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Posted at 1:00 PM ET, 12/15/2009

Book Whisperer: Are good readers born or made?

By Valerie Strauss

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.

Follow Valerie’s blog all day, every day at http://washingtonpost.com/answersheet/

For all the Post’s Education coverage, please see http://washingtonpost.com/education

By Valerie Strauss  | December 15, 2009; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Reading  | Tags:  The Book Whisperer, reading  
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Comments

Reading starts at home with the parent.

A child either loves to read before the first grade or never will be a reader.

More programs are needed at libraries to include both children and parents in the process of learning the joy of reading.

Libraries can be expanded with computer technology where both children and parents in an enclosed space can use software such as Disney Winnie the Pooh to learn to read.

But this will never happen as there are no measurements for this type of program and billions will be spent on remediation programs instead that can be measured by test results.

Posted by: bsallamack | December 15, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Some kids, usually from the upper end of the SES spectrum, manage to learn to read well on their own or receive instruction from parents/tutors etc. Most kids, especially those from the other end of the SES spectrum, require the kind of explicit instruction that only a strong, teacher-centered phonics program provides and that most schools do not offer. Kids also need exposure to good literature (read by teacher, initially), and good non-fiction across the disciplines. Doing that from kindergarten actually could actually result in fewer kids needing remediation in 3rd-4th grade.

Posted by: momof4md | December 15, 2009 3:52 PM | Report abuse

Children should be read to as part of the process of going to sleep. Short words and pictures.

Do not buy children books without reading them from cover to cover and enjoying them since you will have to read them over and over to you child.

Avoid expensive books as quantity counts. Only Americans would buy a $30 dollar children book instead of buying multiple inexpensive books for a child.

Bill Peet had a large number of good books. Stick with the paper backs as they are less expensive than hard cover books.

With any gift book for your child read it first before you give it to your child. Dump it in the trash if you do not enjoy it instead of being forced to continuously read a book that you think is stupid.

Show whenever possible that you read books on your own.

Remember you are showing your child the enjoyment of reading and not teaching them how to read.

This is a process that takes years but gets easier as time goes by.

Your child either recognizes the strange symbols on a page as words and understands reading before they start the first grade or is lost.

Posted by: bsallamack | December 15, 2009 7:17 PM | Report abuse

Dear bsallamack,

Thankfully, your concern that, "A child either loves to read before the first grade or never will be a reader," is not true. In my own 6th grade classroom, I have seen scores of children discover a love of reading, some for the first time. This is true for many of my colleagues, including high school and college teachers. It is never too late to become an avid, engaged reader!

Posted by: thebookwhisperer | December 15, 2009 8:48 PM | Report abuse

I'm a big opponent of the "good book" strategy. Children should be reading anything that comes their way. It's all practice.

I used the read the back of cereal boxes while I ate my breakfast.

I don't want to sound like a shill for the Post, but it's scattered all over our kitchen table. In the beginning all they looked for was the temperature. Anybody who gets the paper and doesn't make sure the Kid's Page is front and center is wasting an opportunity.


My one rule is - don't push kids to finish reading something they aren't interested in reading. School will encourage that. Home reading needs to be interesting and that is in the eye of the reader, not the parent.

And yes, turn the TV off.

Posted by: RedBird27 | December 16, 2009 6:22 AM | Report abuse

Good readers are made. When we were growing up we were encouraged to read, even if it was just the comics. And in elementary school, we were actually taught how to read and fold a newspaper for reading. Then we had to bring in a newspaper article everyday that we had read to explain in class. I can't say it was interesting, I was young and would have rather had been watching WoodyWoodpecker, but the exercise itself reinforced the habit of reading.

Unfortunately, library resources are being cut all of the time, esp. in poor neighborhoods. Even MLK in DC has had their resources cut severely. It seems like there has been a war on education and mental stimulation in DC. To top it off, the kids today spend most of their time in front of computers. They don't go out to play, the tv is on all the time, and although electronic media is convenient, nothing beats having a solid book in your hands. Good readers and reading practices start early.

Posted by: lidiworks1 | December 16, 2009 7:52 AM | Report abuse

My mother, sisters, daughter & I were all 4 yo self taught readers. We all read all the time. My poor son struggled. Turns out he has learning differences. What finally worked for him was Harry Potter on tape with the book. He finally mastered reading in about the 6th grade; he LOVES it and is now in college.

Posted by: Arggg | December 16, 2009 8:45 AM | Report abuse

If parents begin reading books to children as early as possible, with enthusiasm, and by emphasizing the importance of reading as a life-long joy, then those childred will grow up with reading as second nature and will read more often and with greater importance. I can't think of a better gift to give your child. If parents don't do this then they are consigning those children to the vagaries of learning (?) to read in the school system which is to say they are handing them over to a stranger to teach them to read. Every child is innately given the gift and the skill to read and it's our job as parents to feed that gift. Handing our children over to schools for learning is one of the most glaring examples of chid abuse in our country today.

Posted by: rogernebel | December 16, 2009 9:04 AM | Report abuse

A child either loves to read before the first grade or never will be a reader.
~~~~~~~~~~

Wow; this couldn't be more false - I'm not sure how you can make such a wild conclusion.

I am an avid reader and got a degree in English, but if you'd have asked me about it before taking my 8th grade language arts class, I'd have laughed.

My 8th grade teacher changed everything, and while I still am not sure how he did it, _that_ he did leaves me ever grateful.

I think anytime you're in school you can be influenced in a new direction - it's what school is for.

Posted by: nagatuki | December 16, 2009 9:39 AM | Report abuse

Don't just read children's books to your kids. My mother read my brother and me to sleep with Greek myths and Robin Hood. One elementary teacher read to us for a half-hour after lunch--some books on our level, some older, and a few that she had read at our age. (Those students are probably the last people on earth outside of book collectors to be familiar with some of those stories!) All studies show that kids can listen to and understand far more sophisticated books than they can read, and, let's face it, Dr. Seuss isn't exactly a page-turner.

Remember, the whole concept of "literature suitable for children" is a fairly recent development. Sen. Kennedy, in his memoir, describes his mother reading to him when he was nine years old and ill--most of the books he mentions are now considered classics to be studied by high-schoolers.

Posted by: opinionatedreader | December 16, 2009 9:40 AM | Report abuse

Reading does begin with the parents. Don't just read TO your child; read WITH him. You can tell a child that reading is important, but they model their parents. If they see you reading for fun, in your spare time, little ones will model, even if they hold the book upside down. And anything they want to read (with obvious exceptions) should be encouraged. Comic books (as long as they READ and don't just LOOK), graphic novels, joke books, etc. count for reading. You can encourage them to pick nonfiction at the library or bookstore, but never discount the value of reading what they want.

Also, store logo recognition is great for them. My daughter loved K-Store and called KFC the chicken store when she was just 2. In the store, ask the young child to pick out the cereal that mommy buys, for example. These are pre-reading skills that help kids read when they are older. Make reading FUN!

Posted by: momlame1 | December 16, 2009 9:55 AM | Report abuse

Had to add another note. One comment above said that if a child doesn't like to read by first grade, he never will.

I taught an 8th grader who hated reading. I had a classroom library of lots of different genre, like sports, biography, fiction and so on. I tried a Michael Jordan book but he didn't want it. One day he picked out "Scary stories to tell in the dark," and after that, he was hooked. His reading improved quickly. I think a big problem is the reading programs in schools often have kids reading stories that I can barely get through because of the boring nature. I used class sets of high interest books and taught the reading skills that are tested as well.

Posted by: momlame1 | December 16, 2009 10:00 AM | Report abuse

As the father of two wonderful daughters now 16 and 12 years of age, both straight 'A' students and both voracious readers, I will tell you my simple secret:

My daughters know that Daddy always has the money to buy them books - and cost is no object. Other things Daddy might say 'no' to, but Daddy will always buy books for his daughters.

I accompany my daughters to bookstores, share Javanilla or hot choco whilst they sit with me browsing over several books they haven't decided which I will buy for them. I comment on the quality of the writing - unless I can see in their eyes that they won't leave the bookstore without it.

Always emphasize to your kids the direct relationship between their reading and the amazement and admiration that their friends, peers and teachers bestow upon them when they get their grade cards or critque their compositions.

My daughters, as one teacher put it - are 'awesomely awesome'. I wholeheartedly agree. Reading is learning.

Posted by: rexsolomon | December 16, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse

I don't have kids of my own so I can only speak from my own childhood. I am a voracious reader as is my sister. My parents were always reading. My favorite thing was when my mom took us to the library on Sat. No one ever pushed us to read. It was just always there, somehow. My favorite thing upon starting the new school year in the fall was the new books I would get to read. It must be in my case, the environment I was raised in. Both my parents were college graduates, this was in the 50's. WE always had mountains of books in our house, and my mom's face was always stuck in one.

Posted by: kat2show | December 16, 2009 11:10 AM | Report abuse

Two comments: 1) What would happen if we stopped teaching reading so early? I understand that reading is not officially taught in European schools until age 7 or second grade and they have much lower levels of reading difficulties. I think a lot of students simply aren't ready to learn to read as early as our educational system demands.

2) On reluctant teen readers: Nothing stimulates an adolescent's desire to read like a banned book. If you want to be really sneaky, bring home something like a collection of ghost stories or an adventure story with some violence in it and say that it's for you--the parent--and the child can't read it --it's too scary or too violent for them! Then "carelessly" leave it somewhere that they can find it.

I write ghost stories and I've had many parents and librarians tell me that my books got their 12-year-old boys to read.
That's the best compliment I've ever been given.

Posted by: Woodwose | December 16, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

As a former Middle School Language Arts teacher in Northern Virginia, quite often I had students come into my class as non-readers. You could not pay them to read anything that was not required. However, time was set aside for reading. High interest low level novels were available for the non-readers, and high interest, high level books for the advanced readers, and everything else in between. If a student finished his or her classwork ahead of the rest of the class, that student was to read silently at his or her desk. That was the only option that the student had. No talking, no drawing, no doodling...reading.
By the time the end of the year rolled around, not only were the non-readers able to pass mandatory state tests, but they were also reading. The bottom line is, from my experience, readers are made.

Posted by: LorettaPerkins | December 16, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Readers are made. Readers are made by example. When everyone around you is reading a book, you are more likely to pick up a book.
I am so grateful my parents were avid readers. I have 6 siblings and we are always swapping books, we're now all in our 50's.
The most satisfying activity I did with my toddler was to read to him, go to the library with him, have him read to me whenever he wanted. My son is now 14 and he reads at a college freshman level.

Posted by: NanFan56 | December 16, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

kids can tell when a newspaper is lying...
so to resolve this situation...
stop lying and be balanced in your reporting...
writing for obama and the dems is boring...
doing one sided coverage is boring...
people lose respect when it's all one sided...

Posted by: DwightCollins | December 16, 2009 4:35 PM | Report abuse

I began reading to my daughter as soon as she could sit on my lap and hold up her head. By eight months, she knew if I skipped a page (we re-read many books) and would fuss - before she could talk. We thought she could read because she had memorized Arthur's Eyes - at age 4. We never missed a story hour, even on vacation, or a book store. We taped her favorite books so she could listen to them in bed, after we read them to her. A bookstore was her favorite destination in the mall and we even picked up books at the swap area of our town dump. She went to bed every night with a book and does to this day. When she moves to a new place, the first thing she gets is a library card.

I wasn't a perfect parent, often having to work long hours. But I really believe I gave her the greatest gift of all - a love of reading that began at a very early age. It is a joy to see her glued to a book as she awaits her first child.

Posted by: carolineC1 | December 16, 2009 5:47 PM | Report abuse

I think there must be a bit of both - born to be a reader and made to be a reader. My daughter took to reading easily. My son on the other hand has struggled. I read to my daughter from a very young age. I tried to do the same with my son, but as an infant he would squirm uncontrollably and when old enough he would actually grab the book and fling it away. We tried many different books, tried letting him pick them out (which he often refused to do), etc. He refused to listen to books on tape. I think he just wasn't ready for reading at the time. His reading skills and outlook toward books have improved tremendously in the last two years due to two very patient and understanding teachers. I think maturity has played a role too.

Posted by: mgribben | December 16, 2009 7:29 PM | Report abuse

I started reading books when I was 3; by the time I was 6 I had read over 60 books, way beyond my age level-at 8 I was reading Shakespeare. Neither one of my parents ever read to me that I can remember, nor did they ever encourage me to read a book-it was all self-initiated. Sorry, good readers are born, not made-you have to want to read that book, otherwise, you just aren't going to improve your reading comprehension skills.

Posted by: arrabbiato | December 16, 2009 8:35 PM | Report abuse

Why does it have to be either/or, why can't it be a combination of both?

With due respect, arrabbiato, I think you're nuts. :) I was an early reader too, books and magazines by age 2. I have a brother though who was "not a reader." He had to be pushed and pushed even to struggle through school reading assignments. My parents tried to make him read for at least 30 min a day for years and inevitably it ended in tears and rages.

Guess what he's doing now? Reading and writing political commentary! He reads voraciously (obviously his job requires it, and he enjoys it).

The key was his high school English and history teachers. At some point in tenth grade, something just clicked for him when they led him into books and subjects that he enjoyed enough to keep reading. His skills improved continually.

Not everyone will grow up to enjoy reading and that's fine. But it's certainly possible to improve on the abilities of many children who struggle. Neuroplasticity is an amazing thing.

Posted by: cypherpunks3 | December 16, 2009 8:53 PM | Report abuse

Maybe it's not true, but I've observed that there are "natural readers" and people who do not read, hardly, if ever. It crosses all demographics and is evident in college students who struggle to get a "pass" on their "arts" requirement courses of their curriculum.

Quite similar to the non-science majors who dread the single math course they will have to take.

The truly brilliant will ultimately, prevail over both.

Posted by: dlkimura | December 16, 2009 9:05 PM | Report abuse

"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." The author is so right. I hope that every elected official who even considers cutting library access heeds these words. Public libraries are crucial to our children's education.

Posted by: hopeful10 | December 17, 2009 1:13 PM | Report abuse

I teach a wildly successful high school elective called Reading for Pleasure, and work to find the right book for all my students. Some of my students are those voracious readers, but most are kids who USED to like to read, and then life happened and they're 'too busy.' Many of my kids actively don't like reading, are alliterate -- able to read, but making the choice NOT to read. It takes knowledge of lots of books for different tastes, but I can usually help kids find that first book, and then another and another. Every semester I watch kids who told me at the beginning that they hated reading, slowly, day-by-day turn themselves into readers. Right now I have 25 kids in my class, each reading a book he or she has chosen to read. There are 25 different reading levels, different interest levels, but we're all reading together. I always read with them, and I read the books they recommend to me, so we're able to talk about books. Choice, modeling, support, and genuine interest, can all HELP create a reader.

Posted by: cswisher | December 17, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Why do we accept that some kids are naturally good at sports and others have to work hard to get to first base (literally--my brother once hit a home run and tripped over his own feet before he got to first), or that some kids can sing on key and others have to be taught and a few of us can't sing no matter how hard we try, but we refuse to believe that some kids have a natural talent for and interest in reading or math or whatever and others need to work at it? Of course you need to find a way to teach reluctant readers to read, and teaching them to enjoy reading as another way of acquiring information is fine, but once they have learned to read well, maybe they just are listeners instead readers, or "hand" people instead of "word" people.

I was not allowed to skip first grade, even though I was reading at a third-grade level, because--besides the theory at the time that a child should be kept with his "social peers"--my math skills were not even first grade. (Since I managed to get through high school Algebra II reducing 16/19 every time I saw it, they might as well have advanced me without taking my math skills into account! "Reduce it to WHAT?" my mother asked. Not that it mattered,since anything I reduced it to was wrong.)

Posted by: opinionatedreader | December 21, 2009 8:52 PM | Report abuse

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