This is a guest post by Annie Palmer. She is a reading interventionist and literacy coach in a suburban Kansas City school district. At the time of original publication of this article, she was a classroom teacher. You can follow her on Twitter @palmeram. She blogs over at Breaking Education Barriers.
It is time for teachers across the nation to join a literacy revolution. Many of us have heard the alarming statistics about reading and literacy in America. Among the numbers to worry about are the facts that two-thirds of eighth-grade students do not read on grade level (NEAP, 2009) and students with below grade level reading skills are twice as likely to drop out of school as those who read on or above grade level (Adolescent Literacy: A National Reading Crisis). Are you convinced yet that we need a literacy revolution?
The components of this revolution are not in a basal program. The answer is not more book reports, more ditto sheets, and more whole-class novels. The answers lies in the fact that our kids are severely lacking in a motivation to read when we drown them with these traditional ways of teaching. We must first ask ourselves what will motivate our students to read. According to Krashen (2004), 51 studies prove that students in free-reading programs perform better than or equal to students in any other type of reading program. Not only does research back this claim up, so does evidence-based research conducted by Donalyn Miller, a sixth-grade Texas teacher and author of The Book Whisperer. Miller’s students are passing the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test with flying colors, and more importantly, they are motivated and inspired to read. I have to admit, after reading The Book Whisperer three years ago, I doubted that free voluntary reading (FVR) could make such an impact. I was proven wrong. After implementing FVR through an 18-book challenge in fifth grade and a 40- book challenge in third grade, I am convinced this is the key to our literacy revolution.
My classroom was transformed from mundane skills-only instruction to a classroom where students took part in daily conversations about higher-level questions about their reading, excitement about what they were going to read next, and a sense of pride simply from the sheer amount and depth of reading. And yes, that was without any extrinsic incentives! The reward was the reading itself. (Yes, kids do read without extrinsic rewards).
There was definitely an adjustment period for the students, parents and for me as we underwent this new approach. Questions from the students included “You mean I have to do 18 book reports?!” No, was the answer to that; they did not do book reports. One does not need a book report to know whether students are comprehending text or even to know whether they can summarize. Suggestions from parents included making the kids take an Accelerated Reader test. Again, one does not need a test to know whether a child comprehends or even to figure whether they actually read the book. The point of free voluntary reading is to get students excited about reading, to make them life-long readers and to facilitate intrinsic motivation to read. I used my classroom lessons and assessments to gauge their ability to comprehend text. Free voluntary reading was about creating the love of books, which is way more likely to encourage someone to read the rest of their life than a book report, an Accelerated Reader test or any classroom lesson. Lessons, assessments, and comprehension checks need to be a part of a communication arts classroom, but without free voluntary reading, a classroom teacher is only helping students pass their class, not helping them be a life-long reader and thinker.
The first year I took this approach was the first year I started receiving notes from parents, saying “thank you, my child now loves to read.” One of the most impactful responses I received from a parent and her child was as follows:
“My son and I we were discussing his day at school and if he had homework this evening. He mentioned that he needed to read, which lead me to tell him that I have noticed an increased interest in him wanting to read. His response was enlightening! He said, “Oh yes, mom, Mrs. Palmer has changed my life”. It was a very sincere statement and just wasn’t quite what I was expecting in reply. He continued to say that he likes to read and when he gets a good book, he just can’t put it down. Jake has always read books because he needed to and because we’ve encouraged him to; however, he has never enjoyed reading or picked up books at the spur of the moment until this year. Thank you!”