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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 12/ 1/2009

‘The Book Whisperer’ reveals how to get kids to read

By Valerie Strauss

Meet Donalyn Miller, a sixth-grade language arts teacher in Texas and literacy expert with a focus on students in upper elementary and middle school. Author of “The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child,” she writes about literacy for and will do some guest posts for The Answer Sheet.

Here is part of a discussion I had with her about a subject I hear a lot about from readers and friends: How to get kids to read, especially those reluctant readers who would rather do anything else but pick up a book.

Let me know if you have any literacy questions and I will get them answered, either by Donalyn Miller or other literacy experts.

Q) Let’s say you have an 8th grade girl who refuses to pick up a book unless it is a school requirement. What do you do?
A) You give the child time to read, at school and at home. You carve out time to read in the classroom and at the dining room table. You are sending the message that we make time for what we value.

Q) I want to understand this. At home you set a reading time and the child simply has to read? It’s not optional?
A) Yes. They have to read. Everybody reads, mom, dad, all the kids. We have DVRs these days--we can turn off the TV for 15 minutes to read. Kids need to see it modeled. They need to see that reading is valued. Its not something that we can stand off to the side and tell kids they need to be doing. We need to be talking directly about our own literacy with kids. Teachers need to do it. Parents need to do it. And talking to them in a way that is no simply, ‘I’m assigning this book to you,’ but, “I’m sharing this book with you because as a reader I enjoyed it.”

Q) For how long? Is 15 minutes a good amount of time to start?
A) Fifteen minutes is better than nothing. It’s like exercise. You can start there and build up.

Q) Okay, what else?
A) If you build a community of readers then your kids, especially teenagers, are more likely to read. It works in the classroom and outside. It’s a peer pressure thing, really. They want to do what everybody else is doing. If you can help them find other kids their own age who are readers they can be in a community where reading is valued.

Q) What if you have a kid who keeps resisting? How do you know whether to find out whether there is some physical reason that reading is difficult?
A) If a parent has any such concern, then you rule out everything. It gives parents peace of mind, especially with younger kids... If you have a reluctant reader and you can fix it by getting the child a pair of glasses, that’s something to celebrate. Generally it’s not that easy.

Q) In schools today kids are expected to read when they are really young, in first grade or before. All kids can’t be ready to read though at that age, can they?
A) I’m not an expert in early elementary, but no, not everybody is ready to read at the same time. We do know that boys especially start reading later than girls. I think sometimes now with the pressure to read in the lower grade, kindergarten and first grade, that we are really pigeonholing some kids as struggling readers very early, and put them into programs for struggling readers that they don’t get out of necessarily.

Q) I asked you earlier how to handle an 8th grade girl who is a reluctant reader. What about a boy? Do you do the same things?
A) Yes. Role modeling, peer support, building a community. Another issue for both boys and girls is choice in reading material. As adults we are not very motivated when we don’t have any choice about what we get to do. With kids it’s the same. Reading is outside of them. Teachers assign what they read, how they will read, how they will respond. They don’t have any intrinsic motivation to read. It’s not about them--it’s about school. So it is important to give them choice in reading material, even if they make less than highbrow choices.

Q) So your students can read what they want?
A) I require my kids to read 40 books a year. They have to read widely from various genres but can pick what they want. I know some kids would never pick up a poetry book or a biography unless you have the expectation that they do. I want them to sample books like a buffet, be exposed to wide range of books and different genres.

Q) Should parents do the same thing?
A) It’s hard for parents... Kids should get to pick their own books during free choice reading at home.

Q) Even if they are not books parents would select.
A) We don’t have to force the classics.... [Then I hear the voice of a child talking to her, and she continues...] My 10-year old says you want to suggest the classics but just not require them.

Q) What books does she like to read?
A) Right now she’s into the "39 Clue" series It’s put out by Scholastic. Some of the best children’s authors have gotten together and take turns writing different episodes in the series. I always call it ‘National Treasure’ for kids. It has that slant, mysteries and history....

Q) It is often said that boys like non-fiction and girls, fiction. True?
A) You don’t see that in my classroom. Girls will read non-fiction if its a topic they care about. Boys will fiction if its about topics they care about.

Q) What topics do boys care about?
A) A lot of boys in my class are into science fiction, fantasy. Books about World War II are a perennial favorite. They also like Gary Paulsen, a popular author who has written some books about surviving in the wilderness... ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ is extremely popular. But I have girls who like those books too.

Q) Do boys read the popular "Twilight Saga" books?
A) I saw a 14-year-old boy reading ‘Twilight’ in the airport last year. When I went up to him--I guess I approach readers everywhere and I asked his mother if I could talk to him--I said, "I’m really curious about why you are reading ‘Twilight.'" He said, “You know, I don’t understand girls at all. But girls love this book, so I’m hoping that if I can read this book I might understand girls more than I do now." I told him no nobler reason for reading a book has ever existed.

For more on Education, please see

By Valerie Strauss  | December 1, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Early Childhood, Reading  | Tags:  literacy, reluctant readers  
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As a former teacher and top reader when I was in school, I agree with just about everything Donalyn Miller has said; would like to augment with a few other experiences:

1. RE adult role modeling: students
need to see and have access to reading
material at home. My home always had
a wide variety of books, magazines,
newspapers, and yes! - comic books!
I once did some babysitting for a
family of four, and there was not
not one piece of reading material
anywhere....not even a children's
book in sight. Very sad family and
situation, and there were FOUR adults
in that family.

2. A reluctant reader is very often a
sign of a child with some kind of
reading disability, and it needs
intervention ASAP, because the blocks
to reading will just become more and
more difficult as the child grows

3. Reading is...reading. I mentioned
magazines and comic books; I had one
of the largest comic book collections
in my peer group along with my
mysteries and other books and still
tested as a top reader. So, I would
really go along and encourage the
young reader, especially, to read what
he/she is interested in.

4. National Geographic now offers great
subscriptions for very young children
- my 3 & 6 year-old grandsons each
have their own for their own age group
- other good magazines probably do the

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 1, 2009 8:33 AM | Report abuse

At the Oscars several years ago, some film official (director, I think) said he had advice for those who asked him for the secret of his success: "Tell a good story." And a few years before that, Charles Shultz showed one of the Peanuts characters reading "See Dick run. See Spot run." The kid looks out of the frame and says, "Gee, I can't wait to learn how this turns out."

Want them to read? Give them a book worth reading.

Posted by: opinionatedreader | December 2, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Reading aloud to children - even after they can read on their own - is important. The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease explains the benefits and suggests great choices.

There are books on CD and Play-Aways (an MP3 device with a book pre-loaded on it) that kids can listen to.

Posted by: fidiwitz | December 3, 2009 5:36 AM | Report abuse

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