Sneak peek: How to set routines and expectations for free voluntary reading in heritage Spanish class.
Free Voluntary Reading (FVR) is a core component of our classroom routine in heritage Spanish class. However, when I first inherited the heritage course at my school, we didn’t have a classroom library established. Couple this with the fact that my school had a rather small selection of books written in Spanish in the main library, and it became quickly apparent that something had to change.
After reading the book Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish: Essays by Classroom Teachers put together by Mike Peto, I knew I needed to prioritize getting funding for a classroom library. Many Language Arts classes (English Language Arts) in the American school system incorporate silent sustained reading or free voluntary reading because written input is crucial for language acquisition. The best reading is the kind that continues to happen.
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The question became, why don’t my heritage students have access to the same opportunity? That magic of sustained reading, where you forget that you are even reading, happens when students get sucked into a topic that interests them at a reading level that isn’t too challenging. The beautiful thing about pleasure reading is that students enjoy themselves, while learning more than they realize in the moment.
Build a Classroom Library
Before you can get started with FVR you will need to establish some sort of a classroom library. In order for the magic of pleasure reading to occur, you need to be able to offer books at many levels and on a variety of topics.
I am not going to lie, it took a lot of effort to get funding. But, it was well worth it in the long run! Once you put in the work, you will have books to fill your classroom for the rest of your career. I ended up getting around $7,000 of funds to build and round-out my library, but you can build an effective library for less! Even if you just start small and add onto it year after year, you will be amazed with what you can accumulate!
To help you in your journey to get funding I wrote blog posts about where to apply for grants and how to write a grant proposal.
When resources are tight, each book must be a hit that connects with your students. Selecting books that sit idly by can feel very deflating and discouraging. It feels like such a huge decision, and oftentimes, it’s a decision you only get to make once. I’m here to try and help you make great choices and avoid wasting those precious funds on books that your students won’t want to read.
You can see my full classroom library inventory and my current book-wishlist here.
Once you have your classroom library or at least enough books for each student, introduce your expectations to the class. I like to spend a class period on this to drive home the importance of the new class time that will be allocated for free voluntary reading. Start off by having them learn the expectations, reflect on their pleasure reading experiences so far, and create a wishlist of books in the library they would like to read.
It’s important to get them into a constant pattern of figuring out what to read next. I use this (free) worksheet for getting started with them. I provide them this wishlist sheet as an option. I also give students a blank bookmark made of cardstock and instruct them that they can decorate those if they would like. Personalize your bookmark, personalize your reading experience and engage your mind…that’s the goal anyways! You can also use little post-it notes for this. It’s helpful for them to put their name on the bookmark, in case a book was to be misplaced around the classroom, or be read by another student in another hour, then students will still be able to be linked back up to their reading material.
Just for fun, I also gave students these Spanish class binder covers that have books on them to further promote our classroom culture of reading.
Expectations for students
- Everyday we will read for ten minutes to start class (there will be a timer on the Smartboard).
- They are expected to quickly and quietly grab their chosen book as soon as they enter the class, bring it to their seat and ready their minds to read.
- No talking during free voluntary reading or “lectura libre”
- When one door closes, go find a different door: If you aren’t enjoying your book, you are allowed to stop reading it and choose a different book that isn’t occupied by another student.
- Books stay in the classroom and may not be taken home.
I don’t let students take books home as a general rule of thumb. It becomes too difficult to maintain your classroom library, if your library leaves the classroom. However, if you have the ability to have codes placed on them for the school, perhaps you could feel confident enough to let students take FVR books home. If there is record of it with the school, then each student knows they would be fined if a book was lost. I found I was splitting time as a teacher and a librarian. Personally, the new role and responsibility was not for me. I lost way too many books from letting students take them home during the pandemic, so I stick to a no-books-leave-the-classroom policy.
Set the Routine
Here are some housekeeping things to note. It’s important to stick to the routine of starting class with ten minutes of reading. Do it every day, and do it without fail. Once you take a day off or skip reading, it has a way of tanking the positive habit. You also don’t want them to start requesting a day off from reading. Negative energy towards free voluntary reading begins to eat in the keyword, “voluntary.” It can sometimes be challenging to fit the time in, but I suggest not skipping it. I have definitely learned my lesson from making that mistake.
You can assign class librarians. Class librarians act as the students who collect the books after reading time. You could also just have each student return their book to the library. I like having the librarians because they help make sure the books are returned to the correct place, and it gives students that respond positively to holding a role or responsibility a good opportunity to buy into the class.
When you set the expectations for book selection, you want to emphasize that students choose a book that is actually easy for them. Students have ten minutes to read, so the goal is to have them get fully immersed in the book rather than to have them stop every couple of sentences to look up new vocab words. It should be a bit below what their reading level is because you want the reading to be more about enjoyment than challenging themselves.
A frequently asked question is how to hold students accountable for reading. The tricky thing is, the whole point of pleasure reading is reading simply for the sake of enjoyment. If we require assignments about their books, we are robbing them of a chance to read just for the sake of reading, with no strings attached.
So, do I give students any assignments related to their FVR reading? No. Do I give them questions about their FVR reading? No. Do I make them keep a log of their FVR reading? No. Not unless they want to.
It may sound too good to be true, but if you set the expectation and set the routine properly, the boundaries of this activity begin to police themselves. The most I have done in terms of FVR assignments is when I’ve asked students to write a short book review for our bulletin board upon completing a book.
To create this bulletin board I purchased these conversation bubbles on Amazon and printed out colored photos of the book cover to go with it.
Oftentimes, accountability is the only thing motivating students to do work in class. And by accountability, I mean points for turning in work has become their only motivation for learning. While this is a sad reality in education, it’s also way too big of a topic and would act to sidestep and circumvent the purposes of this post. So, without a required assignment, how will students be motivated to read?
This can be challenging. I won’t lie. And it depends on your group each year. Some years are harder than others.
One thing I do that seems to help, is explaining to them that I am intentionally not giving them assignments. This, because I want to give them the freedom to explore books for fun. It’s okay to be explicit about your strategy. My students have responded rather positively to the candor.
I also model reading for them. I read with them during our FVR time. Being on your phone or answering emails during this time will undermine the purpose of unifying the class under an activity that is ultimately great for the group: free voluntary reading. Everyone has to buy in, and this includes the teacher.
It’s important to show them that you are also a reader. You can foster book-love in your class by sharing with students about the book you are reading or by doing book talks about books in the library you recommend. You can set up a featured book of the week to have sitting on your whiteboard to spark interest.
Truly loving the act of reading for pleasure will not happen overnight for your students. It’s a muscle that must be exercised and built over time. In my own journey, I have found that through incorporating this habit in our classroom routine I have actually become more of a reader outside of school. It’s happened, but it has taken some time for sure. I applied these same principles to my own life and I now give myself permission to read fiction novels in English (because it is easier for me) simply because I enjoy getting lost in a good story and not because I am trying to challenge myself with acquiring new Spanish vocabulary. I also give myself permission to not finish a book, if I find myself no longer connecting with the plot or the characters for whatever reason.
There will definitely be students in class that will sneak a cell phone behind their book. You may find it beneficial to park yourself in a central location during FVR time. Or, place yourself in one area of the room that you happen to know needs your attention to function properly. If you see someone on their cell phone simply walk over to them and gently tap them on the shoulder indicating that it is time to read. Defend the silence, and defend the opportunity to read for your students as a collective whole…they need this, they just might not know it yet!
This year has been a bit harder than other years to keep students reading and off their cell phones (thanks pandemic!), so I have started giving extra credit stickers some days. At the end of the reading time, I quietly walk around and place an extra credit sticker on their hand if I noticed they had been reading for the full ten minutes. You can read more about how I use extra credit stickers as a reward here.
I think once you come to terms with the fact that at the end of the day, you won’t turn every student into an avid reader, it gets easier to process not holding them more accountable. By offering them a great library selection, quiet reading time, and holding them to a general expectation of reading, you are doing all that you can. You know the saying… “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink.” Perhaps they haven’t found that special book that connects with them yet, but hopefully they will someday soon.
For some, you will cultivate the love of reading that can bring forth their best academic versions of themselves, and for those students, this activity and opportunity is worth all the effort. So instead, focus on the positives that come from seeing students engage in the FVR practice and become more and more interested in reading. Just today my heart was warmed as I saw a student point at another student’s book and say “that’s a really great book!” Those are the moments that make it all worth it. That book, by the way, was Querida América by José Antonio Vargas.
Student Book Shares/Reviews
Instead of requiring students to fill out a reading log or do assignments surrounding their free voluntary reading, consider using it as a way to connect with your students. Ask them what they are reading, or how they are liking the book. If you are doing student-conferencing with students for a writing assignment or another project, you can work in questions about what they are reading lately and what the plot is about.
You can also periodically break students into small groups in order to give them a chance to share what they have read in class so far this year. This doesn’t have to be a time-consuming thing, but rather something you do a few times a year.
In order to generate interest in the book offerings you have in your library, other strategies are rotating the placement of the books, featuring different books on your whiteboard ledge each week, and sharing with the class which books you have read recently from the classroom library and what you liked or didn’t like about it.
What other FVR practices have you implemented with your students?
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