Voice and Choice: ‘The Book Whisperer’ Advises on How to Build a Child’s Ownership of Reading

Written by Gen & Rhonda

Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild, inspired over 1,600 attendees at the 2018 Literacy For All Conference as the keynote speaker on October 29, 2018. She is an award-winning teacher, author, and staff development leader who has years of teaching experience in fourth through sixth grade language arts and social studies. Her works focus on engaging and empowering young readers. We found her keynote speech so inspiring and informative that we are pleased to share the highlights and our thoughts with you, here.

Miller cited a recent study that has shown that there are no more qualified high school graduates now than there were 20 years ago before high stakes testing. What this implies to us, is that adding testing to check the teaching of teachers and the reading abilities of children has not produced a bit of difference in our students as they leave high school. What it has produced, however, may not be so neutral. In fact, it could possibly be having a negative impact on our readers. Miller explains that we now have curriculum that has broken reading down into such discrete skills that we have forgotten to teach how to put them back together and there has become too much of a focus on reading deficits and an oversight of reading lives.

Miller recommends four key elements necessary to build (or re-build!) a child’s ownership of independent reading.

Time

Time to read choice books is important, but not just according to Miller. Studies have shown that two and a half hours per week of independent reading, which includes direction, conferencing, and accountable talk with a teacher, is linked to significant gains in students’ reading performance. Miller points out, “children who aren’t reading in school are unlikely to be reading at home,” and, “students are more likely to read when they see others reading.” Miller suggests that teachers continue to share read alouds in the upper grades.  Read alouds lead to increased vocabulary as well as concept development.  She also cites research that shows a link between students who spend large amounts of time reading for pleasure and higher spelling performance, higher levels of empathy, a higher likeliness to vote and even a longer life-span. Making time for reading in school is worth every minute.

We couldn’t agree more with this idea.

Access

The physical access to books is obvious, but Miller shares that they have to be socially, as well as culturally accessible. She reminds us that books must be mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors to students:

  • A mirror of their own lives and cultures
  • A window to see the lives and cultures of others
  • A sliding glass door to connect us all to each other

Lee and Low Books, a blog dedicated to race, diversity, education, and children’s books,  has created the following resource to help check the diversity of a teacher’s classroom library:  Checklist:  8 Steps to Creating a Diverse Book Collection

Miller shared research that shows students who had access to over 500 books throughout the course of their childhood stayed in school longer than their peers who had access to fewer than 500 books.

Choice

Miller, very wisely, points out that choice is not a free-for-all where learning can get lost because students choose any ol’ thing. She invited us to think about “negotiated choice,” which includes students developing and working toward specific personal and academic reading goals. Miller referenced Jim Knight’s idea of “freedom in a form.” The choices for reading that students make are shaped and molded by expert teaching and modeling. There are negotiated parameters.

“If all the goals are outside the child,

then reading is outside the child.”

~Donalyn Miller

The ultimate goal is for students to leave school as adults who have preferences and opinions about books and who can choose books wisely for themselves. The only way to get there is to provide children with many, many opportunities to practice making choices about what to read under the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher. This will involve false starts and missteps and that is to be expected. It will also involve some home runs. Miller reminded us that these types of experiences will allow students to “value their own decision making and capacity to choose.”

Community

Miller warns us about pulling students for intervention when they are a part of their reading community during independent reading time.  We may unintentionally be sending the message to the student that “reading is fun for the people who can do it.”  Miller points out that interventionists should make it a priority to know how much their children in intervention are reading throughout the school day.

When we provide students with access to books, time to read books of their choice, and create a reading community students will perform better on standardized assessments and, even more importantly, develop a life-long desire to read.  We have the power to share the gift of reading with our students.

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