Reading Changes Lives. Period

If children need to learn vocabulary, they should read.

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If they need to develop fluency, they should read.

If they need to learn about a topic, they should read.

If they need to be a person they are not, they should read.

If they need to write, they should read.

If they need to grow, to stretch, to dream, to laugh, to cry, to find a friend, to vanquish a foe, they should read.

One Sure Way to Create Reluctant Readers

When I finish reading a book, I want to think about it and talk about it, and then I want to start reading my next book. Never have I closed the covers, sighed, and said to myself, “Now, now I want to make a Venn Diagram.”

Yes, I know the value of scaffolds such as Venn Diagrams. They do help us think about how particular information is like (or not like) other information. And at some point, showing students how to make one, as a way to think more deeply about two characters or two books or two issues, is probably a good idea. If I had to write a review of a book and I knew that review was going to be published, I might sketch out a Venn Diagram to make sure I wasn’t missing details regarding how Atticus in Mockingbird varies from Atticus in Watchman. Maybe I’d do that . . .

But honestly, when I finish reading, I don’t rush to draw those overlapping circles. I mull over what I’ve read; I find a friend who has read the same book; we talk about it; we turn in the text to favorite passages; we find where we agree and disagree; we reread sections that meant a lot to us or were confusing; we talk about how this book helps us understand something about ourselves, others around us, or the world. We talk about the questions it has raised. And when that’s all said and done, then I hunt for another book. I don’t finish one book and rush to make a diorama, complete a dialectical journal, or make that Venn Diagram. I didn’t do any of those things one time this summer. Not once. Actually, I didn’t even think about doing those things. I just read more books.

Already, barely hours into this new school year, I’ve seen the assignment that requires all students in one sixth grade class to complete a journal entry each night after reading for thirty minutes. This journal entry must include a short summary, a rating (with a reason) of what was read that night, and a Venn Diagram. All students. Each book. Each night. A summary. A rating. A Venn Diagram. As someone who loves to read, I can’t think of a worse assignment. And if I were someone who had not yet discovered the joy of reading, this would convince me I never wanted to give this thing called reading a try.

For folks who want to read more about what we do to discourage reading and encourage aliteracy, you might want to read and discuss a chapter I wrote for a book titled Into Focus: Understanding and Creating Middle School Readers. The title of the chapter is “Choosing Not to Read: Understanding Why Some Middle Schoolers Just Say No.” It’s a summary of several years of research I did on the topic, and it also references several other studies on aliteracy. You can find a similar chapter in When Kids Can’t Read/What Teachers Can Do.

And to the parent who asked me what my response would be to her sixth-grader’s reading assignment, my response remains: “Just say no.”

Four Guidelines for Summer Reading

In my previous post, I wrote about the research that links enjoyment of reading to reading achievement.  Perhaps one of the most enjoyable times to read is over the summer.  No reports. No tests. No vocabulary lists.  Just getting lost in a book.  Sadly, most kids don’t turn to summer reading–even when it’s a school requirement.  What happens when kids don’t–or do–read over the summer?

1)   Kids who don’t read during summer vacation lose two to three months of reading achievement. (“The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores”)

2)   Elementary students who read 10-15 books at home over the summer gain as much in reading achievement as students who attend summer school. (“Addressing Summer Reading Setback Among Economically Disadvantaged Elementary Students“)

3)   Middle school students who read only five to six books over the summer don’t suffer from that summer reading loss. (“Summer Reading and the Ethnic Achievement Gap“)

Those three important studies are enough for me to wonder how we get kids reading during summer months.  I’m hopeful that you and your colleagues will spend some time over the next couple of weeks talking about this important issue.

In the meantime, here are my four guidelines for summer reading.  These are my thoughts, my parameters, created with my biases, my hopes, my ideas. All of us want to do far more than boost reading achievement with summer reading. We want to boost reading enjoyment.  I hope this short list acts as a springboard for discussion in your own school as you and your colleagues think about how to encourage summer reading that’s mostly about developing a love of reading.

 Read Whichever Books Look Good to You

Summer reading isn’t about reading a certain number of titles from a list someone else has compiled.  It’s not about finishing A Tale of Two Cities before the first day of tenth grade.  It’s not about reading books at a certain Lexile level or AR level.   It’s not about preparing for a test, keeping a dialectical journal to be submitted, or logging a certain number of hours or titles in a journal that will eventually be graded.

Summer reading is about holding a book in your hands.  I suppose that also means an e-reader, but e-readers just don’t come with that great book smell; they don’t have the heft of a paper book or the worn cover you see each time you open it again.  E-readers certainly don’t have the grainy feel of paper against your fingers, so I’ll stick with a book.  Summer reading is about kicking off shoes, staying up much too late, reading all day with no one caring that’s what you’re doing.  It’s about rushing through one to get to the next or lingering as long as you want.  It’s about vicarious experiences that let us become a girl in an attic, a boy in the wilderness, a kite runner in a far-away land.  And that type of reading begins with personal choice.

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Personal choice, though, doesn’t mean we teachers shouldn’t make suggestions.  For your students who do not see themselves as readers, personal choice could become overwhelming.  How do you make a choice when you don’t know genre, don’t know authors, don’t know how to decide what you want? Students want that independence of making their own choice, but our least skilled readers are also the least skilled at making a choice.  Respecting students’ need for independence while simultaneously helping them make a choice is key.

In August 2013, Dick Allington wrote a smart article that reminds us of the problems with recommended- and required-reading book lists.  I agree with his comments.  But suggestions titled “My Favorite Authors” or “The Books I Think My Fifth-Graders Will Love” or “The Titles Last Year’s Ninth Graders Said They Loved the Most” or “OMGosh I Can’t Wait to Read These Books” are quite different from a list of fifty titles with the directions to “Read 10.”

A final word about lists that help students make a choice:  add a short description of each book.  Don’t put Hatchet by Gary Paulsen on your sixth-grade list without adding,  “This book is about a boy near your age who is lost in the wilderness.  It is exciting and will make you wonder if you, too, could survive a plane crash and being alone with only a hatchet to help you survive.”  Such short descriptions become invaluable when late in July one of your students finds the list in the bottom of his backpack.

 Nudge Students Throughout the Summer

Encouraging students to read over the summer is good, but encouraging them throughout the summer is even better.  You can keep interest going in several ways.

1) Do you have a webpage at your school?  Keep it updated throughout the summer with your “I Just Finished and LOVED!” list and make sure your students know you’ll post updates weekly or every other Tuesday.

2) Do you have a Facebook page set up for communicating with parents/students? Some of you will gasp in horror, while others are nodding, “Yep, I do.”  Update that page often with books you’re reading that your students would enjoy and ask students to respond with what they are reading, too.  That specific tag, “Amanda, I can’t wait to read what you have to say about Wonder!” encourages that two-way conversation.  You’ll be surprised at the number of students who aren’t Amanda but still offer their comments as well.

3) Some teachers mail postcards to their students over the summer telling them about the next YA or children’s book they just read.   Some give stamped and addressed postcards to their students so their students can write back to them with books they’ve read.  If you’re reluctant to give out your home address, use the school address and then just stop by there occasionally to check on mail.

Whether you use Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook, your school webpage, or handwritten postcards you mail to students, these gentle nudges about what you’re reading and thoughts for what they might enjoy next help keep them reading all summer.

 Give Kids Permission to Read Easy

In this time of the Common Core State Standards, with the push for rigor, with new Lexile bands that suggest our students should be reading more and more complex texts, with the rush to make sure kindergarteners are college and career ready, let’s remember that rigor resides in our interaction with a text and not in the text itself.  A student lost in a book, measuring himself against the main character, arguing with a decision made, laughing at antics, and holding his breath in the harrowing escapades of the hero, is reading with far more rigor than the student trudging through a book that makes little sense or the book that is filled with unknown vocabulary and syntax that leaves him convinced he does not like to read.  Summer reading – when the teacher is not around – is not the time to assign the difficult texts you want to help students learn to understand next year.

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     Celebrate Reading Series Books

            Nod your head if you like to read.  I suspect all of you did that.  Now think back to your childhood reading and nod your head again if, at some point, you read a series book.  Perhaps you are of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew generation.  Or maybe you’re part of the Babysitter Club decade.  Maybe you grew up with a boy named Harry Potter or you ventured into a land called Narnia.  Whether your series was The Little House on the Prairie, Encyclopedia Brown, Animorphs, Goosebumps, Dear America, Twilight, Hunger Games, Boxcar Children, or The Bobbsey Twins, there is a great chance that if you’re a reader today, then as a child you read a series book.

In fact, the research on this is clear: a critical step in becoming a lifetime reader is, at some point, being a series book reader.  This correlation between series books and lifetime reading was examined as long ago as 1926 in a study of over 36,000 readers.  The conclusion reached, in 1926, when there were few series books, was that these books are an important part of establishing lifetime reading habits.

The benchmark work on this relationship, though, is found in a book titled Voices of Readers: How We Come to Love Books by G. Robert Carlsen and Anne Sherrill.  In their study, Carlsen and Sherrill also found a strong positive correlation between avid reading as an adult and series-book reading as a child or teen. Perhaps it’s the comfort of knowing the characters that makes them so enjoyable.  Perhaps it’s the cliffhangers at the end of each chapter that lure us to read one more page that makes them so enticing.  Perhaps it’s because as we move from one book to the next, we learn more and more about this author’s style and begin to feel as if that next new book is an old friend.  Whatever the reason, we love them.  And because we love them, we get lost in them; we turn page after page; we wonder if Nancy will escape from the hidden attic even though the fact that the next five Nancy Drew books sit beside the bed is a clue she does.  But because we love them, we read page after page after page.  We develop stamina.  We become readers.

And This All Leads to my Hopes for Summer Reading

I hope your students will enjoy summer reading. I hope they will have the experience of losing themselves in a book and at the same time, I hope they will find themselves in a book.  I hope they finish a book they loved with more understanding of themselves, the people around them, and their world.  I hope they discover that in opening up a book, they are opening themselves up to more:  more experiences, more knowledge, more empathy, more what ifs and more could be’s.

 

 

What the Research Says about Enjoyment of Reading and Reading Achievement

Kylene in front of class - Version 2

Yesterday I noticed a post from my friend Teri Lesesne on Facebook and so, like I do with any post from Teri, I stopped to see what she was offering. It was a link to a research study.  “Seriously, Teri,” I thought.  “Research on a Saturday?” But if Teri thought it was worth sharing, then I figured it was worth reading.  And so I opened the link and began reading.

Wow! What a find. It was a smart study that examined the top performing nations on the reading portion of the PISA–the international achievement test–to discover why they are top performing. Specifically, the researchers looked to see if any particular behaviors or attitudes accounted for high performance.  The “most striking” finding was that across all 13 of the top performing countries, the “best predictor” of reading achievement was 1) enjoyment of reading; and 2) the use of reading strategies to summarize a text.

I was not surprised at that first finding since that just makes sense: If you like to do something, then you’re probably more willing to do it often.  And as you do it often, you get better at it.  My colleague Bob Probst and I have been talking about the bi-directional relationship between will and skill for some time and we’ve never seen a teacher who didn’t automatically nod his or her head in agreement at this.

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But the push from the CCSS to push kids into more complex texts has meant in many places teachers are feeling the pressure to always focus on a lesson to be learned and to use a book that might be way beyond students’ “wantability” and certainly “readability” level. I’m hoping this research will remind everyone that we can’t build competence without also focusing on confidence and confidence is about enjoyment, about belief that you’re good at something.  It’s hard to care about being good at something you don’t like.  And of course building enjoyment without building the skills to keep getting better doesn’t make sense.  It truly is a bi-directional relationship: improving will builds skill and that improved skill fosters will.

Maybe this is why Penny Kittle‘s newest text Book Love is so important; it’s why Teri Lesesne’s Making the Match, Donalyn Miller‘s Book Whisperer, and Jeff Wilhelm‘s You Gotta Be the Book are all must-reads.  These books help us nurture that will to read.

The focus on summarizing was a bit surprising.  Then I thought about a strategy I love to teach kids: Somebody Wanted But So. This summarizing strategy has always made an immediate difference in students’ understanding of a text. It’s easy to teach and once learned, kids can use it with just about any text.  If you’ve not taught it to kids, I’ve written about it in When Kids Can’t Read.  In brief, students use those four words to help them think through the events in a text.  Here’s an example of one student’s Somebody Wanted But So statement (3rd column) after reading The Gettysburg Address.

850 Gettsburg rereading by student

 

 

 

 

 

And here’s a photo that shows a class effort to use SWBS to think about Macbeth.

Photo of SWBS in a classroom

 

 

 

 

 

 

As summer heads this way, what if kids went home with “You’ll LOVE These Books” bookmarks and the knowledge of how to easily summarize what they’re reading?  What if throughout the summer students could turn to their school homepage to post their comments (or videos) about what they’ve been reading and there also find more great book lists that their peers suggest?  What if next year as a nation we talked more about why we love to read and less about Lexiles?  What if becoming a nation of readers was about first becoming a nation that valued a child’s interests over a child’s test scores?

Dear policy maker, are you listening?  Want to improve how students score on a reading test? Well, first make sure they love to read.  The rest will be easier.  Not easy.  But certainly easier.