Book Whisperer: Are good readers born or made?
My guest today is Donalyn Miller, a sixth-grade language arts teacher in Texas and literacy expert. She is the author of “The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child,” and writes about literacy for teachermagazine.org.
By Donalyn Miller
A recent Carnegie Mellon University research study indicates that children engaged in a 100-hour intensive reading remediation program improved both their reading ability and the white matter connections in their brains.
While the study shows promise for educators and clinicians who work with developing readers, one casual mention in the study stood out for me— the 25 children designated as “excellent readers” in the control group still outperformed the 35 third and fifth graders who participated in the remediation program.
The widespread belief that some readers possess an innate gift, like artists or athletes, sells many children short. I often hear parents claim, “Well, my child is just not a reader,” as if the reading fairy passed over their child while handing out the good stuff.
Educators do this, too. Thankful that at least some of our students possess adequate reading ability, we focus our instructional efforts on those children who still struggle mastering basic literacy skills. So, what about those good readers? What do these children have going for them that the others don’t? Are readers born or created?
What are those strong readers doing while poor readers spend hours engaged in skill-based reading instruction? They are reading.
The strong readers always outstrip the weaker readers because they practice, finesse, and expand their reading skills through hours and hours of reading. Imagine learning to drive on a simulator, but never stepping behind the wheel of a real car. No matter what remedial instruction children receive in school, they never catch up to the good readers because they don’t read enough to improve.
Richard Allington, respected reading researcher found that, “The average higher- achieving students read approximately three times as much a week as their lower-achieving classmates, not including out of school reading.” And the impact of heavy reading is a cumulative one. The more kids read, the better they read, and the more reading they continue to do.
Clearly, children need to read a lot to become better readers, but getting children to pick up a book in the first place challenges many parents and teachers. How do we motivate and inspire children to read? I believe that readers are made not born. Looking at the behaviors employed by avid readers, the conditions that increase reading engagement apply to both home and school reading. These conditions include:
Time to read. Children need dedicated time to read each day, both at school and at home. I love "Glee" and "Top Chef" as much as anyone, but I record these programs to watch after family reading time. Fifteen minutes a day is better than nothing.
Everyone reads something of their choice—an article, a blog post, a book, a magazine. The same advice applies to school. If we want our students to read, we must set aside some class time each day for independent reading, not just for the good readers, but for everyone. There is evidence that children who read more at school carry that reading habit home, too.
Access to books. Children need to be surrounded with books. In middle class homes, children own more books, visit the library more, and attend schools with better-stocked classrooms and libraries. In lower income communities where owning books might be a luxury, checking out books through schools and libraries becomes crucial in closing the access gap.
Reducing collection development and shortening library hours should be the last choices when budgets demand cuts. Access to books also means books that match children’s reading levels—from the advanced reader to the struggling reader and every reader in between. Dumping a pile of books at children’s feet won’t do the trick if they cannot read what you offer.
Reading role models. Stephen Krashen, author of "The Power of Reading," reminds us that, “Children read more when they see other people reading.” I see readers everywhere—my own sixth sense—but children need to see readers everywhere, too. Adults who read and share their love of reading with kids send a powerful message that reading matters for personal reasons, not just academic ones.
Choice in reading material. Human beings prefer making their own choices. Remember that latest initiative passed down at work? How did you respond to the mandate? Even when the new program holds merit, we balk at being told what to do. Readers feel the same about being told what to read. At least some of the time, children should choose their own books to read. Forcing children to read books that don’t interest them turns many kids off reading altogether.
Above all, children deserve high expectations that they read. Children should not receive the message that some people are born readers, but it wasn’t them.
| December 15, 2009; 1:00 PM ET
Categories: Guest Bloggers, Reading | Tags: The Book Whisperer, reading
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