Teachers, It’s Time to Spark a Literacy Revolution in America!

This is the first of what we hope to be many articles focusing on professional development. This article is written by Annie Palmer, a 3rd Grade Elementary Teacher and Instructional Leader in the Kearney, Missouri School District.

It is time for teachers across the nation to join a literacy revolution.   Many of us have heard the alarming statistics about reading and literacy in America.  Among the numbers to worry about are the facts that two-thirds of eighth-grade students do not read on grade level (NEAP, 2009) and students with below grade level reading skills are twice as likely to drop out of school as those who read on or above grade level (Adolescent Literacy: A National Reading Crisis). Are you convinced yet that we need a literacy revolution?

The components of this revolution are not in a basal program.  The answer is not more book reports, more ditto sheets, and more whole-class novels.  The answers lies in the fact that our kids are severely lacking in a motivation to read when we drown them with these traditional ways of teaching. We must first ask ourselves what will motivate our students to read.  According to Krashen (2004), 51 studies prove that students in free-reading programs perform better than or equal to students in any other type of reading program. Not only does research back this claim up, so does evidence-based research conducted by Donalyn Miller, a sixth-grade Texas teacher and author of The Book Whisperer.   Miller’s students are passing the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test with flying colors, and more importantly, they are motivated and inspired to read. I have to admit, after reading The Book Whisperer three years ago, I doubted that free voluntary reading (FVR) could make such an impact. I was proven wrong.  After implementing FVR through an 18-book challenge in fifth grade and a 40- book challenge in third grade, I am convinced this is the key to our literacy revolution.

My classroom was transformed from mundane skills-only instruction to a classroom where students took part in daily conversations about higher-level questions about their reading, excitement about what they were going to read next, and a sense of pride simply from the sheer amount and depth of reading.  And yes, that was without any extrinsic incentives!  The reward was the reading itself. (Yes, kids do read without extrinsic rewards). 

There was definitely an adjustment period for the students, parents and for me as we underwent this new approach.  Questions from the students included “You mean I have to do 18 book reports?!”  No, was the answer to that; they did not do book reports.  One does not need a book report to know whether students are comprehending text or even to know whether they can summarize.  Suggestions from parents included making the kids take an Accelerated Reader test.  Again, one does not need a test to know whether a child comprehends or even to figure whether they actually read the book.  The point of free voluntary reading is to get students excited about reading, to make them life-long readers and to facilitate intrinsic motivation to read.  I used my classroom lessons and assessments to gauge their ability to comprehend text.  Free voluntary reading was about creating the love of books, which is way more likely to encourage someone to read the rest of their life than a book report, an Accelerated Reader test or any classroom lesson.  Lessons, assessments, and comprehension checks need to be a part of a communication arts classroom, but without free voluntary reading, a classroom teacher is only helping students pass their class, not helping them be a life-long reader and thinker.

The first year I took this approach was the first year I started receiving notes from parents, saying “thank you, my child now loves to read.”  One of the most impactful responses I received from a parent and her child was as follows:

“My son and I we were discussing his day at school and if he had homework this evening. He mentioned that he needed to read, which lead me to tell him that I have noticed an increased interest in him wanting to read. His response was enlightening! He said, “Oh yes, mom, Mrs. Palmer has changed my life”. It was a very sincere statement and just wasn’t quite what I was expecting in reply. He continued to say that he likes to read and when he gets a good book, he just can’t put it down. Jake has always read books because he needed to and because we’ve encouraged him to; however, he has never enjoyed reading or picked up books at the spur of the moment until this year. Thank you!”



Filed under Professional Development

11 responses to “Teachers, It’s Time to Spark a Literacy Revolution in America!

  1. I’m wondering about free reading and the upper grades, especially high school. Do you know of any studies that examine the role of free reading in high school? The time constraints, both inside and outside of the classroom, make it difficult, but those same time constraints also make it harder for students to read, especially books they want to read / of their own choosing. (I’m a high school Latin and English teacher.)

    Putting another hat, if I may, I would suggest, if you don’t know the interactive fiction genre for your students. This is on the model of the old Choose Your Own Adventure books (if you know that series; most popular in the ’80s), but they are second person narratives in which the reader chooses the course of the narrative by turning to specific pages based on their choice. I myself have written IF versions of the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid for upper elementary / middle school students (http://followyourfates.weebly.com), another author is publishing an IF Hamlet in the spring (though I think it’s for older students; http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/breadpig/to-be-or-not-to-be-that-is-the-adventure), and there are other series out there. Students (even my high school juniors) love the format and it might help even further the enthusiasm you’re already creating.

    • Melanie Quinn

      Miller’s book is for middle school and is easily transferable to high school. The goal is helping a child identify themselves as a reader — something that will serve them long after the test is scored. Miller shows you how to do that and this post is testimony that it works. Another book, Less is More by Kimberly Hill Campbell (Stenhouse) is a great resource for hooking those high school kids who don’t want to and will not slog through “a classic.” It gives great suggestions on how to use short texts to engage readers and again — get them reading and identifying themselves as readers. This will last a lifetime!

    • There are three resources I would start out with. The first is the author of The Book Whisperer, Donalyn Miller. She teaches sixth grade and is an avid Tweeter and blogger. Though she teachers middle school, she has great suggestions as well a vast network of educators that she has connected with. Her Twitter handle is @Donalynbooks. I have tweeted at her several times and she almost always responds, which does not always happen with published authors. Another resources for researched-based proof of free volunteer reading is Stephen Krashen. I do want to gives yo a heads up, he is very liberal when it comes to many education issues, but he’s spot on when it comes to free voluntary reading. I don’t believe his research is geared toward any one age level. A third resources that I started out with, that also applies across grade levels is Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide. It’s a short and very informative read. I believe he was/is a high school teacher. I want to commend you for looking into resources. I would love to see more secondary educators buy into and practice the free reading approach as research proves it is one of the most effective ways to improve vocabulary, writing, reading and general academics. I understand your time constraints, and I think all teachers have this issue. My response to teachers who bring that question up is this: how could we afford NOT to do free voluntary reading if research says it’s so powerful? Free voluntary reading will be more likely to produce life-long readers than any required reading will ever do. Thanks for commenting and taking part in Conservative Teachers!

  2. I too am committed to free reading. I am currently teaching ms–10-15 minutes of free reading a per. When I taught at a high school with Long term ELLs, they all thought they hated reading. By the second year I had them they loved reading, you just have to find books that they like.

  3. Amen, Annie! You are right on. Thank you for all of your hard work.

    You may enjoy my latest TEDx speech called “The Reading Makeover:”

    Holler whenever you need anything, as we need to clone you. Remember: YOU make a difference every day.

    All the best, and God bless!

    Danny 😉
    Danny Brassell, Ph.D. – http://www.dannybrassell.com
    “America’s Leading Reading Ambassador”
    Get FREE cool, short book recommendations
    at: http://www.lazyreaders.com
    “Like” my Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/dannybrassell
    Connect on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/dannybrassell

  4. My daughter is an avid reader, who reads on her own all the time, but she was brought up to think highly of books from the earliest of ages — less than a month old, and even earlier than that if you count the times we read to her while she was still in the womb.
    How does free reading compare with kids who have not been brought up to love and respect, or even really to know books? My daughter associates reading with being held, being loved, with the sounds of our voices — all those things. But what happens when the child does not have that? How does free reading fare then?

    • You are spot on, Brian! Bringing our children up in a home that has a passion and love for reading and learning is one of the most influential and far reaching things we can teach our children. We have to work hard to teach this fact to everyone we know: family members, neighbors, friends, colleagues, etc. Just think if we were a nation where even half of children grew up like this….

      You pose a great question about those children who are not as lucky to have homes with passionate reading taking place. This is why this reading movement is SO important. A teacher who REALLY gets this approach can instill this love of reading, even when parents don’t. I have seen it happen time and again with many of my students. Does it always happen? No. It is SO hard to reaching every child we teach, but it certainly has affected many. Honestly, the kids we don’t reach, they struggle, many times in all academic areas. As with most things, educating others on the topic is key.

  5. Pingback: What Motivates Students to Get Good Grades? | Jumbled Mumbling & Fumbled Rumbling

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