Let me first say that I am not in any way related to the author of this book (at least, not that I’m aware of), despite our shared last name.
The title of the book indicates that you will learn how to help your child become a reader. If you’re picturing a book that’s going to outline step by step the things you should do, the lessons you should teach, worksheets and activities that need to be done in order to make your child want to read, this is not that kind of book.
First, I will say that it definitely is geared more toward teachers with a classroom of kids, rather than a homeschooling parent with only a handful (if that many!) of kids to teach. There are lots of mentions of her sixty students, her multiple classes, etc. But this doesn’t necessarily take anything away from it being a helpful book for that homeschooling parent.
The main point of the book is a simple one: reading begets more reading. Her theory is clear: if you let kids read, they’ll read. It seems almost too simple, doesn’t it?
But it’s true. I have pictures of my oldest child, at about the age of 2, sitting on the bedroom floor, book on lap, “reading” to stuffed animals on the bed. I’m a reader, he saw me reading, he sat with me as I read to him, reading was a part of the culture of our home.
But school changed that for him, for both my kids. Reading became a chore, something that had to be done to take tests, read worksheets, do what the teacher wanted them to do. Trips to the school library were never fun for them, because the librarian chose what books every grade got to read, and if you didn’t get the first library trip of the day, the pickings got slimmer and slimmer – and you still had to compete with your classmates. It became a race to grab a book, any book – and often the books they got weren’t ones they were really all that interested in. With ADHD on top of that, reading was just not their “thing” anymore.
Which is why, even after three years of homeschooling, we still struggle with reading. My kids can read, but they still don’t always see it as an enjoyable experience, something to be done for fun, for pleasure, as an activity to do rather than something to be done when there’s nothing else to do or when Mom says they have to.
So being reminded that if I gave them lots of time to read, eventually it would become something they might actually want to do was helpful for me.
But another tip she offered hit home more with me: allowing them to choose their own books. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t pick what my kids read in the sense that I assign them to read Hemingway whether they like it or not. I try to find books for them that I think they will actually like and want to read. But the problem is that I’m still the one picking. I need to let them do the choosing. I need to give them their library card and give them free reign, in the library and online with the library’s ebooks, to pick and choose what they want to read, even if it’s not something I think they’d be interested in.
At one point in the book, Miller says, “Readers are made, not born. Few students spring out of the ground fully formed as readers. They need help…” The rest of her statement applies to public school kids, but the first part is what really matters.
No one comes out of the womb, book in hand, ready to discuss the merits of To Kill a Mockingbird and whether Harper Lee’s newest work will live up to the hype. They need help. We have to be that help. We have to encourage and support our kids if we want them to read. We have to let them choose what to read, let them decide when a book isn’t working for them and abandon it, and listen when they want to tell us about the amazing book they just finished.
As she reminds us, reading is fundamental. An ability to read, comprehend, discuss and review things read, is the foundation for just about everything else our kids will do. Math? Can’t solve word problems or read the text on how to solve algebraic equations if you can’t read. Science? Can’t do much if you can’t read that chemistry or biology book. Art? Well, I suppose you can pick your materials and supplies based on visuals, but wouldn’t you have better luck if you could read that those are charcoals and these are oils?
One point that she makes that I’m not sure I completely agree with is when she says, “Rewarding reading with prizes cheapens it, and undermines students’ chance to appreciate the experience of reading for the possibilities that it brings to their life.”
She goes on to say more, but I want to talk about this for a moment. If you can encourage your child to read more by promising him a trip to the park, a pizza, or that he can watch the movie based on the book when he finishes it – why not? No, you won’t reward him forever, and yes, it’s true that as an adult no one will reward him for reading. But if it works to get him going until he finds his own love of reading, why not use it? It doesn’t cheapen the experience of reading to know that he’ll get something he wants when he’s done – it provides motivation that he doesn’t have himself right now. He’ll get that motivation eventually and the rewards will no longer matter.
I do agree with her, however, in her confusion when she’s told, in real life and in comments on her blog, that she’s not preparing her students for the real world by letting them read whatever they want. As an avid reader myself, I always read what I want. Now and then I do take on a book that I agree to review and I find that I don’t enjoy it – so at that point, I suppose the argument could be made that I’m reading something I don’t want to read, and thus proving that in the “real world”, we can’t always choose what we want to read. But I would still argue that I did, in fact choose that book. Finishing it may not be my choice (if I made a firm commitment to review it), but starting it, agreeing to do that review, was my choice. Outside of the school environment, where teachers did tell me what to read, I have never read a book I didn’t ultimately, in one way or another, choose to read. Whether it was a choice based on a recommendation from a friend, a request to read and review that came to my email, or a book that the cover or teaser on the back caught my attention, it’s always my choice. So by allowing my kids to choose their own reading material, I am, in fact, teaching them what the real world is like: that they will be able to choose what they want to read. Yes, depending on their chosen careers, they may have to do some reading for work that is required, but even then – it’s a choice. They chose a career that requires that reading.
I won’t say that Donalyn Miller’s book is the book that will absolutely teach you how to get your child to love reading. But I can say that it will give you some food for thought. It will give you some insights into how a teacher sees reading, how a teacher sees our children when they don’t read, and how our kids see reading after being in school for even just a few short years. It’s well worth a read – and since it’s rather short, it’s a quick read, too.
B.F. Skinner (quoted in the book) said, “We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading.” I agree wholeheartedly with that statement, and think that this book serves as a great reminder of that fact, and does provide some helpful information on just how to do that – what to set aside and what to do.