Saturday, August 8, 2015

Learning To Read Alone Is Not Enough. Your Students Need A Reading Champion.

I don't know about you, but... 
  • I did not become a reader because someone held me accountable for reading. 
  • I did not become a reader because someone offered me "points" or other incentives for the quantity of books or pages I read. 
  • I did not become a reader because someone limited my reading selections to only to those titles on a certain reading level or within a specific lexile band. 
  • And I did not become a reader because someone forced me to complete reading logs, write book reports or create (and then reuse) the occasional diorama. 

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I became a reader because a kind librarian, whose name I do not remember, at McDermoth Elementary School, (in Aberdeen, Washington), found me hiding under a table in the library on my first day at that school. But instead of forcing me to go out to recess, where the traditional "new kid" bullying, (that I was all too familiar with), awaited, she chose to pass me a book under the table:  Judy Blume's Blubber. And then she let me sit there until I was finished reading it. (An act that I would attempt to repeat, often successfully, at many, many other new schools to follow).

I became a reader because one of my 4th grade teachers, Miss Lynch at Madison Elementary School, (in Olympia, Washington),  read Wilson Rawls' Where The Red Fern Grows aloud to our class.  And I was so taken by its magic, I begged my mother to take me to the public library in order to get my very first library card - which I then used to check out a dusty copy of the book, so that I could read along, reread and, yes, read ahead.  As it turns out, this would also prove to be my first (but not last!) overdue library book and my first (but not last!) library fine.  But I digress.

I became a reader because my 10th grade English teacher, Sharron Coontz, at Olympia High School (in Olympia, Washington), tossed out the idea of the "whole class novel" (one of many instructional strategies that I have since come to realize put Ms. Coontz WAY before her time) and instead let me choose every book I read for her class. I'd never had this freedom before, and it lead me to discover works by Upton Sinclair, Arthur Miller, John Steinbeck and VC Andrews (lest you think me a literary snob), all of which would change my life in varying ways and help me see reading as a necessary part of living. 

Call me Captain Obvious, but I feel the need to point something out: none of the instances that I can identify as having made a difference in my life as a reader involve reading instruction. I can't point to the teacher who helped me master consonant blends. I have no idea who taught me to recognize (or indeed spell) onomatopoeia.  I'm not sure in what grade I finally figured out how to identify the main idea of a reading selection. And I have no idea when I discovered the glory of non-fiction text features. Clearly. I did learn those things. But I've also learned this:

Learning to read alone is not enough.

Reading instruction and developing the habit of reading are two very different, but equally important instructional goals. However, in recent years, a greater emphasis has been placed on the former, relegating "the love of reading" to fluff status: something that is nice but not necessary.  And, in my estimation, we've paid a heavy price for it.  For all our emphasis on reading interventions and "research based programs" that are "guaranteed to improve test scores," those pesky test scores don't seem to have gotten the memo.  Further, students who have endured this particular swing of the pedagogical pendulum are, and at alarming rates, leaving school as nonreaders. Even those who can read, simply choose not to once they leave school.

That said, I wrote this post, in part, to thank those people who, by chance or by choice, helped me develop a love of reading. I will be forever grateful and shudder to think what my life might have looked like otherwise. However, this post is also for all those classroom teachers and school librarians (along with the people who support and evaluate them) who are (like it or not) getting ready to head back to school for another year.  To them I say this:

I hope you'll consider the following fundamental truths as you plan lessons and activities for the young (potential) readers you serve:
  1. Our most successful students tend to have one thing in common: they are readers. And by successful I don't just mean that they perform well on standardized tests (although they do) I also mean that they are better at doing other things that actually matter. Time and time again, studies have shown that students who are readers out perform their non-reading counterparts in multiple subject areas. But recent studies also suggest that students who read for pleasure also develop stronger senses of empathy and personal wellbeing.  In short, readers win at school and they also win at life.  That said... 
  2. Our students are most likely to become readers when: 
    • they are given choice in what they read,
    • they have teachers who also read for pleasure,
    • they see reading as an essential part of  their lives and not just something they have to do for school, and...
    • they develop a habit of reading grown out of having made authentic and meaningful connections with books. 
Then, think about your own life as a reader. Can you, as I have above, identify one or two pivot points in your development as a reader? That is to say, can you locate some crucial moments that helped transform you from a non-reader to a reader?  If you can, I'm absolutely convinced that they will look a lot like mine, insomuch as they'll have nothing to do with incentives or accountability, but will instead have everything to do with one (or more) exceptional teacher, librarian or some other adult and one (or more) exceptional book.  If you are really lucky, and are still in contact with that person, take a moment to thank them.  But even if you're not, hold onto those memories and make this the year that you become (or continue to be) that person for someone else.  Your students need a reading champion now, more than ever.  Let that person be you.


  1. This is amazing.

    Also very timely as I plan for the new school year.

  2. Thank you for this brilliant post, Jennifer. I hope it is shared widely.

  3. Oh you've gone and done it again, dear Jennifer! Brilliant post! Evocative, thought-provoking, and inspiring!

    You well written words have caused me to smile and fondly recall those individuals, pivot points, and circumstances that made me into a reader. And it wasn't a book report, diorama, or a standardized text passage, I can assure you!

    I think this is SUCH an inspirational post that it makes me want to attempt to write my own! Though it undoubtedly will not as well written as yours! I'm not that much of a wordsmith, though I do try my best!

    Now that I ponder it, I think we all should! Yes! I think, as librarians, we should share that which made us want to BE a librarian and a life-long reader. And surely, it was NOT because we were induced to, as you said by any "points" or other incentives."

    We should do this to both honor those people who helped shape us, to commemorate it for ourselves and our family, and to remind the public that readers are not bought. They are not bribed. They are not coerced. They are saved. I would call it mix between an almost evangelical conversion and falling in love. I've been in love many times in my life. They come, they go, they get tossed aside. But my love for reading has stayed steadfast and true.

    The way I read may have changed - but the magic in the words off the "page" or the tablet still delights and maintains me. I feel panicky if I don't have a book nearby. That is lifelong passion. That is lifelong devotion. That, is what we each try to inspire in each kiddo we meet. No small task but we're librarians. That's what we do.

    Ok, now that I've written almost another blog post in this comment, inspired by your words, I'll stop prattling along! Or maybe I'll cut and paste it and expand it on my blog - all thanks to you!
    Cheers dear!

    1. Thank you so much Gwyneth! Your words mean so much to me. And it's heartening to know that we all share this common experience. It makes me sad that so many schools, (out of pressure and fear), have turned their backs on this magical and important rite of passage. I surely hope more teachers and librarians will follow your lead and share their stories so that our words can light a path for others to follow. Thank you again, my friend. I <3 you!

    2. Thank you are two words too small and inadequate to say what I want to say....which is actually to wrap you in a bear hug and simultaneously shout AMEN! I love that you are such a champion of all that I hold dear. Rock on, sister. You are such an inspiration and I"m so glad you speak up! Sharing your comments far and wide.

    3. This article is truly inspiring and resonates with my belief that learning to read begins with a passion and a love for books. I am a literacy coach now and I'm constantly fighting the battle between teaching a passion for reading vs. having to teach students how to read in order to perform well on a test. It takes me back to my days as a 2nd grade teacher. I loved sharing my passion for reading with my students and it was contageous! I have vivid memories of students who fell in love with books. I clearly remember the boy who loved reading poetry so much that he would sneak reading the book in his desk during math. How can I get mad about that? The day our book club order arrived was like Christmas. Kids who chose to eat lunch with me so they could keep reading or take their book outside during recess made me smile. It's so true, every kid needs a reading champion! Helping our students to become life long readers is truly one of the best gifts we can give them. THANK YOU for this!!

  4. Wonderful. I just shared this post.

  5. Yes! So very true! Thanks for this fantastic post!

  6. All of the yes!!! These words brought tears to my eyes due to their truth!!

  7. This gives me hope that my soon-to-be 4th grader may still stand a chance of developing a love for reading. Despite reading with him from birth to present each night, surrounding him with books, and weekly trips to the library, my son would rather do anything than read. It's a very hard pill to swallow for his teacher/author mother! Ha!

  8. You can say this twice and mean it!!!

  9. I've read this post a few times now and I can't shout it enough...THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS! Your eloquent words have really expressed what has been weighing heavy on my heart as we get ready to return to school.

  10. You are truly an inspiration for all of us, Jennifer. Thank you. Reading your post brought back a flood of my own memories. Here's my post based on your inspiration and Gwyneth's challenge:

  11. Jennifer, I have added this amazing and heartfelt post to my my SLIS course for the week when we talk about promoting reading (and not vendor reading incentive programs). Thank you for adding one more voice to the imperatives that students always be given choices in their reading and time to do it in the school day.

  12. Jennifer, this is electrifying! It reminded me of Doug Johnson's "Linking Libraries to Literacy" post

    It is electrifying because I know it is true. In the 5th grade, I was failing reading. In the 6th grade, my life was changed forever when Mrs. Moore, our librarian, asked if she could help me find a book of my interest and reading level. MY INTEREST? I'd NEVER been interested in reading anything in my life except to get it over with. But, I'd come to the library just to stay out of trouble because my teacher had ordered me to, "Check out a book!" When Mrs. Moore asked her question, I wasn't about to tell her no because like Gary Paulsen, I didn't want to get kicked out of the library. Through reader's advisory, Mrs. Moore quickly determined a book to recommend. I checked it out, began reading it on the long bus trip home and couldn't stop until it was devoured. Next day, I almost begged my teacher to let me return to the library. Soon, I was reading a book a day and loving the worlds reading unfolded. What a joy to serve in an elementary library and be a part of sparking and helping develop that love of reading and learning in children.

    So, thanks for your encouragement to all of us, you are truly amazing!

  13. Thank you for this reminder - especially as we plan for a new school year. I don't remember most of the stories or books I read in school - esp. grade school, but I do remember the books I read at home. The enchantment of The Secret Garden, The Incredible Journey which I re-read hundreds of times along with Lassie Come Home. The Little House series was my favorite and my family started calling me Half-Pint because I was so engrossed in those stories. I think I read every Marguerite Henry book as well as many other horse stories. And I remember using my birthday money to buy one of James Herriot's books when I was in middle school.

    I will confess to committing some readicide as a classroom teacher, though the best class I ever taught was 100% choice reading. That was an elective where I had complete control over the syllabus and students actually enjoyed reading in that class. If I had it all to do again...

  14. Hello. I love your Just Call Me Library Girl picture. I was wondering if I could use it. I'm a library media specialist/innovation specialist at a middle school and this picture fits me perfectly. I am wondering if I could use it and photoshop it...make her a brunette with brown eyes.
    Thank you!
    Lara Polk

  15. Hi Jennifer,
    This is a wonderful article and I'm touched at how you're keen to pass the love of reading on, from those behind you to those in front.
    (Maybe "pass it forward!" should be the new battle cry for librarians and older readers?)
    Librarian (retired!)

  16. Insightful stuff… well said totally agree with your views…..Thanks for the share!

  17. I am late to the game in reading this post... What a gem! Thank you so much for sharing your ideas on reading. Truly, you hit the nail on the head with why our children become and then stay readers. Bravo!

  18. Just saw this post. I LOVE TO READ. My students know I love to read. My students know I hope that someday they will love to read. We all need teachers, friends, librarians, parents, brothers, sisters, neighbors, principals who are our reading champions.