Whipping Up a Book Frenzy: effective systems for promoting peer recommendations in your classroom
This title pays homage to the wise words of Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer, who begins every year with the singular intention of whipping the children in her class up into a book frenzy! By presenting children with personally selected book recommendations on the first day of term – a carefully selected autobiography for one child who has expressed an interest in space travel, to a leaning pile of volumes for another who has yet to be pigeon‑holed – Miller involves the children in the excitement of book selection. Her intention is that reading is laid out from day one as part and parcel of the learning process, integral to the English lessons, and beyond; not just an add‑on activity that is made time for at home (if you are lucky!).
The need for teachers to enthuse children in this way about reading is clearly stated in the National Curriculum. In Year 1, we are expected to teach children to ‘develop pleasure in reading’ and the ‘motivation to read’. This reminds us of the need to address both the skill of reading, at the same time as nurturing the will to do so.
In Years 3 and 4, teachers must support children to ‘develop positive attitudes to reading’. This yields the obvious questions: do we know their attitudes towards reading? Have we asked them? And, rather more challenging: how can we ask them in ways that won’t produce typical teacher‑pleasing responses (‘Oh yes Mrs Slater – I love reading’)? My favoured approach is to ask children to list their top five favourite hobbies or past times: if reading is not up there – right up in the top three – then I make it my mission to shunt reading up their priority list.
In Years 5 and 6, the wording of the National Curriculum acknowledges that children are gaining independence and widening their interest range – this is a time when a book is beginning to have to compete for the child’s attention against the lure of many other potentially brighter and bolder temptations. During this time, we are asked to support children to ‘maintain positive attitudes to reading’.
The National Curriculum is also realistic in acknowledging the factors that will hold increasing levels of influence for our pupils in Upper Key Stage 2: namely, their peer group. Teachers are expected to facilitate opportunities for pupils to be ‘recommending books that they have read to their peers, giving reasons for their choices’.
As teachers, we will all be fully aware of the power of the peer group. We have all experienced how what appears on one day to be a mere diversion for a few members of the class – Loombands, let’s say – can by the next day, have swept across your classroom, embroiling even your most level-headed pupils in its compulsion. All it seems to take is the right child, at the right time, to offer a murmur of enthusiasm, and boom… you have a frenzy on your hands. As teachers, we should feel compelled to harness this intoxicating power and use it to encourage something that will do them a great deal of good: reading.
Reading complete, lengthy, high quality texts however requires stamina, and this can only be developed through allowing lots of time for children to do just the thing that they are trying to get better at: read. In the same way that you might not be able to play a whole match of football/run a 10K/swim 50 lengths when you first start – you get tired, you want to quit half‑way through – reading at length is the same. You need to build up your legs for it.
The joy is that the more you read, the more you get out of it – you get hooked by the text – and thus the more you want to read.
So we must first of all get children to want to read, and then find ways to keep them at it when the going gets tough so that they break that barrier and are enthused to want to carry on. We need therefore to develop systems in our classrooms that make children want to read often, widely and for significant periods of time, and we want these systems to tap into the advantage that peer pressure can offer. In other words, we want to start a craze!
Furthermore, we need systems that as much as possible run themselves (no time‑consuming displays, no laborious sticker charts) and that have longevity. I am all up for the one off Big Bang reading events, but for the purpose of this article, I will share some of the systems and activities that I have seen to work well and keep the buzz going long after the giggles created by the ‘get caught reading’ photos have subsided (you know the ones – children reading inside laundry baskets/on skateboards/in wheelie bins – was that last one just in my school, I wonder?) Amusing, no doubt, but I was often left questioning whether the child holding the book had actually even read its title, let alone the whole thing! The systems need to be simple, fit for purpose, manageable, appealing to both teachers and children alike and reflect our children’s true reading experiences and motivations. So, here goes…
Practical tips for whipping up a book frenzy:
Every term, take the books (all or some) from the shelves and strewn them around the classroom – the disarray itself might cause the children to realise that something different and special is taking place here. Allow time for the children to really explore the books. Give them tips for this: look at the blurb, title; dip in and read a section; consider the author. Then, if they like the look of a book, they can collect a waiting list form and put their name at the top of the list. In my experience, nothing creates a buzz about a book like a waiting list. Suddenly, all children will be vying for the same book. Put the waiting lists somewhere highly visible and allow the children to tick off their names when they have read it. The child must then pass the text onto the next child on the waiting list.
One advantage of this activity is that you get to see the hidden gems that are lingering on your book shelf. You also get to a chance to consider how many of the books you actually know. How many have you read? Are you in a good position to recommend any of the texts on your shelves?
Being able to offer little teasers to the children at this stage will have a huge impact: ‘Now this book was a huge hit last year. Last year’s class couldn’t wait to get their hands on it!; ‘I remember Declan laughing out loud in the middle of a GR session when he read this book!’; ‘I wouldn’t advise anyone to read this one late at night – it’s terrifying! I couldn’t sleep!’ (Who could resist such an endorsement!).
Make sure that you model the expected enthusiasm by getting involved and adding your name to several waiting lists – ramp up the hype by beginning each day by asking how close you are to getting that book because you simply can’t wait to get your hands on it.
My one key tip for creating avid readers: avoid traditional book reviews. I share this tip from personal experience. The process of completing an extended book review forced me to become a secret reader! The ability to take a book that has made you laugh, cry, ponder, imagine and to reduce it down to a well-structured piece of prose – written in paragraphs, with correct spelling and punctuation of course – is a skill that still evades me to this day. Not only did it turn the joy of reading into ultimately a writing task, but most importantly, it stopped me from getting on with what I wanted to do most…read!
Instead, I recommend an Amazon style review where following completion of the book, the child completes a simple class record where they record their name, shade in a number of stars to indicate how much they enjoyed it and record their thoughts in a twenty word or less ‘tweet’. A pre‑populated sheet, with children’s names and empty stars, can be placed in the back of a book ready for the children to review after reading. This task is simple, manageable and most importantly, doesn’t stall the reading process.
When a review sheet is underway for a book, stick a little gem on the book’s spine (or you could use a sticker – I prefer a gem as stickers can get confused with colour-banding systems). Imagine now a child staring perplexed in front of the book case: which book should they choose? This can be an over-whelming task for some children. Now they know that if they choose a book with a gem on the spine, someone in the class has already read it. They can go straight to the review (much like I do when purchasing a book on Amazon) and see what their peers thought of it. This may offer them a way in to selecting some reading material that might just help to get them hooked. Essentially, this simple system helps to make the bewildering array of books available to them a little more accessible.
Much like the Cool Board from the television show Top Gear, which basically presents a league table of the presenter’s favourite cars, we can use this simple review system (described above) to create league tables of the favourite books in our classrooms. A league table helps to show visitors to our classrooms (and to the children of course) that they have entered a reading classroom.
The system works as follows: the tenth person to review the book is responsible for adding it to the Cool Board. They must add up the shaded stars (a potential of 50 stars), record the title and score on a prepared strip of paper and position it on the league table. As this gets going, the children can see, at a glance, which books other children in the class are currently reading, and which are proving most popular. Once again, this may help to guide the uninitiated reader towards a satisfying reading experience.
Belly Bands and Pokey Outies
Continuing with the notion of making the process of book selection less bewildering, these two simple systems are worth a try….
Belly Bands are simply thin strips of paper that wrap around the spine of the book and tuck inside the front cover. When the child has finished reading the book – or it can be during reading – they have the option to record the ‘line that lingers’ on the strip of paper before attaching it to the cover. This can be a funny line; a line that signifies a point of high tension; a line that takes the tale in an unexpected direction; or simply a line that resonates with the reader. This way, we are helping the child to pause and reflect on their reading, and consider how it influences them, in a way that does not interfere with the enjoyment of reading. The message we are giving children is that reading should leave a trace…a mark…an impression: it should linger.
Most helpfully with this system, when the book is replaced on the bookshelf, the belly band is visible. So once again, the bewildered reader standing in front of the bookshelf, has a direction to go in. They know that this book has been read by another member of the class, and that there was a line in it that lodged in the reader’s memory. This may just serve to pique their interest: where is that line? Why did that reader choose it? Will the same line linger for me? They might just choose therefore to give that book a go.
Pokey Outies work in a similar way. After reading, the child has the option to indicate the ‘best bit’ by inserting a post it note on the relevant page – you could also ask them to record on the post it the first few lines of the best bit as a courtesy to the next reader. Just like Belly Bands, Pokey Outies are visible to a potential reader who is inspecting the bookshelf for a possible next read. Upon seeing a Pokey outie, they may go straight to that section of the book to see if it draws them in enough to want to read the book in its entirety. Following reading, the next reader may agree that that was indeed the best bit, or they may choose a different section. And so, another Pokey Outie is added, thus making the book even more enticing to the next potential reader: ‘two best bits? I wonder if I will find a third.’ In this way, the books begin to recommend themselves and the work is done for us…what more could we ask for!
In my experience, a combination of all, or several, of the activities/systems listed above are needed to really get the book-recommendation ball rolling. It is worth therefore trying to establish several systems running at the same time for real impact.
So, to leave you with a lingering line from a tome that I know quite well…
Reading widely and often increases pupils’ vocabulary because they encounter words they would rarely hear or use in everyday speech. Reading also feeds pupils’ imagination and opens up a treasure‑house of wonder and joy for curious young minds.