Teaching Opinion

‘Reading Is Intensely Social': An Interview With Jeffrey Wilhelm & Michael Smith

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 27, 2014 8 min read
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Educators Jeffrey Wilhelm and Michael Smith are co-authors of the new book, Reading Unbound. This interview with them is a special follow-up to the three-part series on developing life-long readers that I published earlier this week. You might also want to read a commentary they wrote that was previously published in Education Week titled Don’t Underestimate The Power Of Pleasure Reading.

I’ll be posting the Part One “Response” to this week’s “question-of-the-week,“Why do teachers avoid, or leave, high poverty urban public schools and what can be done to improve the situation?” in a few days...

LF: How would you characterize the main premises of your book?

Jeffrey Wilhelm & Michael Smith:

We argue that young people derive multiple pleasures from their out-of-school reading: play pleasure, the kind of pleasure readers take in losing themselves so deeply in a story world that they have a sensory experience; work pleasure, the kind of pleasure readers take from using books to address some practical problem or, more importantly, to think about the kind of person they want to become; intellectual pleasure, the kind of pleasure readers take from figuring out what things mean and how texts were constructed; and social pleasure, the kind of pleasure readers take both from relating to authors, characters, and other readers and from using their reading as a way to stake their own identities.

Adolescent readers derive these pleasures from a surprising variety of texts--many of which have been traditionally marginalized by teachers and parents alike--and are enormously articulate about the nature and importance of the pleasures they experience. Parents and teachers should be mindful of the power of pleasure and be more conscious of trying to cultivate it.

LF: What are the two or three most important things do you think that teachers can do to help students develop a desire to read for pleasure?

We think that the major takeaway for teachers is to make pleasure more central to their practice. Kids (like all other human beings!) do what they find pleasurable. You get good at what you do and then outgrow yourself by developing new related interests and capacities. We need to focus more on pleasure and on creating motivating environments for learning.

Because pleasure has many forms, teachers must have a variety of approaches to cultivate it. The immersive pleasure of play--that is, getting lost in a book-- is a prerequisite pleasure. We can foster it in various ways, for example, by teaching in an inquiry approach or by using drama and visualization strategies.

The kinds of texts that students seek to provide pleasure are unpredictable, so it’s crucially important to allow for choice and self-selection of readings. We recommend that all classrooms have some kind of “free” reading agenda--for example, allowing students to form their own literature circles from texts they select that are related to the current unit. As part of that effort to provide choice, we suggest making a variety of reading materials available. We’ve found in several of our studies that kids will pick up books from a coffee table or class library that they wouldn’t go to the school library or bookstore to find. We also recommend that schools require students to create summer reading plans instead of requiring them to read whatever’s on a summer reading list. We need to induct students into the world of expert and committed readers, a world in which they set and pursue their own reading agendas and reading lives. The primary task of early to late adolescence is staking your identity, and you can only stake your identity if you get to make meaningful choices.

Reading is often thought of as a solitary act, but our data established that it’s intensely social, so it’s important for teachers to leverage sharing. When kids share their reading through social media or in small groups or through activities like “Book Seller,” in which they do one-minute ads for books they like, then the students themselves are creating a socially supportive culture of reading. In the school in which Jeff works, every student and teacher has a nameplate on his or her desk, followed by “is reading _____.” The teachers fill in the blanks with different kinds of texts, (for example, Sports Illustrated, The Righteous Mind, and The Hunger Games, as Jeff recently did) as a way to show that they engage in all kinds of reading. This practice shows kids that adults and other students are avid readers of a variety of texts, creating a school culture that values all kinds of reading and invites students to talk with each other and their teachers about it.

LF: You cite a lot of research in your book. What would you say are the most key research findings that would inform a teacher’s instruction -- and give him/her evidence to support what they’re doing if challenged by administrators?

Jeffrey Wilhelm & Michael Smith:

Perhaps the most compelling research we cite is a new study from the UK (Sullivan & Brown, 2013). It draws on data collected in the 1970 British Cohort Study, which follows the lives of more than 17,000 people born in England, Scotland, and Wales in a single week in 1970. Sullivan and Brown investigated “whether inequalities due to social background are similar across the three domains of vocabulary, spelling, and mathematics, or whether they differ and to what extent these inequalities are accounted for by family material and cultural resources.”

After doing a series of sophisticated analyses, they conclude that “children’s leisure reading is important for educational attainment and social mobility” and “the positive link between leisure reading and cognitive outcomes is not purely due to more able children being more likely to read a lot, but that reading is actually linked to increased cognitive progress over time.” They determine that “from a policy perspective, this strongly supports the need to support and encourage children’s reading in their leisure time.” Pleasure reading was three times more significant in contributing to a child’s cognitive progress than was the parents’ educational attainment. It seems to us that this study is an absolutely compelling justification for teachers making pleasure more central to their practice, and nicely supports and complements our own research.

LF: Correct me if I’m misinterpreting what you wrote, but you talk about how parents and teachers shouldn’t necessarily be that concerned about popular genres that students might be reading (vampires, sorcery, etc.). Can you share a little more about your perspective, as well as when, and if, there might be exceptions we need to be alert to (for example, a gang wanna-be who just wants to read about gang life)?

Jeffrey Wilhelm & Michael Smith:

You can’t tell just looking at the book what a student is getting out of it, or whether it is healthy and helpful to his or her development. What you have to do is try to discover what the student is getting from that book. One of our most compelling findings is that our informants sought out the books that would help them with their current life challenges and with their developmental journeys--books that provided, in Santayana’s words, “imaginative rehearsals for living” and helped them become the kind of person they wanted to be. Depth psychologists call this doing “inner work” and we were hugely impressed with how our informants used reading to do it. We came away with this mantra: “Kids read what they need!” They weren’t making lazy choices; they were cognizant of what books were helping them.

For example, romance readers were using their reading to think about how to be in relationships; readers of dystopian fiction were using their reading to foster civic engagement and to think about what they could do to address political and environmental challenges; readers of vampire novels were using their reading to think about how to avoid “life-sucking” people, activities, and professions; and horror readers to help them cope with sources of anxiety, etc. Jeff was friendly with Stephen King when he taught at the University of Maine. King was fond of saying, “If someone is telling you not to read something, run out and read it! They are hiding something vitally important from you!” If you are worried about what a kid is reading, engage with them. Ask them about why they are reading and what they are getting out of it. Push back with your worries. Ignoring a problem or trying to repress it solves nothing; the problem won’t go away. So ask students why they love what they love and see what they say. We were surprised by what our students had to say and are far more trusting of students and the choices they are making now that we understand what they are doing with the books they love.

LF: How do you think the Common Core Standards affect how your recommendations can be put in place in our classrooms?

Jeffrey Wilhelm & Michael Smith:

We think that our data clearly establishes that young people are doing sophisticated intellectual work in their pleasure reading, Much of it is just the kind of work that the CCSS calls for, so making pleasure more central to our practice is not in conflict with working to achieve the CCSS. We think both goals can be achieved if teachers value interpretive complexity as much as they do textual complexity, if they provide opportunities for choice and meaningful conversation, and if they create inquiry contexts that reward entering a story world and doing psychological and social work in addition to meeting more traditional academic goals.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?

Jeffrey Wilhelm & Michael Smith:

Remember that what students do with their reading--as readers and human beings--is much more important than the qualities of a particular text. This is why we think teachers should focus more on interpretive complexity than on text complexity. What is important are what strategies and life lessons student reading is cultivating. We’ve found that we can move from what kids are interested in and love in order to create new interests and capacities, and that, to us, seems like humane teaching.

As one example, Jeff recently read The Hunger Games with a group of students, using the novel as a bridge to 1984. The students eagerly embraced the challenge of reading Orwell’s novel. Why? As one student said, “You gave us quid, we give you quo.” In other words, “If you read one of our books, we’ll read one of yours. And we’ll use what we love to help us engage with this new text and perhaps find out that the reading you want us to do is actually not very far from what we love to read.”

LF: Thanks, Jeff and Michael!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.