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Are we teaching books or teaching readers?

That question jumped out of Chapter 4 of The Book Whisperer and smacked me! It is posed by Donalyn Miller in response to a debate about whether to allow students to read "mind candy" for pure "escapism" or require all books they read to be up to the teacher's standard of superior "literary value".

She goes on to say, "By allowing and encouraging students to read what they want, I also endorse their culture and their interests -- something we do not do enough in school ... Once students find at least one book they like and receive approval for reading books of their own choice, it is easier to move them toward books you suggest."

These thoughts are reasons why I don't agree with Charlotte Mason's opinion about "twaddle". Of course you cannot just let your students read any 'ol trash, any 'ol time, all the time. But I think about myself ... sometimes I read some great stuff, and sometimes I just want an easy read with a good, if even mind-numbing, storyline!

Ms. Miller refers to one student who was really into the Halo series, based on the popular Xbox 360 video game, when he had been more than a reluctant reader up to that point. She piggybacked off this selection to recommend other more "nutritional" literary selections based on his interest in that genre and type of storyline.

I had this same type of experience with Dawson last year. There was absolutely no interest on his part in reading. Then he picked up the first in the Halo series and read it in a matter of a few days. He even read it instead of playing it! I can learn more about this series and get some recommendations of some award-winning fantasy fiction books that might interest him.

Back to the read-what-you-want-free-for-all ... Donalyn Miller requires her students to read 40 books per year! If the book is over 350 pages, it counts as two books. She allows her students to choose their own books. But to get them to read a variety of books, she requires that they read a certain number of books from different genres, including poetry, historical fiction, mystery, informational, and biographical, just to name a few. The students are then free to choose whichever books they want as long as they meet the genre requirements.

And then they just stinkin' start reading and read all the time!

Finally, she has this to say about the "Reading Freedom" her students have, "[Students] need a place to start. To provide scaffolding that will help them develop their own plans, I provide students with an approach for reading ...."

The place to start, is in the midst of their own interests with approval of their likes and dislikes. The scaffolding is the genre requirement list.

I don't know that I will require 40 books, probably more like 20, because we will, additionally, be reading Living Books as part of our U.S. History unit. But I like the idea of providing Dawson with a genre requirement list, pared down for a 20 book total, and allowing him to choose his own reading material within those genres.


  1. Great thoughts! I agree whole-heartedly! I hope the kids meet the goal of 20. I'm sure they will with a teacher that has this mindset. :)


  2. great thoughts. i'm so glad i did this with my little reluctant reader. she'll be starting 4th grade soon, and is finally starting to read for the joy of it. the key {as you mentioned} was allowing her to find her own interests in books. i learned early on that 'required readying' books were not going to work for us... as in abeka's reading books.


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