Some Reflections on “Pleasure Reading in the World Language Classroom”

Hello, my dear friends! I hope you are as happy as I am to see the end of DEVOLSON (which stands for the “Dark Evil Vortex of Late October September November”; credit goes to the Love, Teach blog for that awesome creation). I’m looking forward to moving on from the craziness of fall and into the winter months; not just the beautiful (but tolerable) Colorado winter, but also the “flow” that comes in most of my classes after I’ve worked for a semester to build community and develop routines.

I recently had the privilege of reading a copy of Mike Peto’s recently published book, Pleasure Reading in the World Language Classroom. My goal in this post is to share some of my major takeaways from the book as they apply largely to heritage language classrooms.

As long as I’ve been using comprehensible input (CI) with my second language classes, I’ve recognized Mike Peto as an expert in the area of free voluntary reading (or sustained reading or choice reading or pleasure reading – whatever you choose to call it). This book is a synthesis of everything that he has learned over the years about how to support language learners, both second language learners and heritage learners, through pleasure reading programs. In my view, the book is an invaluable read for a language teacher that still has doubts about the power of reading (and its place of importance) in a language classroom. As Mike puts it, “rather than have a language course with a reading component, [teachers should] lead reading courses with a language component.” The whole book, at the most basic level, is a discussion about how many of the activities we are already doing in our classrooms can be used to support a pleasure reading program in the classroom, not only for the purpose of language acquisition, but also for the bigger priority of turning our students into lifelong leaders.

For me, this is one of the most valuable takeaways for heritage teachers: turning our students into lifelong readers. As Mike points out, “teaching students how to read is not the same as teaching them to love reading.” This distinction is crucial for heritage teachers. Even if your heritage course has a heavy literacy focus, as I would advocate is indispensable, it is possible to be teaching readers and not developing lifelong readers. But this raises the question: how can I do both? Or should I do both? (I would definitely argue YES, you should do both…but that’s a whole other (future) post). In this book, Mike proposes several ideas for developing lifelong readers in your heritage class. He shares lots of nitty gritty practical tips on setting up pleasure reading in your classroom, from browsing, accountability, building your classroom library, building excitement and establishing a culture of reading, and setting up book clubs and partnerships. He also suggests that instead of trying to “win” the game of compliance, we look for ways to “short circuit” the game of students “playing school.” He also confronts a powerful debate in language and Language Arts classes recently: to teach whole-class novels, to avoid them, or to find a middle ground.

There are a few powerful chapters that I find extremely relevant for heritage teachers. The first is the idea that offering a solid pleasure reading program IS differentiation. As heritage teachers, we are well aware of the wide array of abilities in our classes. This range usually is vastly greater than the one we see in our acquisition classes, at least in lower level acquisition classes. When I was a newer teacher, reading often felt like a cop out; sort of like busy work I could give my students so I could get a few minutes to catch my breath or shuffle some papers. But the longer I teach, I realize that the truth is, it’s quite the opposite: not only is reading a good use of time, it’s actually one of the BEST things I can do for my kids. As long as I am careful to provide appropriate texts that are compelling and accessible for each kid, I am differentiating for every kid. I am meeting every kid where they are, that day.

Honestly, I did a lot of stuff as a newer teacher that I’m horrified of now, looking back. I remember not assigning a lot of reading because it was often really challenging for my kids, and it wasn’t a fun experience for them or for me. Now I realize that not only was the reading challenging for kids because it was just too hard for many of them, but also because it lacked connection to their real lives. As Mike points out, the idea is to provide students with LOTS and LOTS of options of EASY reading. Yet another mistake I made as a newer teacher was using reading as punishment. When my students weren’t listening to me or paying attention to the class discussion, I would punish them with an alternative reading assignment. It has taken many years for me to realize the damage I may have caused those students in reinforcing their hate of reading and the negative association they had with reading. In my classes now, I work daily to try to create positive relationships between kids and texts, and make reading a positive experience; I work daily to dismantle the negative relationships between kids and reading.

Finally, in one of the chapters contributed by Tina Hargaden, she suggests that in providing appropriate texts for every student is really, at its heart, equity work, which really tugs at my heart as a heritage teacher. I feel like equity is the name of the game when we are talking about meeting the needs of heritage learners in our heritage classes. She writes, “Equity in reading means, for me, that every student has the opportunity to select reading material that they enjoy….and giving the students the opportunity to start their reading career from the point where they actually are, not where I might wish they were or where the typical…student should be.” I love that I can look at my heritage kids’ reading levels in Spanish, and instead of judge them or ask them to read a class novel that might be above their level, I can meet them right where they are by providing interesting, exciting texts that are accessible to them. I feel like it’s extremely common for new heritage teachers to be disappointed with the level of reading where their kids are at, or to jump to the conclusion that their kids “can’t read” or simply “won’t read.” I love the idea that the onus is on ME to connect them to a text that is compelling and accessible.

Working daily to make my heritage learners lifelong readers really resonates with me because, in my view, if our heritage students become better readers, the probability of overall academic success in all contexts automatically goes up. And if students indeed become lovers of reading and lifetime readers, we will have given them access to a whole new reality, one only accessible to those that read (including not only the literal places and experiences they can experience through books, but also the access to power and knowledge that comes from being well-read).

So, from one language teacher to another, I invite you to consider these questions.

  • Have you ever wondered why other language teachers spend so much time reading?
  • Have you ever wondered how to start pleasure reading, from day 1, in any language class?
  • Have you ever wondered where to get books or texts? And which ones to get?
  • Have you ever been worried that you might have issues with your admin or colleagues when they find out you are doing so much reading in class?
  • Have you ever wondered why some heritage teachers would make pleasure reading a major component of a heritage class?
  • When your admin asks how you are differentiating for your students, have you ever mentioned your pleasure reading program?
  • Are you focused on teaching reading or are you focused on teaching students to love reading?

If you felt like these were relevant to you, you might think about picking up a copy of this book (available from Teacher’s Discovery). It will challenge some of your core beliefs about the purpose of a language class and the importance of a reading program. It will give you ideas about where to start, and how to go forward, and how to address challenges that may arise. It is invaluable for any language teacher, heritage or not.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this book, and your thoughts on pleasure reading in the heritage classroom! Happy teaching friends!


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