The Book Whisperer

Apr 22, 2013
If you’re at a reading conference, why not speak with someone called the Book Whisperer? I caught up with Donalyn Miller, author ofThe Book Whisperer and the forthcoming Reading in the Wild, at the IRA convention this weekend in San Antonio. Here are excerpts from our conversation. Q. How can we encourage children to read more? A. One of the best ways is to be reading role models for kids. They need to see people reading, including parents. We can tell kids to read a lot, but if they don’t see others reading, they don’t read as much. Q. How do we engage parents in this effort? A. I often say that if we want children to have reading role models, we need to graduate some. A lot of parents were in the same educational system that their children now sit in. They didn’t learn how to love to read after 12 years of formal schooling, and yet we expect them to get it when they become parents. One thing we can do is start graduating kids from school as readers so that they don’t become parents who are disengaged. As for parents right now, my concern is that they don’t necessarily feel the urgency about reading. Parents understand when their fourth grader doesn’t get multiplication, that it’s a big deal. But they don’t always get that reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid and The Lightning Thief helps their children academically. Q. What strategies do you use with struggling readers? A. The more struggling readers you have in a classroom, the more you should read aloud. We know, for example, that kids from low socioeconomic circumstances walk into kindergarten about a year behind their middle-income peers. During the school year, they make about the same level of gains because they’re with teachers in a structured setting, getting quality instruction. But then we have summer learning loss. Kids from middle-income homes go to camp, and they have books at home, while kids in low socioeconomic circumstances often decline two to three months. That loss is cumulative, so the gap never goes away. Book access is huge. We also need to provide kids positive literacy experiences through read-alouds and reading that’s maybe considered light but offers a gateway to more rigorous reading. Those are the things that I really focus on. Q. Can you tell us why you emphasize reading communities? A. We’re living in a society that doesn’t necessarily value reading. My own students tell me that their parents say, “You should put that book down. You’re reading too much. Go outside and play.” It’s pervasive throughout the culture. Illiteracy is also outside of our social norm. We want people to be literate enough. But once you cross over into avid readership, you’re seen as an outlier. You’re an intellectual snob, you’re a bookworm, you’re socially stunted. Kids need to be in communities where reading is valued. Q. How does the prevalence of technology affect reading habits among young people? A. I have students who are avid video gamers and like to watch TV, but they also like to read. I don’t think it has to be either-or. It’s about balance and parents setting limits. I’m not a parenting expert, but I am a parent. I see what works in my own home and advise the parents of my students. I ask how much screen time children have. Is reading time also built into those days? Or are kids spending eight hours on a Saturday playing video games? Some of them are, but not all of them. We know from research that the more engaged kids are with the books they’re reading, the more time they’ll spend reading them. I often go back to that engagement piece. I can give you a stack of books, but if they’re all books you can’t read, or books you don’t want to read, you won’t read them. Kids need to see that the same kind of excitement, adventure, joy and mystery that they get out of video games, TV shows, and movies can be in books too. Q. Can you tell us about your new book? A. It’s called Reading in the Wild, and it will be out this fall. We looked at the habits of lifelong readers and how we could teach those habits to kids. From the research, we’ve designed lessons, assessment pieces, and readers’ notebook sheets. We’re teaching kids how to live like readers. Q. What do you think about the new ELA Standards for the Common Core? A. I’ve taught in Texas for my entire career. We’ve always had standards and standardized testing. So teaching to standards is nothing new to me. But that is only one piece of instruction. No matter what standards we implement, or how we test them, the children who read the most are always going to outperform those who read the least.