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School book club
gets kids and adults involved

 Beyond social activities and fund-raising: Parents at Northwood Elementary get involved in school academics by participating in a school book club that promotes fun and a love of reading. Included: Tips for starting a book club in your school plus resources that describe the benefits of reading.

These third- and fourth-grade students just finished discussing The Whipping Boy, by Sid Fleischmann.
(Photo courtesy of Dorothy Distefano)

When parents at Northwood Elementary School in Hilton, New York, wanted to become more involved in school academics, Dorothy Distefano came up with the idea of starting a book club. Now chairperson of Northwood's Volunteer Elementary Parent Teacher Organization (VEPTO), Distefano is also the founder and facilitator of the school-wide book club, FIRST (Families Invited to Read and Share Together).

Distefano told Education World that, before beginning FIRST, she did a lot of research into the benefits of reading for children. An avid reader herself, Distefano was not surprised when her research turned up these facts:

  • Kids who read more minutes per day have higher percentile scores on tests.
  • At all grade levels, students who reported talking about their reading activities with family or friends once or twice a week, or at least monthly, had higher average reading scores than students who reported doing so rarely or never.
  • Twenty-eight percent of 12th-grade students never read on their own for fun.
  • Families that share in book conversations have a dramatic improvement in family communication.
Tips for Starting a School Book Club

For school leaders considering a similar project, parent volunteer leader Dorothy Distefano offered this advice:
* Start slowly, with a small focus group, to get your bearings.
* Be prepared to deal with all kinds of kids and parents.
* Administrative support is essential.
* Be very careful with book selection. Read all the books straight through before using them for the group; skimming does not always give you enough information.

In addition, Distefano said, "advertising the group and getting kids, parents, and teachers to buy in to the idea can be very challenging. Our 'marketing' has been eye-catching and downright silly. We have used announcements, posters, and giveaways. We have had many of the kids comment on our 'cool ideas.'" One of the program's promotional posters appears below.

If you would like more information about FIRST, contact Dorothy Distefano. She has even created a kit that she can customize for you so you can get a FIRST program off the ground at your school.

Click to see a larger poster.
(Courtesy of Dorothy Distefano)

How the program works

Distefano started the program with older students "to get a feel for the process." But FIRST soon expanded to include the whole school, K-6. The club is divided into four groups:

  • Group A: Grades K/1
  • Group B: Grades 2/3
  • Group C: Grades 3/4
  • Group D: Grades 5/6

"We ask parents to decide whether a third-grade child should be in B or C," Distefano said. "We found that the kids in third grade were harder to place. Some start the year in B and move to C as they became stronger readers."

The groups meet in the school library on a rotating schedule, with each group meeting once every six weeks. Distefano, who chooses the club's books, aims for "interesting, good-quality books" that students might not otherwise come into contact with. She said she also looks for books that contain "no objectionable content."

An adult who has read the book must accompany each student to the meeting. "We have members who have joined with family friends or aunts and uncles," Distefano said. "We even have one grandpa this session!"

Acting as facilitator at the meetings, Distefano tries to "keep the discussion from straying too far from the book." Other than that, she said, "The discussion is unstructured and goes wherever the group takes it. We just remind everyone that there are no wrong answers, and courtesy is appreciated." And, she added, "Anyone who speaks up is rewarded by 'flying candy' (Reese's, Hershey's, etc.) that I throw throughout the meeting."

Assessing the program's benefits

"As far as I know, we cannot measure the direct impact of FIRST," Distefano said. "We have surveyed students and grown-ups and have received all positive feedback. Students told us that FIRST is exciting and fun. Parents told us that they loved talking with their kids and their kids' peers."

Christine McCaffery, principal at Northwood Elementary, also told Education World that it's not possible to measure the effect of this one program on children's reading scores. "However," she said, "I believe that you could measure the growth of student interest and love of books as well as the time that the children are spending with their parents reading and talking on an ongoing basis.

"I am extremely proud and grateful to Dorothy and all of the other parents for their contributions to this exciting reading program," McCaffery said. "At Northwood, more children are readers and writers because of FIRST!"


Resources about the benefits of reading

The Nation's Report Card: Reading
This is the main page for information about student reading from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

The Nation's Report Card: Fourth-Grade Reading 2000: Executive Summary
This summary from April 2001 of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reports that "Students who reported reading for fun on their own time every day had higher average scores than students who reported reading for fun less frequently." The complete report is available in .pdf format.

Out-of-School Independent Reading
This is a short summary of research on the value of out-of-school reading for children.