Donalyn’s Latest Book to Look at Lifelong Readers in Natural Habitats

Donalyn Miller – accomplished teacher, author, blogger, and avid reader – has spent years applying the latest literacy research in her sixth-grade classroom in Keller, Texas. But now Donalyn is doing a little research of her own in preparation for her latest book, Reading in the Wild, for which she has been studying the habits of lifelong readers in the hopes of applying what she learns to students.

“We give a lot of lip service to the idea that we’re creating lifelong readers in the classroom, but we aren’t being intentional about it,” says Donalyn, whose own students read 50 to 60 books a year each. “Where’s the list of habits we’re trying to create? How are we instilling them in kids?”

As Donalyn initially asked herself these questions in terms of creating a culture of reading, she followed them up with a third: “Why don’t we find some adults who are avid readers and ask them what their habits are?” The survey she then created solicited 948 responses from readers all over the world, through which she created some generalizations, as well as designed lessons and assessment instruments.

One thing from Donalyn’s research that surprised her was the prominence reading takes in the lives of fellow avid readers, who read as many as 20 hours a week. “I read that much, but it doesn’t occur to me that other people out there are reading that much as well. These people have families and children, but they’re remarkably good at stealing time to read.”

The secret, according to Donalyn, is that lifelong readers keep a book with them at all times, reading in whatever 15-minute blocks they can find – in waiting rooms, on lunch breaks, at bedtime. Parents and teachers need to impart the importance of stealing reading time to children, Donalyn insists.

“Having a book with you becomes a survival tool for you. My husband calls them ‘reading emergencies.’ It helps kids grab those stolen moments,” the author shares. “It was interesting to me how the adults learned how to cram that time into their lives. Readers make plans.”

Planning your reading is what separates committed readers from binge readers, who fill in free time with whatever reading they can fit in, according to Donalyn. Avid readers “can tell you what books they’re reading right now, and they’ll also tell you what books they want to read next. Readers have an idea of what’s on their radar,” she says.

A second characteristic that Donalyn has unearthed among lifelong readers is a sense of community, which debunks the myth of reading as a solitary act. On the contrary, “what we’ve found is that reading really is a social activity. Readers have a community, even if that community is one other person who could talk to him about reading, who could make a book recommendation, who is in a book club,” Donalyn shares.

“It wasn’t necessarily that they were always reading the same thing,” she continues. “But if they were, that shared reading helped both people have deeper understanding of the reading.”

That finding is true in the life of Donalyn, who belongs to a book club for adults. Sometimes she must read books she doesn’t necessarily like, “but there are many times after a meeting when I walk away with a greater appreciation of a book because of what it means to other people. We can apply that to children too,” she says.

According to her research, testimonials from peers carry more weight than any other form of book promotion, making children who lack a reading community vulnerable. “If I’m the only person in my student’s life from whom they can get a book recommendation and it’s April, and they’re leaving me in May, that’s not good,” she insists.

One way Donalyn tries to create a sense of community among her students is by seating children who share an appreciation of certain genres at the same table. “I must help build relationships among my students as readers so I’m building a community that’s sustainable from year to year,” Donalyn says. “If I have two kids who like fantasy, why not put them at a table together? Or you may have a student who likes fantasy but hasn’t read it widely. Why not put him at a table with other fantasy lovers?” Donalyn’s students also share their favorite reads through an online school community.

For Donalyn, it’s all about creating a culture of literacy. “People ask me what I do with the kids in my classroom who aren’t reading. But they don’t get it,” she says. “When you have a classroom that’s built around literacy, students want to be a part of that. You raise the standard for everyone, and they’re all going to come up as they become a part of that culture.”

Balancing her hectic schedule of a full-time job, a family, appearances (including keynote presentations at three Scholastic Book Fairs Reading Summits for Educational Leaders), blogging, and maintaining her own reading schedule, Donalyn hopes to see Reading in the Wild hit the shelves in spring 2013. “How about if we say it will come out about six months after I finish it?” she laughs.

Donalyn Miller is the author of The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and writes The Book Whisperer blog for Education Week Teacher. Her articles about teaching reading and education policy have appeared in such publications as Educational Leadership and The Washington Post. To book a presentation with Donalyn, click here.
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