The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn MillerI don’t really read non-fiction.  It’s nothing personal, I just prefer stories.  When a non-fiction book holds my attention, I think it’s worth sharing. And I have shared this title too; I’ve shared it with librarian friends and teacher friends, and I’m considering sharing it with the curriculum superintendent in the town where I work.  What Donalyn Miller has written in this book and her blog is exactly what I’ve been thinking and telling the parents that come into our library.  I’m so excited that someone has finally written this book!

Donalyn Miller teaches sixth graders in Texas. She’s a Language Arts and Social Studies teacher and she requires her students to read 40 books during the school year.  Their choice.  Lexile scores don’t seem to be an issue, in fact she’s against that sort of thing, but we’ll get to that.

Teaching reading appears to be very little about reading books.  The students in Miller’s classes seem incredulent that they have to read so many books; what’s the catch?  There isn’t one.  In order to become a reader, you have to read.  And you have to read a lot.  Teachers cannot put limitations on reading, students will select the books that are interesting to them.  Miller does require her students to read a certain number of genres but even this isn’t a fixed line as some students knew what they liked to read.

Miller has given names to classroom readers.  There is the developing reader who score low on standardized tests.  “These students do not see themselves as capable of becoming strong readers”.  They need to read read read.

The dormant reader  is unmotivated and uninterested in reading.  They read because they have to not because it is enjoyable.  They need the chance to books that are interesting to them; the freedom to pick their own book.

The underground reader is a good reader; a great reader really. Underground readers don’t connect school reading with reading for pleasure. These are the students that read ahead of novel studies because they can and then are bored when it’s time to finish worksheets.  These students know what they like to read and just need the chance to read.

Miller spends a lot of the book explaining how her school year starts and dispelling teacher myths  strings like whole class novels, comprehension tests, book reports, and round robin reading. 

Perhaps the section this librarian liked best was the discussion of Accelerated Reading-type programs. Where children select books to be from a list and then are tested for comprehension for points.

… these are the worst distortion of reading I can think of.  … The truth is that a student’s selection of a book is limited by its point value and whether a test exists for it.  Hence, developing students struggle to collect enough points to meet the teacher’s requirements and underground readers are bound to the books for which an AR test exits.  How does this sort of program prepare students for reading in the world outside of school? 

… Instead of falling into a book and travelilng on a journey with characters, readers float on the surface of the story and cherry pick mooments they predict they will be tested on later.

The outline of the book seems to be from the beginning of the school year to end.  As she started with a survey of the student as a reader, she ends it with a student evaluation.  And equipping her students to be lifetime readers.  The most interesting fact? That an overwhelming number of students chose Teacher who reads as the factor that was most important.   The book has many appendices: setting up a classroom library, student forms, book lists.  If I could add one thing to her list of places to go for good books and reading materials it would be the local public library.  Teachers like Donalyn Miller and children’s librarians think the same way. We just want to put good books into kids hands.  Ask your public library for lists of good books to recommend to your students!!! 

Donalyn Miller seems to be my soul-sister.

Allowing students to choose their own books and control most of their own decisions about their reading, writing, and thinking does a better job of preparing them for literate lives than the traditional–and ubliquitous–novel units, test practices, and pointless projects.  What are we waiting for?

What indeed.  I hope that schools across the country take this book to heart.  If you haven’t read this book, please find a copy.  It will change the way you think about reading: both your own personal reading, but also the children in your life. Then, share it with your principal.

SH 9/09


About SH

I'm a children's librarian in the western suburbs of Chicago. I've been involved with children's literature since working in a children's bookstore in 1990.
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3 Responses to The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

  1. Carol says:

    AMEN! While I am not a librarian, I am very much in favor of letting students read what they want, when they want.

  2. E.H. says:

    My child was in Donalyn Miller’s class. Her methods work! My child is now an avid reader, always has at least two books going!

  3. suzanne says:

    I liked your posting. (As a huge fan of the DOG Whisperer, I was curious what a BOOK Whisperer was.) It is totally boring for kids to read books they aren’t intereted in……more free choice !!

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