Why we must read literature . . .

Literature offers our students the chance to think not only about the characters they meet in the pages of the books, but also about their own lives. At a time when our own lives are
bumping up against those of people across the globe, at a time when divisive language can be heard in almost any venue, when a superintendent could deem passing a test to be the most important goal of the year, when a boy would feel such despair from his roommate’s actions that jumping off a bridge is his salvation, when almost daily more gunshots have been fired and more lives have been lost, then I fear that the standards we have set for ourselves as a nation are far too low—common standards,

We want better for our schools, far better for our students. We want students considering situations from another point of view, experiencing things they have never before
experienced; we want them developing empathy. We want them reading literature.

Literature addresses the interesting and eternal questions about human experience. It asks readers to think about what they value, what they reject, what they accept, and what they would fight for. It takes the kid who has always fit in and lets him, lets her, at least for a while be the outsider. And it helps that kid who feels hopeless, find hope.

It takes the white boy and lets him be a young black girl walking along a dusty road in the early 20th century. It lets us hide in an attic because we are Jewish or be for a moment
the gay kid or deaf kid or orphaned kid or …well, whatever we are not, literature lets us become. We become a part of the characters’ lives and through their lives learn more of our own.

Reading literature, as quaint as it might seem, is a needed skill in this 21st-century world.

The Whole-Class Novel: To Read Together or Not?

Recently, a post on the Notice and Note Book Club page generated lots of responses. This post asked for articles that would help support the position that teaching whole-class novels does not help students become better readers.

I was pleased to see several folks in this group jump in and mention Nancie Atwell’s strong commitment to choice reading; others mentioned the smart work from Donalyn Miller who also supports choice reading. A few mentioned the very important book Readicide by Kelly Gallagher. Obviously, some teachers are doing a lot of reading on this topic and have given it much thought.

There really isn’t a clear-cut, gold-standard answer because so many things interfere in the research that might answer this question. Primarily, answering this question means we all share the same vision of what it means to be a better reader. For some, “better” means more engaged. For others, it means one is able to read at a higher Lexile level. For even others, it means one is better able to support thoughts with evidence from the text. “Better” is in the eye of the beholder. So, the research study that compares how kids respond to interest surveys about reading when reading a whole-group novel versus kids reading self-selected books yields different findings than kids who are tested on something such as vocabulary development.

The study that I turn to over and over again was done a LONG time ago: the Coryell study. (This study as well as a more recent replication of this study can be accessed here.) At first glance, it appears that the Coryell study managed to look at both interest and comprehension. But what it was really measuring was AMOUNT of time spent reading a single book. It found that students who read one book for six weeks didn’t score any better on a comprehension test over that book than students who read that same book in a shorter amount of time and then went on to read other books that they chose. What did matter, though, was when asked about attitudes toward reading, kids who read more books in that six weeks had more positive attitudes toward reading than kids who only read one book. That’s worth remembering: intensive study of a single book negatively affected reading attitudes while extensive reading of many books positively affected reading attitudes. Both types of reading yielded similar scores on the same comprehension test.

Now, did the kids who only read one book have more negative attitudes toward reading because they didn’t like the book the teacher chose or didn’t like having to read the same book for so long or were just frustrated at not getting to choose which book they read together? We really don’t know. The best we can say is that the intensive reading of a single book did not result in a significantly higher score on a comprehension test over that one book than when compared with kids who read that same book in a shorter amount of time. It did, however, lower their attitudes toward reading. That’s critical.

So, where does this leave Bob (Probst) and me? We – as we have stated in Notice and Note and Reading Nonfiction – believe there is room for both whole class reading AND choice reading. We think the problem isn’t that we all read the same book; it’s that we expect kids to read it the same way. We all must be on chapter two at the same time; answer the same questions; have the same conversations. We suggest this “I’ll-tell-you-what-to-read-and-how-to-read-it” attitude is the problem. Just this morning, Bob and I both agreed to read Tony Wagner’s new book Most Likely to Succeed. Bob immediately downloaded it to his Kindle. I bought the print version. I’ll read it in the evenings, with a glass of wine. He’ll read it on an airplane with a Bloody Mary. I’ll read it in one or two sittings. He’ll digest smaller chunks. I’ll want to talk about it as I’m reading. He’ll prefer to wait until he’s done. He’ll mull over specific sentences, sometimes focusing on individual words as he wonders why this author chose this word and not that one. I’ll read first for bigger picture and then return to do that more leisurely mulling. (It’s amazing we get anything accomplished together.) My point: we’re a class (ok, it’s a small class) that has chosen to read the same book; but we will read it in different ways.

We think in-common reading in a classroom is important. It’s something that as adults we all enjoy doing – if not, Oprah’s book clubs wouldn’t be so wildly popular and folks wouldn’t join together to study Readicide, Amplify, Reading Ladders, Book Love, and maybe one of ours. We find community when we read books in common and we learn from one another. When I hear Penny Kittle or Teri Lesesne explain why something resonated in a book we’re reading at the same time, that changes my thinking. When Paul W. Hankins and Tara Smith offer a comment about a book I’m reading, I’m smarter. Reading together helps me grow in a way that I don’t grow when I read in isolation. Reading is a solitary act that has a strong social connection.

But reading in-common does not and should not mean reading the same way. We don’t need to crawl through a book at a snail’s pace. We don’t need to labor over every chapter, learn every new word, answer dozens of questions about each chapter. Two weeks to get through the reading and one week for conversations: more than enough. And did you notice that I said Bob and I decided together what we would read next? We’re having in-common reading but we still had choice. We choose what book to jointly read and we’ll each decide how to read it. What if we saw our classrooms as book groups and we let kids choose which one book they will read together this semester and which one book they will read together next semester? We think that even when having in-common reading we need to give kids choice as often as that’s possible. Give kids a short list from which they can choose and then set a date by which the book must be read. Accept that some will race through it; some will need to sit with you to move through it together; some might need to hear parts read aloud. If you are thinking “But the kids won’t read it unless I’m forcing them through it,” then it’s the wrong book to read. Read the same book that kids agree they want to read; don’t read it the same way.

Yes, some of you will say “But I don’t get a choice on what kids have to read so I can’t give them a choice.” If that’s the case, ask to visit with the person who established that policy and talk through the advantages of giving kids at least some ownership in choosing between two books or among three. I say talk to the person who established the policy because you can’t have a conversation with a policy. You can with a person. Don’t let an administrator or supervisor say, “but it’s the policy.” Policies were written by people. Get to the person and then you can have a conversation.

But build your program on kids having choice. Choice means voice. Sometimes that choice means I’m reading what no one else is reading. Other times it means I’m reading what I agreed to read with a small group. And sometimes it means I’ve joined the larger community called our classroom and together we’re reading one title. Not for six weeks or several months. And not all reading it the same way. But we all read; we all talk; and together, we learn from one another.

When Teachers Learn

On April 4, high school teacher Jennifer Drury did what teachers do so well. She thought carefully and reflectively about some of her teaching practices regarding the teaching of literature she now doubted and as a result of her reflection, decided to make a change.
I know this because she wrote about her thinking and shared it via a letter she wrote to me and and posted on my Facebook page. It’s a beautiful letter and it reminded me, again, why I think teachers are indeed our best hope for a better tomorrow: you think; you reflect; you question what you know and what you are doing; you learn; you grow.
Jennifer’s basic concern was that she had let teaching to the test become too important – even though this was never her goal. This reminded me immediately of a line in the preface from Dov Seidman’s brilliant book titled How: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything. In that preface, he explains that there “is a difference between doing something so as to succeed and doing something and achieving success” (p. xxxvi). Jennifer found herself doing something “so as to” succeed and she decided no more. NO MORE. 
I applaud Jennifer and know that our teaching profession is filled with teachers just like her – you pause, rethink, reflect, consider, and when you decide it’s time, you change. I also think we sometimes need a way to begin that process. So, if you and some teacher friends are ready for a conversation, I’d offer the following process you might follow (with a glass of wine, of course!):
2. Read an article I wrote that was published in Journal of Adolescent and Adult Reading in 2013 titled “What Matters Most.”  I’ve attached a PDF of it below
3. Talk with colleagues about both.
4. Create, with your colleagues, your own what matters most document.
5. Put your thoughts into action.
Teachers change tomorrow each and every day. Thank you for all you do each and every day.

Rigor and Talk Checklist for Nonfiction Texts

In a school last week, a teacher asked if we could share with her what it is Bob Probst and I listen for when we’re assessing student conversations. “How do you know if they are talking at a surface level or really digging deeper?”

We thought it was a good question. In fact, a couple of years ago as we left a classroom, congratulating one another on the small group conversations students had conducted, we found ourselves wondering much the same thing as Bob asked the critical question, “What made their talk rigorous and what should we do next time we are with them to encourage even deeper thinking?”

He was responding to the number of times we had said (to one another) “Wow, the kids did a really good job” and “They were really super today” and “That was a great class.” Those general statements couldn’t help us actually plan what we needed to do next. They captured our excitement of the moment, but those comments couldn’t really help us think about what we should do next to encourage even deeper thinking.

So, we set about doing something that occasionally seemed silly to us – we created a checklist of behaviors we could watch for to help us identify the rigor of the conversation.  We say it sometimes seemed a silly endeavor, because, of course, rigor can’t be reduced to a checklist! At the same time, though, we wanted a list of behaviors that we could watch for (listen for) as we observed student conversations. Such a list would help us move from “That was a really great conversation” to “The students were using the vocabulary of the topic and turning to the text for evidence, but are not yet (for instance) showing the patience we want as students share ideas.” Eventually we settled on a list of behaviors that became the Rigor and Talk Checklist for Literary Texts that we included in Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading (and that list has been published on this blog in a previous post).

When we began working on Reading Nonfiction (and we’re counting DAYS until it is released!), we decided to rethink our checklist focusing now on what we wanted to hear in conversations about nonfiction.

Reading Nonfiction correct title jpeg

Though this checklist (see below) appears in the forthcoming book, we wanted to share it here, now, so it is perhaps helpful as soon as possible. Again, we use this as we’re listening to students, noticing what it is they do well and identifying areas we need to encourage.

Rigor and Talk for Nonfiction

Texas Workshops Fall 2015

I’m always happy to spend more time in my home state of Texas and that’s happening this fall as I run three workshops in Texas. These workshops will all focus on the close, attentive reading of nonfiction. They are most appropriate for teachers 4 -12, though primary teachers often attend my workshops and they tell me they easily adapt strategies to work for their students.

Here’s a list of when and where. Sure hope to see online friends at one of them!

Saturday, September 12. Keynote workshop speaker for the West Houston Area Council Teachers of English. Though sponsored by an ELA organization, all teachers are welcome. Location: Sugar Land, Texas. Registration info: http://whacte.org. (Workshop is from 8:00 – 11:00 a.m.)

Wednesday, September 30. Keynote workshop speaker for Region 13 in Austin, TX. This is part of the STAAR Distinguished Speaker Series. Registration is at Region 13’s website. (Workshop is from 8:00 – 3:00.)

Monday, October 19. Keynote workshop speaker at the Texas Association for Improvement of Reading fall conference at Baylor University, Waco, Texas. Registration is found at the TAIR/Baylor site. (Workshop is from 8:00 – 3:30.)

All of these workshops will share the information my coauthor (Bob Probst) and I present in the forthcoming Reading Nonfiction: Stances, Strategies, and Signposts (Heinemann, 2015). All content area, resource, and ESL teachers are encouraged to attend as well as literacy coaches, supervisors, and administrators. Math teachers – please know that while I include some information that will be helpful in math class, this is most appropriate for ELA, reading, social studies, and science content.

Hook-em Horns!

Reading Nonfiction correct title jpeg

Reading Changes Lives. Period

If children need to learn vocabulary, they should read.


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.”

Who is Taught What?

Recently, on my Facebook page and Twitter page, I posted some results to a national survey Bob Probst and I conducted last year. The comments came flooding in immediately and they all said the same thing: “We can’t read this!”

Ah! You actually want to read the results. What a grand idea! I’m reposting here so that perhaps tiny font is now readable. These results are a part of the findings of our national survey of teachers grades 4-12. Other results will be shared in our forthcoming book titled Reading Nonfiction which will be published by our publisher, Heinemann, later this fall.

The results posted here reveal how about 1,000 teachers answered two questions: “What reading skills do you most often teach to skilled readers?” and “What reading skills do you most often teach to less skilled readers?” The slides showing results are below. Basically, teachers reported that they teach higher level skills to higher performing students and lower level skills to lower performing students.

At first glance, one could say that this seems to be expected – kids with problems in reading need help with the basics. But the reality is, if kids never have the chance to question the text, then they never learn to question the text. If their teacher doesn’t give them time to learn to question the author or make inferences, they don’t learn to do those things. More worrisome, they perhaps begin to assume that they should not question the text, not question the author, not look for biases, not make inferences.

Even more worrisome is when we take a look at who our highly skilled and less skilled readers are, we too often see that highly skilled readers are kids from higher-income families and less skilled readers are from lower-income families. And, in this country, this all too often means that the kids who sit in our classrooms designed for lower-skilled kids are often our kids of color.

As a consequence of that, what I see is a segregation of intellectual rigor that is every bit as shameful – and harmful – as segregation of color.

And that is worrisome, indeed.

what we teach struggling jpeg

what we teach skilled jpeg

Standing In the Middle, Shoulder to Shoulder

By Kylene Beers

Recently, one of my professional heroes won a huge award: The Global Teacher Prize. It was won by the extremely deserving Nancie Atwell. She then, in perfect Nancie style, announced that the full $1 million award would go to her school. I say, “perfect Nancie style” because she has always been the person to put kids first, to put fellow-teachers first, to put teaching and learning first.

Perhaps that’s why her comment during a live interview with CNN stunned many. When asked what advice she’d give to young people thinking about entering the profession, she said she couldn’t encourage young people to become public school teachers. She explained that in this climate, the restrictions on public school teachers are just too much and so she couldn’t honestly encourage folks to go there.

Her comment stunned me, too. At first. And then when I thought about it, I realized that, once again, Nancie was doing what we’ve always looked to her to do: speak the truth. This is an incredibly difficult time to be a teacher—and that’s for the seasoned teacher who has years of experience. That’s for the teacher who knows research that can be used to try to counteract bad practices if not in her district, then at least in her school. That’s for the teacher who understands that many educational policies will change if you can just wait it out. That’s for the teacher who has found his or her voice and knows how to respectfully, but assuredly, stand up for kids and best practices.

I wonder if once again Nancie didn’t do what she does best:

Say what’s hardest to hear

But for the novice teacher—that person still figuring out how to take roll while listening to three students explain why homework wasn’t done, while answering another student’s request to run back to the locker, while signing something that a runner from the office just thrust into his or her hands, while wondering how to get the class started when too many kids are still turned around talking to buddies—that teacher can feel overwhelmed when district- or building-adopted policies seem to stand in complete opposition to all that he or she has learned is a best practice.

And when I think of that teacher, that novice teacher, I wonder if once again Nancie didn’t do what she does best: say what’s hardest to hear.

Nancie started me on a journey of rethinking practices when I first read In the Middle. At first, I stood on the edges of being in the middle—I bought bean-bag chairs and lamps and a lot of books and plants (which I promptly forgot to water) and said to the kids, “Now you read and then write me letters and I’ll write back.” Let’s just say that didn’t work out so well. It seems that Nancie was saying a lot more about reading and writing workshop than what I first grasped. Workshop is first and most importantly about, well, work! Little by little, over years, I’ve come closer to understanding many of the guiding principles Nancie offered us all in that groundbreaking book. Never once did Nancie budge from her principles: kids need choice in what they read; kids need opportunity to write about what they’ve read; kids need time to read widely and read deeply; kids need teachers who are readers and writers; curriculum built to a test has no place in a school; schools focused on test-prep have placed the value of the test above the value of a child. And when our system is so focused on standards and tests and racing to the top that we fail to see the child before us, perhaps we can no longer in good faith encourage people to head into this profession.

And, yet, of course we must. Of course we want our brightest and our smartest, our most empathetic and our most energetic entering this profession. We want them to enter demanding to know why teaching to a test would ever be more important than teaching to a child. We want them right in the middle of all that needs to change. We want them becoming the next generation of people who will lead all the changes we’ll continue to need in this wonderful thing call education. I have no doubt that this year Nancie will be one of those leaders who calls us all to action; who says what must be said; who stands there with us, in the middle, showing us the work that must be done.

Always the teacher, Nancie remains one of my heroes.



I often discover what’s popular long after everyone else. I found West Wing during season four. I just discovered The Good Wife. And, a couple of weeks ago, I came across the Meghan Trainor music video hit “All About That Bass.”

To be honest, I found that song because of the brilliant riff by some high school kids titled “All About Those Books.”  That song sent me in search of the original.  Now, with both lyrics in mind, I find myself humming “It’s all about the bass/books” all the time. And those lyrics set my mind in motion: what is _____________ all about?

No surprise, I fill in that blank with the word “education.” What is education all about? I answer that with it’s “all about the kids.” That’s it. It’s not about a test. Not a blue ribbon. Not racing to the top.  It is all about the kids. When we lose sight of that, well, we simply lose.

And when I think about kids, about helping kids discover all they can be, all they are meant to be, then I find myself thinking one word: motivation.  My colleague BobProbst and I have been researching this concept a lot, first when we wrote Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading and now as we finish our forthcoming book, one about helping kids read nonfiction.

We’ve been sharing bits and pieces of that new book about nonfiction on my Facebook page and Twitter site for a while and teachers have asked for a couple of those posts to be shared in another format since a lot of schools still block Facebook. (Yes, in 2015 some places are still blocking sites teachers have access to at schools. I think we might need “It’s all about some trust” tunes. But that’s another post.)  So, here are the posts previously found on Facebook that are shared together because they are both about motivation and that’s important because school is, after all else is said and done, “all about the kids.”

 “All About the Talk”

If we want to get kids thinking, we need to get them talking. Research shows that all too often the talk we encourage in classrooms is a result of the questions we ask and all too often those questions are monologic in nature rather than dialogic.  Monologic questions are those questions in which we already know the answer:  “Who is the main character in The Giver?” Kids say this isn’t a real question because we aren’t seriously searching for an answer. We’re just checking to see if kids know the answer. By contrast, when we ask, “What most surprised you in this section?” kids know we don’t know that answer; consequently, that question is viewed as authentic.

Does this mean we shouldn’t ask monologic questions? Absolutely not.  Monologic questions are great for reviewing facts. They aren’t great for encouraging conversation, speculation, or critical thinking. I use them all the time in workshops and classes at the end of the lesson/workshop to make sure vocabulary and concepts have stuck (or at least been remembered for 15 minutes!).

This chart that Bob and I developed summarizes a lot of research and is meant to just help us see some differences between talk that is to check understanding (monologic talk) and talk that is to create understanding (dialogic). You can read more about the research in Notice and Note in the section on talk.

Talk Chart revised jpeg









As a PS to this section on talk, if you haven’t read Ellin Keene’s brilliant book Talk About Understanding, add it to your must-read list.

“All about the Reader”

A few weeks ago, on Twitter I posted the typology (below) that comes from some of the earliest work I did on motivating reluctant readers.  This research showed up in my dissertation, and then in articles I published and later in When Kids Can’t Read/What Teachers Can Do.  I think the term “dormant reader” was critical to my developing understanding of kids who appear to not like to read.  This typology was an important reason, I’m sure, that I received an AERA award years ago and it continues to influence much of my thinking today.

If you want to read more about this typology of readers, check out the articles listed at the bottom of the chart or see the chapter on motivation in When Kids Can’t Read.

Aliteracy Motivation chart jpeg









But it’s really ALL ABOUT THE KIDS

I have often posted on Twitter and Facebook that want-ability is probably a more important concept when it comes to matching kids to books than readability.  After recently reading a great article in The Atlantic that connects interest to difficulty (the more interested you are in reading a topic the more willing you’ll be to struggle through difficult prose), I had to both nod and laugh. I nodded because I agreed. I laughed because The Atlantic thought this a new enough concept to publish it. But brilliant colleagues Penny Kittle, Teri Lesesne, Jeff Wilhelm, Donalyn Miller, Alfred Tatum, Ernest MorrellNancie Atwell, and a host of others have written about this for a long time.

If we want to create lifetime readers, we have to think more about connect-ability than readability. When we do that, we’re putting kids first. And that make sense to me because I’m all about the kids, ‘bout the kids, bout the kids. No kidding…