Teaching Profession Ask the Mentor

Creating Readers: Part II

September 12, 2007 9 min read
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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 second installment of her Ask the Mentor column, Miller answers readers’ questions on motivating reluctant readers and encouraging parent involvement. Next week, 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. Read Part I, on reader-engagement techniques, here.

Donalyn Miller

Beyond finding interesting books for them, how do we help boys who are struggling to read to engage in the reading process?

The issue of struggling readers and what schools can do to help students who continue to lag behind warrants much concern. Although there is some good news: This week the National Institutes of Health announced they are funding research to develop practical solutions to help these students and their teachers.

With regard to your question, what we are basically talking about is starting over with these little guys. We must go back to what builds readers in the first place: reading out loud to them; letting them read with a friend, an audio tape, or a podcast; reinforcing that reading is pleasurable and social; removing the pressure and risk by deemphasizing comprehension tests and reports; and finally, accepting that some students, both boys and girls, will never innately value reading as enjoyable. As teachers and parents, we have to let go of some of the “you need to’s” about reading and meet the child where they are. We need to examine how our reading instruction foster students’ development as “real” readers and not just school readers.

With older boys, I think letting them read something provocative, or borderline appropriate, such as Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War or The Rag and Bone Shop or Christopher Paul Curtis’ Bucking the Sarge, can be motivating. The subject matter that draws high school boys to certain movies and video games can be found in trade books, but rarely the assigned books. I had a whole group of boys one year that passed around and read The Chocolate War because they heard the book contained off-color language, when, in fact, there were just a few inappropriate words.

We often scorn the types of reading that boys most enjoy. Who cares if they want to read something with bathroom humor or car crashes, as long as they are reading? It is hard to believe that these boys read absolutely nothing at all. There must be a magazine, newspaper, how-to-manual, playbook, SOMETHING that interests them. (We have all had students that would read a 200-page video game strategy guide with complex instructions and sophisticated vocabulary.) Why not read something together and remind the children that if their eyes follow every word, they are reading, even if you, the teacher, are reading it aloud?

We need to think about what we are asking boys to read. Do the books have great male characters? Are we acknowledging boys’ interests in sports, the outdoors, adventure, humor, and nonfiction? Do the books we choose for read-alouds and shared reading consider these interests at least some of the time? Do we offer magazines and other trade materials in addition to books? Boys crave real world applications for what they are learning. Finally, how have our preconceived notions of boys as disinterested readers become a self-fulfilling prophecy for them?

What do you do when a student tells you they have no interests?

I would not ask a student new to my class what their “reading interests” are. Students who have their defenses up about reading would never tell me about their reading interests, if they thought a book assignment might result. I conduct an interest survey on the first day or two of class to find out how they spend their free time, who they would job-shadow if they could, and what subjects they enjoy both in and out of school. Their answers provide me with some crucial kernels of information that I can use to make book recommendations.

One thing you might try is asking the child about movies they have seen and liked. (There have been a flood of movies made from children’s books in the past few years.) I can often suggest a book based on a movie that a student has already seen. This accomplishes several goals. First, the reader is more likely to comprehend the book if they have background knowledge of the characters and plot events. Second, he or she may be more motivated to read the book if they have seen the movie and enjoyed it. I often ask the child to come back and tell me if they noticed the filmmakers taking any liberties with the book. (There are usually some changes!) This gives the student a personal stake in reading the book.

I have an 8th grade male student who finds the actual act of reading boring. We have tried different genres with no success. His mother sees the same problems with him at home. I am at a complete loss. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

“Boring” often equates to “too hard.” I would suggest finding him a great book and having him read along with the unabridged tape. (Look for my lists next week.) It might even be more motivating for him to read with a podcast since this adds a coolness factor. There are a number of good Web sites that have podcast audio books for students, including Audible.

Are there sports heroes or non-fiction topics that he might enjoy? Perhaps magazines would be a low-risk way to get him to find reading pleasurable. He would not have to read it linearly like a novel, giving him greater freedom to pick and choose articles according to his interests.

How can teachers impress upon parents the importance of their role in helping their child to enjoy reading, as well as the relationship between their child reading on grade level and graduating from high school?

If teachers are accused of teaching the way they were taught, parents often have expectations that school will look like it did when they were students. Educators know a lot more about teaching reading than we did twenty years ago, including the responsibility that parents bear towards engaging their children in reading.

Educating parents about reading on our school campuses with our own resources is not as difficult as you might think. Conducting some workshops that would teach parents about the importance of matching kids to the right books for them, the importance of reading aloud, and the need to model reading builds an informed network among schools, parents, and children.

We conducted successful parent workshops at our school last year in which many parents participated. Our reading specialist taught parents strategies that could be implemented with their developing readers at home. Parents were grateful to get the information and support. You might try something like this at your school or determine if there is interest. If there is only one enthusiastic parent at your school, I would definitely encourage you to pursue such a program. You might be surprised by the turnout!

I am an LMS in a small school who is being pressured by an elementary principal to forbid students to check out young adult books. As a classroom teacher, how would you want me to handle this situation?

With the American Library Association’s Banned Book Week taking place from September 29-October 6, the issue of censorship is certainly topical!

Libraries are one of the bastions of free speech in our country, and should remain so. That said, I wonder if there have been complaints that your principal is attempting to address or if this edict is a knee-jerk policy to prevent complaints? I would suggest discussing the issue with your principal to find out.

If a parent does not want their child to read a certain book, then the child doesn’t—period. This does not mean that the library should ban that book. If it is a principal issue, there’s little a teacher can do. The principal controls the culture of the school, unless the parents engage in the debate. Often the most vocal parents in the censorship debate are those who want to limit access. (Why aren’t the voices of parents who have no problems with these books ever considered in this debate?) Some of the most enduring literature in history has encountered controversy. Blanket edicts are just plain old censorship.

Help! My daughter is starting 6th grade and the teacher wants her to read 7th-8th grade level books and up, but I don’t think she is ready for the racy material in many of the YA books in the library. How can I help her find good, challenging books to read that don’t push her into teenage-level themes? She’s only 11!

My first question is why does your daughter’s teacher expect her to read books above her grade level? If the reasoning is that above-grade-level texts will stretch your daughter’s reading ability, this is false. Reading texts that are too difficult foster frustration in children and may turn them off of reading altogether. If this is the case, I would talk to her teacher and explain that your child is not going to read texts that are too difficult.

Just because children can read advanced texts doesn’t mean that they should, if they are not emotionally ready. Research into the needs of gifted readers indicates that these children should read fiction at their emotional level and nonfiction at their reading level. There are fiction books that are advanced that do not explore the themes that you feel your daughter should not encounter. Look at the historical fiction offerings in the YA section. Read some of these books yourself first to determine whether or not you want to recommend them to your child.

Dear Book Whisperer (love that name!), Do you think young adult literature has become too “dark”?

As I have stressed previously, I do not believe that students should be required to read certain texts. If parents express concern over content, students should be given other material. Students are at all levels of emotional and intellectual readiness and the beliefs of families trump all other stakeholders.

If these “dark” books are being published, then there is a market for them. This is not new. We cannot complain that teens do not read and then complain again about what they choose to read when they do. Books are a risk-free way for children to explore some of the topics they are curious about without experimenting with negative behaviors themselves.

How the characters in these books choose to deal with the problems they face is a great way for children to develop a philosophy about how they would handle these issues personally. Books are also a wonderful method of opening a dialogue with children about sensitive topics. For parents who are concerned about the content of the books their children are reading, I encourage you to read the book before or alongside your child. What an opportunity to connect with your child about issues that concern them!

When I was a 7th grader (I am dating myself here!), The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume were controversial, and very popular—and still are decades later. There are reasons why some of the most debated books in the children’s literature canon remain timeless; these books speak to young people about topics in which they have a need to know more. Gretchen Bernabei, author of Rewriting the Essay, tells us that, “Art shows us the world, and changes us, giving us impetus to make changes in the world.”


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