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Reading & Literacy Opinion

One Size Does Not Fit All

By Donalyn Miller — September 10, 2008 4 min read
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Ways to make reading assignments more engaging for all levels of students.

My seventeen-year-old daughter is what we here in Texas call “a long, tall drink of water.” I, on the other hand, have a full-figured glass that has overflowed. When shopping, we laugh when we see clothes sporting tags that claim “one size fits all,” remarking, “Not us!”

Stretch this t-shirt over the ubiquitous practice in reading classrooms of teaching whole-class novels, and you can see that it doesn’t fit most readers.

Many school districts and schools create a list of required novels that all students in a grade level are supposed to read. These lists are revered as sacred law in spite of the fact that you cannot find a single state or national standard which requires students to read certain texts.

So what is the purpose of this practice? Many teachers claim that it is important to expose students to great works of literature. I don’t disagree with this goal in theory. But I have my doubts, based on evidence all around me, that this practice is creating a society of literate people or making kids better, more engaged readers.

Here are a few reasons why this might be:

No one piece of text can meet the needs of all readers. A typical classroom may have a range of readers that spans four or more grade levels. It is impossible to find a book that is at the right level for all of these students.

Reading a whole-class novel often takes too long. Planning a month or more of instruction around one text replaces a lot of time students could spend reading more books on a wider range of topics. It takes even a slow reader only a few weeks to read a book at their reading level. Do the math.

Laboring over a novel reduces comprehension and, by breaking books into chapter-bites, denies students the ability to fall into a story. No reader, outside of school, engages in this piecemeal method of reading.

Students’ interests in what they choose to read are ignored. Reading becomes an exercise in what the teacher expects you to get out of the book they chose for you, a surefire way to kill all motivation to read—other than to complete assignments.

Tips for Reading Engagement

Even so, I know many teachers are required to assign specific books for all students. For you, I offer the following tips to make the experience as enriching as possible:

Read the book out loud to students. Your ability to fluently read a text that may be inaccessible to many students increases their comprehension, vocabulary development, and enjoyment.

Share-read the book. Share-reading requires you to read the text out loud to students while they follow along in their own copies. In addition to the benefits of read alouds, share-reading increases students’ reading speed because they have to keep up with someone who reads at a faster rate than they do. Additionally, students’ sight word recognition of vocabulary is increased because unknown words are pronounced for them.

Strip away all the extraneous stuff. Many novel units are stuffed with what education gadfly Michael Schmoker calls “Language Arts and Crafts,” extensions and fun activities which are meant to motivate students. But any activity that does not involve reading, writing, or discussion is an extra that takes away from students’ development as readers.

Narrow down the amount of literary elements you are explicitly teaching. Don’t try to use one text to teach everything a 9th grader needs to know about symbolism, characterization, or figurative language. Focus only on those elements that students need for comprehension. Same goes for teaching vocabulary.

If you are only expected to meet specific instructional or content goals, as opposed to reading a specific text, consider these alternatives:

Select one theme or concept that students are expected to understand and then gather a wide range of texts on this topic. For our current study of World War II, for example, I am expected to explore with students how different groups became involved in the war and how they were affected by it. So each student will select a book on World War II, either fiction or non-fiction, and read it. All writing and discussion will circle back to our two guiding questions. This issue-based study will be much broader and richer than if we read just one book together.

Naturally, using universal themes or literary elements as the anchor for instruction instead of one text acknowledges the range of reading levels and interests in the class and still allows the teacher to meet curriculum goals.

Use short stories and poems to teach literary elements or reading skills and ask students to apply these concepts on their own. When teaching conflict to my 6th graders, we read several short stories from our adopted textbook and discussed the types of conflicts in the stories and how they were resolved. Students were then asked to reflect on the novels they had chosen to read independently, identifying the conflicts in the story, and evaluating how these conflicts were resolved or make predictions on how they should be resolved. Any student who can do this has shown me that not only do they understand the concepts of conflict and resolution, but that they also have comprehended the story, no book report needed.

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1990 edition of Teacher

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