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From the Classroom: The Power of the Booktalk

By Tricia Ebarvia

Although I’d been doing some form of independent reading for several years, with each year better than the one before, I came into last school year determined to commit in a way I hadn’t before. I wanted to find a way to make students’ independent reading a core component of their learning rather than something they did “on the side” or “in addition to” what we were doing in class.

Was I successful? I think so. Certainly there’s always room for improvement, but when I look back at last year, my 9th grade students together read more than 1000 books. That’s 1000 books in addition to the whole class novels they were assigned. That’s 1000 books I’m sure that would have gone unread had I not made the time in class for students to develop independent reading habits.

THE POWER OF BOOKTALKS

I cannot overstate the value of booktalks in my classroom. Looking back, I believe that consistent and persistant talk about books during class not only exposed students to interesting stories but generated anticipation and even excitement about them. As Penny Kittle writes in Book Love, “teenagers want to read―if we let them.” Many of my students admitted that they did not know enough about contemporary titles to know whether or not they should give them a try, much less read them.  Asking students to walk into a library full of books and choose a title―no matter how interesting they may all be―is a daunting and intimidating task if students don’t know what they’re looking for.  They end up walking around aimlessly, picking up books without purpose, growing frustrated. If they find books that interest them, it’s often by sheer luck rather than through purposeful consideration.

I am the one responsible for building a reading culture in my classroom.

Thankfully, we are lucky to have wonderful librarians who not only help students navigate the library, but also take the time to booktalk titles that students might be interested in reading. I invite the librarians into my classroom 2-3 times a year to speak to students. But our librarians―as wonderful as they are―are also busy. They have to meet the needs of more than 2000 students in the school. The 2-3 visits they make to my classroom are simply not enough to establish a reading culture in my classroom. Instead, I am the one responsible for that. I am responsible for exposing my students to high interest titles, to get my students excited about books that will speak to the young people they are today and who they hope to be tomorrow.

My goal, then, was to make sure that I talked about so many titles during class before we went to the library that it would be virtually impossible for students to not have at least 2-3 titles they were interested in. I gave daily booktalks in the weeks leading up our library visit, often discussing 2-3 titles at a time. I asked students to keep an “on deck” list in the back of their notebooks. This list was integral. During the year, I saw students finish books during class, then wander back to my classroom library only to double-back to their desks to grab their notebooks and consult their “on deck” lists. I am relentless when it comes to making sure students have another book “ready to go” whenever they are finished reading.

How did I know what titles to booktalk? I consulted lists of popular and award-winning YA titles, I read blogs devoted to YA literature, and finally, I just had to read them. This last part was the hardest for me to do. Until I began reading YA literature regularly about two years ago, I didn’t read or even know much about the genre (aside from Harry Potter, of course). I was busy enough reading the novels I had to teach, and I certainly didn’t have enough time in my day to read for myself, for my own pleasure―so how was I supposed to have time to read YA lit, too?

Finding and reading books to recommend to my students became part of my teaching life.

In the end, the only way to find time to read for my students was simply to make the time. I made the time the same way I make the time to lesson plan or grade papers. We all know that teachers are wizards when it comes to squeezing the most out of every minute of class, out of every minute of our prep periods. We know exactly how much we can accomplish in the last three and half minutes of class before the bell rings. There was no other way to know what titles I could recommend to my students without simply reading them myself. Finding and reading books to recommend to my students became part of my teaching life.

And so I read―and continue to read―as many young adult titles as I possibly can. I switch back and forth in my reading from YA-related titles for my high school students and other titles for myself. And although I didn’t necessarily like all of the YA titles I read, I have found several that have surprised me and others that I have even loved. When I hear teachers say that they don’t have time or that they don’t like YA, I would answer in the same way that teachers answer students who voice the same complaints. When students complain about titles we read in class, I often tell them that they don’t have to like everything we read, but they can at least read to learn something or to appreciate why that book may be important. This is how I approach all my YA reading. I may not like all the YA titles I read, but I can read to learn what could be of potential interest to my students. If I happen to like the book, too, all the better.

BOOK TALK ESSENTIALS

Much of my reading workshop has been modeled after the work done by Nancie Atwell and Penny Kittle. When it came time for me to give my first set of booktalks last year, I borrowed the format Kittle describes in Book Love. I held the book in my hands, walked around and showed the cover to students. I gave a short summary of the book, revealing just enough plot to get them excited. I “gave away” the exposition of the book, revealed the conflict, and then stopped at the moment it started to get really interesting. Students often asked, “Wait, so then what happened?” My response, “I guess you’ll have to read the book to find out…”

Like Kittle, I also read aloud a section from the book. I often read from somewhere in the beginning, but tried to find a place that showcased the narrative voice. I told students to listen carefully to the language and to the character―is this a voice, a style, that they’d like to live with for the next 200-300 pages?

I also mentioned―sometimes at the beginning, sometimes at the end―other titles similar to this book. For example, when I booktalked Jennifer Nevin’s All the Bright Places last year, I told students that her book reminded me a lot of The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor and Park. I also told them that despite being compared to those two titles, that Nevin’s book really stands on its own. When I booktalked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, I mentioned that students who liked quirky characters like those in Matthew Quick’s books (I knew many had already read Silver Lining Playbook) might also like narrator in Mark Haddon’s novel.

Finally, I tried to pass around the book. Honestly, I sometimes forgot to do this and simply placed the book back on the front shelf, but I often found that when I passed the book around, students became more interested in reading it. This is something I will make a point to do more often this coming year.

CLEAR BENEFITS

Finding Favorites. When I looked back at the titles my students listed as their favorites from last year, 85% of them were books I had directly recommended through the booktalks I gave during class. Would students have found these titles without my booktalks? Maybe, but I also know that many of them would not.

Generating Excitement.  Once I began giving booktalks regularly, it didn’t take long before students began asking for them, especially when I started to scale back the frequency of booktalks once independent reading was established (I booktalk 5-8 titles per week at first, then scale back to 3-5 titles per week). Students would see new titles I had placed on the front shelves and ask me to talk about them. “What’s that book about?” “Can you give another booktalk?” “What about that book?”―I heard students ask, and ask often. Once students realized how interesting some of the stories were, they wanted to know more. And since students knew that I expected them to pick up another book as soon as they were finished the one they were reading, they were always on the lookout for another title to add to their “on deck” lists.

Expanding Genres. One student wrote in a reading reflection, “Because of Mrs. Ebarvia’s booktalks, I learned about a lot of books I never heard of before. I also learned about books I never thought I would like, too. When I was in middle school, all I really read were fantasy or dystopian books like Divergent. But now I realize that there is some realistic fiction that is really interesting, too.” This particular student’s feelings were echoed in many of her peers’ reflections as well. Through booktalks, students learn about books that they might otherwise never give a chance.

Modeling. Another benefit of giving booktalks was that I was modeling the type of talk about books that I wanted my own students to be able to do. By the time I asked students to give their own books during class―and better yet, to write their own in the form of letter-essays (a la Nancie Atwell)―they had already become familiar with the form. And by form, I don’t mean “booktalk” as much as I mean book review. After listening to my booktalks, it was much easier for students to not only give their own, but to also write book reviews about their favorite titles.

VARIATIONS ON A BOOKTALK

As much as I love to talk books all day, even I would get tired of listening to myself go on and on. The point of booktalks isn’t really booktalks, after all. It’s the exposure and excitement for reading that they can generate. Here are a few alternatives to teacher booktalks:

  • BOOK TRAILERS –  Many publishers produce engaging, high quality book trailers for YA titles. Similar to movie trailers, book trailers can generate a lot of excitement and interest (I dare you to watch the book trailer for The Fifth Wave, for example, and not be interested). This is particularly useful if there is a book that I haven’t yet read but know some students would find interesting. I google and search YouTube for book trailers and then curate them into my own YouTube list. This way, I have a ready-made list of book trailers for whenever I have a few minutes at the end of class.
  • NOTABLE QUOTES – Speaking of videos, I love Epic Read’s YouTube channel. They have a great collection of short videos called “Now Quoting.” Each video includes interesting quotes from popular YA titles, each organized around theme. For example, there are videos like “7 Quotes about Growing Up,” “7 Quotes about Secrets,” and my personal favorites, “Words of Wisdom from YA Books” and “6 Ominous Opening Lines from YA Books.”  These videos are great to show students because they expose them to several titles at once, and many titles I may not have had the chance to read yet. I was so inspired by some of the Epic Reads’ videos that I even created my own with books I had recently read and shared it with students:

  • BOOK SPEED DATING – I first came across book speed dating after watching our librarian run it with students a few years ago. At the time, she divided students into several groups. Each group received a pile of books in the middle of the table (at least 1-2 books per student seated). When she rang a bell, students were to grab any book on the table and learn as much about it as they could in 1 minute. When the bell rang again, students then had to grab another book and had another minute to learn about that one. And so on.  I like book speed dating because it gets many books immediately into students’ hands. I have done variations on this method. In class, I have given each student one book. They have one minute to learn about their book before they have to pass it off to the person on their right. In half a class period, students can get their hands on 25 different books. For the second half of class, they then walk around and revisit the titles they were most interested in to add them to their “on deck” reading lists.
  • PREVIEW PROJECTS – Using a manila folder, students capture key information about one of their independent reading books. Typically, they include the title and visuals on the front, and then inside, they include a summary, list of characters, and other pertinent information (more details here). When students turn in their projects, we then have a “show and tell” day in which students get to browse each others’ projects to learn more. I also showcase the projects around the room throughout the year so students can continue to browse and get recommendations from their peers.
  • QR CODE POSTERS – Students select a “notable quotable” from their independent reading book to showcase on a poster. They include a visual that relates to the passage as well as a QR code that links to the book’s Goodreads page. We then post the posters around the room and in the hallways so that students can learn about more titles. If they see a passage they find particularly interesting, they scan the QR code and can mark the book as “want to read” on their Goodreads account. See example below.

i-hope-youre-ready-because-im-about

  • STUDENT BOOKTALKS – Rather than listen to me, students recommend books directly to each other. In the past, I have done this both formally and informally. For formal booktalks, students stand (or sit) in front of the room with their book and talk about it in much the same way I would. For a more informal option, students can share in small groups, or rotate through in concentric circles, taking turns sharing their books in a more 1:1 fashion.

Whether it’s through book speed dating or book talks, my goal is to overwhelm students with titles. The more possibilities I can show students, the more likely they are to find that book―the right book at the right time to turn a dormant reader into an active, engaged one.


Tricia EbarviaTricia Ebarvia currently teaches 9th grade world literature and AP English Language & Composition at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, PA. This year, she continues her quest to inspire a love for reading in her students by integrating more independent reading and free choice. She admits that her heart skips a beat whenever she sees a student with a book in his hand she’s recommended. She can also be found on Twitter @triciaebarvia or on her website at triciaebarvia.org.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Madelyn Dorville #

    Tricia,

    Thanks for the wonderful reminder about the importance about booktalks. Your story inspires me. As a fourth grade teacher, I always want my students to be reading independently. Ultimately, that’s our goal right? At the end of the year, after I have taught reading and writing strategies, modes, genres, etc. my goal is for my students to be independent readers and writers.

    Some key ideas from your blog post that hit hard with me were:
    1. We need to own the responsibility of working to develop independent readers/we need to build a reading culture in our classrooms
    2. We need to consistently talk about books in our classrooms
    3. Students finding books that they are interested in shouldn’t be sheer luck

    Your lesson suggestions seemed very realistic which I appreciated. In particular, I loved the book speed dating and the “on deck” list. The book speed dating would seem to fit nicely into my schedule and the on deck list would fit nicely in my student’s writer’s notebooks.

    Thanks so much for your suggestions! I look forward to starting book talks soon!

    -Maddie Dorville

    Like

    October 17, 2015
  2. Trish DiFilippo #

    Tricia – thank you for a wonderful post on the value of extensive reading and using Booktalk to promote it in the classroom. You have shaped my thinking about this topic and provided some innovative ideas to get students reading. I appreciate that you mention the merits of “modeling” as a benefit for students as well. Modeling “meaningful talk” about books (really any subject) gives students a tool or strategy they can immediately adopt and then fine tune to their own speaking and writing. Modeling “the talk” is like giving stems or frames that hopefully will translate into higher quality output in their discourse with you and with each other. I teach students who are not native speakers, readers, or writers of English in middle school and high school and your Booktalk ideas can serve as great “starting the discussion/talking points” to get my cohort of learners speaking and writing more in the classroom.

    Like

    October 11, 2015
  3. I really love the idea of having book talks in high school. I remember teachers would promote recreational reading in elementary school (teachers would read to us or give us s.s.r. time), but reading stops becoming “fun” in high school. I almost feel like the mentality is that by the time students enter high school, it is already established who reads and who doesn’t read. Being a reader is a life-long identity, I think it’s silly that teachers stop promoting reading. Aside from the academic benefits of book talks, it would also give a social outlet to students who need it. I’m studying to teach high school English right now, and I look forward to promoting book talks into school one day. Great read!

    Like

    October 6, 2015
  4. This post is so timely for me, Tricia! A few weeks ago, I launched the “Million Pages Challenge” at the cyber school where I teach in order to increase reading for pleasure–especially at the high school. You can learn more about it here, if you like: https://tackk.com/millionpageschallenge (Full disclosure: I’d found your Twitter/website some time ago and modeled a letter to families in the spirit of your parent letter, giving credit of course!)

    In addition to this school-wide effort, I’ve been focusing on independent reading in my own classes. Like you, I’m finding a lot to love in Penny Kittle’s Book Love too.

    I really appreciate the book talk alternatives you provide in this post. I can definitely see myself pulling from these ideas. And now my wheels are turning about how to do a digital book “speed dating” event too!

    (P.S. The link to the Preview Project details seems to be incorrect?)

    Like

    September 29, 2015
  5. Erin #

    Your thinking-outside-the-box approaches to independent reading has left me inspired to integrate many of your suggestions within my future classroom. Each strategy has compelled me to look at independent reading as not just filler but a pivotal piece to developing life long readers. Even more so, you take full responsibility for your students’ future in reading. I can’t recall a teacher during my secondary education taking such an interest in my relationship with literature!

    If you don’t mind, I do have a few questions for you:

    1. Do your booktalks include titles from both fiction and non-fiction? If so, do you carefully select non-fiction books that are readable at a high school level?

    2. Do you filter out titles from YA literature that other authorities (school administration, etc.) may find controversial?

    3. Have you ever assigned a multimodal project for students to create their own book trailers?

    These are just a few questions I noted in my reading :). Thank you so much for this thought-provoking post! I have stored away a copy within my “Must Use” file, and I look forward to referring back to it in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    September 26, 2015
    • Hi, Erin! To answer your questions:

      1) Yes, I booktalk both fiction and non-fiction, although I have to admit that I favor fiction. That said, I have had a lot of non-fiction titles that my students have enjoyed. I had a group of boys last year who went through Unbroken, American Sniper, No Easy Day, and similar titles. Memoirs were very popular, but also titles like Outliers (which a few girls said was their favorite of the year). I know that there are several “YA” non-fiction titles out there, but I just try to get quality non-fiction, so most of it tends to be what adults would read.

      2) If there is a title that I know may have some controversial content, I keep my eye out for who is interested in borrowing it. I am generally not worried if it is a title that our school library carries as well. I try very hard not to limit what students read. I send home a letter to parents at the beginning of the year letting them know that I will not always have read or remember all the details of every book students check out. You can find a copy of that letter on my teacher website (mrsEbarvia.com > Honors World Lit > Parents.

      3) Yes – I didn’t mention it in this post because creating book trailers is a little more complicated than the other options mentioned, but I have had students do book trailers. They use iMovie on the iPads.

      Hope that helps! Good luck!

      – Tricia

      Like

      September 26, 2015
      • Erin #

        Thank you, Tricia! You answered my questions perfectly. I read your letter to parents, and I must say, it is a wonderful example of teacher-parent correspondence. On a side note, your website looks great.

        Thanks again, and I hope you have a wonderful fall!

        – Erin

        Like

        September 26, 2015
  6. Kate #

    Thank you so much for all of these great ideas! This post could not have come at a better time. I especially loved the speed dating book idea and used it today in class- it was a huge it!

    Liked by 1 person

    September 25, 2015
  7. Michele Patarino #

    I truly found this blog post to be very helpful, especially because I am going to be an English teacher and future educator as well. What I appreciate is the fact that you have found a way to incorporate independent reading as a core component of students’ learning. This is very hard to do, and I know this just from being a student myself. I do not read for pleasure because I am always so busy reading for school assignments and coursework. Over the years I do not recall any teacher ever developing the habit of teaching us or putting in time to teach us how to love books or read on our own time, because just like you said, there isn’t enough time for everything. The consistent and persistent effort and talk about books that you exposed your students to have gone a very long way.
    The following statements you made are ones that are incredibly inspiring and prove how you’ve made a positive impact on your students’ learning:
    “I am the one responsible for building a reading culture in my classroom.”
    “Finding and reading books to recommend to my students became part of my teaching life.”
    “In the end, the only way to find time to read for my students was simply to make the time.”
    “I am responsible for exposing my students to high interest titles, to get my students excited about books that will speak to the young people they are today and who they hope to be tomorrow.
    “My goal, then, was to make sure that I talked about so many titles during class before we went to the library “
    “…..on deck lists. I am relentless when it comes to making sure students have another book “ready to go” whenever they are finished reading.”
    “Whether it’s through book speed dating or book talks, my goal is to overwhelm students with titles. The more possibilities I can show students, the more likely they are to find that book―the right book at the right time to turn a dormant reader into an active, engaged one.”

    From what I have gathered, you have done the following wonderful things as a teacher:

    1. Understood your role as an educator: that it is up to us to build a reading culture in the classroom. We must make the time and put in the effort
    2. Developed a wonderful way to make independent reading a core component of students’ learning
    3. Set positive goals for your students as well as yourself, and have reached them
    4. Made the independent reading process a fun and educational one: a process that your students will continue to develop even when the school year ends.

    It is up to us to not only put in the time and effort, but we must do so in a ways that truly reach the students. Setting goals as a teacher and making daily efforts to reach them has a significant impact on their learning. As a future teacher, I will absolutely utilize your methods in my classroom to help my students. From exposing students to book talk in the classroom to YouTube book trailers and book speed dating, your techniques have worked and I cannot wait to try them on my own.

    Liked by 1 person

    September 24, 2015
    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply, Michele! I’m glad that you found it useful, especially as you begin your own teaching life. Let me know if you have any questions. – Tricia

      Like

      September 25, 2015
  8. Michael #

    It was exciting to read about the effort and wonderful execution of ideas that have gone into your classroom. Having not found my love of the subject until college and now looking to teach it, not only do I wish these opportunities were available to me as a student, I also hope implement similar ideas myself. I was extremely impressed by the meshing of technology and internet resources used to further student’s interest, such as the QR codes and YouTube trailers.

    Liked by 1 person

    September 24, 2015

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