Helping Students Find Their Inner Reader

Donalyn Miller, whose 6th graders each read at least 40 books a year, shared classroom tips and answers your questions on how to get all students to love reading.

Helping Students Find Their Inner Reader

Tuesday, April 7, 2009; Read the Transcript

Getting students to read is a dilemma that nearly every teacher and parent has faced at some point. Studies have found that reading interest levels off for many children at about the 4th grade, once comprehension issues come into play. Donalyn Miller, blogger and author of the recently published, The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader, believes she has found an antidote to this problem.

Her students each read at least 40 books a year and consistently perform well on state tests. How does she do it? What are her teaching secrets? And how can you apply her approach to your particular classroom? Donalyn Miller shared her teaching tips and answered readers’ questions in this live chat.

Moderator Elizabeth Rich, online editor at, was joined by guest Donalyn Miller, 6th grade language arts and social studies teacher, blogger, and author of the recently published The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child.

Live Chat: Helping Students Find Their Inner Reader(04/07/2009)


3:35 Moderator Elizabeth Rich: We are now accepting questions for the live chat with Donalyn Miller. Chat will begin at 4pm EST.

3:57 Web Person: Jeanne McCann: HI everyone, please hit re-load, we just turned reader comments on. ahhh technology!


Moderator Elizabeth Rich:

Good afternoon. Welcome everyone to our live chat with blogger , author, and 6th grade language arts and social studies teacher, Donalyn Miller. We’re expecting a lively discussion on helping students find their inner reader. Before we get started, we’d like to thank our sponsor for this chat, Choice Literacy .

Thank you for joining us today, Donalyn.

4:00 Donalyn Miller: Thank you, Elizabeth. I am delighted to be here today.

4:00 Moderator Elizabeth Rich: Before we get started, can you tell us briefly how you got the moniker “The Book Whisperer”?


Donalyn Miller:

I remember that conversation... When I first began talking to about writing an Ask the Mentor column, I told you that I could not really explain how I was so successful in getting children to read. I said, “I don’t know, it is like I am some sort of Book Whisperer,” and the name stuck!

4:03 Moderator Elizabeth Rich: We already have a number of questions, so let’s get started with those.

4:03 Moderator Elizabeth Rich: Here’s a question from Barbara.

4:04 Moderator Elizabeth Rich: Sorry, we’ll be right with you!! We love technology!!

4:05 [Comment From Leslie]
How replicable do you think your approach to reading instruction is?


Donalyn Miller:

Thanks for the question, Leslie. I don’t think my approach is that unique. Many teachers before me like Nancie Atwell, Lucy Calkins, Janet Allen and others explore some of the same territory: independent reading, choice, and role modeling. I think what I offer is proof that such methods can work in an average classroom.

4:07 Moderator Elizabeth Rich: Now we have a question from Barbara.

4:08 [Comment From Barbara Johnston]
I am presently reading your wonderful, informative book. I am interested in hearing how you assess your readers. Are you responsible for a letter grade and if so do you use a rubric for your reader responses?


Donalyn Miller:

Thanks, Barbara. Yes, I am responsible for grading students, just like most teachers. I use various methods for assessing readers including reading response entries, informal conferences, and students’ application of the skills and concepts I teach during minilessons.

4:10 Moderator Elizabeth Rich: Let’s take a question about ELL students from Sashi.

4:10 [Comment From Sashi]
Does your approach work with ELLs?


Donalyn Miller:

Thanks, Sashi. What I have found English Language Learners need most is wide reading and lots of experience with accessible books in order to build up their proficiency with English. For that reason, my instructional design works very well for ELL students.

4:12 [Comment From Rebecca]
Please explain the most important concepts of your approach.

4:13 [Comment From Linda]
Traveling back to your childhood, how unique is your experience as a reader in comparison to the students you teach?


Donalyn Miller:

Hi Rebecca:

My approach distills down to four key ideas:

access to books (this means abundant books students are capable of reading)

time to read (at school and home)

student choices in reading material

teacher role modeling of lifelong reading habits

4:14 Moderator Elizabeth Rich: Thanks Donalyn. Can you please answer Linda’s question? I got ahead of you there!


Donalyn Miller:

Many of my students live in divorced homes with little money for books, just like I did. Reading was a path to education for me and an escape from stress at home. Because of my experience, I try to show my students that reading provides the same opportunities to them.

4:16 [Comment From Ramona]
My students have choice within genres, but we do require specific genres to be read during 6th grade. What is your thinking on this requirement? Is it better to allow total choice of what students read?

4:18 Donalyn Miller: Ramona, I require specific genres and numbers of books within those genres for my students, too. Students choose their own books to meet my genre requirements, but I also want them to be well-read and experience books they might not choose on their own.

4:18 [Comment From Grace]
How do you give students the freedom of choice in selecting what books to read, yet keep them accountable?

4:21 Donalyn Miller: Hi Grace, I confer with every student, every week to determine their progress toward independent reading goals. Students write response letters each week detailing their personal response to the book they are reading. Also, students use their independent books to locate examples of literary elements, writers’ craft, and the other concepts I teach in class. If you are not reading, you cannot complete most assignments and that becomes quickly obvious.

4:21 [Comment From Safiyah Jackson]
I agree increasing reading time at home is key. How do you suggest teachers encourage this when many families might be distracted with so many other issues?

4:22 Donalyn Miller: What I have found works best for my students and me is to dedicate class time each day for independent reading. When students are engaged readers at school they read more at home.

4:22 [Comment From Ruth Braun, SuchASmartMom]
What are some tips for parents who want to encourage their kids to read at home - for pleasure and for school? I’m thinking specifically of children who arean’t crazy about reading.


Donalyn Miller:

Tips for parents:

Take children to the library

Buy books as gifts

Support any book your child chooses to read and don’t force “the classics”

Discuss your own reading and what you are learning and enjoying from the experience

Set aside time for reading at home (for everyone!)

Continue to read aloud to your children long after they can read on their own

Get caught reading often!

4:25 [Comment From Cara]
We have a program called READO at our school. We require students to read a certain number of pages, in their choice of genres. we do require a paragraph report or a conference with the teacher. However, we are having trouble getting kids to work on their READO card even when they are held accountable in the grade book. How do we change that? By the way we do have a school library and classroom library students can get books from.


Donalyn Miller:

Hi Cara, I wonder if it is the books or the report that diminishes students’ interest in READO? Do they see the report as the purpose for reading? Perhaps they could create book reviews or commercials when they finish book and share these over the announcements, in class, or in the library instead.

4:28 [Comment From Marianne]
What is the most effective way to get children motivated to read on their own? We’ve been doing reading rallies monthly with extrinsic rewards at my school, but it seems like the same children are motivated.


Donalyn Miller: Marianne, what research tells us about reading incentives is that they do not work to create lifelong reading habits. Children participate in the program long enough to earn a prize and revert to a non-reading state. I imagine that the children who participate in your program are readers and enjoy earning the prizes from something they already like to do.

What motivates children to read is learning that reading is its own reward. We cannot send a message (albeit, well meaning) that reading is not worth doing without a prize attached.

4:31 [Comment From Vera]
Have you had any experience with students reading for points such as in Accelerated Reading? If so, why do you think it turns some students on and others off to reading?


Donalyn Miller:

The problem with programs like AR ties back to issues we have already discussed. What children benefit from is access to books and time to read, which is part of the AR program, not the incentives attached.

What my former students, who go to middle schools with AR programs, tell me is that AR and the point values attached become the purpose for reading, not the books.

4:33 [Comment From bridget mendel]
What is the best way to determine the reading level of your students? Do you use a specific assessment? What is the best way to determine a child’s instructional level and then how to do help them to self select appropriate books?

4:35 Donalyn Miller: At the beginning of the school year, every student reads with me for a formal comprehension conference using a book they have chosen themselves. Using this information and talking with the student, I determine whether they are choosing books that are a good fit for them or need help from me to choose accessible books.

4:35 [Comment From Sabrina]
How do you handle non-traditional reading...internet, texting, IMing, twittering, etc...

4:36 [Comment From Robin]
Is there supposed to be sound?

4:36 Moderator Elizabeth Rich: Thanks Robin, you’re not the only one wondering aobut this. This is a silent chat!!

4:37 Donalyn Miller: Sabrina, my students and I use goodreads, which is an online social networking site for readers. Students blog about the books they are reading, write reviews, create polls, and participate in discussion boards, all around the books they are reading. There is an intiative at my school to use hand-held cellular devices in the classroom, too. I am interested in seeing how such new tools can increase my students’ motivation to read.

4:38 Moderator Elizabeth Rich: Hi Donalyn. I notice a bunch of folks are asking for lists. Do you want to share where they can find those?? (hint, hint---it has to do with your book!)

4:39 Moderator Elizabeth Rich: People are still asking about sound! There is no sound with this chat! Only the typewriter keys!

4:40 Donalyn Miller: My students created an Ultimate Reading List of the books they most love to read and it appears in my book, The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child. I also regularly post lists and book recommendations on my blog.

4:40 [Comment From reading mom]
what do you think about books on tape?


how much class time is spent doing silent sustained reading every day?
less than 30 minutes.
( 57% )

between 30 minutes and an hour.
( 35% )

more than an hour.
( 8% )

4:42 Donalyn Miller: Books on tape are a wonderful scaffold for children who may have difficulty reading on their own. I often have students who read a book along with the unabridged audiobook version.
I imagine that audiobooks can lead children to explore more books by the same author, too.

4:42 [Comment From Ginger]
Are there any problems or concerns associated with the goodreads (inappropriate comments---etc)?

4:43 Donalyn Miller: I require students and their parents to sign an agreement about how we will conduct ourselves on goodreads. I have never had a problem.

4:43 [Comment From Marianne]
So, teachers are the ones to make the difference in motivating students to love to read, rather than a whole school push. And, as you said, no extrinsic rewards--reading is a reward in itself. Can’t wait to buy your book!

4:44 Donalyn Miller: I hope you find the book meaningful, Marianne!

4:44 [Comment From Pat, Barrie, ON Canada]
How does the teacher-librarian (Library media specialist) support you in your literacy program?

4:45 Donalyn Miller: Our school librarian orders popular books and listens to students when they request authors and titles. She also sponsors several low cost book sales each year so the students at our school can purchase books for themselves.

4:45 [Comment From Jodi]
There has been much talk over the years as to whether or not silent sustained reading actually has a direct effect on improving reading comprehension. what are your thoughts on this?


DO you buy books for your classroom library?
( 93% )

( 4% )

I would, but I can’t afford to.
( 4% )

4:48 Donalyn Miller: Jodi, I imagine you might be referring to the findings of the National Reading Panel which found that there was not enough research evidence to support independent reading. Dr. Stephen Krashen, author of The Power of Reading, has found over 50 studies from all over the world that prove independent reading works just as well or better than any other type of reading program.

4:49 [Comment From Sally]
In light of the gap between boys’ and girls’ reading scores. how do we keep boys reading? Is the approach any different?


Are you required to teach the whole-class novel?
( 40% )

( 60% )

4:50 Donalyn Miller: Sally, the key with boys is offering them books they really want to read. Many of the class novels and read alouds I often see in classrooms are not books boys like to read. My approach, which values choices and interest is not different for the boys and girls in my classes.

4:50 [Comment From Kathleen - Teachers.Net]
Donalyn, Do you provide summer reading lists for your incoming students?


Donalyn Miller:

No, Kathleen. I do not use summer reading lists.

4:51 [Comment From L. Foy]
How do you encourage teachers who may be used to teaching one whole class text at a time to try book clubs/literature circles in class?


Donalyn Miller:

There is no single book that meets the reading ability and interest of all of the students in a classroom. With differentiation the goal of most classrooms these days, I show teachers how book clubs, literature circles, and free choice independent reading can meet the needs of all of the readers in the room by meeting students where they are.

4:53 [Comment From Jodi]
You mention the student reading what grade level do you feel these reading conferences become effective?

4:55 Donalyn Miller: Jodi, I think students can confer even when they are early readers. Even when they cannot read on their own, they can talk about read alouds and offer their own responses to the text. Teachers can still learn a lot about students and how they approach reading.

4:56 [Comment From Sally]
Are we “dumbing down” our children when we don’t require them to read the classics?

4:57 Donalyn Miller: Is our goal to promote cultural literacy or is our goal to foster reading habits, or both? I don’t think teaching the classics is the issue, I think overteaching the classics is the issue. Any time we spend weeks and months dissecting a book we are limiting children’s reading, writing, and thinking.

4:57 [Comment From Ramona Lowe]
How can teachers still carve out time for this type of reading in a scripted curriculum?

5:00 Donalyn Miller: There is so much wasted time in an instructional day, whether you have a scripted curriculum or not. Reconsider those warmups like editing sentences or vocabulary drills, which don’t improve students’ reading and writing ability and use this time for reading. Have students read during classroom interruptions, when they finish their seatwork, waiting in line for fieldtrips, and other moments when students are often disruptive or off task.

5:00 Moderator Elizabeth Rich: Donalyn, I think we have time for only one more question! While you’re answering it, I’ll share a couple of comments from our readers.

5:00 [Comment From LINDAROB]
What are suggestions for involving the entire faculty in “being a reading teacher”?

5:00 [Comment From Jodi]
This was wonderful Donalyn, thanks. I too am looking forward to getting your book!

5:01 [Comment From Leslie]
I look forward to reading your book. In it do you give snapshots of the goings on in an average class.?

5:01 Donalyn Miller: Everyone must value reading, share their reading lives with students, and teach students how to read the content specific material for the disciplines they teach.

5:01 Moderator Elizabeth Rich: Leslie, i’ll answer this for Donalyn. She does give snapshots of her classroom in the book!

5:01 Moderator Elizabeth Rich: Donalyn, anything else you want to add before i sign off?

5:02 Donalyn Miller: Thank you so much for inviting me to participate in the chat. The activity was almost as dynamic as a classroom full of sixth graders!


Moderator Elizabeth Rich:

Unfortunately, we’ve run out of time. This was a very popular chat and Donalyn was unable to answer all of your questions. We encourage you to visit her blog, The Book Whisperer and check out her new book, The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child.

Thank you everyone for joining us today!

5:03 Moderator Elizabeth Rich: We’d like to thank our sponsor for the chat, Choice Literacy.


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