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Author Interview With Donalyn Miller: 'Reading in the Wild'

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As I was reading about - and looking forward to - Donalyn Millers upcoming book (with co-author Colby Sharp),  Game Changer!: Book Access To All Kids, I realized that I had never interviewed her about her last book, Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer's Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits.

She was kind enough to let me rectify that oversight!

Donalyn Miller is an award-winning Texas teacher, author, and staff development leader.

LF: You write about the importance of daily reading time in class for students.  There's a school of thought that says teachers should act as models and be reading at this same time.  Others, including you (as you write in the book), suggest that, instead, teachers should be using that time to observe and engage students.  Could you share what exactly teachers should be doing during those periods and why?

Donalyn Miller:

We can model a reading life without sitting and reading during students' independent reading time. How we talk about books and share our reading lives communicates to students that we are reading. I occasionally pull out my book and read alongside students--on a Friday afternoon or when a particular group of students will benefit from the proximity control, but as a practice I think that this is the best opportunity to talk with students individually about what they are reading and help them set reading both personal and academic reading goals. Conferring with students about what they are reading builds relationships and communicates to students that we care about their personal engagement and reading growth. I keep records in Evernote of every student conference and use these notes (and recordings) to assess students' progress, inform my teaching, and track students' growth and reading goals over time.  

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LF: Reading logs are a topic of ongoing discussion and debate among educators.  You are critical of them and, instead, recommend that teachers have students complete Reading Itineraries.  Can you talk about critique of reading logs, describe Reading Itineraries, and explain why you think they're a better alternative?

Donalyn Miller:

The Reading Itinerary in Reading in the Wild is a short time reflection activity, not another version of a reading log. It is meant to help students identify where, when, and how much reading is taking place away from school. Students keep this documentation for short time and reflect on it to identify obstacles that prevent them from reading at home.

I am not a proponent of the traditional home reading log because students can log pages and minutes read on these logs forever and never complete a book. I know this because my middle schoolers and their families tell me this is what happens. Reading logs don't provide any evidence that reading (or comprehension) has taken place. There is no such thing as a better log. Talking with students and sharing their reading experiences in class does more to encourage them to read at home than a log.

We don't need a reading log to determine if our students are reading at home or not. I imagine every teacher reading this interview knows who is not reading much at home. They aren't making progress. They don't have a book going. They can't talk about anything they are reading. They come into school without a book. Regular reading conferences and records kept in readers' notebooks give us all of the evidence we need to see who is reading and who needs more support.

We must also determine our students' book access at home. Many students lack meaningful, consistent access to books at home, which prevents them from reading much at home. Do your students have library cards? What obstacles prevent them from acquiring these cards or getting to the library?

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LF: Though I don't think you mention Accelerated Reader in the book (unless I missed it), I've got to ask you to share your critique and, importantly, how you think teachers should handle it if they are in a school where it's mandated?

Donalyn Miller:

I have written about Accelerated Reader several times, including a blog post on my Education Week Teacher blog titled, "How to Accelerate a Reader" years ago. I promote research-proven teaching practices and there have never been clean studies proving AR's effectiveness compared to schools that don't use the program. They claim it is "research-based," but their research isn't unbiased and has never been peer-reviewed and published in a journal. I cannot promote a program that lacks this research foundation. It also costs a lot of money. Whenever I ask school leaders how they would spend this funding if they didn't buy the program, they always tell me they would buy more books for their libraries and classrooms. We have a truckload of research going back decades proving that access to books improves reading achievement and reading engagement. It seems clear that we should spend our limited resources where they will do our students the most good.

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LF: Your book has been out for awhile now.  What are two-to-four things you have learned since its publication that you think would be useful for teachers to hear?

Donalyn Miller:

Even children who are not at grade level mastery deserve full citizenship in the reading communities at their schools. I see too many children pulled out of independent reading and library time for their intervention classes because they, "aren't missing anything instructional." They are missing pleasure messages about reading, the opportunity to practice and apply instruction, and connect with their peers around reading. Studies by Dr. Richard Allington and others reveal that students receiving RtI interventions do very little reading--in a 30-minute block they may read for only 8 minutes. The best RtI intervention? Improve the quality of the Tier One instruction across the school, including ensuring daily reading time for all students and access to books. When teaching practices improve, fewer kids fall into Tier Two and Three.

All children deserve to see themselves and their families represented in books. We must evaluate our classroom and school libraries, bookrooms, read aloud selections, and texts used for modeling and instruction to determine if we including voices from underrepresented groups. Whose voices are missing from the texts we read and share with children? Whose voices dominate? How can we shift to more inclusive reading opportunities that celebrate our global humanity? Groups like We Need Diverse Books, Social Justice Books, and #disrupttexts are thought-leaders in these conversations. I encourage educators to check out their websites and social media conversations.

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LF: Is there anything I haven't asked about that you'd like to share?

Donalyn Miller:

You didn't ask me about my new book! In November, my third book (co-written with Colby Sharp) will be published. Game Changer! Book Access for All Kids (Scholastic, 2018) describes the research around physical, intellectual, and cultural access to books, provides extensive resources and instructional strategies, and features 27 teachers, librarians, administrators, community advocates, and national experts who share how to increase children's access to texts and engagement with reading.

LF: Thanks, Donalyn!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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