More than Words, Ep. 4

At the end of fourth grade, my son said one of the worst things he has ever said to me: “Mom, listen…I’m serious…I like the IDEA of books…I really do…I just don’t like reading them.”

Where did I go wrong? Not only would this once again disqualify me for the “Mother of the Year” award, the very next year I was going to be my son’s 5th grade literature teacher. Talk about pressure. How was I supposed to motivate 60 readers when I couldn’t even get my own traitorous son to buy in!?

Right then and there I decided that I was going to spend my summer doing research. I made it my goal that from now on, every 5th grader leaving my class in May would consider themselves a reader of good literature. I spent the summer reading Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, followed by Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers by Penny Kittle. Fortunately, this heartbreaking revelation by my son turned my classroom into something magical!

I began the new year by taking a student poll about reading. Hands down, students’ biggest complaint was that they never had any say in what they were reading. Either teachers picked all of the books for their class or students were limited in choices because of leveled books.
Restructuring the way I incorporated book choice changed the entire culture of my classroom. Some of the big takeaways from my research included:

  • It is important to set this nonnegotiable guideline: Whether you read or not is NOT a choice….but what you read IS YOUR choice.
  • Readers can be developed, even if the student seems uninterested, by finding what interests them.
  • Students consistently need time to read (including time each night at home).
  • If we are going to teach students to lead a readerly life, they must be immersed in books without having to log reading minutes, fill out worksheets, or any other laborious task that takes away from choice reading.
  • Readers without power to make their own choices become unmotivated.
  • Lifelong readers successfully self-select books. In order to become good at this, they will need a lot of teacher guidance.
  • In order to give a lot of teacher guidance, the teacher has to read, read, read. Even genres that they don’t enjoy so that they are better able to recommend good books.
  • Teachers have to model a passion for reading. They also need to routinely give book talks during class. This is one of the best ways to draw students into high interest books.
  • Book talks by students who are excited about a particular book really helped motivate and create interest in a book.

Please understand that the reading I am talking about in this article is different from direct instruction with a classroom novel. I strongly believe that class novels are one of the best ways to demonstrate and practice the skills students need. For me, choice reading is about helping students learn to read for pleasure, to get lost in another world, to satisfy their curiosity, and to understand different perspectives, different people, and different cultures. In Lower School, it is important to create a good balance between class novels with direct instruction and choice novels. When we nurture students who have a strong love of reading, we are ensuring that they will be lifelong learners.