Falling in love with books!


A problem:

Schools sometimes teach the skill of reading without creating the hunger for reading.

Not enough students fall in love with reading.

Our basic plan:

We'll pull out all the stops to cultivate a community in which all kids regularly fall in love with a multitude of books. (See the list below for how we might do that.)

Our goals:

Every student — not just almost every student — enjoys reading, and wants to do it more!

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

  1. A small collection of books that constantly grows larger. A huge collection of unknown books can feel alien and imposing to people, so at a year's beginning you might only see a small number of books in a room. The teacher will give students a pitch for each of these books — to arouse students' interest. Then, each day, the teacher will publicly add another book to the collection, giving a very brief pitch about why students might find it interesting. (This uses a psychological trick: feelings of scarcity can create feelings of values. It also relies on students having more interest in a collection of books that they know something about, and that someone they know — their teacher — already values.)
  2. A daily period of silent, sustained reading (SSR). In this period, students can read whatever they want. Ideally, it would be wonderful to synchronize this team throughout the school, so everyone — all students, all teachers, all administrators and custodians — could have the experience of reading simultaneously.
  3. Comfortable reading spaces: bean bags, soft carpet, reclining chairs, fancy arm chairs, and the like. Our classrooms should be full of reading nooks.
  4. Book tastings! It's hard to get excited about a book you know little about, so during we might kick off our SSRs with a 3-minute book tasting: students find a book they've never read, and dip into it for 3 minutes. If it's fiction, that probably means reading the beginning; if it's nonfiction, that means looking at the inside cover, the table of contents, and then just leafing through the book to see if anything catches your interest. (Tasting large numbers of books in libraries and bookstores is, by the way, one of my personal secrets as an avid reader.)
  5. Students treating books with respect — and perhaps even reverence. We might have rules, for example, that books can't touch the ground. Like all rules of this sort, this would be silly on one level, but could lead to change attitudes.
  6. Photos of authors on the wall. Books are not just things — they're fragments of real people. It can be good to help kids remember that.
  7. A regular practice of kids giving short, public book recommendations. This is similar to the book reports we all did in grade school — except with the specific goal of actually getting other students excited to read the book!
  8. An index of questions. As students read, they can write down what questions they think the book answers. For nonfiction, this might include questions like "What's the bottom of the ocean like?" and "Who really wrote Shakespeare's plays?" For fiction, this might include questions like "How could you survive if you were abandoned in the forest?" and "If your parents were divorcing, and were both emotionally distant from you, how might you cope?" Students looking for a new book could flip through this index of questions.

Some specific questions:

  • Should we go so far as to help kids make a reading nook at home?
  • In general, I'd like to guarantee families zero homework (or a very limited amount) each night. But I'm thinking about making an exception for personal reading — maybe requiring 30 minutes each day. What are the advantages and disadvantages to that?

"One cannot read a book: one can only re-read it."


What's the book you've re-read most? Vladimir Nabokov, one of the 20th century's most controversial authors, wrote:

Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.

Oh goodness is he right.

One of the best things about being a teacher is that I'm forced to re-read my favorite books. And I rarely re-read a book without understanding it better. I'll see how the ideas connect together more broadly; I'll see why certain examples are used.

Sometimes I'll realize that the book has a neat, simple thesis that I entirely missed before. Sometimes I'll realize that the thesis I thought I had discovered was really the wrong thesis.

Maybe I just suck at reading? Well, I doubt it. (And if I do, at least I have Nabokov for company!)

Re-reading is one of the secrets of good reading. Re-reading leads to a more extensive understanding of the text. Re-reading leads to a more precise understanding of the text.

And re-reading leads to a deeper love of the text. We're designed to love things we've encountered before: the much-studied familiarity principle: the more you see it, the more you like it. Advertisers, of course, understand this: that's why you've seen Flo the Progressive Insurance Girl a hundred times. (She grows on you, Flo.)

And yet — obviously! — there's another side to this: forced repetition is alien, unpleasurable, hateful. Forced re-reading would ruin reading.

So: how can we encourage students to experience the joys of re-reading without telling them to re-read?

Well: I'm still working on this. But here are some of my current thoughts:

  1. We keep the books that students love. If a student attends our first grade, she can be sure that if she loved a book, it'll be there for her to read again in twelfth grade.
  2. We encourage students to pick up a book they've read before: maybe one they've especially enjoyed — or especially hated. (I find it useful to return to books I despise. Sometimes — sometimes — it turns out the problem wasn't them, but me.) We can do this occasionally, during our individualized reading periods (our S.S.R. or D.E.A.R. periods when the whole school will be rapt silent with readers). We might even let the older students re-visit the younger rooms to find those books, and enjoy them the way they did before — say, splayed out on the rug.
  3. We revisit some of the same topics over the years, and encourage students to briefly rehash some of the books they had loved. This, of course, is what we're doing with our Big Spiral History curriculum — posts here, here, here, here [deep breath!] and here — going through all human (and cosmic) history in three cycles, each of four years. So there's a reason to re-read first grade books in fifth grade, and a reason to re-read fifth grade books freshman year.

But I imagine this is just a start. How else can we use re-reading to increase love, mastery, and wisdom in our school?

On word geekery (& vocab acquisition)


Can we make all kids into word geeks? And if can, should we? I'm a card-carrying word geek. Or I would be if we had cards for such things — as it is, the ten or so vocabulary books on my shelf probably suffice.

I'm the sort of person who exults to learn obscure terms (your acnestis, for example, is the part of your back that, when it itches, you can't reach!) and oddball word origins (to disembowel and eviscerate literally mean the same thing — bowels and viscera are both words for 'intestines', and dis- and e- both mean 'out'!).

Never trust a geek. We'll swear up and down that our particular corner of geekdom-ery is crucial — pivotal! — for every man, woman, and child. So you hear music geeks declaring that music is the core of an education, engineering geeks declaring that, no, it's engineering, and so on. Somewhere a My Little Pony geek is probably saying that American kids need to close the Twilight Sparkle gap with the Koreans.

And let me emphasize: Never trust a geek.

But: vocabulary knowledge is reading skill.

There's a hard-to-squelch belief that kids don't need to learn vocabulary — that they can just learn to use "contextual clues." The trouble with this is that it oftentimes doesn't work. Take the following sentence, from yesterday's New York Times:

In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, who last week called for obligatorisk karantæne for health care workers returning from West Africa, sounded a more forsonende note, joining Mayor Bill de Blasio to announce financial incitamenter to encourage health professionals to go to West Africa to treat Ebola patients.

Above, I've taken a real world sentence, and translated into Danish the words that many of my high school students wouldn't know. (Thanks, Google translate!)

Can you figure out what obligatorisk, karantæne, forsonende, and incitamenter mean?

Very possibly you might be able to: my students, however, would not. (To figure it out, you might draw on your knowledge of the world — specifically, your knowledge of "the sorts of things governors are demanding of health care workers when they return from areas rife in scary, infectious diseases." Many high school students lack this knowledge. That's why they're reading this article, actually: to gain it.)

Here, by the way, is the sentence in all its Technicolor glory:

In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, who last week called for mandatory quarantines for health care workers returning from West Africa, sounded a more conciliatory note, joining Mayor Bill de Blasio to announce financial incentives to encourage health professionals to go to West Africa to treat Ebola patients.

If the kids don't know enough words, they won't be able to understand the text. 

Foreign language learners, of course, know this. Polyglot Anthony Lauder asks what percentage of a text's words do you need to comprehend it, and cites the following:

  • 98% pleasant, free reading
  • 95% comprehensible
  • 90% serious study
  • 85% heroes only
  • 80% gibberish

(This is from his wonderful speech PolyNot. The actual quote is about 5 minutes in.)

English professor extraordinaire E.D. Hirsch suggests there's a troubling Matthew Effect at play here: a young student who knows most of the words in a text will understand the text better, and that understanding will help her make sense of the few words she doesn't know. She'll then be able to take on books with more unfamiliar vocabulary, and so on, and so on, edging upwards and forwards in linguistic complexity.

A student who doesn't start by knowing most of the words, won't. He'll be stuck.

The (verbally) rich get richer, and the (verbally) poor get poorer.


So it will benefit our students a great deal to make sure that they start with understanding a great deal of vocabulary. Much of that, of course, is in the parents court. But how can our school help students acquire vocabulary? How can we make it relatively painless — and even enjoyable?

This I'll take up in Monday's post!

Reading for Joy


When did you begin to love reading? Was it a specific book? A specific person? What's behind your book lust? Now: how can we create that same love in every student? To repeat what I wrote yesterday: if we bring up kids who can read but choose not to, we'll have wasted our (and their) time.

To succeed at this — bringing kids to experience daily the joy of reading — we'll want to compile a long list of strategies, and pursue them all.

Some of the ideas on this blog are wacky, or at least sit on a WACKY—BUTTONED-DOWN spectrum. I like being wacky. Most of these ideas, though, are securely in the 'buttoned down' region: they're practices being done at good schools around the world.

These ideas are also crazy-incomplete. We're in need of more — please post your suggestions in the comments!

1. Fill the school with good books!

A surprising number of children's books are garbage. That sounds unfair, but: it's true. Such, at least, is my experience these five years (my son will be five in November) rustling through libraries and book stores. And kids aren't fooled: they won't pay attention to the dull ones.

Good books make kids rapt; bad ones make kids bored. Bizarrely, adults seem sometimes to be incapable of recognizing which are which. I've watched librarians and teachers read aloud truly insufferable books — stories where nothing much happens and no one much cares — and then be shocked (shocked!) that the kids are acting so squirrelly.

Good books grab listeners. 

And there are so, so many of these: stories and poems and picture books and reference books and novels. A college professor of mine pointed out that this is one of the under-appreciated joys of adult life: that there are more excellent children's books than anyone could read while still children.

Obviously, people will disagree about which books are good, and which are bad. No surprises there! We shouldn't frivol away our time looking for unanimity. Our rule, instead, should be this: We won't let any books stay in our school that aren't actively loved.

That way, our school will be stuffed full of books that teachers and students love. Reading can be about sharing loves.

2. Share beloved books!

I envision our faculty and students sharing their favorites — giving (very short) presentations on why they love certain books, and helping entice others to try them out. The presentations could be in the format of "You might love this book if…"

Everyone would participate — the secretaries and janitors included!

Then we could set the month's recommended books on a special bookshelf, along with a note of who recommended it, and why. This way, reading could sometimes be less a solitary act than a shared one. Books can be a way of connecting to the people around you.

3. Read aloud!

We need to show that people love to read, and the easiest way to do that is to actually show people loving reading.

We'll want to read aloud selections from wonderful books daily. Sometimes the goal can be to focus an entire class around an entire story — the teacher could read the whole of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (in one day) or Where the Red Fern Grows (over many days).

Other times, the goal can be to entice students to read different books — the teacher could read aloud the first quarter of Dr. Seuss's Horton Hatches the Egg or the first chapter of Lemon Snicket's The Bad Beginning.

Obviously, reading aloud isn't some revolutionary new tactic. People have been hearing stories for hundreds of thousands of years longer than they've been reading them! As a school that takes human nature seriously, we might capitalize on that. Loving to hear stories (and love to tell them) is natural, deeply embedded in the human brain. We can build from that, inculcating a love of books and reading, long before students are actually able to decode the (evolutionarily novel) squiggles in front of them.

(Note: this point is made to great excellence by Jim Trelease in his classic The Read-Aloud Handbook, which our school will be making good use of!)

4. Give kids time for personal reading.

Many schools have periods of individualized reading — variously dubbed SSR (silent, sustained reading), DEAR (drop everything and read!), and so on. This is a wonderful thing. We'll do it, too.

I wonder — and this might be a silly idea — if it'd be worth the effort to have the entire school coordinate its DEAR time. Would it proclaim our community's book lust if, for 15 minutes, our entire school was silent, with everyone (students, teachers, janitors, administrators…) reading to themselves?

Let me know your thoughts on this.

Additionally, we're planning to have very, very minimal homework each night in the grade school years — with an exception made for an hour of daily reading. More on this in a later post!

5. Make physically comfortable reading spaces.

Human bodies weren't designed to sit in desks. Any school that aims to be "a school for humans" needs to mull over this pretty deeply, and we will be — more on that later.

For the present: sometimes, straight-back chairs are perfect for reading, and sometimes they're terrible. Our classrooms should have many options for reading: sofas and soft rugs and exercise balls and stand-up tables and lofted beds.

Similarly, our classrooms should have options for lighting: bright light and soft light. And perhaps for sound: silence, and white noise, and soft instrumental music.

Those, anyhow, are the ideas I can come up with. I know I'm only shaving the top of the proverbial iceberg.

Fellow teachers, parents, and educational geeks — what ideas have you seen work? 

A school for books


How can we bring up readers? Reading will be at the existential heart of our school. If we succeed at raising readers, we'll have succeeded overall — and if we fail here, we'll have failed everywhere.

What do we mean by "readers"? Let's (as always!) look to our three goals —


We'll bring up people who are *hungry* to read — who pick up fiction and nonfiction, who relish both its escapism and its realism, who like to read alone and with others.


We'll bring up people who *excel* at reading — who have vast vocabularies, strong focus, and variable speeds. For them, reading will be easier — they'll have top-notch skills in decoding, and deep reservoirs of content knowledge to ease comprehension.


We'll bring up people who *use* reading to build themselves — who browse broadly, who ask questions, and who stockpile personally meaningful quotes and quips.

I'll be exploring the nuances of these over the next few days. But first, a confession:

I'm a reader. (Of the "problematic" sort — I got in trouble as a kid for hauling multiple books into every situation, socially appropriate or not.) And I teach high-level reading. (A course on the campus of the University of Washington.)

But I'm out of my depth when I talk about how to teach reading to children. I've read a lot of books, but it's not my expertise. There are lots of people whose entire academic training is on this one subject. So: please forgive me in advance, and correct me in the comments section. I'll be thankful for any feedback I receive!