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Ask the Mentor

Creating Readers: Part III

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Donalyn Miller, a 6th grade language arts and social studies teacher and self-described "book whisperer," says she has yet to meet a child she couldn’t turn into a reader. On average, her students at Trinity Meadow Intermediate School in Keller, Texas, read between 50 and 60 books a year. Last year, her students received a 100 percent passing rate on the reading portion of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, with 90 percent receiving a "recommended" score.

In this final installment of her Ask the Mentor column, Miller answers readers' questions on creating in-class reading time and raising test scores. Don't miss “Thirteen Books You Have to Read Before You Turn Thirteen,” a list compiled by one of her former students, or Miller's own "Books That Hook Readers." Read Part I on reader-engagement techniques and Part II on motivating reluctant readers.

Donalyn Miller
Donalyn Miller

What is your take on SSR?

Setting aside time each day for students to read is something I support, but how SSR is often implemented concerns me. This activity becomes demotivating for kids when we add conditions for performance to it such as comprehension reports or reading logs. Students focus on the performance task as the purpose for reading and do not develop any personal connection to the act of reading. Reading then becomes about what teachers want and not about why readers read. Students should be able to share what they learn or experience from what they read, but in ways that are more authentic to what “real” readers do. Writing, personal response journal entries, sharing books with a friend or with you in a conference are just some of the ways to get students engaged in their personal experience. It works!

13 Books You Have to Read Before You Turn 13

By Jace Barton, 2005 alumnus of Donalyn Miller's class
The City of Ember
by Jeanne DuPrau
Where the Red Fern Grows
by Wilson Rawls
The Thief Lord
by Cornelia Funke
by Edward Bloor
by Louis Sachar
The Schwa was Here
by Neal Shusterman
The Lightning Thief
by Rick Riordan
The Outsiders
by S.E. Hinton
The View from Saturday
by E.L. Konigsburg
The House of the Scorpion
by Nancy Farmer
The Boy Who Saved Baseball
by John H. Ritter
Maniac Magee
by Jerry Spinelli
The Giver
by Lois Lowry

Do you use Accelerated Reading or do you have some another form of assessment? Is the student reading part of your main curriculum or it is supplemental?

As I mentioned in Part I, every lesson I teach ties back to independent reading. This is the core of my entire curriculum. I teach the Texas reading concepts and skills, but I expect my students to apply what they have learned in authentic reading situations. We keep readers’ notebooks with lists of the books we have read together or individually, list of books we plan to read, lists of reading interests, and all of the reading response entries between the students and me about these books. Please notice that I said “we.” I am a part of the literacy community in my classroom and I share my reading (and writing) experiences with my students.

I have negative feelings about AR and the children do, too. I cannot tell you how many kids have returned to my classroom after using AR in middle school to tell me stories of how they cheat on the quizzes and avoid reading books they want to read because there is no AR test for it. Many questions are geared towards low-level comprehension and are just traps to determine if the kids have read the book.

What is more important to me is how students apply the strategies and concepts I have taught them in class within the context of their reading. Reading has to be more than just the act of memorizing discrete facts from books.

I have a 5th grade student that reads at a 3rd grade level. The district mandates thirty minutes of DEAR time; I require a guided essay on the DEAR book of their choice. I know this child can read independently, but he insists he cannot when it comes to DEAR time. If I give the student books on tape during DEAR, am I enabling this behavior?

Books to Hook Readers

Intermediate (grades 4 and 5)
by Gary Paulsen
The Word Eater
by Mary Amato
Stone Fox
by John Reynolds Gardiner
The Tarantula in My Purse
by Jean Craighead George

Middle School (grades 6 to 8)
My Life in Dog Years
by Gary Paulsen
by Jerry Spinelli
The Supernaturalist
by Eoin Colfer
The Beasties
by William Sleator

High School (grades 9 and up)
Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes
by Chris Crutcher
The First Part Last
by Angela Johnson
by Paul Fleischman
by Gary Paulsen

Could it be the essay that is demotivating him, not the reading? I wonder if he would read if this requirement were removed and he just had a short low-stress comprehension conference each day when he was done? I do not think reading along with a tape is “enabling” him. I think tapes provide reading support and are motivating because they provide developing readers with modeling and text support.

How do you get the child who is socially the class queen bee, but reads far below grade level, to pick up a book and read? I know part of her reluctance to read is the fear that she would fall from grace, if her peers were to see her reading a babyish book.

Getting her to read would be a powerful motivator for the rest of the class! She would be one child that I would make a mission out of getting to read. Realistic fiction books with characters like her and her friends would be the best choice. I would recommend specific books that have “popular” girls in them. The Clique series by Lisi Harrison has been a favorite in my classroom, as well as the book Click Here by Denise Vega. These books are at an easier reading level for middle school girls, but don’t look it. If these books are too young for your student, I would investigate the authors Lurlene McDaniel and Carolyn Cooney. Both are popular with teenage girls at different reading levels.

I am a librarian "on a cart" and therefore cannot bring all of our books to the classroom. Many of our students do not even visit the library. Besides book talks, what suggestions would you have for me to overcome this?

I knew one librarian that made a crate of new books that had not been read by anyone yet, many kids were inspired to be the first. This could minimize the number of books that you carried. I would probably gather thematic collections for each trip such as adventure books or nonfiction texts on topics that the students are learning about in class. Encourage the kids to come up with their own themes and gather books for them based on these ideas. Give the student whose topic you chose a lot of praise and public acknowledgment.

Besides your own money, what other funds do you use to help create such a great library collection?

I have many avenues for acquiring books for my classroom: Book donations from students (whom I publicly acknowledge with a computer-generated bookplate); book-club points; and garage sales (since books are not big sellers, I have gotten books for free or practically free this way). Check out your local libraries—most sell their discards for almost nothing. Our local library has an annual sale.

Admittedly, I do spend some of my own money, but when I do, I try to get as much for my money as I can by buying clearance books and by shopping sales. We also conducted a book swap at our school this year so that students could swap out their old books for other titles. This swap was big success. There are book-swap sites available online and I plan to investigate these as another avenue for acquiring books.

Do you believe in a reward system?

I think reading is its own reward, and that rewarding children with prizes and incentives removes the internal motivation to read. I do reward children with praise and public acknowledgment of their reading accomplishments, but that is all.

How much time do your kids get to read in class during the school week?

My expectation is that all students will spend at least 20 minutes per day reading independently. If I am conducting long, reading comprehension conferences; teaching small groups; or the students are using their independent books to look for examples of strategy instruction, the time may extend to 30 minutes.

Our high school students are consumed with extracurricular activities. How do you impress upon them the importance of good reading habits?

You have to make time for them to read in class. In doing this, you are teaching them to make time for what has value. If you do not make time for reading in class, why should they make time for reading in their lives? I would state outright that you are setting aside this time for them because you care about them and because reading is important to their academic success and their personal lives.

Please share any suggestions to increase reading comprehension. I would love to have CATS (Ky. Commonwealth Assessment Test) scores in the 90th percentile this year.

Practicing strategies including summarizing, visualizing, and making predictions within the context of authentic reading events is the key. Test reading is one genre of reading, not the only genre! I have never had strong readers who did not do well on test reading. If they can read a book and apply critical strategies, they can do it on a test.

As a principal striving to be an instructional leader in my building, how can I build the capacity to implement the ideas that you spoke of? It's about more than mandating a specific type of behavior. What advice would you give a principal to acculturate his/her staff in the instructional habits of mind that you spoke of?

One asset a principal can bring to teachers is to provide a network of support. How can you use your campus funding to get books for your teachers? What parent-education programs can you implement to increase home support? What training do your teachers need and what avenues exist for getting it? If you put funding behind your beliefs, the message is reinforced to your staff that you promote best practice methods.

Send some of your teachers to training in your district or region. Set aside time for your teachers to plan with your literacy coach, if you have one. Are there a few teachers who would be willing to try some new ideas with your encouragement? If so, can they reflect on how these ideas are working in their classrooms and share this with others? Our campus principal encourages us all to reflect on our practices weekly and share the strategies that we are trying at campus and department meetings.

One way to start small would be to hold a campus book study. Choose one of the books that I mentioned in Part I, or another that you think meets the needs of the students at your campus. Set aside time at campus or department staff meetings to discuss what has been gleaned from the book, the impact it's having on classroom instruction, and what resources and training are needed in order to implement the ideas presented.

Last, encourage, encourage, encourage those teachers who are trying to grow as professionals. It is hard to be a trailblazer. Your acknowledgment of their efforts, either publicly or privately, goes a long way towards keeping the fires stoked.

How many of your students stay strong readers through 7th and 8th grade? To what do you owe this transfer or lack of transfer of learning?

I have a large band of students and their parents from prior years who still e-mail me and come to check out books. This would probably be a larger group if I had not changed campuses two years ago. I even have a former student who lives 200 miles away and both he and his mom swap book recommendations with me via e-mail.

Many of my former students continue to read more than they did before I was their teacher, although almost all admit that they read less than they did the year they were in my class. Most point to the absence of time in class to read, the lack of a community of other readers to encourage them and share books, and the increasing demands of homework and extracurricular activities that they have in middle school.

The students who still read a great deal are so attached to their reading habits that they will overcome obstacles to continue it. Many become “underground” readers who have disconnected their pleasure reading from school reading entirely. Some middle school teachers tell me that their students don’t read and yet they will not provide time for it in their classrooms!

Have you had to deal with administrators who question your commitment to independent reading because they don't see how it will boost your scores on the high-stakes tests that determine AYP? If so, how do you respond to such people?

Thankfully, I have worked with visionary administrators who entrusted me to do what I felt was right as a professional. The successful test scores of the wide range of students I have taught over the years shows that what we are doing works. The philosophy I promote is research defensible. Everything I do in my class meshes with what reading research tells us is best for developing readers. Who can take issue with that? If you have a strong foundation for what you are doing in your classroom, supported by the work of researchers in the field of literacy, share this with your principal, parents, and colleagues.

A final note: Here in Texas it is football season, and everyone is flocking to the stands to cheer for what is unofficially the state sport. I wonder how many of the players on the field would perform well if they only drilled plays and never used the skills they were practicing in games? Drilling students for the end point of test performance is shortening the goal for them. The true goal is developing students’ ability to read critically and enjoyably for their entire lives. A recent article in our local paper announced that the average American adult reads four books a year. We are graduating millions of people out of our schools who find no personal purpose for reading. This is my goal, inspiring “forever” readers. If we can blow you away on the field during a game, we can surely run plays at practice. Let's move the goal where it belongs.

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