Developing Joyful Readers
In the fall, Nantucket Lighthouse School Upper Primary teachers, Joni Amaral and Kirsten Featherly, and I attended the Literacy for All Conference in Providence, Rhode Island. Each year a group of us participate in this conference, as it is one of the most important on the topic of children’s literacy. Speaker after speaker, workshop after workshop, shared a very compelling message; namely, let children read, let them read every day, let them read books of their choosing, let them read across all genres, platforms and cultures, at all different levels, and finally, let them read books that ignite a love of reading, a passion for the subjects that interest them and a purpose for exploring the written word.
The message seems obvious, like good practice in any school or home, and so I wondered why the drumbeat was so loud and steady. Why, throughout this year’s conference, did this theme pervade all of the keynote addresses and many of the workshops? The unfortunate reality is that, today, daily choice reading competes with and often loses out to technology’s quick hits of dopamine, as well as ambitious curricular goals, test prep and standardized testing, thus the amount of time devoted to daily choice reading has been greatly diminished. I am saddened by this fact, as well as the statistics showing a dramatic drop-off in students’ reading in general, and middle school students in particular.
When my son Carter was born, I recall receiving a very similar message to the one offered at the Literacy for All Conference, but this one came from our maternity nurse, Susie Farrell. A first-time mom, I was nervous as I readied to leave the hospital, and I wasn’t quite sure what I would do or how I would fare once I returned home. I was encouraged to read to my newborn, every day, even when it seemed he couldn’t possibly benefit from my doing so. Eager to connect with my newborn baby, I heeded this advice.
By two-years-old, my very busy son sat for long periods of time flipping through books and pointing to pictures and individual words, inquiring as to their meaning and noticing the most subtle of details that my hurried adult mind had missed. By three, we read multiple chapters of E. B. White’s Stuart Little each night before bed. As he learned to read on his own, he continued to listen to books read aloud, peruse books in the car, at the library or wherever he came across them, and he read books of his choosing each night before bed. There were no flashcards, no worksheets and no computer programs drilling early reading skills, but there was a natural curiosity, time together as a family and a genuine love of books and stories that developed.
While there was some intention, in that our home, our car and our daily routines involved books, there was also a natural joy that developed around reading, particularly because the books Carter encountered were appropriate for his age and level of development, and most importantly, they were based on his interests. We had alphabet books connected to things he loved, as well as rhyming books, cumulative books or books with alliteration and repetition.
Finding great joy in these experiences, we shared similar ones with our daughter. Maybe it was luck, a particular inclination or a subtly-prepared environment, but avid, joyful readers were born. One thing that seems certain is that the outcome would have been quite different had we not limited screens or dedicated time and space in each day for reading and sharing books together. I am convinced that if we cultivate the practice of daily, joyful reading during the early, formative years, a lifelong love of books can take hold.
Nantucket Lighthouse School’s Fidelity to the Practice of Daily, Choice Reading
As I reflect on the Literacy Conference and my experiences with my own children, I realize that one of the many things that draws me to Nantucket Lighthouse School is its fidelity to the practice of daily, choice reading and its commitment to developing joyful readers. While we provide explicit and developmentally appropriate instruction in foundational reading skills, such as phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary building and reading comprehension, we also share books and stories that appeal to the interests of a particular class or student.
This year, due to the very generous support of a three-year operating match, Nantucket Lighthouse School is able to provide even more refined and specialized instruction for all different levels and kinds of readers. We are very fortunate in that our long-time Upper Primary teacher and reading specialist Sandy Mitchell has come back to work with us this year. Sandy is helping all teachers with literacy planning and development, as well as with literacy instruction for individual and small groups of students. Because reading skills vary greatly within any given classroom, Sandy is able to support students anywhere along the reading spectrum, as well as teachers working to individualize instruction in the classroom.
How are parents expected to support reading at home? We ask parents to read with young children for 20 minutes each night. As children transition into reading on their own, we invite students and parents to read together, and then as they move through the grades, students are expected to read on their own for a designated amount of time based on their age. We look for a partnership with parents to support this practice at home.
Reading for Homework: Does it Really Matter?
Some might ask, if the nightly reading which is on the honor system, is really necessary or required. The answer is “Yes!” There are compelling statistics on the importance of daily reading. “Extensive reading is linked to superior performance on measures of general knowledge, vocabulary, spelling, verbal fluency, and reading comprehension.” (Scientific Learning Cooperation, 2008) Additionally, the time a child spends on reading is the greatest predictor of his or her overall reading proficiency and performance on standardized tests.
Adams’ 2006 study of fifth grade students’ time on reading outside of school, found the following:
- Children who read just over 3 minutes outside of school each day are exposed to 200,000 words/year. Increasing the amount of time by 10 minutes/day, increases word exposure to 825,000 words/year, a 313% increase.
- Children who read approximately 10 minutes outside of school each day are exposed to 622,000 words/year. Increasing the amount of time spent on reading by 10 minutes, increases word exposure to 1,269,917 words/year, a 104% increase.
- Children who read 20 minutes outside of school each day are exposed to 1,823,000 words/year. Increasing the amount of time to 30 minutes/day, increases word exposure to 2,686,981.
Starting Early and Looking for Joy
While these numbers are compelling, and somewhat alarming, I am hesitant to share them because there is a tendency to joylessly over-apply them. Such statistics can instill fear and worry that a child won’t be ‘successful’ or ‘competitive,’ or that s/he will fall behind. The panic can lead to force feeding books to children: books that are too hard, uninteresting or disconnected from happy, healthy and long-lasting reading habits. Pushing reading for the wrong reasons will likely backfire and create experiences that are pressured and stressful.
Instead, I would encourage a literature-rich environment that follows the cues of the developing reader and above all provides opportunities that are joyful, engaging, curiosity-provoking and ever-expanding. Additionally, there is important modeling that we do as adults. If children do not see us as readers, and instead find us glued to our phones or computers, and our homes do not carry books that pique children’s curiosity and sense of wonder, then it is likely reading will fall to the wayside.
This may sound like a tall order; however, I would encourage you to view it differently. When I first began reading with my children, I was not thinking that this would be their key to successful SAT scores, although this was in fact the case, but I did consider what kinds of experiences I wanted to share with them, and a joy around reading was one of them. Not for the purposes of ‘school success’ or ‘success on standardized tests,’ rather for the hope that my children would always have reading as a go-to activity and would one day become the critical readers they needed to be in order to successfully navigate life in a rapidly evolving, global world.
Tips for Encouraging Reading
University of Virginia psychology professor Daniel Willingham recommends that we shift the reasons behind wanting children to read. “Willingham encourages parents to re-imagine the act of reading as having less to do with school and more with a life well-lived. Instead of telling kids that reading books will help them get good grades or find a good career, make reading part of a larger family value: loving to learn.” (https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/46501/how-to-help-students-develop-a-love-of-reading) Willingham recommends the following tips for encouraging reading, especially with older children:
- Make sure kids have access to books.
- Don’t control kids’ reading.
- Get kids involved in a peer network of readers.
- Offer reading material that draws on something they’re already interested in.
- Don’t forget that as the parent, you are the cheerleader, not the literature judge.
From my own experience, I saw reading patterns ebb and flow in my children. At different times, reading played a more prominent role in their lives, but because the habit was developed early on and the experience around books was joyful and engaging, my children always returned it: for fun, for information and now for college where they must navigate large volumes of text. In their book Disrupting Thinking, Kylene Beers and Robert Probst encourage us to “help students become the readers who do so much more than decode, recall, or choose the correct answer from a multiple-choice list [and] become the critical thinkers our nation needs them to be.”
And finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the vital role books play in building friendships, tolerance and appreciation of all people. I encourage you to include multicultural books among your selections. Such books provide mirrors into a child’s own experience, and at the same time, windows into the experience of others, thus encouraging connection, understanding and acceptance of all.
If you’re ever looking for book recommendations, please stop by my office. I would be happy to share some of my favorites.
1 Rugged Road
Nantucket, MA 02554
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