November 9, 2007

How I Learned to Run a Really Popular Book Club (and What I Learned About Its Effect on Students’ Reading Skills and Attitude)

By Hall, Suzanne

Five years ago, I became the librarian in a large suburban elementary school with an enrollment of approximately 570 students. I had taught intermediate students at that school for a dozen years before becoming librarian, and I knew that although all the students were learning to read, a large number were not developing into recreational readers. The research and statistics about reading for pleasure are alarming. The 2000 Programme for International Student Assessment (International Reading Association, 2003), a comparison of student achievement, found that "motivation to read and amount of time spent reading are important contributors to the gap between good and poor readers" (pp. 6-7). Croy (2002) and Gardiner (2005) reported research linking sustained reading to improved vocabulary, comprehension, and motivation. Block and Mangieri (2002) found that over the last two decades, teachers have only marginally increased their abilities to promote recreational reading. Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America (as cited in Azzam, 2005) finished on a somber note: "If the decline in reading continues at this rate, 'literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century'" (p. 88). One of my major priorities as librarian clearly needed to be the promotion of recreational reading.


One of my strategies was to participate in Bookfest, my school district's extracurricular reading promotion program. Over two decades old, its format was already well established: Each spring, the elementary librarians collectively choose eight books to tempt and challenge boys and girls in grades 5 to 7. Multiple copies are ordered for and distributed to each participating school by the end of the year. Although the details of implementation might vary between schools, all the students have September through November to read the books. Bookfest's grand finale is held at the beginning of December; the librarians and their participating students congregate for a morning at one school. For part of that time, the librarians run competitive trivia games based on the books; the students from one school compete as a team against a team of students from another school. One game is similar to Wheel of Fortune; the students have to figure out phrases taken from the Bookfest books. The other game is similar to Jeopardy; the students earn points by answering trivia related to the books, in the form of questions. For the remainder of the morning, the students attend a presentation by the author of one of the books.

Only 20 students in my school joined that first year, about average for district schools at the time. Over the course of the fall, approximately half of them dropped out. Neither the reading nor the possibility of a morning off from school to hear an author presentation was incentive enough to remain a member. Though disappointed, I was motivated to devise a new plan.


Early the following September, I once again gave a booktalk, but this time I promoted a few additional activities offered exclusively to Bookfest Club students. These activities were designed to be appealing and fun and give the students a rich understanding of the books they were reading. For instance, I started with a take-home scavenger hunt. I selected three items from each book and listed them in alphabetical order. The students brought in as many items as they could find, and the team with the most won small prizes. As the students read through the fall, they were challenged to match each item with the book in which it appeared. The first team to submit a correct list won prizes, too.

Homeless Bird, set in India, inspired two food-focused activities. One lunch hour, a mother cooked an Indian bread called rot/with the students; she also showed them how to put on a sari. Later that fall, we spent a lunch hour sampling a variety of Indian foods, including naan bread, pakora, and burfi. We officially finished with a "The End" party in the library after the author event.


To participate, the Bookfest Club members had to consistently read an average of 10 pages per day, a goal easily achievable by most. During their weekly library class, I used a simple chart to track their progress. Amazingly, student participation almost doubled-and far fewer students dropped out. I was clearly on the right track.

It wasn't until the third year however, that I discovered the really powerful incentive: the school sleepover-and I use the term sleep loosely. Enrollment went way up when the students heard about that upcoming event; over 60 students joined the program, and few students dropped out. As Bookfest's reputation for good books and fun times spread, enrollment grew. Almost 80 joined in the fourth year, and over 120 (almost exactly 50% of the grade 5, 6, and 7 population) joined in the fifth year (more on this event later).

My planning process is time-consuming but straightforward. Once the list of books is finalized, I carefully read each one and brainstorm related activities and connecting themes. I then research web sites, related books, potential meals, educational videos, movies, visitors, and field trips. 1 try to find at least one activity for each book. Each week of Bookfest features one activity, which usually works out to about 10 in all. Participation is always optional, but the events tend to be well attended.

Over the years, I've developed a bit of a formula. During the first week of school, I talk to each class about the books and the tentative schedule of activities for the Bookfest Club. 1 specify the expectations about the amount of reading required and the behavior expected during the activities. The students are required to return a signed permission form to join the club and then sign out their first book. Bookfest titles are restricted to club members during the fall but are put into general circulation when Bookfest ends.

The first and last events are always the take-home scavenger hunt and the wrapup party described earlier. However, although some elements remain consistent, the books inspire the activities; therefore, the flavor and balance of the rest of each year's events are different. Eating, however, is always popular. In addition to eating the Indian food, we've eaten a Japanese luncheon in honor of Kensuke's Kingdom, which has a Japanese character; we've snacked at the Belgian Fries restaurant, featured in The Mask on the Cruise Ship, a mystery set on a cruise ship traveling from Vancouver to Alaska (we've also chowed down at a midnight buffet in honor of that book); and we've dressed up for a medieval feast (only spoons, knives, and bowls permitted) for Heir Apparent, which features a virtual video game set in the Middle Ages.


Students also enjoy movies related to the books. We usually watch the longer ones after school in the library. For instance, we watched The Great Escape to help the students understand The Tunnel King, the biography of Wally Floody. We enjoyed Castle in the Sky in conjunction with Airborn, a fantasy featuring a zeppelin and air pirates. We also compared Good Boy with The Good Dog, both of which are told from the canine perspective. The students usually bring drinks and sometimes snacks to share; I provide the popcorn.

I usually show educational videos at lunch; topics have included buoyancy for Airborn and The Mask on the Cruise Ship; Chinese immigration for The BoneCollector's Son, historical fiction set in Vancouver's Chinatown; the history of Alcatraz for Al Capone Does My Shirts, historical fiction detailing the lives of the guards' families living on Alcatraz Island; the history of Ellis Island for The Orphan of Ellis Island, a time-travel book about immigration to America; and a tourism video of Cairo for The Akhenaten Adventure, a fantasy about djinn set among ancient Egyptian sites and artifacts. Although educational videos are less popular, the lure of hot microwave popcorn is strong.

Visitors are another great way to enrich the students' background knowledge and experience. For instance, when we were reading Hoot, a book about conserving burrowing owls, an expert from a local owl rehabilitation program brought two live owls to show the students during lunch.


Field trips are also popular. However, I schedule only two outings per year because of the expense to students and the disruption created for the classroom teachers when a significant number of their students are absent. Over the years, we've gone to the IMAX theater to see movies about China, Alaska, Egypt, and volcanoes, to support the books The Bone-Collector's Son, The Mask on the Cruise Ship, The Akhenaten Adventure, and The FireworkMaker's Daughter (a fantastical journey to the heart of a volcano). We've learned about the history of Chinese immigration and culture with a guided tour of Chinatown and a visit to the Chinese Cultural Center's museum, for The BoneCollector's Son. We've gone rock climbing to experience an extreme sport like that of the kayakers in Raging River (river rafting was my first choice but was deemed too dangerous). We learned about First Nations masks in a workshop at the Museum of Anthropology (see Figure 1), for The Mask on the Cruise Ship, and about archaeology during a hands-on workshop at the Vancouver Museum to enhance student understanding of The Akhenaten Adventure. For Al Copone Does My Shirts and Chasing the Falconers, the first of a realistic fiction series featuring a brother and sister who are evading the FBI, we visited the Vancouver Centennial Police Museum to learn about police investigations. Sometimes, we got lucky; the Vancouver Art Gallery had a major exhibit of Emily Carr's life and history during the year that we read The Emily Carr Mystery. The students sat on the floor surrounded by priceless Emily Carr paintings, not to mention museum patrons, while creating their own Carr-inspired pastel art. Our most elaborate field trip was an 18-hour marathon-day trip to Victoria, inspired by The Emily Carr Mystery. The students visited many of the tourist attractions described in the book, including the First Nations Gallery of the Royal BC Museum, the Maritime Museum, and the Provincial Legislature. Since busy children are much less likely to be naughty children, 1 kept them on task between destinations by breaking them into small teams (accompanied by a teacher or parent volunteer) and structuring their walking instructions like the reality television show The Amazing Race. Their pit stops were related to the book or the author, Eric Wilson. For example, they had to find the apartment where he writes, walk past Emily Carr's house, figure out the identity of the mystery lady in the lobby of the Empress Hotel (Florence Wilson, the author's wife), drop off a donation to the Mustard Seed Food Bank, and get themselves to the Ross Bay Cemetery at the end of the day.


Toward the end of November each year, I organize the Bookfest sleepover, which is hands down the most popular Bookfest event. The theme and activities each year depend on the books being read. The first year, the sleepover's theme was camp, taken from Gordan Korman's book I Wont to Go Home, a humorous book about a boy who tries desperately to escape from his summer camp. On a Friday night, the students came to school, ate camp food, played sports and camp games, watched late-night movies in the library, and "camped out" in the computer lab and the drama room. The following year, the theme was o cru/se. The students "embarked" on the Princess Alexandria; attended many different cruise-inspired activities, such as cooking class and a formal midnight ball complete with buffet; and then had an all-night film fest in the "movie theater." At last year's sleepover, the students were remanded to the "Sunnydale Rehabilitation Center" for the night. Upon their arrival, they were fingerprinted and had their mug shots taken (using Photo Booth to hilariously distort their faces; see Figure 2). They attended classes all evening until they were declared "rehabilitated" at midnight, and the celebration began. Deliberately scheduled toward the end of November, sleepovers are the carrot that keeps almost every student reading.

With all the time, effort, and money that I spend on Bookfest, I wanted to know what effect it was having on the students' reading skills. At the end of the 2005-2006 school year, I gave the grade B and 6 students the Elementary Reading Attitude Survey, which measures attitude toward recreational reading (McKenna Et Kear, 1990). I also collected their reading comprehension scores from the district assessment reading team (DART), a locally developed standardized reading test that all intermediate students in my district take, both in the fall and then again late in the spring. The results were interesting. The students as a whole made statistically significant growth in reading comprehension over the year. However, the students who participated in Bookfest did not make any additional growth in reading comprehension as measured by that tool when compared to those who did not participate.

There were interesting differences between the two groups, though. The students who joined Bookfest Club had statistically significantly higher reading comprehension scores in the fall and in the spring; in other words, they started out ahead of the other students and maintained that lead over the year. They also had statistically significantly higher scores on their attitude toward recreational reading survey than did the students who did not join. Bookfest is therefore highly correlated with good reading comprehension and a positive attitude toward recreational reading. Because of the limitations of the DART itself and the lack of fall data on the students' attitudes toward recreational reading, it is not possible to definitively state the effect of Bookfest. However, these relationships most likely mean that participating in Bookfest is doing one of two things: It may be improving students' reading skills and attitudes, or it may simply be attracting those students who are already good, enthusiastic readers. It may even be doing both at the same time; Kush and Watkins (1996) concluded that reading attitude and reading achievement are bidirectional in influence.


Perhaps, the last word should come from the students themselves. When asked why they joined Bookfest Club, they offered as their two strongest reasons, first, the appeal of the books and, second, the appeal of the activities. When asked what they thought was the best part of Bookfest Club, they again said the books and the activities. The students are not losing sight of their enjoyment of reading amid the excitement of the activities; they perceive both to be equally important parts of their Bookfest Club experience. They are becoming recreational readers.


Avi. The good dog. Aladdin, 2004. 978-0-689-87119-1.

Choldenko, G. Al Capone does my shirts. Puffin, 2006. 978-0- 14240-370-9.

Hehner, B. The tunnel king. HarperCollins, 2004. 978-0-00-639477- 8.

Hiaasen, C. Hoof. Macmillan, 2006. 978-0330-44543-6.

Jackson, M. The mask on the cruise ship. Orca, 2004. 978-1-55143- 305-9.

Kerr, R B. The Akhenaten adventure: Children of the lamp, Book 1. Scholastic, 2005. 978-0-439-67020-3.

Korman, G. I want to go home. Apple, 1991. 978-0-590-44210-7.

Korman, G. Chasing the Falconers: On the run, book 1. Scholastic, 2005. 978-0-43965136-3.

Morpurgo, M. Kensuke's kingdom. Egmont, 2003. 978-1-4052-2174-0.

Oppel, K. Airborn. Eos, 2005. 978-0-06-053182-9.

Pullman, P. The firework-maker's daughter. Corgi, 2004. 978-0- 440-86640-4.

Vande Velde, V. Heir apparent. Magic Carpet, 2004. 978-0-15- 205125-9.

Whelan, G. Homeless bird. HarperTrophy, 2001. 978-0-06-440819-6.

Wilson, E. The Emily Carr mystery. HarperCollins, 2001. 978-0-00- 639193-7.

Yee, P. The bone collector's son. Tradewind, 2004. 978-1-896580- 50-0.

Withers, P. Raging river. Walrus Books, 2003. 978-1-55285-510-2

Woodruff, E. The orphan of Ellis Island. Scholastic, 2000. 978-0- 590-48246-2.


Azzam, A. (2005). Reading at risk. Educational Leadership, 63(2), 88.

Block, C., & Mangieri, J. (2002). Recreational reading: 20 years later. The Reading Teacher, 55(6), 572-580.

Croy, S. (2002). Technological and nontechnological supports aimed at increasing voluntary reading: A review of the literature. Retrieved August 17, 2007, from 1 no2/litrev/SandiCroy.pdf

Gardiner, S. (2005). A skill for life. Educational Leadership, 63(2), 67-70.

International Reading Association. (2003). Policy and practice implications of the program for international student assessment (PISA) 2000. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Kush, J., et Watkins, M. (1996). Long-term stability of children's attitudes toward reading. Journal of Educational Research, 89(5), 315-319.

McKenna, M., & Kear, D. (1990). Measuring attitude towards reading: A new tool for teachers. Reading Teacher, 43(9), 626-639.

Suzanne Hall still teaches in the same elementary school, Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows, British Columbia, where she was hired 17 years ago! For almost a dozen years, she specialized in teaching intermediate students math, dance, and French. As a lifetime avid reader of children's books, she has enjoyed being a teacher- librarian for the last 5 years, finding creative ways to encourage her students to read. She can be reached at [email protected]

Copyright Ken Haycock & Associates Oct 2007

(c) 2007 Teacher Librarian. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.