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What Makes A 'Good Reader'?

In a guest column on The Washington Post's website yesterday, a 6th grade language arts teacher posed the question: are good readers made or born?

Donalyn Miller is a Texas teacher who is known for her knack for turning reluctant readers into passionate ones. She also writes the "Book Whisperer" blog for Teacher Magazine, which is run by Education Week's parent nonprofit, Editorial Projects in Education.

In the Post guest column, Miller reflected on a recent study that found that weaker readers improved a lot after an intensive remediation program, but were still outpaced by good readers who had not participated in the program. That led her to wonder what these "good reader" students had going for them.

She lists a number of ingredients necessary to making good readers. They are hard to argue with: time to read, access to good reading materials, the presence of adult role models who are devoted readers. These hit a huge 'ding' on the common-sense meter, as overlooked as they might be in too many homes and classrooms.

Reading the column, though, I couldn't help but wonder about the absence of any mention of specific reading strategies, especially for adolescents. With adolescent literacy rising so high on the national radar, and a capstone Carnegie report urging training for middle and high school teachers so they can teach reading across all subject areas, it seems that it might take more than role models, access to good materials, and a passion for reading to become a strong, college-ready reader.

It's easy to grasp the power of tons of free reading time, and the chance to engage with adults who are just as in love with those books as you are. But here's the part that's unanswered for me: how should adults help adolescents navigate the thornier parts of reading that they will inevitably face as they crack open stuff they might not fall in love with, or is simply too difficult to comprehend after a few tries? (Chaucer and a physics textbook spring to mind.)

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