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Myths of Independent Reading


by Nancie Atwell - December 08, 2009

Teacher and writer Nancie Atwell responds to critics of reading workshopóan approach in which students choose the books they readóby identifying and dissecting five myths about independent reading.

In August, The New York Times featured an article about reading workshop and my practice of asking students to select their own books.  The response was staggering: over four hundred e-mails in twenty-four hours.  Some were supportive—comments from civilians who wished their English teachers had taught this way and teachers whose students had been choosing books for years.  But many writers were apoplectic.  


Their reactions described a mythology of dangers inherent in letting kids decide what they’ll read.  So with a little help from my friends Thomas Newkirk of the University of New Hampshire and Teri Lesesne from Sam Houston University, I tried to dissect the most pernicious of the myths.


Choice means anything goes.  


In reading workshop, the teacher’s responsibility is to invite, nurture, and sustain engagement with literature.  This means books that tell worthwhile stories.  I select the titles that fill my classroom library, and every year my seventh and eighth graders and I conduct hundreds of booktalks: enthusiastic recommendations of literature of all stripes, mainly young adult fiction, but also classics and contemporary adult fare that help students transition to what might come next, along with memoirs, journalism, and humor.  


Reading workshop isn’t a study hall.  The teacher doesn’t sit back and say, “Okay, everybody, read whatever.”  The teacher is a reader, a critic, a guide.  In conversations with individuals, we say, “Tell me about your book, about the characters and their conflicts, about what you’re noticing about the writing.”  And we’re enthusiastic reviewers.  In booktalks we announce to the group, “Here’s the next good story.  Here’s who and what it’s about.  Here’s why I think you’ll love it as much as I do.”  Reading workshop is a deliberate environment, one that supports immersion in stories, characters, and themes.  It points kids, always, to the next great book.  Our K-8 students’ notions of the next great books can be found on the Kids Recommend pages at www.c-t-l.org.


Last fall Heidi entered our school as a seventh grader.  She ate the Twilight series—as far as I’m concerned, not the next great books—like candy.  I let her, because stories like these can help inexperienced readers understand how to manage the experience of a big, fat book.  As Lesesne notes, they’re a means to an end, not an end in themselves.  I booktalked, nudged, and challenged Heidi—everyone.  In June, she named The Poisonwood Bible and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as her favorites of the forty books she finished.  And she said, “You know, I went back to try to reread one of the Twilight books, and I just couldn’t get into it, I was so surprised by the writing.  She’s not really a very good writer.”  


A realization like Heidi’s isn’t accidental.  It’s a response to purposeful teaching and to the forty stories I’d selected for our classroom library that had spoken to her.  Along the way, she learned to tell the difference between literary novels and popular fiction, something many adults never do.


A goal of creating habitual, life-long readers is insufficient or lacking in rigor.


It’s habitual readers who find their way to literature.  Frequent, voluminous book-reading builds fluency, stamina, vocabulary, confidence, and comprehension.  It also sharpens tastes and preferences, critical perspectives, and knowledge of genres and authors.  In addition, the cultural knowledge that E.D. Hirsch espouses is a function of habitual reading.  Students leave our tiny school in rural Maine as skilled, literary readers, but also smarter about the world they’ll meet out there—about language, ideas, history, current events, people, and places they’ve encountered only in the pages of the hundreds of stories they’ve read.  


Malcolm Gladwell writes in Outliers about the 10,000 hours of practice that experts need.  As readers, the kids at our school get that practice.  My students finished an average of fifty-three books last year.  So they were prepped to be able to love Pride and Prejudice, The White Tiger, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Road, Life of Pi, and titles by Russell Banks, Bill Bryson, Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, Tobias Wolff, Margaret Atwood, and Kurt Vonnegut when they picked them up on their own.  A non-reader confronted by Jane Eyre or The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t stand a chance.  


The classroom is a place for the classics—because, as Diane Ravitch told the Times, “Kids will pick things that are trendy and popular.  But that’s what [they] should do in [their] free time.”  


The evidence is clear: most American adolescents don’t read in their free time.  The 2006 Kids and Family Reading Report found that a third of middle school students and half of fifteen- to seventeen-year-olds read only two or three times a month outside of school.  In 2008, the NEA reported that only 27% of eleven- to fourteen-year-olds had read a book outside of school for at least a half an hour on the day previous to the survey.  


We know that independent reading declines in secondary school.  We know that reading scores do, too: in 2007, fully 70% of eighth graders read below the proficient level on NAEP.  


We can engage in magical thinking, or we can teach the students we’ve got.  The students I’ve got choose their own books, and they read for twenty minutes at school each day and for at least a half an hour seven nights a week.  Reading is the most important homework I can assign them.  Reading is a high-priority use of English class time.  Making time for reading is where that average of fifty-three books comes from.


Students read the classics their teachers assign.


The dirty little secret of secondary English is how many students fake their reading—through Spark Notes, Cliff Notes, Wikipedia, listening to discussions, selective skimming, and outright cheating. Newkirk argues that adolescents are “overmatched” by the books they’re assigned.  What are fourteen-year-olds supposed to make of Gatsby, of Myrtle Wilson and the Buchanans?  Of MacBeth and that wife of his?  Of Dickens’ class bitterness in Great Expectations, or the tradition of romantic chivalry in Cyrano de Bergerac?  As Lesesne observes, the authors of the classics wrote them for adults, not for children.  The protagonists are adults, dealing with adult issues; their motivations, experiences, ambitions, and reactions are difficult, if not impossible, for kids to enter into or understand.


Reading workshop only works with certain students.


Teachers of honors English will say, “This approach is okay for low-ability readers, but my students are facing SATs.”  Teachers of struggling readers argue, “Reading workshop’s okay for independent readers, but my students need explicit instruction and one novel, to read together and discuss a chapter at a time.”  But getting lost in an interesting story works for everyone.  Once kids find the first great book, often with the help of their teacher, they’re off and running.


My students range from dyslexics to speed readers to sophisticated literary critics.  The common denominator is that they know what the reading zone feels like, and they want to be there.  No matter who our students are, our job is to invite them to enter this happy state of engagement again and again—if for no other reason than the results of every NAEP, SAT, and PISA, which show that the best student readers are habitual, independent readers.


Instructional fads come and they go.  But human needs and desires remain constant.  Our students—all of them—want the same sense, satisfaction, and meaning that adults seek from our reading.  We need to acknowledge the power of stories to sustain every student’s interest; to question the comprehension-strategies-fluency-word-attack-instant-quiz-assigned-novel programs and pedagogies that clutter our language arts curricula; to learn about children’s and young adult literature; and to embrace an approach that helps kids understand why anyone would want to read in the first place.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 08, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15869, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 2:34:31 PM

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