The ‘Book Whisperer’ Answers Questions about Teaching Reading
By: Paul Oh
Date: January 2008
Summary: Donalyn Miller, teacher-consultant with the North Star of Texas Writing Project, teaches her students to love reading—and they read 50 to 60 books a year.
"Reading is the inhale and writing is the exhale," says Donalyn Miller, teacher-consultant with the North Star of Texas Writing Project.
These days, educators, parents, and others interested in teaching kids to read are paying quite a bit of attention to what Miller has to say about literacy. In early September, Miller spent three weeks as Teacher Magazine's "Ask the Mentor" columnist, answering questions about how she, a sixth grade language arts and social studies teacher, motivates her students to read as much as they do—as many as 50 to 60 books a year.
How much attention is she receiving? The initial installment of Miller's online column generated 20,000 views in its first five days. And in soliciting questions, the site received so many they had to stop accepting them. Two of her columns, Creating Readers: Part I and Creating Readers: Part II, were among Teacher Magazine's 10 most popular articles of 2007.
Reader questions ranged from the most basic, "Some of my students would never pick a book up willingly! How do you get them started?" to the very specific, "How much time do your kids get to read in class during the school week?"
The column has spawned a blog called The Book Whisperer that Miller is penning for Teacher Magazine.
People Want Answers
What does this avalanche of interest signify to Miller?
"It says to me that this is a topic that people care a great deal about and that people—teachers, parents—are struggling to get answers to. People are desperate to get information on how to help kids who don't want to read. And they want answers that seem reasonable to implement."
In her writing—and in her teaching—Miller emphasizes the role student choice and authentic purposes for reading have in fostering both a love of books and the critical skills children need to become independent learners.
She has her students read many different genres over the course of a year, and uses their independent reading to reinforce the skills and concepts she teaches. In her column, Miller discusses employing guided reading strategies and outlines such techniques as reading along with podcasts of books to help readers who might need extra support.
Successful Researched Methods
I don't think kids understand that reading is hard for everyone sometimes.
Miller's methods have proved successful by any measure: her students will ask to be photographed for class pictures with their favorite book, and every one of them received a 100 percent passing rate on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.
"Everything I do in my classroom is research-defensible," Miller says. "This is not the Donalyn Miller method. What I do I heard first from Irene Fountas, Nancie Atwell, and others. I'm saying what they're saying. So I feel like I have strong pedagogical legs to stand on."
A participant in North Star of Texas' most recent summer institute, Miller says she gained valuable insights into the teaching of writing that parallel her own beliefs about the teaching of reading.
"One thing I learned from the writing project is I much too soon dive into assignments with my kids around writing. I don't give my kids enough time to talk, to process," she says.
The summer institute gave her time, and authentic reasons, to write.
"The idea of putting yourself into a student's shoes is very powerful. Because you forget how much time they need to process, to think, even to read."
Similarly, Miller tries to make her own life as a reader visible to her students.
"I don't think kids understand that reading is hard for everyone sometimes. Sometimes I don't feel like picking up a book. I think sharing that reading is challenging, even for someone who loves books like me, is good for them to hear."
Blogging in Education
Last year, she made a blog available to her students towards the end of the semester. "I was amazed at how literate the activities were that grew out of it, that the kids did on their own."
They posted poetry, song lyrics, a weekly quiz—and all without a single prompt from Miller. So, during the summer institute, Miller chose to study what it would mean to incorporate writing technology into her work as a reading teacher. She plans to have her students use weblogs and wikis as virtual readers' notebooks over the course of the year.
The Book Whisperer
In the introduction to her columns, Miller is described as a "book whisperer." She cringes a bit at that title. But it's an undeniable fact that her students have been known to read as many as 300 books over the course of a year, or walk into walls because they're too busy buried in novels to pay attention to where they are going.
When Miller was first approached about writing the "Ask the Mentor" column, her editor was incredulous about her students' fanatical love of reading. She asked Miller what rewards she offered her students to finish all those books during the school year.
"Isn't reading its own reward?"