Cultivating wild readers

Book Whisperer Donalyn Miller recently shared with Scholastic's Instructor magazine her strategies for building a love of learning in students. We've excerpted her wonderful advice here—we think it's relevant for teachers, parents, and anyone trying to help a child discover the joy of reading. You can read the full article here

When you think about reading, what do you visualize? I imagine traveling around the world while curled up in my armchair. I see books stacked around my house. I picture my husband, my daughters, my granddaughters, and my friends—all readers who suggest titles, share books, and talk about what they are reading. For me, reading is part of my daily life—nothing rare or remarkable.

As a teacher, I share my love of reading with my students and try to inspire them to read more. My upper elementary and middle school students read 30, 40, 50, or more books a year, without incentives or extrinsic rewards. Many of my students develop a love for reading during one year in the classroom. 

But this is not universally true. I've run into former students who admit they aren’t reading much anymore. What happens? Why do these students, who read avidly in my class, lose their reading motivation? They often tell me they don’t have time to read, they have too much homework and too many activities, or they “can’t find anything good to read.”

I have evolved in my understanding of lifelong reading habits and a teacher’s role in fostering their development. If my students had internalized the behaviors of lifelong readers, they wouldn’t need a teacher to orchestrate their reading lives. While students benefited from the optimal reading environment in my classroom, they lacked the skills to maintain independent reading habits. It is necessary to model, explicitly teach, and reflect on students’ development of lifelong, avid—or, as I call them, “wild”—reading behaviors to ensure that they remain motivated, engaged readers. My colleague Susan Kelley and I surveyed 900 adults and found an array of characteristics that define people’s reading lives.

Here are five habits of “wild readers” that translate well into classroom practice.

1. Dedicate time to reading

Wild readers spend substantial time reading in spite of their hectic lives. They capitalize on the moments in their days when they are bored or waiting, and rack up significant reading time by stealing it.

Tip: Encourage students to carry a book with them everywhere so that they have something to read when they finish assignments, wait for the bus, or ride to soccer practice.

2. Successfully self-select

Wild readers are confident when selecting books to read, and they have the experience and skills to successfully choose books that meet their interests, needs, and reading abilities.

Tip: Collect four or five books at a student’s reading level that match her interests and invite her to select from these. Have students reflect on their book selections. Create forms with questions that include the following:

◗ How did you find out about the books that you like to read?
◗ When you see a book, how do you decide whether you want to read it?
◗ Do you ever abandon a book? Why or why not?

3. Share books with others

Wild readers enjoy talking about books almost as much as reading them. Reading communities provide a group of other readers who support us. As literacy expert Stephen Krashen reminds us, “Children read more when they see other people reading.”

Tip: Foster reading relationships by seating students with common reading interests at the same table. They can suggest titles to one another for additional reading and participate in book ­discussions.

4. Have reading plans

You can spot wild readers from a mile away. They’re usually the first to get their hands on the new Rick Riordan or Suzanne Collins and they can’t wait to fill out the latest book order form at school. Wild readers always plan to read beyond their current book. They anticipate new books by favorite authors or the next installment in a beloved series. Reading is habitual for them, not a casual, once-in-awhile pursuit.

Tip: Promote series, which become a reading plan for students who struggle to maintain reading momentum and motivation. Students who read series develop confidence and increased comprehension with each subsequent book because they build background knowledge as they go.

5. Validate and expand

Yes, children need to read widely and experience a range of texts as part of their literacy education. But wild readers express strong ­preferences in the books they like—gravitating toward specific genres, writing styles, topics, and authors. Validate their choices while pushing the envelope.

Tip: Encourage students to try new books by reading across all genres. Show students connections between texts of different genres like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793 and Jim Murphy’s An American Plague, or The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan and D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.

More about Donalyn Miller: Known as “The Book Whisperer,” Miller is the coauthor of Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits. She teaches language arts and social studies at Peterson Elementary in Fort Worth, Texas.