A self-proclaimed “book whisperer,” 6th grade language arts and social studies teacher Donalyn Miller 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, one of her students read 300 books. According to school lore, Miller’s 6th graders have been known to become so engrossed in books that they walk into walls and insist on being photographed with their favorite books in class pictures. Even her former students return to borrow from her library, which has more than 2,000 titles and extends beyond her classroom into a storage closet across the hall.
And her methods have also produced more than anecdotal results: 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 first installment, Miller explains some of her secret techniques. In Part II, look for her thoughts on encouraging boys to read; and in Part III, she will share “Thirteen Books You Have to Read Before You Turn Thirteen,” a list compiled by one of her former students.
What is your secret? I would love to turn my non-readers into readers! How do you find the right book for your students?
Like many teachers, I stand on the shoulders of the great ones for what they have taught me about inspiring readers and writers, and building community. At the top of the list are Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnel for their reader and writer workshops, and Nancie Atwell and Janet Allen for describing their teaching experiences. Their books have shaped how I implement meaningful literacy instruction in my classroom.
We teachers must be at the top of our game about what the most current research has to say about best practices. Don’t overwhelm yourself, though! I would pick one book or one workshop on a literacy topic that you feel you need help with teaching, look at ways to implement the new ideas into your class, and build on it. Your needs and the needs of your students are unique.
As for finding the right books, I read tons of children’s literature and am familiar with most of the big name authors. I can usually read one or two children’s books a week and still have a life! This provides me with a large pool of books that I can recommend to students. Often if I have not read a certain book, I have at least read something by the same author. Over time, I have gotten better at fine-tuning my recommendations based on what has worked in the past.
Please give us a list of the top 5 things that you do to inspire children to read.
1. Assume all children are readers and that they can be successful as readers from the first day. I communicate this to my students. I think many developing or dormant readers—I prefer these terms to “struggling” or “reluctant"—do not understand that reading is a skill that everyone can acquire. They see reading as a talent that they just don’t have.
2. I share my personal love of reading, model my reading, and talk about the books. I read the books the children want to share with me. I let my students know that I am a reader, like they are, and that I am just a more experienced reader, not an innately better one. When I encounter challenges as a reader, I share this with them, too.
3. Choice is a powerful motivator for students! Although I do have genre requirements for the reading in my class, students get to choose which books they would like to read in order to meet these requirements. By providing this choice, I demonstrate that I value each student’s personal taste. This also shows students how we can each take a different reading road to meet our shared goal.
4. In addition to regular readers’ workshop time, I give students time to read their independent books in class. There is evidence to support that children are more likely to read a book outside of school, if they have been reading it in school. I do not do “warm-ups” or “bell ringers.” These activities do not contribute to kids’ reading habits.
5. When students come into to my room, they know that they have to get out their books and read until I start the instruction for the day. If they finish an assignment, they read. If the projector breaks, they read. If a teacher or parent comes to speak to me, they read. There are no “free” time or “when you are done” activities, only their books.
Do you use special books that you know will catch students’ interest? If so, what are they? I would love to elevate myself to “book whisperer” also!
I teach 6th graders, so many of the books I use are particular to this age and their concerns about becoming middle schoolers. The first book I read out loud to them every year is the anthology of school stories, Tripping Over the Lunch Lady, edited by Nancy Mercado. This book is full of short stories, by well-known authors, which address topics such as being the new kid or having dyslexia, but most have a humorous tone. Our first shared novel is Sixth Grade Nickname Game by Gordon Korman. He is one of our favorite authors, by the way! This book tells the story of a group of students who are not the best readers, but manage to ace the state’s reading exam by power-reading tons of books. (No need to explain why I use this one!)
We also have a fondness for the memoirs of Gary Paulsen. His fiction is superb, of course, but his personal stories, including Guts (which I also read aloud), My Life in Dog Years, and How Angel Peterson Got His Name are class favorites year after year.
By reading these three texts, students are exposed to about 15 authors who are prolific and write high-interest fiction. I can then make recommendations by reminding students how much they enjoyed these stories in class and lead them to more books by the same authors.
Do you begin this journey with your students by requiring they read a book? Some of my students would never pick a book up willingly! How do you get them started?
No matter what else we accomplish, all of my students pick a book to read the first day. I turn them loose in my class library and we all grab books and talk about the ones we have read. Everyone gets a library card. (I bought those lined cards that librarians use and keep them in a file box.) It never occurs to me, nor is it expressed to the students that not reading is an option. There is never a discussion about not liking to read or waiting for a better time. By making this priority one, I think that students understand reading is the most important thing for them to do.
As for requirements, I require all students to read 40 books in a variety of genres such as realistic fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction. I am vague about what happens if they do not meet this goal (which is really nothing), but I explain that every single reading lesson will circle back to some sort of application that involves the book they are reading. If I teach a lesson on conflict, eventually students will be asked to identify the conflict in their own book and provide evidence to support their observations.
I do not “teach books"; I use the students’ independent reading to reinforce the skills and concepts that I am teaching. I make it clear that if students are not reading a book, they will not be able to complete the course work for my class. Let me clarify that all children do not meet my 40 book goal, but the least number any child has ever read is 22. Think about your developing and dormant readers and what reading 22 books would do for them!
Do you have special strategies for helping students with learning disabilities “meet the right book,” when they find reading to be such a chore?
The first thing for these developing readers is to get them to feel success as readers as soon as possible. Giving students choice in what they read and allowing them to abandon books—this does not mean, leave them in the hall—that are not working for them takes some of the pressure off these students and allows them to feel more in control of their reading. Many students have never been allowed by a parent or teacher to put a book down and walk away from it. This is certainly a right that adult readers exercise!
I would look for a short, easy-to-read book that taps into a personal interest. I often slip kids a new book that no one has read yet (except me, of course) so they can be the “first” or give them the first book in a high-interest series such as On the Run by Gordon Korman. Don’t attach any “teacher strings” to the book, no report, no comprehension questions, just a conference perhaps to see how it is going. After all, the last time I shared a book with a friend that I had just read, I did not whip a diorama out of my pocket!
The only goal is for the child to finish the book. Make a big, public deal when students start to finish books on their own. I have had the rest of the class drop everything and listen to the successful reader give a brief recommendation. I cannot describe the weight that is lifted off a student when they have successfully finished one book on their own. A lot of walls come down at that point.
How do you get reluctant and low-level readers to become interested in reading out loud in class?
We never, never read out loud in “round robin” or “popcorn” style in my room. Let’s think about our goal, which is comprehension. If half of your students are reading ahead and the other half are sitting in agony waiting to be called on, what purpose is being served? Comprehension breaks down for everyone. I consider reading out loud in this way analogous to standing at the board in front of the class to solve math problems. Children have told me that this is one of the main reasons that they hate to read in school.
I share read books with my students by reading aloud while the students follow along in their own copies. This allows us to experience the text together, while accomplishing other goals. Students will be pulled to read slightly faster because they’re having to follow me; they hear unknown vocabulary words, which are pronounced for them, so they focus on comprehension, instead of decoding.
This is not to say that students never read out loud! If I want students to read something from a textbook for example, I assign sections of the text beforehand and give them time to practice. For this assignment, students may buddy-read out loud with a partner of similar reading level, or they may read out loud to me as part of a reading conference or small group instruction
For my students with dyslexia or other reading disabilities, I have found success using clear-colored overlays when reading. The color helps the child hyper-focus on the text and filter out other stimuli. You can find bookmark-size overlays that isolate one line at a time. (Check with your local teacher store or a library supply catalog.) You can also get colored transparencies and cut them into strips. Students are extremely self-conscious about reading behaviors that are “babyish” to them, like reading with a bookmark line-by-line or subvocalizing. Let students know that it is OK to do this, if they need to for comprehension. Consider that these students may still use these reading habits because they are at the developmental level of a much younger reader. They will abandon most of these habits as they gain proficiency.