Jeff Wilhelm on helping kids form their reading identities

Jeff Wilhelm, one of the authors of Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want—and Why We Should Let Them, recently stopped by the Scholastic Parents Facebook page to talk to parents about the importance of pleasure reading. At the end of the chat, he opened the floor for questions. Here are three compelling questions from participating parents, and Jeff's thoughtful answers. 

Candice D-P.: My parents are outraged that I am allowing my 10yr old to read Hunger Games a). they say the content is inappropriate for him, b). the book is too thick 4 him, and c). I'm asking too much from him by having him read a whole chapter each day. The goal for him is once he completes the book, he can then watch the movie. My husband read the whole book and felt it was appropriate for him and my son says he really likes the book. So my question is are my parents correct or is it acceptable for him to read the book?

Candice, this gets back to the question of interpretive content and interpretive complexity.  What really matters is not what is in the text, per se, but how he as a reader responds to the book and what meaning he makes of it. He is engaged by the book and that is a definite vote YES for it.  The next question is what does he think, and how does he think with the book and where does that lead him? I know that there are books that are not appropriate for particular kids at certain points in their lives, but that doesn’t mean the book is bad – it means that the timing is wrong or the match of book to reader is not ideal.  So again, the question I would ask is not about the book and its appropriateness, but what is he getting out of his reading.  That means engaging him in conversations about book choice and about his reading and response. You can then work with him to decide what are appropriate choices. In this way you will be apprenticing him into being a more expert adult reader and more responsible and independent in all areas of his life. Again, our study emphasized to us over and over that students gravitated to books that helped them think about current life challenges, and that helped them do “inner work” to address those challenges.  “Kids tend to read what they need!” In all cases in our study, this work was very healthy and necessary. The books that engaged them were helping them to outgrow themselves as readers and even more importantly, as people. 

Suezette G.: What do you think will be the impact of the CCSS on reading for pleasure for students?

We get this question quite often.  On one hand, the CCSS does not require any specific texts (though it is suggested that High School students are to read a Shakespeare play and some canonical works of American literature).  As a result, teachers should have more freedom to match books to student interests and needs. That is a good thing that promotes teacher professionalism as well as encouraging differentiation and matching kids to books they will enjoy and benefit from reading.  This can be done in school through free reading programs, or small groups who choose what to read in literature circles and the like.  In our study, the students had such varied interests as readers and people, that it would be challenge to find one book that was engaging for all of them so some small group book clubs would be a great idea.  On the other hand, the CCSS focuses on text complexity, and we would maintain that if want to create lifelong readers then we need to focus more on pleasure, and on interpretive content and complexity. If students, as our informants did, develop sophisticated strategies of comprehension and interpretation through their readings of beloved books, then we think this should be encouraged and leveraged.  Our informants were meeting all the CCSS standards for reading and many for writing through their free choice reading. We think this kind of growth should be the point of reading, not checking off the reading of particular texts. What will help students be lifelong readers is experience with the intense pleasures of reading.  Some of those pleasures, like the intellectual, clearly will help students meet the Core Anchor Standards.

There were several questions about where to find book recommendations. My quick answer is to make friends with other readers/other parents who read to their kids, with your librarians, and to find social media sites like Goodreads –All of this will help your children to see how real readers get recommendations (from knowledgeable insiders, from friends who read, from social media and review sites) and will help them develop the abilities to forge a real reading life outside of school. Award lists like Orbis Pictus can also be a great source.

There were also several questions about reading levels, and about AR (Accelerated Reader).  Reading levels are highly problematic because they only address one aspect of reading: the text being read, and then only one aspect of the text: the length of words and sentences.  We’ve known for over 50 years from schema theory research that the interests and capacities of the reader are much more important than the text in determining readability.  For instance, if one of my students likes cars and knows about motors, he is going to find a text about motors much more readable than I will.  In that circumstance with that text, he is a better reader than I am even though the lexile level would be beyond him and no problem for me.  We also know that context and situation supports reading – so if you have a context, like a compelling need to experience something (let’s say you have a problem to solve or a trip to take and are reading about that), then this context will assist you to read something more complex.  My advice to parents is not to get hung up on lexile levels. They are just not that helpful and should never trump a students’ interest or needs in a specific context.

Alfie Kohn has this to say about Accelerated Reader: it limits why you read, what you read, and how you read.  It also limits what counts as having read with those factual quizzes they use.  If your kids are involved in AR, then I’d also be encouraging them to read beyond the AR lists so they are reminded what real readers do as far as text selection, response and sharing. Real readers don’t take quizzes to prove they’ve read – they talk about what they’ve read, reflect on it, try to incorporate what they’ve learned into their lives. This is what we need to encourage students to do.

Christine M.: My daughter still loves to read her board books, early readers and picture books. She recreates the story lines/plots, changes the characters to people in our own lives and situations? 
Should I be looking for higher level books to fill these needs or let her use her imagination to express her concerns?

Your daughter is cultivating her imagination, engaged in fanfic composing, and is clearly doing important inner work with her reading!  Let her stay with it and encourage her!  That said, you could sometimes invite her to read other books that might be a bit higher level by making connections to the books she already loves. E.g. I often say to my students “If you loved Hunger Games, then you are going to love 1984 or Brave New World! And I’d love to talk to you about all the similarities and some of the differences!” Even if they don’t take me up immediately, they now know that there are many other books in the Hunger Games tradition.

Thanks, Jeff!