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Translating Teacher-Talk: Reading Middle School Minds

Michael, a new sixth-grader, would rather read the Warrior series than socialize. Andrew is a seventh grade boy and by all accounts would rather do anything but read. John doesn’t love to read, but will tolerate a sports book because he has to do thirty-minutes each night for his reading log. Natalia can’t remember what the name of her favorite story is because it’s been so long since she finished a book. Aidan only likes graphic novels and has been reading the same four Diary of a Wimpy Kid books since he was in the fifth grade. Emily wouldn’t be seen without the latest Wendy Maas books because her characters are so real. How can we keep our middle schoolers engaged and interested in rich, meaningful reading? How can we deepen their reading lives?

A reading life is one’s identity as a reader, such as authors and types of text they love, purposes for reading and history of reading experiences. For instance, whether reading has come easily or with painful struggle, personal memories of reading No David! with grandma while sitting in her abundant lap, learning preschool chart songs, or the anticipation of your third grade teachers’ read aloud of Charlotte’s Web after recess. A reading life is as unique and evolving just as social life and doesn’t stop when we “learn to read”. We are always learning to read, and moreover, always discovering things about ourselves as we do so.

In the next few weeks, I’d like to unpack how middle school readers think about reading important influences on their reading lives. As a reading and writing specialist, I have the good fortune of reading with students of all abilities across the content areas. Every day in my work in classrooms with students and teachers and in an intervention setting, I observe their challenges and triumphs, questions and observations about text around them. Each student continues to develop a “reading life” that consists of ebbs and flows of interests, time and ability. With new experiences in reading, students learn about content, vocabulary, relationships that exist in the world, and about themselves. They develop self-concepts as readers that by middle school start to generalize and translate into self-concepts about intelligence and potential.

Families and educators can provide wide reading experiences. The reading life of a middle school student means growing background knowledge in and out of school to support the connections they make, spark interest and strengthen understanding of words and concepts.

Here are four examples of things you can do at home to enrich the reading life of your middle school student:

  1. Sharing family stories can help children learn about expressions once used during the depression that a character in a book might also use. Learning about family history can also help middle schoolers understand relationships. As they read novels, they can better understand conflicts and resolutions between characters when they have experience in talking about how people navigate life. In addition, people, places, things you talk about can be points of curiousity to investigate. I can remember a dinner conversation at my house about my husband remembering where he was when President Reagan delivered his “Berlin Wall” speech. My teenaged kids had so many questions that we brought out the ipad and watched it together on the ipad. This speech was “text” that changed history and now they know more about the era, place and context.

  2. Make connections between types of “text” readers might encounter. Text can mean maps, charts, tables, poems, song lyrics, menus, photos, letters, and so on. For example, your middle schooler may be reading a story set in the desert, such as Holes, by Louis Sachar. For a student who has never been outside of New Hampshire, a desert may be difficult to visualize. Likewise, Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, is set in the deep woods of Canada. Each of these settings is important enough in the story that their ability to visualize is critical. In addition, the reader may not know which of our contiguous states may be comprised of desert land or where Canada lies in relation to the United States.

  3. Seeing parents read text they enjoy, especially fathers, is highly influential in developing reading lives of young adolescents. According to a presentation by Dr. Christina Clark at the National Literacy Trust in 2009, there is strong research and evidence that fathers’ roles in reading development can have an even greater influence than a mothers, especially for boys. While not everyone reads novels, making adult reading lives transparent and relaying the message that reading is both important and enjoyable is critical. Nonfiction reading like articles and manuals certainly warrant discussion about purpose and content.

  4. Parallel reading is one way adolescents continue to engage in “reading together”. Bedtime stories may be a thing of the past, but readers of this age do often appreciate having conversation about things that come up in their books. Even if their choices wouldn’t be yours, take the step toward them by reading out of your own comfort zone. Later, I’ll follow up with specific things you can do to frame some of these discussions, but to begin, having to copies of the text and simultaneously reading the book can bring about organic talks that otherwise may not have had a platform.

  5. Join a bookclub! When readers of any age come together to share thoughts and reflections about the stories or informational text they read, they broaden their knowledge and ideas. At The Literacy Coach Reading & Writing Center, we have quarterly, small reading/writing workshops for middle grade students to do just that. The next Boys 'n Books and Especially for Girls groups will begin in January. For more information, visit, and drop-down the Upcoming Events.

It is undeniable that we must take a village approach in providing multi-layered experiences for our young adolescents as they grow in ability and interest. They enjoy the connections that reading can provide either to those around them or to self-discovery. For suggestions about books for reluctant readers,, provides just one exceptional lists I’d like to share. Look for more book talks, resources and information in the coming months.

As you read, if you are curious about your own middle schooler’s reading life, feel free to contact me at (603) 759-3046 or email,

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