Tuesday, May 19, 2009


I don't usually stray from reviews and recommendations of books for kids, but in the interest of children's literacy I need to shout out about a title that might do for independent reading what Jim Trelease's READ-ALOUD HANDBOOK did for read-aloud.


Why should I subject students to negative experiences now in order to prepare them for negative experiences later? I just don't think mindless work is what I should be grooming them for. I grow weary of hearing teachers say, 'We have to get them ready for seventh grade, or high school, or college.' They are in sixth grade! What about having an enriching powerful, glorious year in sixth grade? The purpose of school should not be to prepare students for more school. We should be seeking to have fully engaged students now.

Sporting possibly the best book title since Smith and Wilhelm's READING DON'T FIX NO CHEVYS, the moniker unfortunately does not clue us in to the real topic that this book addresses. This book is less about awakening the child than awakening the educator to the true dangers of "The Matthew effect" (referring to Matthew 13:12, "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer") in which "students who do not read regularly become weaker readers with each subsequent year," while "their peers who read become stronger readers...creating an ever-widening achievement gap." The upshot of all this indicates that "no matter the intervention, developing readers must spend substantial instructional time actually reading if they are to attain reading competence." This is a book about making time to read.

Miller invites educators to consider what reading means to them, asking where they fall in "Rosenblatt's transactional theory," defining two types of booklovers: efferent readers, who see reading as a way to acquire knowledge, and aesthetic readers, who see reading as an emotional and intellectual journey. She then challenges educators to consider how the kinds of readers we are impacts the way we deliver instruction. Miller also does the important work of redefining children as readers. She offers us a new and positive vernacular: "developing" readers instead of "struggling" readers, "dormant" readers instead of "reluctant" readers ( she quotes Mark Twain: "The man who does not read great books is no better than the man who can't"), and a new category, the "underground" reader:

Underground readers are gifted readers, but they see the reading that they are asked to do at school as completely disconnected than the reading they prefer to do on their own. Underground readers just want to read and for the teacher to get out of the way and let them.

Make sure to have a pile of post-it notes handy when approaching this book, because you will want to mark and remember all the fresh ideas, succinct research, the helpful sidelines (including Daniel Pennac's "Rights of the Reader" and Jen Robinson's "Why You Should Read Children's Books as an Adult"), booklists, websites, and student forms and samples. She outlines conditions for learning, and brings the responsibility of the child into the equation. For all of these selling points, the great, great strength of this volume is that it does not only identify problems in the way we approach instruction, it offers viable remedies. Miller does an extraordinary, comprehensive, and long-overdue-in-the-profession job of naming practices that are habitual but don't work, and then offers alternatives. Traditional practices like teaching whole-class novels, round-robin reading (shudder), comprehension tests, reading logs, book reports and extrinsic incentives all get modern makeovers via genre studies, book commercials, book reviews, audiotapes, reading buddies and role models. This book is so smart in that it reminds us that pedagogy is a science, a series of experiments, some of which fail but some which succeed, and like a scientist she offers both her own anecdotal evidence and observations for other scientists to compare.

Admittedly, there are some points that I myself have experienced differently in my own lab. I am loath to completely give up the whole-class novel, which I have found increases exposure to print and builds community when paired with read-aloud in a whole-group setting. In practice, I probably would push children to read further through books they may not initially like (out of respect and gratitude for my fifth grade teacher Mrs. Schultz, who insisted I go deep into Farley Mowat's OWLS IN THE FAMILY even though I was hardly in the mood for a story of boys in Saskatchewan, and my eighth grade teacher Mrs. Smith's plodding through Nathaniel Hawthorne's initially inscrutable HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES, only to break through around page 48 with what was akin to a sunrise of beautiful writing). Miller is somewhat laissez-faire for my taste when it comes to the care and keeping of books, bemoaning "Those plastic bags [protecting books] are a symbol that reading is an act students cannot take responsibility for without monitoring from a teacher. Why do we work so hard to build fences between our students and books?" As a teacher who has spent so much out-of-pocket to build a collection and who covers paperbacks with contact paper, book care seems like an etiquette issue as much as a responsibility issue, and I would never dream of borrowing a friend's book without securing it safely in a waterproof bag.

Opinions and nitpicking aside, the fact remains: Miller is a real teacher with real rapport, not a robot delivering prescribed curriculum. She writes quite honestly about her own trials and errors, and what works for her, giving a convincing argument as to why they will work for us, too. She has been a renowned and helpful blogger, and a seasoned sixth grade teacher in Texas. In the course of my own travels and exchanges, I have come to the conclusion that Texas boasts a uniquely impressive breed of teachers and school librarians. The state is home to a truly extraordinary Association of Future Educators, offering support (and unbridled enthusiasm) at an early age for those who receive "the calling," and a teaching corps who often receive the brunt of some particularly brutal standardized testing stress. As a result, many have become notably ingenious about delivering exciting and progressive education in the face of adversity. This credibility inspires a willingness to at least try what Miller is advocating or consider old practices with new eyes, and whether or not you agree with every point, you can trust each one is derived from a place of thought, experience and professionalism, worthy of both reflection and conversation.

We are very much on the same page when it comes to validating reading choices by children, and in fact, there have been many people on that page...the page itself is not new. In an article I wrote for Educational Leadership magazine (May 2000) "The Best Twenty-Five Cents I Ever Spent," I allude to Jeanette Veatch's slim but genius 1968 title, HOW TO TEACH READING WITH CHILDREN'S BOOKS.

Veatch is very simple and direct. "First, get LOTS of BOOKS! BIG books, little books, FAT books, thin books, fairy stories, cowboy stories, mysteries, silly stories..." About thirty years later, this is all reiterated and advocated in another way in my own book, HOW TO GET YOUR CHILD TO LOVE READING, in the context of what I refer to as a "motivation-based approach to reading." Best practice still boils down BIG books, little books, FAT books, thin books. But what Miller does here that's new is to fit the argument for more time spent reading these books with some brass knuckles, just the arsenal needed by teachers to battle the bullying aftershocks of No Child Left Behind. Miller offers a very specific plan, a "forty book requirement" (broken down by genre) that gets kids reading more whether or not they read all forty. However teachers tweak it to reflect style, at the heart of this book is a way that works and a way that resonates with real children. If you read between the lines, this book says "you want results? I'll give you results. Just give me the freedom to teach the best way I know how." Let's hope that's one book whisper that grows louder and louder and louder.

At the close of the last page, anyone who cares about children and reading will have a new appreciation of the importance of giving children the chance to read, the choice of what to read, and resources and strategies to make it all happen in the real world and in real time.

We can spend hours determining what students should know and be able to do, crafting instruction to accomplish the desired results, but without considering students' rights to an engaging, trustworthy, risk-free place in which to learn, what we teach will always fall short. Students must believe that they can read and that reading is worth learning how to do well. We have to build a community that embraces every student and provides acceptance and encouragement no matter where students are on the reading curve.

Oh, Donalyn Miller. You go, girl.

Also of interest:
More resources from more experts!

So, okay, its mid-May and the kids are starting to smell summer and getting antsy, but there's still a month to go, so how to keep reading fun and at the forefront? OOoooooOOOO, I just got these amazing reader's theater script sets sent to me by Toni Buzzeo, children's book author, librarian and proponent of this snazzy approach (and fresh alternative to "round-robin" reading). Each child is given a part as if in a play, and receives a snazzy laminated card with the lines to be read highlighted. Easy and fun, and a great subliminal way to get kids interested in reading the whole megillah! The series includes scenes from novels like Al Capone Does My Shirts by Jennifer Choldenko, Andrew Clement's Frindle, and Sahara Special by yours truly, as well as beloved picture books like Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco, Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney and Cynthia Rylant's Henry and Mudge series. For those who prefer the good ol' copy machine and highlighter pen, you can get ten, count-'em-ten reader's theater scripts in each book in the Read! Perform! Learn! series, which also includes "meet the author" interviews, interdisciplinary activity suggestions, worksheets, and standards, basically everything you'd need for a lesson plan. A boon to teachers and homeschoolers, this is also big fun for book clubs, playdates and family gatherings.

Once the Reader's Theater bug bites, you'll also want to check out Judy Freeman's outstanding resource ONCE UPON A TIME: USING STORYTELLING, CREATIVE DRAMA AND READER'S THEATER WITH CHILDREN IN GRADES PRE-K-6 which includes performance hints, songs, scripts, and the kind of fantastic annotated thematic booklists and bibliographies that made the author famous.

And as you compose summer reading lists, you will want to check out RAISING BOOKWORMS by Emma Walton Hamilton (Beech Tree), containing excellent techniques, activities and reading recommendations arranged in age groupings (babies and toddlers, preschoolers, elementary school and middle school), with a special section addressing FAQ's such as "Is It Too Late to Help High Schoolers?", "How Do I Know If My Child Has a Reading Problem?" "How Can I Best Use [The Internet and TV] To My Advantage?" and a super amazing appendix of tables outlining strategies for each age group. This is like having all the great little brochures and booklists you've been saving from the public library in one handy-dandy compendium, but written with all the warmth of a mom sitting across a kitchen table from you while your children are busy on a playdate.

Hope these guides give everyone a head start on circumventing the nefarious summer slide. Happy reading!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
More Esmé stuff at www.planetesme.com.


Dayna said...

Thank you for this great post. I will be sure to read though these resources and other books as time comes. I am so excited to give my daughter a love of reading. Keep up the SUPER work!

vanessa said...

I am always looking for more information to help me instill a love of reading in my child--thanks for all the great resources! I'll be sure to check them out.

MessyArtDesk said...

Wonderful post - thank you

Barbara Bietz said...


Thank you! I have always felt that kids are way pushed too hard to move on to the next task! Children should read what they love - no matter the "level."

Barbara B

Emma Walton Hamilton said...

Dear Esme,
Thank you for the shout-out!
What a wonderful post, and blog. I'm honored to be included.
Emma Walton Hamilton

scb said...

What a fantastic post -- and what a wealth of resources. It's going to take me a while to digest it all. (Thanks to Emma who led me here...)

I love the way the internet leads us to delights such as your blog -- clicking on a link on someone's blog is like discovering a secret door in a castle wall, behind which is treasure!

I shall definitely be back...

2KoP said...

Does this mean we can finally get rid of Accelerated Reader, a program that made three of my children hate "school" reading and one tell me that he hated reading all together. It broke this book-loving, writer-mother's heart.

Lori Napoli said...

Hi Esme,

I loved The Book Whisperer too and every teacher should read it. I agree with you though about not getting rid of novel studies completely. I LOVE sharing those novels with my students and they really look forward to it. My 5th grade students (and 3rd grade before that) have always been able to select their own books. I think the key to getting our kids to love reading is drown them in books (in a good way of course). My classroom library is full of wonderful selections for them and I'm constantly adding to it. Our librarian gives book talks and gets the children even more excited. It's our enthusiasm they pay attention to, so I ham it up every chance I get! :) I'm so sorry to hear about the mom whose child hates to read because of AR. It is an option for the children at our school, but NEVER taken for a grade. Gosh. . .if we lose them at a young age then what? Keep up the wonderful job, Esme! I've told SO many teachers and parents about your site/blog. You're such a fantastic resource and I don't know what I'd do without you!♥

Rawley said...

What fabulous books! I recommend HOW TO GET YOUR CHILD TO LOVE READING to all of my parents and have passed on THE BOOK WHISPERER to all of my colleagues. Both books have changed my philosophy of teaching reading of which I am hoping to spread from classroom to home!


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