More than Just a Boring Old Book Club

As if it isn’t obvious, reading is my favorite subject. It was my favorite subject growing up and it’s my favorite subject to teach.  I squeeze and sneak it into every minute of the day. I think that teaching it is so important that when I was teaching full-time (I’m taking some time off while I get my Masters) I lead the coolest  after-school book club ever.

Kids need to feel empowered, they need to feel confident and important, but when it comes to reading, children often feel anxious, self-conscious, and lousy. According to the literacy company, “forty-four percent of American 4th grade students cannot read fluently, even when they read grade-level stories aloud under supportive testing conditions.” 44%! And I can guarantee you, that percentage is higher in low-income areas. I’m sorry, but Americans should be embarrassed  by this number. In our society, it’s inexcusable. I could go on and on about what I think American’s are doing wrong, but I’m not going to. Instead, I’m going to show you how a super awesome book club can help. lists seven ways for parents and guardians to build better readers:

1. Read with her for at least 30 minutes a day. This can include books, chore lists, signs, board games, menus, etc.

2. Take turns. When you read with him, read one page, then have him read one, and so on.

3. Ask questions. Build her comprehension skills by asking her who, what, when, where, why questions. Engage in a discussion about what you’re reading.

4. Be patient. Let him try to figure out the word. Give them at least a full minute.

5. Help her when she needs it. Show them how to use the context clues and root words to figure words out. Answer her questions about the meaning of words.

6. Read different-level books. It’s okay if he chooses an “easy” book to read. Reading a familiar favorite is a good confidence booster. Read more advanced books to him to introduce new words and challenging stories.

7. Praise her. Learning to read is frustrating. Encourage her by praising her and pay attention when she wants to read.

The book club I decided to use (which was created by two amazing teachers in New Hampshire) allows children and their parents to carry out each of these goals every week.

My biggest worry about the book club, was that kids wouldn’t be interested. When I was a kid I thought book clubs were for middle-aged ladies who sit around eating crumpets discussing the lusty world of Danielle Steel. Don’t get me wrong, I loved reading, but I don’t think the idea of a book club would have appealed to me. However, I really didn’t have any trouble at all getting kids to join. I went to every classroom, passed out flyers, and talked it up. At first they didn’t seem to really care, but when they heard they were going to get to keep their books, their ears perked up. I actually had to turn kids away. So if you decide to do this, talk it up as best you can. The more excited you are about it, the more excited they will be about it. And don’t worry about the cost of the books, it’s not going to come out of your pocket!

Alright, so the reason this book club is so cool and works at improving reading scores so well is because it’s a companion book club. You can name the club anything you like, but the type of book club is called a “book-companion book club”. Each kid is matched up with a companion. Ideally you’d like the companion to be the child’s parent or guardian, but if they can’t do it then a grandparent, teacher, staff member, police officer, fire fighter, or other prominent member of the community can step in instead. Children are excited to team up with adults, they like being able to show off their reading skills and they enjoy the extra attention. They also love keeping their companion accountable for their reading!

Okay, so it’s just a fact that people learn better when they’re having fun. So we jam pack every second of book club with fun. Here’s how it works:

Book club meets once a month. I find it’s easier for parents if the club meets in the evening, so they have time to get done with work and get their kids fed. We always met at 5pm. Everyone arrives with their companion, their book, and either a snack or an object. Whether or not they bring a snack or an object depends on what team they’re on. Each month we divide the club into two teams. One team is in charge of bringing in a snack that relates to the story (such as when we read The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo one child brought in soup, because soup is the Queen’s favorite dish). The other team is in charge of bringing in an object that relates to the story (they have to make or find the object, they can’t buy it).  When we read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever a little girl brought in a fire-extinguisher since the characters are always starting fires. Encourage the kids to get as creative as they can with this!

One of my super awesome kids. She made hamburgers and french fries (out of rice crispy treats) because the main character from the book of the month, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson, loves burgers. 

After everyone settles in we say a little greeting, and then immediately begin the book discussion. Because we had so many kids, we usually split the group into two smaller groups, but you don’t have to. Each month a different child leads the discussion. They are responsible for coming up with and facilitating questions (if a child doesn’t feel comfortable doing this, try to get him to do it with his companion, but don’t force anyone who really doesn’t want to do it, this is supposed to be fun!).

After the discussion each child and their companion is given a piece of construction paper. They draw something they particularly enjoyed in the book (make sure they put their names and the title of the book on the back of the page). Sometimes it’s nice to play music that compliments the story. Collect their drawings when they finish. These will be bound into a memory book that each child will get to take home as a present at the last meeting.

When everyone’s done drawing each companion pair gets to share either the object or the food that they brought. They need to say what it is and why they thought it represented the story. This is show and tell time only, I always made everyone wait until the end to eat, otherwise everyone gets too distracted.

When they’re done sharing it is time for the most exciting time of all: the revelation of the next book! Everyone always gets excited for this part, and I make a huge deal of it. Every month I put the new books in a large sparkly silver gift bag. I make everyone give me a drum roll, and then I pull out a copy and hold it up. I read a description of the book (whether it’s the one on the back of the book or a better one I found online) with as much expression as possible. I use different voices if I think it’ll pump everyone up. And then I hand out the books. Each book comes with a bookmark. The bookmark has an image on one side and what the child is responsible for bringing at the next meeting (as well as “Discussion Leader” on the bookmark of the child whose turn it will be the following month) on the other side. When each child has their fresh new book in their hands, we all dig in to the treats.

The last meeting is party time. Order a pizza and watch the movie version of one of the books the club read that year. Have everyone share their favorites and their least favorites, and present each child with their memory book. They love seeing what they’ve accomplished.

Showing off his object (a toy bus for the bus Lonnie has to ride in Locomotion) during memory page time!  

So what about the books? Why do we give them to the kids and how to we pay for it? Well, it’s important to give the kids the books because it starts their personal library. Some of the kids in the school I worked in didn’t own any books at all. They deserve to have them, and if I can make that possible I think I should do it. I plan the books we will read a year ahead of time. My assistant and I wrote to a number of companies in the community explaining what we were doing and why it is important that they own the books. In no time we got donations. The Rotary Club wound up giving us $300, which actually lasted us a couple of years. I look for deals. It would be great if I could buy any books I wanted, but I can’t, so I have to find deals, like the $1 novels featured in each scholastic book order and the discount shelves in book stores. And don’t forget to get a teacher discount card at Barnes and Noble (but try to shop locally if you can).

I know this sounds like a lot of work, and sometimes it is, but I promise it’s worth it. The kids really enjoy it (and not only because they get a free book out of it) and the parents just love it. And if it’s mandatory for you to do something extracurricular anyway, why not suggest this to your principal? It’s way more fun than being on a data committee or something. I guarantee the students’ reading scores will go up, and I guarantee their self-confidence will get a super-duper boost! And don’t think you can only hold a book club in a school setting. If you’re a librarian organize a companion book club in your library. Or if you’re a parent organize a companion group with some of your friends and their children. Remember, it’s okay if some of the books are easy for some of the kids and difficult for others. Kids need exposure to all levels.

Let’s get all our kids reading fluently! Happy book-clubbing!