grade Language Arts at Newark Center for Creative Learning (NCCL), a progressive school in Newark,Delaware. I use the Social Reading model as a basis for my reading program. A couple of times a year the kids are reading a shared novel, or have a specific genre from which to choose, but the rest of the time, they are reading self-selected books. I have plenty of multiple copies of current books to encourage book groups and discussions.

Since using this model, I have seen a significant difference in the attitudes that my students have regarding reading and have had several reluctant, or unethusiastic readers become exuberant life-long readers.

Anything by Wendy Mass has been inspiring for my girls, Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin is a terrific discussion book, Laurie Halse Anderson's books are terrific for YA readers, Percy Jackson series is a jump start series for any reader. I have had several reluctant readers take off with after reading this series.

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

It's wonderful to hear about repeatable success with social reading programs, Kate. Thanks so much for sharing, and for sharing specific recommendations that have worked with your students. Your sentence "Since using this model, I have seen a significant difference in the attitudes that my students have regarding reading and have had several reluctant, or unenthusiastic readers become exuberant life-long readers." is a perfect summary of why this model is worth pursuing. Reading your comment has brightened my day. Thanks for creating life-long readers in your classroom!

Jane writes...

Yes, my kids do this all the time. However, they are readers and their friends are readers too. So much so that they & their friends will bring paperbacks to school and give them to each other because they "just have to read this awesome book!" My daughter has discovered a number of new series in this fashion.

My children's 2nd grade teacher also did this all the time, going so far as to call them "book clubs". She had graded readers in the class room so while everyone would be reading a book on the same subject, they would be reading on their difficulty level. The strongest readers were allowed to extend their reading by researching a topic or author more in depth and giving presentations, puppet shows, etc. about what they had read. Other times, she'd let my son do an oral book report to the class or work with a small group of classmates to share with them what he'd been reading and what he'd learned. He shares his books on the playground, in lunch room, at bus stop. We were at the library signing up for the summer reading program and I heard I didn't recognize a boy yell, "MOM! That's the boy in my grade who ALWAYS has a cool book from the library!"

I think readers, no matter the age, always want to share an enjoyable book with others.

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

Thanks for commenting, Jane. It sounds like you are fortunate in your kids' friends and teachers. I love the story of your son being pointed out as that boy who always has a cool book from the library. What an excellent way to be known! I wish you all a lovely summer of books!

Quinn writes...

What a great post, Jen. And so timely for me too.

I started a reading-book club this month for kids in my neighborhood. My son is a rising second grader and made such great progress reading over the last year I wanted to find a way to keep him reading and keep it fun, amist all the other summer time distractions.

So after chatting with some of the other moms in the neighborhood, I decided to set up a reading group for the second graders and their siblings. We have quite a few second graders so I thought those interested would fill a room.

We have met twice and already it has been great. My focus is not just the reading but really asking them about what they are reading. We started with a very challenging book and have had them read it along with their parents. Our next choice is a simplier read but then I give the kids different assignments as they go along.

I love all the ideas you presented here.

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

Thanks for commenting, Quinn! Your neighborhood book club sounds like a lot of fun. I've added your blog to my reader, so I can watch your progress. I'll be interested to see how you balance encouraging the social aspects through discussion/assignments against keeping it from feeling like work. (Always a tricky thing with book clubs). But it looks like you're off to a great start! I'm impressed. Wishing you and the kids a lovely summer of reading.

bd writes...

I'm a 5th grade teacher and work hard to establish a culture of "social reading" in my classroom each year.

Here's what I've found: if I'm enthusiastic about books, it rubs off on the kids. I start the year with a "hot books" bin (bestsellers + my personal favorites) and each day booktalk a few of the books.

As the kids start reading them, I make sure to check in with them and start conversations. When someone finishes a book they like, I always ask them to recommend it to a friend who they think would enjoy it. Then, when I notice that a few kids have all read the same book, I'll try to gather them and lead a quick conversation about it when I can.

My challenge is getting the kids to do this themselves more ideas on that would be great!

The "hot books" bin is updated constantly, eventually with the kids choosing the books. But the important thing for teachers to do is to booktalk as much as possible!

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

These are great comments, bd. Thanks for sharing! It sounds like you're having great success with establishing a social reading culture in your classroom. Genuine enthusiasm from you, the teacher, is clearly a vital component. As for suggestions for getting the kids to initiate the book discussions more amongst themselves, I don't have any experience with this myself, but I do know where I would look. Have you read Donalyn Miller's book, The Book Whisperer (referenced in the post)? I would imagine that there are some ideas in there. You might also visit Sarah Mulhern's blog, The Reading Zone. It sounds to me like the two of you are kindred spirits. But overall, it's a tricky thing. How to encourage organic, self-motivated discussions... An answer worth having!

Little Willow writes...

Very much so! Nothing makes me happier than lending or recommending a book to a friend or customer, then discussing it with him or her upon completion. It makes me so happy when someone likes a book I liked, and we can chat about it at length! It always cracks me up when casual observers/listeners think we're talking about people we know and things that actually happened when we're just talking about a book. :)

I love seeing a book pass from one person to another to another. I have had a lot of success with this. Examples include Looking for Alaska, Good Enough, and Bad Kitty.

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

You are a champion social reader, Little Willow (that's clear from your contributions to Readergirlz, if nothing else). I love your comment about people thinking that you are talking about read people, rather than book characters. Seems to me that some of these book characters are more real to me than, say, celebrities. I really must read Looking for Alaska one of these days (I have it, even, just haven't read it yet).

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