« First Do No Harm | Main | I Am a Reader, Not a Writer »

Reading Freedom


As both the language arts and social studies teacher for my group of 60, I am charged with covering a great deal of content. While studying Europe, it is required that students examine World War II. My students already learned a lot about this war last year.

Looking for ways to make this unit fresh and interesting, I chose to conduct a book study. Students picked a book on World War II from our vast class library, and focused their reading on the background of the characters, how each became involved in the conflict, and the short-term and long-term consequences of the war for them.

Nearing the date for the class discussion of what they had learned, I checked in with my students to see how the reading was going. Many students were having trouble staying motivated to finish their books. I couldn’t believe their lack of interest. These kids are readers-- hungry, enthusiastic readers. I have worked all year to make them so.

While chastising them for their lack of effort to complete their reading, my students let me know that in large part, the culture of independent, opinionated readers I have fostered in my class made this assignment boring:

“I don’t like Number the Stars, but I am forcing myself to read it because I have to.”(forcing yourself to read it?!)

“I wanted to read Don’t You Know There's a War On? , but J. took the class copy and I got stuck reading Lily’s Crossing.” (definite chick book, why did he pick it?)

“I’ve already read three books on World War II this year. Can’t I just use one of them?”(hmm...seems reasonable...)

and my favorite,

“Mrs. Miller, I am in the middle of Inkheart right now, don’t you know how hard that book is to put down?” (yes, yes, I do.)

Some students selected the very shortest books that they could find, or were reading books in which they had no interest just to get the job done--behaviors they had never shown before.

Transformed, our class was now a place where students dreaded reading and only did it for the sake of getting the assignment over with as fast and as painlessly as possible.

I was horrified.

I had somehow stripped the joy for reading out of my students, joy I had strived all year to instill. I had turned them loose to feel book love and the freedom that making all of their own reading choices brings, some for the first time. By requiring that they read certain books, on a specific topic, within a deadline, I had hobbled my wild-at-heart readers.

And now, they were looking at me wistfully over the fence.

Issuing rare weekend homework, I gave my students two more days to finish their books. Most of them were able to meet the deadline. For the final activity, students composed a critical summary for their books, evaluating the impact World War II had on the lives of the stakeholders involved.Turning in their essays one by one, students returned to their desks, and pulled out books. The books I had kept them from reading during the book study.

Running through the pages of their own books, my students were free again. Surveying a room full of readers, I realized that if I can keep the gate open, and have the sense to get out of the way, they will read.


I think it's unhealthy to let kids read only what they want to read. Reading should be treated like the food pyramid. All of us need to watch what we read. If the only books a student reads are fantasy books, what's healthy about that?

Your students sound like they have a healthy appetite for what they like to read and nothing else, and when you tried to force them to change their habits, they threw a tantrum. Now that they're reading what they want to read again, they're happy. I have to ask --well, what have you taught them?

It's a matter of teaching kids portion control by showing them that our reading habits are varied as well. Our curiosity, as teachers and learners, should cover interests in science, history, world events, environment, civics, people, et cetera, et cetera. Fictional books should be a part of that reading habit, but not the center of it.

I read your thoughts with interest and the subsequent comment they generated. What I have done is separate independent reading from a book study framing the book study with a specific focus and goal. One goal being that the students have a common frame of reference for a discussion about the way the book addresses topics related to the social studies unit we are working on concurrently. That seems to work pretty well. Guided pacing and focus questions make the "task" less onerous and I have found the students generally love at least parts of the book. The added benefit is that we all have a common reference point for later discussions as the year progresses.

I am usually a lurker who loves your blog, Donalyn. However, I was moved to comment on this post after reading Andy's comment above. To be brutally honest, I can count on ONE hand the number of adults I know who indulge in any type of pleasure reading. I have to attribute this to the reading lessons we were taught growing up. Reading was a chore and something only done in school or for work, unless you had the rare teacher who shared her own love of reading. Any adult reading would thrill me- I don't care if they only read one genre!

As far as the classroom goes, I teach very similarly to Donalyn. My students LOVE to read. However, I don't force them to read specific books, other than our few class novels/read-alouds. I don't see anywhere in this post where she says her students only read one genre. My students read a variety of genres- in fact, I require they read at least one book in each genre over the course of the year. While I have students who prefer realistic fiction or mysteries, they are responsible for broadening their horizons by sampling the other genres.

All right ladies; time for me to weigh in. I am, apparently, one of a rare breed. Not only am I an adult that reads for pleasure; but I require more than the fingers of one hand to count the adults that I know that read for pleasure. These include mere acquaintances, not people that I consider my contemporaries, so the obvious argument that we tend to surround ourselves with people that share our interests is not a factor. I also have a 13 year old son that reads for pleasure...voraciously so, and has since he was old enough to hold his own book. He is not happy when he has to read for class assignments but he is learning/has learned that if he is disciplined and completes his required readings he will more quickly be able to return to his pleasureable reading and he also earns an acceptable grade in the assignment. Positive reinforcement from two different sources.
Might I ask you ladies how your approach will pepare your students for the type of disciplined reading that they will need to do in college? Or will these future college students be able to excuse themselves to their professors by saying "I didn't like that book/topic". Although instilling a love of reading in students is important they also require guidance in how to form focused study habits. Remember education includes preparing our children/students to face the challenges in their future, be it their educational future or their occupational future.

I'm not a teacher and I do not envy the positions you're in when it comes to convincing students to read regardless of whether it's for an assigment or for pleasure. I also have a great deal of respect and admiration for the contributions you make to education. Clearly, each of cares a great deal about this.

In high school, although I read often for pleasure I despised my English classes. In fact, I had to take my junior and senior year courses over in summer school because I had absolutely no interest in the work or being told what I had to read (which was the majority of the curriculum). Back then I read only fiction: Koontz, King, Patterson, Clancy, Cussler. Now I read books across all genres (in the last 10 years all of a sudden I can't read enough physics books). As I matured, so did my interest in various subjects. I still went on to college and graduated with honors.

My point is that we are talking about sixth graders; children. What they get our of reading fantasy (for example) is sustination of imagination and creativity. As far as learning/reading about other subjects like science, history, world events, environment, civics, people, etc., I would argue that's what those other courses are designed to instruct...perhaps at least until high school when students can better grasp and understand the value of a diversified education and college prep. I understand the need to expose children to these other areas, but isn't it more a question of when and how much do you try to "force" them to read?

Reading has to compete with video games, computers, music, sports, etc. I think it has to be fun for them and they have to be able to, in some way, be part of the process of choosing what they read (keep them involved). I like Sarah's idea of picking the genre and letting the students choose what they read within that genre.

"It's a matter of teaching kids portion control by showing them that our reading habits are varied as well. Our curiosity, as teachers and learners, should cover interests in science, history, world events, environment, civics, people, et cetera, et cetera. Fictional books should be a part of that reading habit, but not the center of it."
Andy, I grew up reading whatever I could get my hands on. If we want children who are avid and excited readers, we need to let them read what interests them. This is different than reading for content, it is reading for pleasure. As I read fiction for pleasure, I honed my reading skills and learned about history, world events, drama, civics, and a thousand other "facts", what do you think fiction is based upon? Not enough children, or adults read for pleasure. We are an increasingly illerate nation, let's not try to ruin it for the few children who like to read.

Donna, a reading curriculum is not based on what works for one person. A curriculum needs to work for as many students as possible.

I teach kids how to read narrative and informative texts (or fiction and non-fiction). If I teach the skills well, my students will have the confidence to read anything. Whether they love reading or not is irrelevant. Personally, I hope they will love to read as much as I do, but that's not my job.

I am intentionally trying to build a foundation based on book variety. If they read what they want, that's all they know. If they read what a curriculum demands, they may end up picking up on different genres. I think variety is better.

If you became a good reader because of how you decided to read, that's great, but I think what I do helps more kids become good readers faster.

"The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it. " — Terry Pratchett

If you have read my posts and articles in Teacher Magazine you already know that I require my students to read widely from a range of material. Students are expected to read 40 books a year from different genres to include: poetry, biographies, informational (expository), and yes, historical, science, realistic, and fantasy fiction. All of the skills and strategies that I teach students are tied back to their independent books. The final goal of reading instruction should be application of what students have learned in class to the books they read for themselves. If not, then we are giving them a fish, year after year, and never teaching them how to fish.

It is disturbing to read the comment,"Whether they love reading or not is irrelevant." If not from us,their reading teachers, then who?

I do read your posts and articles, and several times I have shared your work with teachers on campus. I agree with a lot of your work and philosophy.

However, I guess you could say my teaching approach is more... pragmatic? Every teacher in every subject should teach their students a deep love for their respective subjects. Kids should approach math, science, and history with a passion, just like they should in reading and writing. But that's not realisitic. Different students are good at different subjects, and it is not realistic to assume that every child will develop a passion for reading like mine.

Besides, my passions are not the same thing as what is required to be taught. I have students who don't like to read, but they know how analyze characters, discuss themes, and uncover writing techniques. That's plenty good enough. Demanding they also love books? That's simply not reasonable.

I will keep reading your stuff, though. I like your work.

Hi, I am presently enrolled in a Web 2.0 course and this week's assignment is to follow someone's blog and respond to at least one post.

The whole blog thing is new to me - but I really enjoy Donalyn's - and I have been reading hers for some time.

My greatest fear in blogging (I have to create one for the course) is the negative feedback that I might get.
It felt so awkward to read the comments to this posting. I love how Donalyn's teaching and expertise. I also appreciate her honesty and approach to inspiring students.

I say - keep up the good work - thanks for not acting perfect - and continue sharing. I am learning and enjoying your postings!

Hi, I am one of Mrs.Miller's former students! I agree with all the things she said, because I got to experience all of it. I am personaly offended by Andy's comments! Mrs.Miller showed me new topics that I enjoyed! I never really liked reading until I was in her class. Why? Because my other teachers never let me read what I wanted to. Reading only helps you if you focus on it! Why should I read biographies if I dread every moment of it? It's clear that I would'nt be paying it any attention! Thank you Mrs.Miller!, for showing me that reading didn't have to be a chore, and for making my 6th grade year one of the best!!!!!!!

As I understand, Donalyn you have a very sincere way of putting things to both your students and your readers.I basically am an English teacher and teaching social science indeed is very challenging for me.Students are my interest zone and giving them the best of whatever it is, is my first priority. Given to classwork activities I feel we must equip them with the right material and the right book of the right author which, as I see is making me fall out of sorts. I have given them materials to act out and they did find it pretty interesting but to cut the long story short I still am studying and in that case who or what do I need to look up to, to keep me and my students focused and interested at the same time?
Will be waiting.................
By the way, can you please suggest some good books for reading for the vacation for slow learners. They are all given in to stories dealing with the supernatural and comics. Which author do you recommend to take up. Roald Dahl, Pg. Wodehouse have already made their mark..................

I think kids should read but at a certain age they should read at a certain pace. If the child does not read at a certain pace by a certain age they should have to practice reading aloud more to there parents or legal guardian.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Kitty 11 years old: I think kids should read but at a certain age read more
  • aparajita: As I understand, Donalyn you have a very sincere way read more
  • michelle: Hi, I am one of Mrs.Miller's former students! I agree read more
  • Megan Fogarty: Hi, I am presently enrolled in a Web 2.0 course read more
  • andy esquivel: I do read your posts and articles, and several times read more



Technorati search

» Blogs that link here