When you think about reading, what do you visualize? I imagine traveling around the world while curled up in my armchair. I see books stacked around my house. I picture my husband, my daughters, my granddaughters, and my friends—all readers who suggest titles, share books, and talk about what they are reading. For me, reading is part of my daily life—nothing rare or remarkable.
As a teacher, I share my love of reading with my students and try to inspire them to read more. My upper elementary and middle school students read 30, 40, 50, or more books a year, without incentives or extrinsic rewards. No matter their past reading experiences, all of my students read more and report greater motivation and interest in reading. One student, Ashley, told me, “It is impossible to be a nonreader in your class, Mrs. Miller.” In a classroom where reading weaves through everything we do, I know that Ashley is right.
Many of my students develop a love for reading during one year in the classroom. Former students and their families report that they are still enthusiastic readers.
But this is not universally true. I've run into former students who admit they aren’t reading much anymore. What happens? Why do these students, who read avidly in my class, lose their reading motivation? They often tell me they don’t have time to read, they have too much homework and too many activities, or they “can’t find anything good to read.”
In the past, I grew irritated with their English teachers. How did these teachers squash my students’ independent reading engagement? Why weren’t they promoting a love of reading?
I have evolved in my understanding of lifelong reading habits and a teacher’s role in fostering their development. If my students had internalized the behaviors of lifelong readers, they wouldn’t need a teacher to orchestrate their reading lives. While students benefited from the optimal reading environment in my classroom, they lacked the skills to maintain independent reading habits. It is necessary to model, explicitly teach, and reflect on students’ development of lifelong, avid—or, as I call them, “wild”—reading behaviors to ensure that they remain motivated, engaged readers. My colleague Susan Kelley and I surveyed 900 adults and found an array of characteristics that define people’s reading lives. Here are five habits of “wild readers” that translate well into classroom practice.
1 | Dedicate time to reading
Wild readers spend substantial time reading in spite of their hectic lives. They capitalize on the moments in their days when they are bored or waiting, and rack up significant reading time by stealing it.
• Books to Go: Encourage students to carry a book with them everywhere so that they have something to read when they finish assignments, wait for the bus, or ride to soccer practice.
• Reading Itinerary: Have students keep a reading itinerary for one week, noting the places in your classroom and school where they read and for what length of time. This will help students recognize their preferences about where and when they read, as well as note the obstacles that prevent them from reading.
2 | Successfully self-select
Wild readers are confident when selecting books to read, and they have the experience and skills to successfully choose books that meet their interests, needs, and reading abilities.
• Preview Stacks: Collect four or five books at a student’s reading level that match her interests and invite her to select from these.
• Selection Reflections: Have students reflect on their book selections. Create forms with questions that include the following:
â How did you find out about the books that you like to read?
â When you see a book, how do you decide whether you want to read it?
â Do you ever abandon a book? Why or why not?
3 | Share books with others
Wild readers enjoy talking about books almost as much as reading them. Reading communities provide a group of other readers who support us. As literacy expert Stephen Krashen reminds us, “Children read more when they see other people reading.”
• Seating Preferences: Foster reading relationships by seating students with common reading interests at the same table. They can suggest titles to one another for additional reading and participate in book discussions.
• Reading Graffiti: Stretch a sheet of butcher paper across a wall. Invite students to write the title of a book and a memorable quote from it. I scrawled The Hunger Games’ catchphrase, “May the odds be ever in your favor!” on our board. Every line serves as a book endorsement.
4 | Have reading plans
You can spot wild readers from a mile away. They’re usually the first to get their hands on the new Rick Riordan or Suzanne Collins and they can’t wait to fill out the latest book order form at school. Wild readers always plan to read beyond their current book. They anticipate new books by favorite authors or the next installment in a beloved series. Reading is habitual for them, not a casual, once-in-awhile pursuit.
• Super Series: Promote series, which become a reading plan for students who struggle to maintain reading momentum and motivation. Students who read series develop confidence and increased comprehension with each subsequent book because they build background knowledge as
• Set a Challenge: Chances are that your students are up for a challenge. Have them set up a plan to push themselves—perhaps by reading a certain number of Newbery-winning titles or taking part in a Book-a-Day Challenge over a break.
5 | Validate and expand
Yes, children need to read widely and experience a range of texts as part of their literacy education. But wild readers express strong preferences in the books they like—gravitating toward specific genres, writing styles, topics, and authors. Validate their choices while pushing the envelope.
• Reading Preferences: Encourage students to try new books by reading across all genres. Show students connections between texts of different genres like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793 and Jim Murphy’s An American Plague, or The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan and D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.
• Genre Boost: Take a look at the genres that students avoid. Many of my students report nonfiction as their least favorite category. Select high-quality nonfiction to share during book talks or to serve as mentor texts. Try pairing fiction texts with nonfiction texts on the same topic.
Students need encouragement and practice to develop the habits of wild readers. Every day, I ask, “What did I teach my students about reading that they can use with other texts? What did I show my students about reading that they can use outside of school?” We must never lose sight of our goal—fostering a lifelong love of reading, which lasts long after school ends.
Meet the Super Teacher
Donalyn Miller: Known as “The Book Whisperer,” Miller is the coauthor of Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits. She teaches language arts and social studies at Peterson Elementary in Fort Worth, Texas.