Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways to Develop Life-Long Readers

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 16, 2014 9 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series on this topic)

Emily Norton asked:

I am a college student currently in a children’s literature class so my question is...How will I get my early elementary students engaged in reading? What strategies can I use to make sure they will fully understand the books we read? How can I ensure that I will create life-long readers?

I’ve previously posted a very popular five-part series on this topic, but it’s so important that I don’t think we can ever talk about it too much...

Today, Donalyn Miller, Mark Barnes and Christopher Lehman are contributing their responses to Emily’s question. This is the first post in a three part series, so there will be plenty of room for comments from readers next week.

In addition, you can listen to a nine minute interview I did with Donalyn earlier this month on my BAM! Radio program.

Response From Donalyn Miller

Donalyn Miller has worked with a wide variety of upper elementary and middle school students and currently teaches fifth grade at O.A. Peterson Elementary in Forth Worth, Texas. In her popular book, The Book Whisperer, Donalyn reflects on her journey to become a reading teacher and describes how she inspires and motivates her middle school students to read 40 or more books a year. In her latest book, Reading in the Wild, Donalyn collects responses from 900 adult readers and uses this information to teach lifelong reading habits to her students:

Engaging students with reading and encouraging the development of lifelong reading habits begins with providing students with a wide range of interesting reading material and lots of opportunities to examine, read, write and talk about books with their teacher and classmates. Students should have access to lots of books in the classroom and the opportunity to self-select some of their own reading materials (Guthrie, J. T., & Humenick, N. M., 2004). Teachers should work with students to match books to children’s interest and reading abilities. In addition to a rich classroom library, students should visit the school library on a regular basis and learn how to navigate the library and find books to read.

Children should listen to a fluent adult read aloud every day (Allington, 2002). Through read alouds, teachers can introduce students to different books, authors, genres, and text structures--building background knowledge and experiences that support children’s capacity for independent reading. Reading aloud also fosters community-building in your class and sends a pleasure message about reading to children who may have missed these experiences at home.

Response From Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is the author of Role Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in the Student-Centered Classroom and The 5-Minute Teacher: How do I maximize time for learning in my classroom?:

As someone who taught reading and language arts for 20 years to students in a variety of age groups, I experienced a dramatic change in the strategies I used to encourage them to become lifelong readers. As a new teacher, in the early 1990s, I used the playbook I was given during student teaching. I gave students a class novel, selected by me, and we methodically tore apart each page, examining every detail the author wrote. This monotony lasted four to six weeks, and the students suffered from extreme boredom.

Years later, after exhaustive research of some of the best in the field of reading and literacy, Stephen Krashen, Nancie Atwell and Donalyn Miller, among others, I realized that while I was teaching skills, I was not engaging my students and, more important, I was not encouraging lifelong reading. So, everything changed.

The first, and most crucial, transition was giving my students choice - something most had never experienced. Second, we began reading every day as part of what I called the Reading All Year project. I opened my own vast library of titles to them and said, “Pick a book you like, and if you find it less than thrilling, stop reading it.” Many students who had been reluctant readers soon read with enthusiasm. Some took to daily reading more slowly, because they had never read a book and were intimidated, because they lacked experience and believed reading was only for learning - not for fun.

It occurred to me that our broken system had turned many of my middle school students away from books. This epiphany led to numerous conversations with administrators, urging them to change our reading program at the elementary levels, in order to create a culture of readers. We must give young readers books that interest them, I explained, while providing time in class to read.

Of course, there is always concern about ensuring that young students comprehend what they read, but what I learned when I changed to choice and daily reading is that books are the best teachers of reading comprehension. Brief precise lessons about book structure, genre and vocabulary acquisition, coupled with daily reading of a variety of fiction and nonfiction books and articles, will produce masters of language and literature and, best of all, lifelong readers.

Two years after I changed how I taught, tossing out traditional drill-and-kill methods and forced class novels, I bumped into a former student in the community. She was in the first group I taught with my new Reading All Year program. After a quick greeting and some small talk, she said, “Hey, I’m still reading books. Since I had you as a teacher, I read more than ever.”

That may have been the most rewarding moment in my teaching career.

Response From Christopher Lehman

Christopher Lehman is an educator, international speaker, consultant and author/coauthor of several popular books on education including his newest, Falling in Love with Close Reading. He can be reached on Twitter at @iChrisLehman or his blog:

Developing young readers is as much about what they read as where and with whom.

Primary grade children develop their reading process along a well studied and (thankfully for us) fairly predictable path, often starting with what is referred to as “emergent story” reading (see Elizabeth Sulzby’s work). These earliest stages, often happening anywhere from toddler to early kindergarten usually develop from pretend play reading of favorite books--where children turn the pages talk about the pictures or even make up the story--up through a beginning recognition that those squiggly lines on the page make up words that are connected to the pictures.

These later stages of emergent reading, incidentally, often can worry educators and parents because it can appear that a child’s development is going backwards because they pause more often, ask for help much more, and sometimes clam up. In reality, he or she is simply recognizing they might not be saying the correct words even if they don’t yet know how to read them. Brilliant little ones!

From there they move into traditional reading stages and one of the most important things we can do as teachers of early readers is to understand how those levels of books change over time and what behaviors those stages ask us to teach our students. Books, especially in the early grades, are carefully constructed to increase in reading challenge over time. You help to ensure students, as you say, understand the books they read--and also feel confident as readers--when you match them carefully to books they will read independently. There are many places to go to study the increasing complexity of early reader books and the teaching that can come along with them, such as Reading Recovery, Fountas and Pinnell, or I love Kathy Collins’ book, Growing Readers.

The where and with whom they read is equally critical. Think of anything young children love to do - running through a playground, dressing up in costumes, scribbling art projects. All of these involve tremendous joy, access to materials, lots of choice, time for practice, and modeling (whether from adults in their lives or friends or television). The same conditions are needed to support young children’s (though frankly anyone’s) development into a thoughtful, engaged reader. What we can do as educators is provide the same conditions.

We develop joy for reading in being joyful ourselves - reading our own adult texts and those of our students and talking about our reading lives publicly, exuding our own passion for reading. See my post “What the Kardashians Taught Me About Reading Instruction (No, For Real)” for more on branding yourself as a reader and visit The Nerdy Book Club often to connect with educators deeply engaged in the love of reading.

We provide access by having a well stocked, well organized, classroom library where students can take books between home and school often. We excel at the things we feel good about and find ourselves improving within. Add onto this that when students have choice of books--and I do believe at these stages it’s critical that any book students read independently should be choice within levels--engagement and ownership is even higher.

Readers should be given lots of time to read and reread. The lower the level, the shorter amount of time it takes to read the book, so primary readers should have tons of books on hand and be encouraged to reread them over and over. Rereading not only has the physiological effect of developing a young mind’s reading process, it also develops strength and self-belief.

Modeling then is both my earlier point that we need to live a love of reading in our classrooms and also that our young readers need us to rigorously study what it means to learn to read so we can demonstrate those behaviors in our teaching. The more we know, the more we can show. From how when you come across a tricky word, don’t jump to sounding it out, instead first ask yourself, “what is going on in this part of the book?” to how you think about how characters are feeling based on the things they do.

Young readers can do amazing things in such a short amount of time, it all takes careful planning and more than anything your own, energetic, and contagious love of reading.

Thanks to Donalyn, Mark and Christopher for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be publishing comments from readers next week.

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. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and will be starting the new year with ASCD.

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You can also see annual lists of my most popular posts.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Last, but not least, I’ve recently begun recording a weekly eight-minute BAM! Radio podcast with educators who provide guest responses to questions. You can listen and/or download them here.

Look for Part Two in a few days....

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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.