National Writing Project

Book Review: The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child

By: Amanda Cornwell
Date: January 7, 2010

Summary: Author Donalyn Miller, a teacher-consultant with the North Star of Texas Writing Project, reveals how she develops successful readers in her classroom by giving students the responsibility and freedom to choose the books they read.

 


Donalyn Miller offers tips on inspiring children to read in this television interview.

If you're looking for a text that stretches your beliefs about reading, and possibly your methodology of teaching it, then The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller is a book for you.

The Book Whisperer—also the title of Miller's blog for Teacher Magazine —traces Miller's personal journey as a teacher of reading. She shares her initial enthusiasm followed by the ultimate failure of her early reading units where she employed strategies such as using whole-class novels, comprehension worksheets, and key vocabulary terms.

As a voracious reader herself, she realized, in horror, that her classroom had become the kind she herself had despised as a student. She acknowledges her attempt "to build a reading program from broken materials. My methods were flawed, not my implementation of them."

By turning to her administrators and colleagues, and eventually back to books by the likes of Atwell (2007), Allen (2000), Fountas and Pinnell (2001), and Keene and Zimmerman (2007), Miller found herself transforming her traditional reading classroom into a learning workshop. "A trail of worksheets from a teacher to their students does not build a connection with readers, only books do," she writes.

Ironically, at the exact moment that I began reading this book I was preparing my first whole-class novel unit. With each page I read, I felt more and more challenged to examine the practices I'd come to accept as "standard" or "acceptable."

While I too had experienced results similar to those Miller reports—behaviors such as a lack of student interest and uninspired compliance with required reading (as opposed to a natural enthusiasm)—it was what we had always done, and therefore all I knew how to do.

These kinds of practices can have a negative effect on struggling readers, Miller writes. Take, for example, whole-class novels. Required to read a text assigned to all students, developing readers may find it difficult to relate to the story as it's neatly deconstructed for daily consumption. A single common text may take several weeks to complete. Without ample time to read, developing readers seem destined to remain behind.

Underground and Dormant Readers

But not only can these practices negatively impact students who struggle with reading, they can hinder gifted readers as well. If a text does not challenge these gifted—or "underground" readers, as Miller calls them—or diminishes their previous reading experience, they too will be less engaged.

Miller states, "Advanced readers deserve the opportunity to continue their growth as readers, too."

A third group of readers, which might constitute a large number of students in our schools, Miller identifies as "dormant." Schools often refer to this group as reluctant readers. These readers tend to be disinterested and apathetic when it comes to reading but are often overlooked because of their satisfactory classroom performance.

Again, the practice of whole-class novels may perpetuate the indifference in these students, whose individual interests and preferences are ignored.

Miller shares the importance of establishing high expectations for students by creating a time and place for them to interact with their texts and the freedom to choose (and abandon) their own books as they work to meet the 40-book requirement (broken down by genre) by the end of the school year.

Anecdotal evidence supports her claims, reinforcing the fact that she is a real teacher, doing the daily work of encouraging students to love reading.

She eagerly shares the successes of her students such as the group of 54 who reported having read a total of 939 books in fifth grade and a whopping 3,332 books in sixth, or students like Brandon who say, "Reading is what I do now, especially when I'm bored. I know I will do it."

Miller is also open about the setbacks she encountered. She isn't sure how to account for students who read lengthy books, and she is honest about acknowledging her lack of success with her book talks.

Learning to Love Books by Reading

In some of the final chapters, she provides concise descriptions of traditional reading practices, followed by alternatives that support student choice and authentic application.

Miller didn't set out to craft a step-by-step guide to teaching reading, which would in some ways contradict her approach. Instead, she shares her story, which in many ways ends right where it began, with herself as a reader, an independent reader who learned to love books and who learned to read by constantly reading.

As I read Miller's book, I found myself skeptical about the absence of the behaviors many of my colleagues and I face on a daily basis and the seemingly unanimous buy-in from all students.

I also wondered if the book might give teachers a false sense of how complex Miller's approach truly is. What seemed like an effortless method of reading instruction "centered on students' independent reading choices" actually requires a great deal of organization, planning, forethought, and management on behalf of the teacher.

And, for those educators who are not as well-versed in young adult texts, this effective technique might be downright daunting.

Despite these observations, The Book Whisperer would be a great addition to any teacher's or writing project site's repertoire. I could see this text added to invitational summer institute reading lists, or made the focus of study as part of in-school professional learning communities.

Miller's personal journey combined with the tangible resources she provides has equipped me to begin my own journey and has fueled me with the desire to do so.

 

References

Allen, Janet. 2000. Yellow Brick Roads: Shared and Guided Paths to Independent Reading 4-12. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Atwell, Nancie. 2007. The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers. New York: Scholastic Teaching Resources.

Fountas, Irene C., and Gay Su Pinnell. 2001. Guiding Readers and Writers: Teaching Comprehension, Genre, and Content Literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Keene, Ellin Oliver, and Susan Zimmerman. 2007. Mosaic of Thought: The Power of Comprehension Strategy Instruction, 2nd edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

About the Author Amanda Cornwell is a teacher-consultant with the Lake Michigan Writing Project.

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