Thursday, July 28, 2011

Wanted: Reading Teachers Who Love Books

Do you teach reading in a public school? Do you feel the pressure of federal, state, and local system mandates to turn out "factory readers?" Are you worried about spending more time teaching to the reading test than spreading the love of reading to your students?

If you answered "yes" to any of the above questions, there's a book we'd like to recommend to you: The Book Whisperer, by Donalyn Miller.

The Lit Lady introduced me to this book. She said it would change my life. And she was right.

This book has done more than change my life; it has revolutionized the way I teach reading. It has also dramatically altered the way our students view books.

I had been teaching reading the same way for several years. It was mostly effective, I thought, so it was okay. However, one thing was consistently bugging me. The kids who didn't do well on the state tests continued to perform poorly on those tests - even though I was teaching my heart out, even though they went to extra reading classes, even though I went to countless meetings to learn new ways to help these struggling readers.

I felt discouraged. I felt like a bad teacher. I didn't know what else to do for these students who truly needed an exceptional reading teacher. And I honestly didn't feel like I was the person they deserved. I needed a change. For my classroom, for myself, and - most importantly - for the students.

The change I needed came in the form of the whispered secrets from Donalyn Miller's book. I want to share a short passage from this book with you. See if it resonates with you the way it did with me. Then keep reading to see how I started the change in my own reading classroom.

"Why do developing readers continue to struggle in spite of every intervention effort?  Well, the key might be in the amount of reading these students actually do. Reading policy expert Richard Allington explains in What Really Matters for Struggling Readers that when he examined the reading requirements of Title I and special education programs, he discovered that students in remedial settings read roughly 75 percent less than their peers in regular reading classes. No matter how much instruction students receive in how to decode vocabulary, improve comprehension, or increase fluency, if they seldom apply what they have learned in the context of real reading experiences, they will fail to improve as much as they could.
     The fact that students in remedial programs don't read much has serious consequences for developing readers. Students who do not read regularly become weaker readers with each subsequent year.(Miller, p.24-25)

This passage was the lightbulb moment I needed! Donalyn's struggles were my struggles. Her ideas made sense. It was time to do something with the knowledge she shared.

I read this book in January of this past school year. I devoured it, as a matter of fact. I went on to read other books that the author recommended. I immediately made changes to my classroom. I remember the first day of the "new regime" very well. Prior to reading The Book Whisperer, I had photocopied ahead of time several weeks' worth of reading skill practice sheets. I passed out the copies for all of the students, per usual as part of our Monday morning routine. Then I did something that was NOT routine. I asked the students to rip their papers in half. And then to rip them again.

All of the students were shocked. Some of them just stared; others whispered to their neighbors, "Do you think she's serious?" It was a glorious moment!

After a few moments of stunned silence, a brave soul ripped her paper in half. When I smiled, the other students followed suit. When the ripping was done and the fruits of our labor placed in the recycling bin, I instructed the students to pull out their book of choice - if they didn't have a self-selected book to read, then they were to choose one - and read. Just read. Enjoy your reading class.

Students who hadn't already selected a book to read of their own choice followed me to the bookshelf, and I sat in the floor and started making recommendations. After a bit, all of the students were reading books they chose for themselves in corners, on pillows, and under desks. It is a "lesson" I will savor forever.

I remember receiving phone calls from parents that evening. The kids were thrilled! The parents were impressed, but a little worried. "Just reading?" they asked. I asked them to trust me, and to give it time. I assured them that I didn't stop teaching reading (for heaven's sake, of course not!), but that the basis of a reading class should be READING. I'm really glad everyone agreed, because it was the best change I have ever made in my classroom.

While I still teach the reading standards, teach a mini-lesson to the whole group, conduct small reading groups based on skill needs, and conduct reading conferences, the basis of my reading program is self-selected reading for every child.

Admittedly, it is hard to find time for students who leave the room every day for extra reading instruction to have daily independent reading, but it is something I encourage every reading teacher to find time for in his or her schedule. Independent reading time for books the students choose for themselves is crucial.

If you are looking for a reading class transformation, read this book. It is amazing. You will love it - I know I did.

For more information on the amazing Donalyn Miller and The Book Whisperer, visit her blog: You can also follow her on Twitter: @donalynbooks

1 comment:

  1. I love this book! I was already checking out your blog, when I saw this post and immediately became a new follower. I also posted about her book, you can check it out here:
    Love your blog name, I often feel like such a nerd :)
    First Grade Dual


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