Welcome! It's Lauren from Teacher Mom of 3 with you today to share some highlights and applications for one of my favorite professional books of all times, The Book Whisperer, by Donalyn Miller.
Many times over my career, teachers and administrators have viewed independent reading (read to self) as not "teaching" and something that students can do at home. If an administrator walked into a classroom and students were reading silently, many teachers would feel guilty. Some admins expected that the students should be actively involved and engaged in a project or lesson; or they expected the teacher to be delivering whole or small group explicit instruction. However, I have always felt as a teacher and literacy coach, that if I did not observe students reading independently during a 90-120 minute literacy block then something needed to change. Like Miller, I suggest 20-30 minutes of uninterrupted independent reading daily in addition to other literacy frameworks you may use such as Daily 5, Guided Reading, etc.
Now, I am far, very far from being "Polly the perfect teacher". When I was in the classroom if something had to give because of time restraints, I admit that it was usually my D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything And Read) time. Although I felt guilty for doing so, I also felt that I needed to give my students time for direct instruction and small group time. After reading The Book Whisperer, I know now more than ever that something that looks so simple is very, very important. And besides, I have always held the philosophy that students should be doing most of the work and talking in the classroom. Independent reading fosters a student-centered climate, allows students to practice and apply reading skills and strategies, and promotes reading for enjoyment.
I'll begin with an overview of the book if you haven't read it and offer a review for those that have. Then, I'll move on to some authentic applications for the classroom.
The premise of this book is that to create passionate, life-long readers, teachers must create a learning environment that stimulates and nurtures independent reading. Independent reading is more than the ten or so minutes of D.E.A.R. time we try to squeeze into our literacy block. It is a restructuring of our literacy instruction to intentionally carve out as much time as possible to let kids read. As a side note, if you are a Reader’s Workshop fan or if your teaching has been inspired by the research of Nancie Atwell (In the Middle), you will adore this book!
For years, I have been using the research of Atwell, Allington, Wilhelm, Routman, et al, to support my plea for teachers to stop the barrage of worksheets, journal entries, quizzes, tests, and book reports for every.single.book kids read. We don’t need to work kids to death when reading a book. We don’t need to develop a beautiful book or novel unit that is crammed with pages and pages of written work for students to complete. And, with the reading of The Book Whisperer, I have found yet another researcher and classroom teacher who begs us to change our ways, if in fact our goal is to motivate and create life-long readers and not just effective test-takers. And that is the gist of this brilliant book- that our job as literacy teachers is not only to teach students how to read and how to read to learn, but to instill a love of reading in them that will last a lifetime.
Highlights and Take-Aways
- Although this book is geared toward middle-level teachers (the author is a sixth grade ELA and Social Studies teacher), much can be adapted for early and intermediate elementary grades.
- Miller explains and details how her students achieve her expectation that they read *40* books a year.
- Miller cites researcher Stephen Krashen who identified fifty-one studies that “…prove that students in free-reading programs perform better than or equal to students in any other type of reading program” (p.3).
- Students’ goal: read for pleasure, not to complete endless activities. Let me clarify: this does not mean that students never respond to their reading, complete vocabulary tasks, or are not held accountable for their reading, comprehension, and learning. Miller delves deeply into this topic later on in the book including preparing students for state tests.
- Implement a workshop approach to reading and writing that works for you and the needs of your students.
- Allow for individual choice of reading selections with expectations.
- The classroom library is paramount and powerful if we are to guide our students toward developing and internalizing a love for reading. As for me, although I loved having a Smart Board in my classroom, I would rather have an extensive classroom library! Miller suggests that schools invest in classroom libraries rather than expensive reading programs and professional development sessions.
- Listen to what students need instead of us teachers telling them what they need. Offer students choice in what they read and you have instant buy-in. Miller shares that self-selected books empower and encourage students, it develops self-confidence, and gives control- all in the name of independent learners. Reading choices should not always be dictated by the teacher. Gone are the days of everyone reading the same novel at the same time throughout the year.
- Choosing not to read isn’t discussed and it is not an option.
- View each student as a reader no matter their reading level.
- Students need to learn how to select books for themselves instead of being a passive learner and relying on the teacher.
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- On the first day of school have a “Book Frenzy”. Let students select books from the classroom library for in-class and for reading at home. Have an array of varying genres and themes and allow students to choose the books they are interested in reading. And then, let them read! As a result, you will set the tone that reading is prominent and this activity allows you to interact with students and get to know a little about them. I can think of no other important activity such as this. Discussing classroom rules and procedures can wait!
- Research shows that student choice is not only the number one motivator for reluctant male readers, but for all students. When students have the freedom to choose their own books, it empowers them, strengthens their self-confidence, rewards their interests, gives them control, and promotes a positive attitude about reading. Miller mentions that she does not “micromanage” their reading choices and allows students to choose books that are too hard or too easy. Why? Because if readers have an invested interest in a book they will read it, and isn’t that the ultimate goal? There will be plenty of time during the remainder of the school year to nudge students toward reading material that is more on their level or that you think they need to read to meet curricular standards. However, Miller states, “Listen to what your students need- don’t tell them what you think they need to hear.”
- Show students that reading is fun and engaging. To accomplish this, allow students to make choices, to abandon books that are not appealing or that are too difficult. Show them that reading is often done for pleasure, not just for work. The goal of reading is not to complete a book report, take a quiz, complete worksheets, or vocabulary activities. The goal is to read, enjoy it, and learn from it. Administer reading interest surveys, multiple intelligence assessments, informal and formal reading assessments to allow you to successfully match readers to books.
- Snatch every spare minute you have to allow students to read independently. This includes having students read at the beginning of class instead of having them complete morning work, a warm up, or “bell ringer” work- worksheets, DOL, etc. For students who finish their work early, instead of having them complete “fast finisher” work- again worksheet or centers type activities- let them read! If your class is interrupted by a phone call or visitor, teach students that they are to pull out their books and read until you are able to resume teaching. Condition students to carry a book wherever they go. At my previous school, we had this expectation for our middle school students. If they were finished with their work in a content class, they were expected to pull out their book and read. The Principal rewarded students he "caught" reading as he made his rounds throughout the school.
Next time, I will share a review of Miller's follow-up book, Reading in the Wild, which by the way, did not disappoint!
Graphics: Bunting and section separators by Ashley Hughes