Why Becoming a Nation of Readers is Important Now

We’ve all seen students move from reading for pure enjoyment to reading to reach a certain Lexile or to pass a test. All those issues seemed to crowd out any personal reasons for reading. 

Our youngest students begin school eager to become friends with Baby MouseGeorge and Martha, and Dory Fantasamagory, and far too many of our graduating seniors leave having mastered the art of fake reading. Then, when they arrive at college, the amount of reading can be overwhelming.

We’ve been thinking about this issue—this turn away from reading—for much of our professional lives. We have studied and written about students, texts, and teachers. We’ve written about helping underachieving readers and reluctant readers. We’ve wondered if the problem of aliteracy could be solved by giving kids books they wanted to read and making sure they had more time to read. And for decades many teachers have tried doing just that. 

We know that during a student’s experiences in kindergarten through high school, perhaps more so in those elementary years, many teachers encourage a love of reading; yet the overwhelming majority of our high school students do not identify themselves as readers and do not turn to reading for enjoyment. 

Too often, the right book created a compliant one-book-at-a-time reader, that kid who will willingly read the book we promise him he will enjoy. And yet, he doesn’t become the committed reader who searches on his own for the next great book. 

And then we wondered if we were trying to solve the wrong problem. Many teachers have given them the right books to read, and many have given them time to read. Perhaps what was missing was helping students have the right mindset while reading. Once we reframed the problem we began to understand why how kids read matters so very much.

Disrupting Thinking is, at its heart, an exploration of how we help students become the reader who does so much more than decode, recall, or choose the correct answer from a multiple-choice list. This is a responsive reader who is aware of her feelings and thoughts as the text brings them forth.

Disruptions start with the thought that something needs to be better. And with two questions:

1. What needs to change?

2. What assumptions make that change hard?

And while answering those questions, we need to be willing to:

  • Be brave. You aren’t thinking outside the box. You are hunting for a new one.
  • Accept failure. Whatever you’re going to do probably won’t work the first time or the fifteenth.
  • Be open. Disruptions can’t proceed in secret. Tell folks what you’re trying. Document. Put it up online. Be transparent.
  • Be connected. Look around and see who else is trying something similar. Reach out. Talk. Share.
  • Get uncomfortable. Disruptions ought to shake us up as we head into uncharted territory. That’s okay.

To learn more about Disrupting Thinking, Why How We Read Matters, you can purchase the book here.

About the authors of this post: 

Kylene Beers

Kylene Beers is an award-winning educator and co-author, with Robert E. Probst, of Disrupting Thinking (Scholastic). She is a past President of the National Council of Teachers of English, received an NCTE Leadership Award, held a reading research position in the Comer School Development Program at Yale University School of Medicine, and has most recently served as the Senior Reading Advisor to the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Robert E. Probst

Robert E. Probst, Ed.D., is an author and consultant to schools nationally and internationally. He speaks to administrators and teachers on literacy improvement, particularly issues surrounding struggling readers and meeting standards. Bob is Professor Emeritus of English Education at Georgia State University and has served as a research fellow for Florida International University. He is co-author with Kylene Beers of Disrupting Thinking (Scholastic).

5 Prompts for the Teacher-Student Reading Conference: Talk That Matters

By Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst

One principal said to us that focused silent reading looks a lot like “kids simply reading.” When we asked that principal if that was problematic, he responded, “Yes. They are just reading. I think I need them doing something.” 

We pointed out that they were doing something—they were reading. 

“Yes,” he said. “But how do we know what they are thinking?”

The principal is right. With focused silent reading, the kids are all reading. They might all be reading different books, or two or three might have chosen to read the same book. And we won’t know what they are thinking unless we ask them. 

But they will have chosen to read that book. And the fact that they have chosen the book probably indicates, at the very least, that they are willing to think about it as they read. 

Their choice will not have been guided by a reading level, but by interest. And—when needed—it will have been selected with the teacher’s assistance. Choice means choice. 

Asking a student what he wants to read doesn’t begin by asking that student, “What’s your reading level?” A better question might be, “What do you want to think about?”

A focused silent-reading lesson begins with whole-class instruction. The teacher explains what she wants students to focus on as they read. For developing readers, that might be a fix-up strategy to use when they encounter a new word. For any reader, it might be a lesson on how to notice if a character is changing. It might be a lesson on how to read with expression, or when to back up and reread or sketch a picture if a particular passage is confusing. It might be a lesson on the importance of noting text structure or word choice or the author’s use of evidence in building an argument. You teach. You model. You let them practice with you watching. And then you send them off to read what they choose to read. And as they read, you circulate, checking to see if they are applying what you’ve just taught. 

Here are 5 simple prompts teachers can use to quickly assess if the time spent reading that text in class is well spent:

1. Tell me what’s happening now in your book.

2. Tell me about the person telling the story.

3. What’s the most surprising thing that has happened?

4. Are you enjoying the book? Why or why not? If not, is this a good book for you to continue reading?

5. What have you learned so far about the character (or event)?

Then, to figure out if the focus lesson is being applied, the teacher asks the student to show her an example of the application of that lesson. 

Focused silent reading recognizes that the time we have with kids is valuable and so we should spend it wisely. And that begins with reading. Reading for sustained periods of time. Reading what you choose to read. And reading with focus.

To learn more about Disrupting Thinking, Why How We Read Matters, you can purchase the book here.