Laying a Foundation for Reading Joy | Donalyn Miller

Foster reading engagement, no matter the learning environment.

Sprawled across my bed in a tangle of limbs, pillows, and books, our granddaughters—Emma, almost 12, and Lila, 8—spent the last afternoon of their summer break reading with me. We enjoyed picture books like Your Name Is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, illustrated by Luisa Uribe, and Danbi Leads the School Parade by Anna Kim—discussing each book and chatting about the new school year.

As usual, our conversation and activity meandered in whatever direction the girls’ questions and ideas took us—watching videos of Mandarin pronunciations on my phone, so they could read One, Two, Three Dim Sum: A Mandarin-English Counting Book by Rich Lo with their three-year old brother; discussing their hopes and concerns about making friends and navigating online schooling; huddling in the closet to see the glow-in-the dark cover of Owling: Enter the World of the Mysterious Birds of the Night by Mark Wilson after sampling several spreads in the book. We finished the day with Geronimo Stilton: The Sewer Rat Stink by Tom Angleberger and Elisabetta Dami—taking turns reading different characters and laughing through the ridiculous adventure—our heads pressed close so we could all see the pages.

As the kids packed up, I promised to pre-order the next Geronimo Stilton graphic novel and passed The Talk: Conversations about Race, Love, & Truth edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson into Emma’s hands, telling her, “This is the book I told you about that looks at race and privilege. I have my own copy, and I thought we could read and talk about it. No pressure! I know middle school is going to be busy, and you may not have much time to read, but this is full of short essays and poems. You can steal a few pages a day.”

Emma and I looked through the table of contents and she pointed out several authors and illustrators she recognized. I said, “One cool thing about collections like this—you can pick and choose how to read it. You don’t have read from front to back.” Emma sighed, “Yeah, my teacher said we won’t have much time to read on our own because we have to read so many assigned books this year.”

Respectful toward their teachers, but determined to counteract school mandates that crush my grandchildren’s reading joy and dismayed by the lack of currency or diversity in their reading assignments, I’ve become subversive over the years—feeding them a steady diet of picture books, graphic novels, poetry, and short stories they can read on the side; showing them how to find more reading time; paying attention to their ever-changing interests; reading with them; and relentlessly encouraging them to read.

[READ: Reading joy in the time of coronavirus]

This combination of time, access, choice, and community supports readers of every age—especially young readers developing their reading proficiency and reading identities. When offered at school and home, these components provide consistent reinforcement for independent reading, and respects individual reader’s and their family’s needs and preferences. No matter the learning configurations, you can foster reading engagement. Some considerations:

Time Frequent time spent reading correlates to higher reading test scores (Adams, 2006), but beyond this academic outcome, a regular reading habit feeds on itself. The more children and teens read, the more confident and interested in reading they become. Considering students’ physical and mental health, a large UK study found that reading for as little as six minutes reduces stress levels—decreasing blood pressure and pulse rate (University of Sussex, 2009). Ensure students have daily time to read beyond schoolwork—scrutinizing the volume and complexity of reading assignments across the school day, including how much screen time is required. Recognizing that some students’ cognitive and emotional energy for reading is low right now, leave them some reserves for personal reading.

Access Young readers need abundant text access to build reading proficiency and an orientation toward reading. Too many young people—disproportionately children of color, indigenous children, and impoverished children in rural and urban communities—live in “book deserts” without meaningful access to books (Neuman & Moland, 2016). Ensuring everyone has continuous, meaningful access to reading material and the technology and support to read them requires educators and families to collaborate and work toward solutions.

Help families identify book access barriers and provide books and periodicals, devices, and assistive technology when necessary and possible. Partner with your public library to help families acquire library cards. Consider quality and currency as much as quantity—offering a variety of genres, formats, #ownvoices, and perspectives. Re-evaluate school-based expectations for independent reading limiting students’ access to the books they want to read, such as requirements that students read texts from proscribed reading levels, formats, genres, or length.

Choice Independent reading prioritizes readers’ interests and choices. Encouraging students’ self-selection increases reading engagement and motivation and values all readers (NCTE, 2019). Providing students with choices is not enough, though. Young readers need modeling and practice evaluating and choosing books, using resources for locating books, and regular opportunities to preview, share, and talk about books.

Due to social distancing and material handling policies because of the pandemic, librarians and teachers worry about how best to provide their students with book browsing opportunities. Consider online tools like Padlet, Flipgrid, or Google Classroom for book displays and book talking. Literacy coach Clare Landrigan has created a free virtual book room for educators, and includes video tutorials for creating your own. Middle school teacher Pernille Ripp has collected ideas for touch-free browsing and handling books .

Community A positive reading community influences young readers’ habits, enjoyment, and ability (Mullis, Martin, Foy, & Drucker, 2012). Adults who model reading enthusiasm, proficiency, and fluency shape how young people view reading and readers (Parker & Miller, 2020). Inclusive reading communities center students, respect and incorporate family literacy experiences and interests, and provide opportunities for your school community to celebrate, share, and discuss books and reading. Although one book cannot meet all readers’ needs and interests, school and community-wide reading initiatives like One Book programs can bring together readers of all ages.

Students acquiring English, gifted readers, and students with reading challenges benefit from a variety of texts available and differentiated reading response activities such as recording videos and podcasts and creating visual representations. Provide regular opportunities for all students to chat with reading mentors and peers whether meeting face-to-face or live online.

It’s impossible to anticipate how this school year will unfold, but focusing on young readers’ need for time, access, choice, and community support is a powerful starting point.

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