I am in my 16th year of teaching and I have been doing SSR/FVR (sustained silent reading or free voluntary reading) since my second year of teaching. The concept is not new. I remember doing it in the 3rd grade. But one simple change that I made this year has made all the difference in the world. My reading program went from lackluster to AWESOME in a matter of days and I have buy-in like never before.

Like many of you, I used to use children’s books for my free voluntary reading library. I had collected hundreds of books over the years. I had childhood favorites, Dr. Seuss, Clifford, Eric Carle classics, a few authentic children’s books, and lots of simple, non-fiction books. Most of my students dutifully read on our designated reading days, but many weren’t very engaged and only looked at the pictures.

I did what the experts said to do. I read with my class. I made it a priority. I talked about how important reading is. I talked up the books. I pointed out some of my favorites. I started with only a few minutes and worked my way up. I didn’t assign any accountability. I did everything that I read about, but I still didn’t get the engagement that I was looking for. And except for a few superstars, I didn’t see much evidence of their reading in anything else they did in class.

I kept looking for that magic potion. That thing that would make everything else come together. The one thing that would engage my students, show results, and would get the buy-in from my kids.

This year, I found that one thing. It took me all these years and lots of books on reading, blogs, and discussions with experts on reading and FVR for it to finally become clear. What was that one thing? What is that magic pill? Let me tell you. It’s NOVELS.

I had read various blog entries and Facebook posts by two of the best free voluntary reading advocates: Mike Peto and Bryce Hedstrom. And one thing that I noticed at the end of the year last year, was that there was a trend towards ditching children’s books and moving to novels. Many of us all had a collection of children’s books thinking these would be easily-comprehended by beginning students, but we were wrong. Children’s books are easily comprehensible by children after they’ve had thousands of hours of input. Our kids barely have a hundred hours, especially when they’re starting out. These children’s books were out of reach of most of our students. The students stuck with us though, choosing books they remembered from their early childhood and spent most of the time just looking at the pictures, often upside-down.

So this year, I made it a point to get as many novels as I could. They were all on my own dime, but I knew it was the missing piece to my FVR puzzle. I spent over $500 of my own money to get as many novels as I could. I got roughly 70 or so novels plus the ones my school already had, so probably around 100 in total on the first day of school. I purchased novels from various sources: miracanion.com, tprsbooks.com, fluencymatters.com, and brycehedstrom.com. When they came in, I labeled them with little colored stickers according to the level of difficulty. I had plenty of shelf space, but shelves are not the best to show off the covers of books, so I bought a half dozen of the clear little storage tubs and added my color-coded books to each, with the covers facing forward for easy browsing. I made sure to NOT put the tubs in any predictable order. I didn’t want the kids to only pick from the left-most tub because they thought it would contain the easiest of the novels. I didn’t even tell the kids what the colors meant. I just told them to look at the covers and pick a book that was interesting to them.

So on Monday of the second day of school, I started my speech about reading. I told them that 70% of their language both in English and Spanish comes from what they read (Krashen). I told them that their writing would improve the more that they read. I told them that people who didn’t like to read just haven’t found the right book. And I told them the expectations for our free voluntary reading time together starting the next day:

1. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, when you arrive to class, get your book from the shelf and start reading.

2. Read until the timer goes off.

3. You may quit a book if you don’t like it, but you cannot quit in the middle of our reading time.

4. Browse through the books and choose one based on the interesting cover or the description on the back.

5. At the end of the reading, write down the title and your last page on your warm-up paper.

And so on Tuesday, that’s what they did. They browsed the covers and they chose their book and they sat down and read. I took attendance and afterwards, I sat down and read right in the middle of the room. I didn’t let them use dictionaries. I told them to use context clues to help them figure out unknown words, but that also, most of the words were in the glossaries in the back of the books. For the first week, I set my timer for 5 minutes. They did not know this. I didn’t set the timer until I sat down to read, so they actually got closer to 7 minutes of reading time. And guess what? For the first time that I can remember, everyone was reading. It was silent. No one was looking for excuses NOT to read. No one was writing or chatting with their neighbor. There weren’t any upside-down books. All I could see as I looked out at my class were their faces buried in their self-chosen books.

When the timer went off, I told them to record their titles and their page numbers and if they didn’t like their book, they could switch on Thursday. Some switched, but most did not.

After our reading time on Thursday, I asked the kids to note down the book they were reading and their page number on my master log. I’m just using this as an informal documentation of their reading. There is no grade attached. No condemnation for having switched books each day nor for only reading a page or two instead of five or ten.

This past Thursday, the third week of my FVR program, I looked at the master log to note which books they had chosen to read and how far they were in them. I was amazed at the wide selection of books that they had chosen.

There were plenty of the easier books (I expected this), but there were also quite a few of the more difficult books and even a few of the hardest books I have in the collection (those usually designated for level 4). This year I’m teaching levels 2 and 3, and in both, I was seeing a wide variety of difficulty chosen. I was impressed. What else impressed me, was that many of the students had already finished their first novel and were moving on to their second.

And what impressed me, even more, is that there is a young man who comes in every day 15 minutes before school starts so that he can keep reading his book. Instead of hanging with his friends in the quad, he chooses to sit down on a beanbag and read his book. He’s on his 3rd already.

And what absolutely blew me away, was when a young lady asked me on the Friday before Labor Day, a Friday before a three-day weekend, if she could stay after school so she could finish her book. ON A THREE-DAY WEEKEND. What kid asks to voluntarily stay after school on a Friday so they can read. And NO, she was not a bookish young lady or what one would consider a nerd. She was a regular, everyday eighth grader. And she was amazing.

I am just amazed at the success.

For the past two years, I have offered extra credit (the only extra credit I give) for reading extra novels other than the ones we read together in class. I only had a few kids bite. And the kids that did bite, usually weren’t the kids that needed the extra credit.

But now, now that I switched my free voluntary reading to novels, I’m getting all the kids to read novels. I’m getting the top kids to read novels and I’m getting the low kids to read novels and I’m getting everyone in between. And I’m also getting a lot of kids telling me how much they like the novel that they are reading. In all the years of the novels that I’ve read together with my kids, they have only told me that about one novel and it was one that I just started reading with my students last year and that was Todo lo que brilla I usually got complaints about the novels that we read in class. So, needless to say, I’m very excited about this upcoming year and to see the results of this newly-found success will have on my students' proficiency.

I’m also excited to do some activities stemming from this reading time, like book clubs, book chats (where students talk to their partner for two minutes about their book in English or Spanish—I don’t care which), and some book commercials.

I’ll let you know how it goes!