The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

–Dr. Seuss

I wish I’d had Donalyn Miller as my sixth grade language arts teacher.  Her classroom sounds like heaven.  It is overflowing in books.  Students in her class spend the majority of their class time engaged in (gasp!) independent reading.  And here’s the best part: students get to decide what they want to read. How radical of an idea is that?  With all the expensive, high-tech, and evidence-based reading programs out there, how dare she do something so silly as provide children books to read and then give them time to read them!

Here’s an alarming statistic: According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, in 2009, only 33% of the fourth graders in the US were reading at or above a proficient level. It is horrifying to think that 67% of our nation’s fourth grade children read below a proficient level.  

In her book, The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, Ms. Miller lays out her methods for teaching children to become life-long readers.  Most of it flies in the face of traditional teaching methods (e.g., whole-class novels, reading logs, book reports, round-robin style oral reading, completing worksheets) and the current practices spurred on by legislation initiatives and by assessment-crazed maniacs (e.g., Accelerated Readers, reading-level selections, teaching test taking strategies, etc.).  It’s even somewhat contrary to “evidence-based” practice, which is THE buzzword these days for those who aren’t hip with the trendy lingo.  There is little research out there showing positive effects of independent reading and not nearly enough on student motivation. Ms. Miller provides few statistics and references supporting her ideas. However, Ms. Miller requires her students to read more than 40 books a year in her class, which is more than some of her students claim to have read their whole lives before coming to her class.  This is important because there is one particularly robust effect in reading research that shows that struggling readers read less and thus limit the development of their knowledge and reading skills, while good readers read more further developing their knowledge and skills. This finding, known as The Matthews Effect (Stanovich, 1986), is an allusion to Matthew 13:12 in the Bible that states “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” Requiring children to read as much as possible is one way to level the playing field.  Establishing a classroom culture that values reading, creates easy access to books, fosters the development of internal motivation, and provides a community of readers seems like a good way to go to me.  Donalyn Miller’s book is a guide for the journey.