Transcript from an interview with Donalyn Miller

Leading to reading

Well, my early years of teaching I really became dismayed that the love of reading that I felt and the passion that I felt for it I was unable to spark that in my students. And I really felt a disconnect between my readerly life outside of school and what reading looked like for my students in school. And I began to ask myself a lot of questions about why should reading look differently at school than it does out in the world.

And I believe that we put a lot of conditions and expectations and requirements in place attached to reading for children at school that may in fact be leading them away from reading and not towards it. And so I spent many years reading, you know, thought leaders in reading and writing workshop like Nancie Atwell, Janet Allen, Lucy Calkins and really trying to rethink some of my teaching practices in ways that would lead my students toward a lifelong reading habits.

And a lot of that involved getting rid of some things that are more traditional tried and true kinds of practices. So, things like reading logs, dioramas, book reports, reading-related activities that actually crowd out a lot of reading in the classroom. And over the years I saw growth with my students. They read a lot. They read on average over the past decade 56 books a child, and that’s whether I taught fourth grade or fifth grade or sixth grade.

Beginnings of the Book Whisperer

And my principal had been connected with a woman, Elizabeth Rich, who was working for Ed Week teacher magazine. And she was in charge of a column called “Ask the Mentor.” And she was always scrounging for mentors for that column. I guess no one wanted to be a mentor. I don’t know. I think they were daunted by the possibilities of it. And so Elizabeth called my principal, Ron, and said do you have any teachers that you think could write this column for us? It’s just one column. They answer some questions. We send the questions to them. They respond back.

And Ron said I have one. So, Elizabeth called me and she said let me get this right. Your students read 40, 50 books a year without any rewards or incentives? And I said isn’t reading its own reward? And she said you’re going to be a tough sell for the column, Donalyn. You don’t have a PhD. You’ve never written a book, but I’ll just take it to the editorial board and see what they say.

Well, I guess they were desperate because they took me. So, I remember telling my husband I don’t know the first thing about writing a column. He said just roll with it. Just go with it. You’ll never get this chance again. The column was supposed to be one column. It turned into three columns. They were three of the most popular columns Teacher Magazine had that year. Sadly, the most popular column that year was why teachers leave the profession. So, I was happy to be next on the list.

And before I finished the run of the column they invited me to blog for them. I didn’t know the first thing about blogging. I started calling the blog The Book Whisperer. Sometimes now I think the name is a little cheesy, but it’s sticky. People remember it. So, I wrote the column. And then a couple of publishers – well, I wrote the blog. A couple of publishers contacted me and asked me if I would write a book.

And I remember thinking I don’t know the first thing about writing a book. And the publisher I eventually chose was Jossey-Bass for The Book Whisperer. And I remember they flew out to Dallas and invited my husband and I to go out to dinner at one of the fanciest restaurants in Dallas. And we’re driving over there and my husband – I told my husband, I said I’m just going to say no. I don’t know the first thing about writing a book. And he said tell them after dinner because he’s in health care and I’m a teacher and we don’t get to eat in fancy restaurants.

By the end of that dinner they had convinced me that they cared about my ideas, that they really were interested in sending those ideas out into the world on how to get kids to read.

We’re all on the same highway

Well, Peter Johnston, who is a reading researcher who is the author of Choice Words and Opening Minds, he talks about how the way we talk to kids becomes part of the narrative that they write about themselves. Students have a lot of their self‑esteem tied up in reading either positively or negatively, and I think we have to be very mindful that when we call students words like struggling, there’s not a lot of hope in that term.

For me, striving reader, developing reader is a better fit in reality, and there’s more hope in that term. We’re all on the same highway. We just might be at different mile markers as readers, but we all can get to that destination with effort, with passion, with determination. And I want my students to see that it is possible for them. And when we start labeling students terms like struggling, parents become dismayed, teachers view that child differently, and the students – most important, the students begin to view themselves as someone who may not be able to do it, may not be able to become a reader.

The underground reader

An underground reader is really someone who I imagine is much like I was when I was a student. I was a good student. I was a good student in English class, but our teacher would teach The Scarlet Letter for two months. I would read the book in, you know, a week or two and then I would spend the rest of the unit pulling my James Michener novel out of my desk and reading it. I wasn’t a disruption, and the teacher knew I knew the material so she would just let me.

And there was that growing disconnect between a reading life at school and a reading life at home. And I think with those particular students we have to be mindful that many of them may become readers in spite of school.

Choice, empowerment, respect

Well, choice, empowerment, respect for kids, meeting them where they are as readers. We have to understand that learners in general, no matter their abilities often seek the same things. We want autonomy. We want empowerment. Brian Cambourne, researcher in Australia who spent his career looking at engagement theory says that learners who lose choices become disempowered.

And we need choices that are meaningful choices that are relevant to the children. So, a student who is a developing reader may be reading several years below grade level, but that doesn’t mean that their access to text, their access to conversations should be limited to low-level guided readers and talking with the teacher at the small group table. They need meaningful reasons to become literate and have those opportunities to connect with other readers in the classroom to have rich, meaningful, authentic texts to read.

Our students who are also avid readers, underground readers who may feel a disconnect between school and their real reading lives need to – we need to value that and recognize that these are students who already have many of the literacy skills we are trying to instill in all of our students and that they need an opportunity to see how far they can go to be enriched, to be stretched, and to not be held back because they’re defined in a box of what the school requirements might look like for reading.

Matching books to kids

Well, we need to make sure that we are offering students options in what they read, interest surveys where we’re trying to connect them with books that match their personal interest. When we’re working with students on either end of the grade level spectrum, we need to make sure we have a diversity of text to offer them. Often when I go into classrooms and look at classroom libraries, I’ll see a lot of text for that grade level reader because those are the expectations for the classroom.

And there are token few texts for students who are reading below grade level or who may be acquiring English and a token few texts for students who are reading above grade level. With students who are advanced readers, precocious readers, we have to be mindful too that often where their true reading level is may not match their emotional age, and we have to look at content then to make sure the content is appropriate, you know.

Experts in gifted education recommend that students who are advanced readers read fiction at their emotional age and non-fiction at their true reading level. We have to do a better job of offering text that our students both can read and that they’re both interested in reading. And it’s the same at home with parents to make sure that while we may have aspirations that our child is reading at grade level, buying books and putting them in the home that are at those grade level text only cause struggle if the child can’t actually read them, and they won’t improve as readers.

And parents are, of course, the first line when working with students who are gifted and guiding them towards choices that are appropriate for their age but also help them follow a passion or an interest.

The limits of Lexile

If parents are hyper focused on Lexile, we have to recognize first that as educators a teacher made them that way. While the American Academy of Pediatricians has now finally made a formal statement about the importance of early childhood literacy, I don’t know a single obstetrician that hands a newborn baby to a parent and says, “His Lexile is zero. We would like to see that improve.” That happens when children start school. So, we have to recognize parents care about that because we have made them care.

The other piece that we need to be mindful of as educators is that Lexile is a framework that was originally designed to help librarians and teachers select collection materials and match kids with books. It was never meant to be a label for children to wear or a limit on their reading lives. There’s a place for leveling when we’re looking at emergent readers, guided reading, but for independent reading we need to understand that readers out in the world outside of school do not read at the optimum edge of their reading competence at all times.

The driver for independent reading out in the world – and I believe school is the real world too, but out in the world where they’re freed from school limitations on reading, we read based on interest, on need, on topic. If kids only know how to pick a book based on whether it has a blue dot on the spine, they are not becoming independent readers. They are crippled. Grandma’s bookshelf, the public library, the local book store, not leveled. Kids need to learn tools.

Now, when we look at Lexile as a measure of text complexity, we have to think critically about that. When we reduce Lexile and text complexity down to a number, we take something very complex and attempt to simplify it. I just listened to Stephanie Harvey who’s an expert in comprehension instruction talk just last weekend at a conference, and she said what makes a text complex isn’t what’s on the page; it’s what’s not on the page. The inferences, the connections, and the background knowledge that a reader brings to the text is what truly makes it complex, not how long the sentences are.

Open a World of Possible

The Open a World of Possible campaign brings together literacy leaders, children’s authors, thought leaders in literacy instruction to come together and really celebrate the power that reading has had in their lives and the power that they have seen reading have in the lives of children. And so there are a rich body of resources available through Open a World of Possible. They have videos to show testimonials from students, librarians, and teachers, parents about the importance of reading in children’s lives.

They’ve had some celebrities. For example, they did a webcast with Usher and promoted that out. They also have a very powerful research brief that’s available that kind of gathers together the research relevant to literacy instruction. So, it’s a nice document for educators to be able to look at and share and administrators. And they also have essays from hundreds of thought leaders about reading that can be downloaded and shared with parents, with – there’s even some – Kwame Alexander, the children’s poet has a wonderful poem that could be shared with children in the classroom.

And the goal of that campaign is really to celebrate reading, to evangelize about the importance of reading, and share resources that can help schools and parents make reading meaningful to kids.

Thank you Miss Potter

I was invited to participate in the Open a World of Possible essay anthology. And so I really shared – I wanted to share a story I hadn’t shared before. And it was a story that this summer I had recently gone back to my elementary school to do some professional development. And walking around that library, it really brought back memories of Miss Potter, the librarian that I had at that school.

And when I was a third-grader, I was a precocious reader, but I was also kind of bossy and had my own opinions about reading. That clearly hasn’t gone away into my adult life. But we had SRA cards. My third-grade teacher tested us, put us in a box, put us in the box. Many of us remember that box. And we read SRA cards. And I hated those cards. They were so boring.

But I wanted to be an achiever also so I burned through those cards. Well, I finished them around Christmastime, the whole box, and my teacher would not let me move on to the next grade-level box because she said, “What will you do next year?” So, she asked me to tutor other children on SRA cards. Now, this was back in the ’70s where teachers would leave the classroom to go who knows where and leave children.

So, she came back from the classroom one day – from being out of the classroom, and I was standing at the front of the classroom with the chalk in my hand giving out answers to the SRA cards. She grabbed me by the upper arm and moved me quickly down to the office where I had never been. So, I was horrified. My mother had to come to the school, and I just knew that it was all going to come down on me after that.

So, my mom – I was crying so much my mom just decided to take me home. And we got in the car in the parking lot and she said, “Did you know that your teacher was standing there for three or four minutes before you saw her? She said you gave out about 10 answers.” And I said, “Mom, I promise you the other kids don’t mind that I gave out those answers.” And I said, “What’s going to happen to me?” And she said, “Well, I wanted them to move you to the fourth‑grade reading class, but they said no. So, what you’ll be doing during reading time now, during SRA time now is going down to the library to help Miss Potter.”

Miss Potter was our librarian, and I knew her from our weekly library visits, but I wouldn’t say I really had bonded with her at that time. And when I came down to be her library assistant, I thought I would just be shelving books, but she really took me in hand. And she would ask me about the things that I was interested in. And I was crazy for horses back then. And she said, “Horses? You like horses? Have you met Marguerite Henry?”

And she would take me to the Marguerite Henry section of the library, and I read every horse book, King of the Wind, Misty of Chincoteague. It’s still on my bucket list to go to that island and see those mustangs. And when I finished those books, she would talk to me about them, what I learned from the books, what interested me about them, and then she would start me on another path. She really was in my elementary years probably the best reading teacher I had for me.

But what she showed me was that reading wasn’t just a skill, it wasn’t just something that I did because I enjoyed it, but that reading was something that was powerful and that I could have power over my own education if I read. And that really changed reading for me at that time. It probably saved me as a reader.

No more reading logs

Well, when I tell people that I’ve gotten rid of reading logs in my classroom, they’re often horrified because they think I got rid of something that worked. We all know students who can log pages and minutes forever and never actually finish a book. The first fall I taught, I assigned reading logs because everyone in my department did. And my colleagues really convinced me that if I didn’t tie some sort of grade to every piece of reading that the children were asked to do, they wouldn’t do it, and I believed them.

And it was wrong. That first fall as I’m sitting there at my desk every Friday looking through the reading logs that I received and marking off the reading logs I did not receive, I could see clearly that there were some students that I never got a reading log from. And they were often my students who struggled the most with reading or also lacked home support. So, what was I really assessing there?

Even the students who did turn in their reading logs, I would get them filled out Monday through Friday in the same color ink, in the same parent handwriting, in the same slant. So, what was I really assessing there? Parents’ ability to find a pen in the car on Friday mornings. Those logs were no evidence that any reading really took place. The only thing a reading log is evidence of is the parent and child’s ability to fill out the reading log.

And so we don’t really have control over how much students are reading at home. All we can have is influence there. So, where is our effort best spent; chasing kids down the hallway for the reading log again or making sure that they’re engaged with the reading choices that we offer them at school because we know from several studies that students who are more engaged with reading at school are more likely to read at home.

If you’re reading The Hunger Games and you’re in the woods with Katniss and Rue, you’re not waiting until second period English class tomorrow to find out what happens. That’s something where we have some influence. That reading log is not.

Graphic novels and picture books for all ages

Parents and teachers often express concern about students reading graphic novels and picture books at upper grades. What we have to remember is that picture books and graphic novels are formats of storytelling. They are not a designation for an age of reader. Picture books are often very complex and very sophisticated and often beyond the comprehension ability of a first-grader or a second-grader without some support.

And they can often be a great way to build background knowledge, to teach a lesson in language arts class, a great way to share a story with parents at home. And when we’re looking at graphic novels, the research shows that graphic novels can actually be a gate for many kids into more rigorous reading.

Graphic novels present a reading challenge for them because they’re not used to incorporating the illustrations into the text as they read as they get older. And so it can actually prove to be a way to push them as a reader to try a type of reading that is ubiquitous, popular, and yet they lack confidence in being able to read. Picture books and graphic novels are great ways to introduce kids to wonderful authors, storytelling, illustrators, and they certainly have relevance in upper grade classrooms and in homes with older children.

Visual literacy and reading widely

If our goal with children is to help them move towards a readerly life where they’re capable and confident in being able to read just about anything we put in front of them, then we have to look at the reality of what types of texts and literacy is expected out in the world. Visuals are an important part of that literacy, which means being able to read diagrams, charts, graphs, maps, photographs, and apply those same critical thinking skills as a reader to reading those visuals as we would want students and children to be able to apply in texts. That’s terrible.

When we begin to limit children’s access to certain types of texts such as highly visual informational texts, websites, reading online, graphic novels, picture books, we send an implicit message to children that some reading is more valuable than others and some readers are more valued than others.

If we really want children to be able to read just about anything, they need to read widely and they need support from more knowing others like parents and teachers in how to mediate those texts and understand them. That requires help. That requires support. We can’t just pretend that they won’t ever need to read those things.

With my own students I often use sports terms because they get the analogy there. If we only read one type of text, then we may become proficient readers in that type of text. But in order to be good all‑around readers, we have to read a little bit of everything. It’s as if you’re learning how to play basketball and you want to work on your jump shot. If you only practice your jump shot, you’ll probably have a great jump shot, but in order to be a good all‑around basketball player you have to learn how to dribble, how to pass, how to guard, how to develop teamwork skills, and how to work on your jump shot.

If we want kids to be truly literate and have strong literacy skills, they need to read a little bit of everything. And that includes the visual literacy pieces that are offered through illustrations, text features, and highly visual informational text, reading online, looking at video. They need to learn that critical literacy piece in all the ways we can define it.

The 40-book challenge

Well, the original genesis for the 40-book challenge, which I talk about in The Book Whisperer, was that I wanted my students to really have a high bar for their reading. That number didn’t come up randomly. It really came from what was my total influence on the reading lives of my students. Forty weeks. Thirty-six weeks of school and four weeks of school vacation.

It’s about a book a week. Now, that’s a high bar, but if I set a lower bar, if I expected my students to only read 10 books in a school year, they might read a lot less than 10 and they might not start until April. So, 40 books meant let’s get started, let’s get going. We have a high bar. It does cause a little bit of anxiety in children and their parents at the beginning of the year, but once we get into the groove of it, parents and children are really surprised about how much reading they can accomplish.

It’s also not a contest or a competition. The students are not competing for each other. There are no award ceremonies at the end of the year, no celebrations, no pizza parties over who met the 40‑book challenge. The students who – and no punitive grading. So, students who read 19 books in a year can be just as successful in language arts class as the students who read 66. The main goal of that challenge is to expose students to a wide range of literature, encourage them to try a little bit of everything so they can become strong, capable readers of just about any text.

But I also want my students to try a little bit of everything in the hopes that they find the one thing, the one thing that really resonates with them as a reader that they might not have found on their own without that challenge to dip their toes in and try something new like poetry or science fiction or non‑fiction texts.

I have seen over the years since The Book Whisperer has come out a lot of corruptions of that idea in a way that I think is actually more harmful for children than it is helpful or supportive. Things like incentivizing the 40-book challenge, creating a competition, or creating a situation where students who might read less than 40 books receive lower grades in language arts class than children who might read more.

And that really does not value those true tenets that I originally intended and created in the challenge in the first place. It has to be about meeting children where they are, about really seeing them as readers, and moving them along a path towards lifelong reading that values their experiences, their choices, and their unique needs. It’s not about putting a number onto something and using that as a marker of reading accomplishment or ability.

Peer power

I just spoke with a group of second, third, fourth, and fifth-graders yesterday, about 300 students in the gym, and we were talking about book recommendations and giving each other book recommendations. And I asked the whole group, “Who’s the best person to give a book recommendation to a third-grader?” And the kids talked with each other, and I heard things like mom, dad, my teacher, my librarian. And one little girl said, “Another third-grader.”

Children need a community of support that values independent reading. Often their peer group does more to hinder that development than support it. But we know that the power of the peer can really be utilized in a way that supports children as readers. While I might give great book recommendations to my students or parents may have great book recommendations for their children, in order to build a reading community of their own apart from a parent or an adult driving that for children, they need to develop connections to their peers around reading.

The habits of lifelong readers

If our true goal is leading children towards literate lives, we have to look at how we can get them there in ways that are meaningful and value the habits of lifelong readers. The good news is that the suggestions that we can make for parents at home, for librarians, and for teachers are sticky. They’re similar. Providing kids access to books at home, in the library, and at school; setting aside time for children to read at home and at school; putting forth strong reading role models for children at home and at school; and offering children choices in what they read that help them negotiate academic goals and personal goals for reading, those are recommendations that we can use everywhere, and we know they work.

We just sometimes have to get out of the way and allow children to really develop that reading identity without a lot of strings attached.

Summer reading and access to books

It’s important for children to continue to read over the summer. We know that often looking at testing information, students often score lower on tests of reading in the fall than they scored the previous spring. That’s been attributed to a phenomenon called summer slump or summer slide where students don’t read over the summer and actually lose ground in what they’ve learned as readers during the school year.

The good news is that continuing to read even just a few books over the summer can help students maintain their reading levels and also continue their practice and engagement with reading. We must be mindful as parents and teachers that book access is key in keeping kids reading over the summer. So, some of the things that we could do, invite the public library to the school shortly before school comes out for a library card sign-up event.

It also gives children’s librarians at the public library an opportunity to share some of the great reading programs that they often hold for children over the summer and increase students’ access to having a library card. Schools can also look at opening the school library for certain days over the summer so that kids can continue to get books from the school. And teachers can certainly look at checking out books from classroom libraries and loaning them out over the summer.

The books are just sitting there lonely without anyone to read them. Wouldn’t it be great if kids were able to take them home? Some schools have also developed book drives where donations of books from the local community are brought in right before school ends for the school year and then those books are distributed back out to children who may not have books at home.

We need diverse books because …

We need diverse books because children should be able to see themselves and their world in the books that they read.

"There is no substitute for books in the life of a child." — May Ellen Chase