Teaching Opinion

Response: Advice From The “Book Whisperer,” Ed Week Readers & Me About Teaching Reading

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 28, 2012 10 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(You might want to see previous posts in this series on reading: Part One, Part Two, Part Three & Part Four)

This post is the final one in a five-part series on teaching reading.

Even though I’m receiving plenty of questions from readers (but could always use more!), I periodically take on a “Question That’s Been On My Mind.” This post is a the fourth in an expanded five-part series responding to one of them:

“What is the best advice you would give to teachers trying to help their students become better readers?”

Professors Stephen Krashen and Richard Allington contributed their responses three weeks ago. Nancie Atwell and Cris Tovani shared their thoughts two weeks ago. Regie Routman, Laura Robb, and Kylene Beers contributed to a post last week . Part Four included responses from Kelly Young, Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and Carol Jago.

Today, I’m “wrapping-up” this five part series. I’ll begin by sharing a few of my own ideas. Then, you’ll be seeing a contribution from Donalyn Miller, the “Book Whisperer” herself. Last, but certainly not least, I have a short contribution from Dana Dusbiber, a talented colleague, along with several pieces of advice sent in by readers of this blog.

First, I’ll share a few of my thoughts. I have to support the advice already offered by previous guests in this five-part series (along with the suggestions shared later in this column). I’d like to just make a few additional suggestions:

1) Have students talk to their peers about what they’re reading.

Richard Allington and Rachael Gabriel cite extensive research in the March issue of ASCD Educational Leadership (I also have an article in that issue about using community organizing to teach English Language Learners reading) about the academic improvement that results from having students do what we all do -- talk with people we know about what we’re reading. I have students complete a very short “Book Talks Form” that takes them a few minutes to complete to get them started. Other ways I encourage these kinds of discussions includes having students choose their own groupings and books for independent book “clubs” and using the Web as a vehicle to create audio and/or video “book trailers.” You can read more details, and see examples, of these and other strategies to encourage these activities at My Best Posts On Books: Why They’re Important & How To Help Students Select, Read, Write & Discuss Them.

2) Use the Web.

There are thousands of free fiction and nonfiction stories on the Web that provide audio and visual support to the text. In addition, there countless sites providing additional high-interest reading material.

Yes, the majority of time students should use these resources and hard-copy books for “Free Voluntary Reading” -- with no requirements other than reading something they like. Other times, however, we need to help students learn reading strategies, including predicting, asking questions, visualizing, etc, so that they can become even better readers. Use of Post-It Notes serves this purpose well for paper books, but I’ve found that students are much more enthusiastic about reading on the Web and using the multiple free web annotation tools that let them put virtual Post-It note on the websites,which they then share. In fact, there are annotation tools that let students -- in real time -- see how all their classmates are annotating the same page.

This kind of explicit strategy use can be helpful in students developing “automaticity” in doing what many of us do when we read without even thinking about it.

3) Buy books (and “beg” for them, too) for students and their families to own.

My biggest classroom expense each year is buying books that students -- primarily the ones who are reluctant readers -- choose. It’s costly, but I find that the benefits -- the deepening of our relationship that this gesture brings, the increased interest in reading that results, and, practically speaking, the reduced number of classroom management issues that arise -- make it worth the expense. My blood boils every time I see another expensive and doomed-to-fail experiment in bribing students for better attendance and grades. Once, just once, I’d love to see a similar amount of money provided to teachers to buy books for students (and for enrichment activities like field trips) and see the results.

Plenty of research has documented the importance of families have “home libraries.” One way teachers in some communities can help get books into homes (and build relationships with families) is approach the thousands of “Friends of the Libraries” groups across the country and ask them to donate. For example, the Friends of the Davis (California) Library has donated thousands of high-quality books to students and their families at our school over the years (along with stocking our classroom libraries).

Response From Donalyn Miller

Donalyn Miller is a 6th grade English Language Arts teacher at Trinity Meadows Intermediate School in Keller, TX. She is the author of The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child and currently writes The Book Whisperer blog for Education Week Teacher. Donalyn co-founded The Nerdy Book Club blog and co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk.

One facet of our reading instruction that cannot be overlooked is the importance of teacher readers in building a classroom reading community. According to Morrison, Jacobs, and Swinyard (1999), “perhaps the most influential teacher behavior to influence students’ literacy development is personal reading, both in and out of school.”

Teachers who want to help their students become better readers must be readers themselves. Results from a study by Nathanson, Pruslow and Levitt (2008) showed that 56% of unenthusiastic readers did not have a teacher who shared a love of reading, while 64% of enthusiastic readers did have such a teacher. Clearly, teachers who read are more successful at engaging their students with reading than teachers who don’t read.

If we don’t read, why should our students?

Here are some suggestions for launching or enhancing your personal reading life:

Set aside daily time for reading. If you don’t have time to read for 30 minutes at a stretch, read in the morning before work or at night before bed. Carry a book or e-reader with you as a regular habit and steal reading time while you have a few minutes. Dedicate some time for extra reading during the weekends or holidays. You can bring your book to class and read occasionally with your students, too. Pick one day a week where you read along with your students during independent reading time.

Select books you can share with your students. Tell yourself you are conducting research for your students if it helps. Children’s and young adult books are shorter and easier to read and you can see a direct benefit when you pass these books along to kids in your class.

Revisit books you enjoyed when you were younger. I reread Pride and Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Rings, and Charlotte’s Web every few years. I always find something new to appreciate about these favorites. Kick start your reading life by reconnecting with the books you loved in the past.

Join or start a book club. Reading communities like book clubs provide readers support and enhance our enjoyment of the books we read. Talk to colleagues, friends, or neighbors about forming a book group. Read adult books, professional books, or children’s books together--depending on your interests and needs. If you cannot find a book club group that suits you, consider online reading communities such as goodreads.

Befriend a librarian. Ask your school or public librarian for book suggestions and resources for connecting with other readers such as book clubs, online discussion groups, and literacy events in your local area. Borrow book review magazines or ask librarians what blogs and reading sites they visit.

Share your reading life with your students. Show your students what reading adds to your life. If you are reading a nonfiction book at the moment, tell them what you are learning. Pass the children’s books you are reading to them when you are done. Describe the funny, sad, or interesting moments in the books you read. When you read something challenging, talk with your students about how you work through difficult text. It will surprise them that you find reading hard at times, too, but choose to read, anyway.

Reading teachers are teachers who read and readers who teach.

Response From Dana Dusbiber

Dana Dusbiber is a secondary literacy and writing teacher who has taught in Sacramento urban schools for 22 years. She has worked as a teacher consultant with the California and National Writing Projects and when the muse inspires, writes poetry:

The practice of daily reading, arguably one of the best ways to promote authentic literacy, is one that I allow my students at Luther Burbank High School to enjoy. We call it “practice reading.” I help students connect with this practice from day one in September, their freshman year. I know that the students who stay at our school, will read many independent-choice books throughout their four years here. It is a valuable time in my classroom, and in rooms across our campus. It is also a practice that enhances the quality of my student’s lives on many, many levels.

Many students in today’s world do not read books outside of school. When they do read, it is text-messages, web pages or homework assignments. For students who did not grow up in homes with books, with adults who read and who read to them, this time to read in school is both necessary and pleasurable. Many of my students need catch-up time when it comes to “hours-in” reading. The 10 minutes at the beginning of each period that I allow my juniors each day equals hours of reading across the months of the school year. My most dedicated readers begin books in the classroom, finish them at home, and return to the classroom/school library to check out new books.

All of the other instructional models that I use in the classroom, related to reading comprehension and vocabulary development, rely on the practice time my students put into reading. I know that they are much better prepared to analyze and understand academically challenging text, and consider their own connection to ideas in text when they are confident and “practiced” readers. They only get, and keep, this confidence when they put the daily time in.

Responses From Readers

Many readers contributed their advice. I’m including excerpts here, along with links to the original comment so you can see it in its entirety:


Talk with students about what they read and what you’ve read. Help students connect with each other about reading. Host book clubs for students. Don’t worksheet them to death when they read a book.

Claudia Swisher:

Let ‘em read! ... Self-selected reading gives students a tiny bit of control over one aspect of their learning.

Anita V:

The responses about reading more to encourage to reading are perfect summations of the practice needed to enhance active participation. I do see a missing ingredient, however, and that is the school library and librarian. Including this professional and collection enhances the number and type of selections and supports the presentation of genre and author. A good school librarian plays an important part in encouraging students to try new materials, whether it is a similar interest, a linked website or an audio version.

teacher333 asks an important question:

But the problem still remains....grades! And report cards!! And parents wanting to know where their children rank in their class!! How do you grade “just a child reading” unless you do all of the other stuff our reading specialists are demanding we do with our students??

Shaeley Santiago:

I encourage my ELLs to read in their native language, too. After all, it IS still reading. Read alouds in the classroom are a great way to introduce new books to students and hook them on reading (even with older, high school students like mine). I talk about the books I’m reading with my students, too, as a model of someone who reads whenever possible. My school has also been involved in a hosting a family literacy night at the public library.

Cayne Letizia:

I think it really comes down to being a reader yourself, having honest conversations with the students about their reading goals and instilling in them an awareness of themselves as a Reader.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks to Donalyn, Dana and many readers for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting a new “Question Of The Week” this Thursday.

Related Tags:

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.