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A Closer Look at Engagement

Cathy Mere

Yesterday I sat with a small group of first graders during reader’s workshop discussing characters in a book we were reading.  I took a second to glance up and around the room. Audrey was on the computer creating a response in Pixie to the book she was reading. Pixie allows her to draw, type, and add voice to share her thinking with others. Nolan had found a quiet corner and was seated with the reptile basket reading to find out more about lizards. Afreen was working on a post in Kidblog about our newest read aloud, Open Very Carefully:  A Book with Bite by Nick Bromley. Andrew and Colin were reading books borrowed from our local library’s lending site and downloaded onto iPods. Evan was tucked in a corner with books by Peter Brown. Bella and Mckenzie were laughing over a stack of Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems.  Everywhere I looked students were engaged in their reading and it was only the seventh week of school. It was one of those moments where all was right with the world. 

Stamina and Engagement

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of articles about stamina and engagement. I’ve read suggestions for increasing the time students can sustain reading and ways to get them engaged in their work during chunks of independent learning time.  The two words, stamina and engagement, are often used interchangeably. As I read these articles I find myself asking, “What makes students want to engage?" It seems stamina and engagement are about more than increasing the number of minutes students can read quietly.   

For me, stamina and engagement seem different. Stamina is my ability to do something that is hard for me for a longer period of time. I may or may not find it enjoyable. Merriam-Webster defines stamina as staying power or endurance. In its medical definition it is “the strength or vigor of bodily constitution: capacity for withstanding fatigue or resisting disease.”  Engagement also has a variety of definitions. For me, engagement is holding the attention of someone. Being engaged in our work or learning means being so interested we hardly notice other things happening around us. Work I’m engaged in usually brings me joy or a feeling of accomplishment. 

When I think about my own learning, there are learning situations that last for less than an hour that I must force myself to stay with until my time is up. Then there are those activities in which I am so interested in what I am doing that the time passes quickly; one hour, two hours, three hours, gone in the blink of an eye. These are the learning situations that I can’t wait to get back to again, the ones that actually spin around in my head long after they are over. My hope is that young readers will not just build stamina, but will become engaged in the process of reading and thinking. 

Engagement for Young Readers

We see it with children too. We all have Tommys who come into reader’s workshop with their plan for reading. They’re so excited to get started they can hardly sit through the focus lesson, but still manage to think about the lesson in relation to the work they are doing. They don’t waste a minute getting started. They grab their books, find a spot, and begin reading.  They rarely stop their reading as they savor every minute they’re given. They talk about their reading. They connect their reading to their worlds. They write about their reading. They can tell you about their last book, the ones they love, and the ones they will read next.  How do we get everyone to be like the Tommys in our classroom?  What makes them tick?

When I think about students in reader’s workshop, I think about three types of learners:

Those engaged by interest:  These are students who are engaged because they love what they are doing.  They may be engaged because they have a particular interest in the study.   They may be engaged because they enjoy reading or because they love to learn and discover.  This is where I want everyone to be, so I am constantly watching and listening to these readers to discover what makes them tick and to help peers understand this type of learner. 

Those engaged by compliance:  These students always do what is asked, but rarely do what they love.  They are the first I want to shift.  These are the students who do what we ask because that’s the kind of kids they are.  They read when we say read.  They write when it is time to write.  Though they do what they are told, they are never fully consumed by their work.  They don’t make their learning fit their needs or interests.  They “do” because “it is time to do.”

Those disengaged:  These students aren’t buying what we’re selling.  These are the students who may have a book open, but aren’t reading it.  They flit from space to space, take too much time to settle into their work, and give little consideration to the learning occurring all around them.  These students are tricky because we have to puzzle out why they are disengaged.  Is the work too challenging?  Do they not understand the task?  Have they not discovered something of interest?  Is there something going on in their lives which makes it challenging to work? 

Improving Engagement

Stamina and engagement look different across grade levels.  In a classroom full of six-year-olds, readers may move through several books in a workshop.  They might talk about their reading, blog about a book, or write in response to their reading.  As a primary teacher I want students to develop the stamina to read for longer periods of time, but first I think they need to be engaged.  This means more than being able to read the words; it means finding their place in a world of readers.  It means knowing authors, understanding the way different books work, and having a plan.  It means thinking about the books they read, connecting threads of learning across books, and growing as readers. 

How do we get students engaged in their reading?  I want students who are engaged by interest.  What makes it happen?

  • Develop a love of reading:  I try to keep a love of reading at the forefront of our learning community.  We talk about authors, characters, and a variety of genres of books.  I try to watch books students check out from our media center and weave them into our conversations.  We keep a Shelfari shelf of books we have read as a class and follow shelves of other classrooms, families, and young readers to grow our “to be read” pile.  
  • Carve out reading time:  Young readers need to have time to discover books they love.  It is essential to carve out time in the day for students to read, talk about, and enjoy books.  I have to be most careful about students who are pulled out for reading support.  These students often need this time the most, but have the least amount of it. 
  • Allow choice:  In our classroom young readers choose the books they will read during reader’s workshop, as well as the books they will take home each evening. 
  • Grow interest in topic:  In our classroom there are several opportunities across our day for interesting topics of study.  I try to add book collections that match these studies for readers who want to know more, and I try to listen to the interests of readers.  When the zoo visited and brought a sloth to class, my students wanted to know more about them so we found books to add to our library.  When we read Spoon by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, my students wanted to know what else she had written so we found her collection of books and checked them out from the library.  
  • Nurture relationships:  Relationships matter in engagement.  Relationships we build with students can help us to talk with students about books, suggest new titles, and know a child’s interests.  Knowing relationships students have with peers can also help.  Often readers in the beginning steps of joining the reading community will look to their friends to find books to read.  
  • Value social interaction:  Our community is always talking about books.  They begin to learn classmates interests and preferences so they are soon suggesting books for friends. 
  • Create curiosity:  Weaving wonder and students’ natural interests in learning into conversations about reading can increase engagement.  Many of the topics our class wonders about become book collections which readers return to during our workshop.    
  • Shift ownership to readers:  In reader’s workshop, each student sets a reading goal or creates a plan for learning during this time.  I have found that if students set their own goals, it is easier to confer and support readers.  Often engagement is improved through goal setting as students understand the purpose of reading and are able to use time more effectively. 

First Steps

Engagement and stamina are not the same thing, yet engagement makes increasing stamina a greater possibility.  As I pause and watch the students around our classroom purposefully engaged in a variety of types of reading while thinking, discussing, and responding to books, I know we are taking our first steps along a reading path.  Providing time for these young readers to read, think, and talk about books will allow them to continue to grow and maybe, just maybe, they will all find their place in a world full of reading opportunities. 


Cathy Mere

Cathy Mere is currently a literacy specialist in Hilliard (Ohio) City Schools. She is the author of More Than Guided Reading. A trained literacy coach and former Reading Recovery teacher, Cathy leads professional development workshops and presents at state and national conferences. She blogs at Refine and Reflect.