Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Book Whisperer

Here is the review I wrote for Amazon about this great book, The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. I received it as part of the Amazon vine program. This program sends out free books to willing reviewers (of which I am one). They send you a list via email of the books that are available for review, and you can choose two. Last month The Book Whisperer was one of my choices.

"This book by a Texas sixth grade teacher confirms what I've long believed, as a teacher myself: that books are way under-rated. I tutor students from first grade to college, and I consistently find that students don't read enough real books for pleasure, usually. The ones who do become the good students, and they usually read outside of class, on their own time. Many students' lives are so crowded with busy work--a.k.a. homework--that they don't have time to sink into a great book and read for long periods of time.

"It's amazing how teachers whose job it is to teach reading don't actually use real books to teach reading: they use interminable worksheets, exercises, vocabulary drills, reading primers, anything but a real book. Recently I was tutoring a first grader who is slightly behind in his reading skills. His mother is very worried. All I did was show him a book that emerging readers love: Bears on Wheels. Pretty soon he could read that book. Then he read Hop on Pop. He was so excited! I had told him that the books were library books. After our tutoring session, he ran up to me in the parking lot and said, 'Shannon! How much do those library books cost?' Imagine my pleasure in telling him that they were completely free.

"I was surprised, though, that he had not been to a public library yet. It seems that many parents don't avail themselves of this wonderful free resource. But teaching a child to read is not rocket science: all it takes is a pile of picture books, a lap, and some time. Yes, phonics is important; but it's a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end is reading pleasure.

"Ms. Miller requires her sixth graders to read forty books during the school year. And they do! One secret to her success is simply having a lot of books in her classroom: two thousand to be precise. These are her own books, and she can loan them as she likes to students. She has an index card system for tracking who has the books, but she doesn't worry about it too much. Also, she doesn't make them do book reports, vocabulary quizzes about the books, etc. They keep a notebook on their responses to the books they are reading, and they voluntarily do "book commercials" where they tell the class about a book that they loved.

"She does not have the class read a book together, with everybody reading the same novel, as most English teachers do. But she does read aloud to her students, so there are certain books that they all are following and can discuss together.

"In this way, she establishes in her students a habit of reading, which she hopes will last a lifetime. The results are impressive: students who have repeatedly done poorly on standardized tests start to do well on these tests for the first time. It turns out that endless test-taking drills are not nearly as effective in raising test scores as simply letting students read for pleasure.

"I wish more teachers would throw away their worksheets and book report assignments, and just let students read, and read, and read."

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