A Love Letter to Reading

The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child
by Donalyn Miller
(Jossey-Bass, 2009 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Ellen Berg

If you’re looking for a how-to book organized around the Common Core standards for reading, this book is not for you. There is nothing rigid or prescriptive about this text — no shyster-y Follow these steps and your kids’ reading scores will skyrocket.

If anything, this text is a love letter to reading and the ways teachers can support students’ journeys to their own love affairs with books.

Donalyn Miller was a sixth grade language arts and social studies teacher when she published her teacher-classic, The Book Whisperer, in 2009 (this year, she’s moved to a self-contained 4th grade classroom). She chronicles her shift from traditional reading instruction organized around novel units and worksheets to a reading workshop.

In the past, despite her enthusiasm and hard work, Miller found her students “were robots, trudging through the unit and completing the assigned activities. Reading was work, another job to finish in the daily grind of school…the children were not engaged.”

Miller eventually found her path to engaging all readers in her classroom, developing dormant and enthusiastic readers by allowing for choice, response, time for reading, and support for each child’s reading development.  As she redefined her instruction, her students’ enthusiasm for books rose.

Matching Kids with Books

Perhaps the most powerful strategy Miller uses is one of helping each child find books that fit their academic needs and interest levels. As she gets to know students, she pulls piles of books she thinks they’ll enjoy and sets them on their desks before they come in. Through read-alouds, book talks and conferences with students, she exposes them to different genres and authors that might scratch their reading itch. Miller is relentless, refusing to give up or to give in on the requirement for each student to read 40 books each year in varying genres, regardless of how resistant they are when they reach her class.

But what about test scores???

To be certain, we live in a world where standardized test scores have become the driver of curriculum. Out of fear, many teachers use materials designed to mimic the tests and focus on discrete knowledge.

To the question of testing (in Texas, no less), Miller writes, “I know that the amount of reading and response that my students do is the best preparation for this assessment.  Frankly, the state’s goal is narrower than mine.” (133)  By reading widely and critically, students are better prepared to tackle questions on state assessments. Her primary beef with standardized testing is that “the high stakes nature of these tests has disrupted quality reading instruction.”

What does quality reading instruction look like?

Chapter 6, “Cutting the Teacher Strings,” is the perfect place for any teacher looking to redefine their teaching practice under a workshop umbrella. Miller identifies traditional teaching practices such as book reports and round-robin reading and suggests alternative strategies that elicit deeper, more engaged responses from students. However, shifting activities without the philosophical shift to one of wanting students “to become life readers” is not effective. The primary message of this book is that our beliefs about school and the purpose of teaching must change if we want kids to become avid readers.

I highly recommend this book to both long-time reading workshop teachers and those beginning to think about dipping their toes in. Miller is real, inspiring and relentlessly optimistic about the possibilities for kids who become avid readers. Whether you need to be reminded why you teach the way you do or you need inspiration to take those first steps, this book is for you.

(See MiddleWeb’s interview with Donalyn Miller here. Also visit her Education Week blog and the Nerdy Book Club.)

Ellen Berg teaches multiage humanities to sixth, seventh and eighth grade students at a progressive charter school in San Diego, California. Ellen wrote weekly reflective diaries about her teaching experiences as a sixth grade teacher in inner city St. Louis, Missouri for the first iteration of MiddleWeb and has been published in Middle Ground, Education Week, and other professional journals.  She is developing an online project called Renegade Schoolhouse focused on positive education reform — set to launch in November, 2012.

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