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Putting Books Back Into Reading

—Photo by Justin Minkel
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When inmates get out jail after a long prison term, they often struggle to learn how to use the Internet. There are classes on the Internet in prison, but because inmates are not allowed to actually get online, these classes are solely theoretical: How to Use the Internet, without the Internet.

Many students face the same strange situation when learning to read. There are plenty of hours allotted for reading instruction—far more than for writing, science, art, or even math—yet a child can go through an entire day without holding an actual book in her hands.

In some elementary classrooms, guided reading primarily involves photocopies of stories. Most of the groups working at centers are doing phonics activities or worksheets. Class libraries consist of a few tattered books jammed on a shelf in the corner, while textbooks and workbooks abound.

In these classrooms, the only time a child chooses what to read is when she finishes her classroom work early.

Add the book gap to this bleak mix. In more affluent homes, kids have about 200 books. For the poorest children, the number can be as low as 0.4 books in each home.

There is more to literacy than books, of course, ranging from oral tradition to digital literacy, and kids can get just as much out of reading a digital text as they can a paper-and-ink book. But they don’t get as much from doing a worksheet or phonics activity. Without the opportunity to read, they don’t learn to read.

Like Riding a Bike

It seems pretty intuitive that in order to become readers, children need books. Providing them with those books isn’t rocket science.

Teachers can build up a well-stocked classroom library with great titles and a range of levels. Let kids check out a book to take home each day. Make sure that guided reading primarily involves actual reading—even for the kids at centers. Provide a half an hour or so for independent reading, and create plenty of cozy places for the kids to curl up and read during that time.

So if it’s that easy, why are books missing from so much of reading instruction?

Part of the problem is that teachers have gotten very good at dissecting complex abilities like reading, writing, and mathematical reasoning and isolating separate pieces of these skills.

We’re not so good at helping kids put those pieces together again.

Students’ days are often chopped up into short sections—20 minutes of phonics, 5 minutes of sight word drills, 10 minutes for new vocabulary. There’s nothing wrong with that, but young readers need time to take all those separate pieces and connect them to the whole, complex act of actual reading.

Imagine a class on how to ride a bike where you have 15-minute increments to study wheels, brakes, and pedals in isolation, but you rarely get access to a whole bicycle.

When your instructor finally does provide you with a bike, you’re told to practice just one element of riding it—pedaling, or keeping your balance—without doing any of the other actions involved.

This separation of discrete sub-skills would actually make it harder, not easier, to learn to ride. It’s hard to stay balanced if you have no momentum. It would be a lot easier if you could try out everything at once, to see how those separate pieces fit together into the complicated but thrilling experience of riding a bike.

You would take some falls along the way. But you would get to experience that gliding, soaring sensation that is far more than the sum of its parts. Chances are, you would come to love it.

A Fragmented Approach

For kids to apply the numerous sub-skills involved in reading to the act of reading itself, they need two simple things:

  • 1. A range of high-quality books to choose from.
  • 2. Time to read those books.

In The Six T's of Effective Elementary Literacy Instruction, literacy expert Richard Allington writes, “Students need enormous quantities of successful reading to become independent, proficient readers.”

Early in this century, architects of No Child Left Behind codified the following elements from the National Reading Panel report into our national approach to teaching kids how to read:

  • 1. Phonics
  • 2. Phonological Awareness
  • 3. Fluency
  • 4. Vocabulary
  • 5. Comprehension

In a 2005 keynote at the Arkansas Reading Association's annual conference, however, Allington pointed out five additional pillars of reading instruction largely missing from our national approach.

  • 1. Choice and access to a variety of high-quality books.
  • 2. Matching the books a child reads to her reading abilities.
  • 3. The reciprocal relationship between reading and writing.
  • 4. Instruction one-on-one or in small groups.
  • 5. Individual tutoring for struggling readers.

These things matter just as much as phonics or fluency. They also have a lot to do with helping kids not just learn to read, but love to read.

A Day Filled With Books

I teach in a school where 98 percent of the children live in poverty, and 85 percent are English-language learners. At the beginning of 1st grade, only five of my 22 students were reading on grade-level. Having looped to 2nd grade with my class, that number of proficient readers has risen to 18.

Here is what reading instruction has looked like for my class every day for the past 15 months.

  • The first thing the kids do in the morning is choose a book from the hundreds arrayed in baskets—organized by genres like Fantasy, Nonfiction, and Realistic Fiction, including plenty of bilingual and Spanish books—in the classroom library that lines our windows. They write down the title on the checkout sheet so they can return the book the next morning and choose a new one.

—Photo by Justin Minkel

  • During guided reading, each of the five groups has a book on their level. One group meets with me, while the other four read their group’s book and do some kind of brief written response—like a question, a connection, or a graphic organizer they can use later to write about the book.

  • I often try to connect Writer’s Workshop with what we’re reading. We might read an excerpt of "Owl Moon" for a mini-lesson on sensory description, or use the same graphic organizer to write informational text that we’ve been using to map out big ideas and details when we read informational text.

  • The kids have half an hour a day for independent reading. They choose a book, sit on the beanbags and comfy chairs or sprawl out on the floor, and read. They often have a specific purpose for their reading, like making text-to-self connections or trying strategies other than “sound it out” for unknown words. But the main purpose is to immerse themselves in a good book.

True, they’re developing fluency, learning new words, and deepening their comprehension. But they’re also imagining life in Ancient Egypt or vicariously riding a dragon on a dangerous quest. Reading feels good, and they want to keep doing it.

What About Struggling Readers?

Like all teachers, every year I have students I struggle to teach. Kids who are getting all the same support and instruction as the rest of the class—phonics, read-alouds, daily guided reading—but continue to struggle while others thrive.

Over time, though, I see the majority of my struggling readers move from frustration to competence. I also watch kids who disliked reading begin to love it.

For the four students in my class who have not yet reached proficiency, just putting great books in their hands won’t be enough. It isn’t enough for the 18 readers on or above grade level, either.

—Photo by Justin Minkel

Our students need everything our school offers—a coherent phonics program, useful assessments that translate into differentiated instruction, and a program designed to explicitly teach English learners all the “invisible language” like verb tenses and prepositions that native speakers just pick up along the way.

But too often, struggling readers end up with even less access to real books than other students, as increasingly frustrated teachers double down on the phonics worksheets and sight-word drills that didn’t work the first time.

Our struggling readers need time each day to choose a book they want to read—not so hard it’s frustrating or so easy it’s boring. They need time to talk about books with their guided- reading groups. Above all, they need to experience reading as a pleasurable pursuit, an experience that has more to do with adventure and curiosity than it does with worksheets on segmentation.

Without those books, kids can’t become true readers. We need to put great books into their hands and homes, then watch as their imaginations catch fire.

Note: Photos taken by the author in his classroom.

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