In the past week, I’ve zipped through two books about one of my favorite topics, children’s books! I’ve learned a lot and have been re-inspired to provide for my kids an exciting “reading life”. Here’s a summary of each one, along with what I personally gathered from them.
The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller
This book instantly caught my eye on goodreads. It’s written by a sixth grade teacher (who coincidentally teaches in the city we live in) who claims to be able to “awaken the inner reader” in any and every child. While I’m pretty confident that I already have one very enthusiastic bookworm and another well on her way to becoming one, I was curious what strategies she uses to succeed in doing this. It’s definitely geared more towards school teachers, but I thought it still had some good information in there for homeschooling parents as well. Mrs. Miller is positively inspiring when it comes to her passion for reading and instilling that in children. But the sad reality, she explains, is that kids (and adults, for that matter) are reading less and less. Many of her students enter her classroom only having read two to three books the prior year. She discusses how she believes the reason for this is the way reading is being taught in school. She suggests that the common practice of the teacher choosing one book for the entire class (which disregards personal interest, reading level, and past reading experiences) and then attaching a heap of assignments to it, sucks the joy from the experience and students quickly learn to hate reading. When you combine that with the fact that reading comprehension and general success across all school subjects is directly related to how much a student reads, you can see that there is a real crisis happening. She gives her students a requirement to read forty books during the school year. She gives them the freedom to choose what they read and supplies them with thousands of books from the shelves of her personal classroom library. Furthermore, she gives them time to read in class for at least twenty minutes every day. She also reads along with them, modeling a love for reading, and often reads books they have read so that she can engage with them in conversation about the books. One thing she does have them do is write in a reading response journal where they can record their thoughts on what they’re reading. She writes in them as well, as replies to their thoughts and opinions. So, to sum up her main points, giving kids freedom, opportunity, good reading role-models, and cutting out the meaningless tasks attached to reading will yield fanatical readers. The majority of her students end up meeting or exceeding the reading requirement, even the ones who started out as the weakest readers and who were the least interested in reading.
I took away a lot of good information and ideas from this book. Primarily, it was very impactful just to be reminded that the way most schools are teaching reading is not successful and does not produce lifetime readers. Despite the vast amount of available curricula and materials out there for teaching book units, I am determined to resist the belief that that is the best way to inspire and teach reading. I’ve made a conscious decision to go easy on the amount of work that I will assign to go along with books, and instead let them just focus as much on reading as possible. While I still plan on using Progeny Press literature guides from time to time, the majority of the time I plan to simply provide good books and let them enjoy with no strings attached . I also really love the idea of reading the same book my child has chosen to read, just for enjoyment of a good conversation and to validate that they have made good book choices that I find interesting too. Additionally, I’m stealing the reading response journal idea so that at the end of each week we can reflect on what has been read, both for school related books and free reading. I’ve made one with complete with a place to record each book that is read, a list of reading response prompts, and lots of pages for responding to whichever prompts sound interesting.
Now, on to what I didn’t care for as much about this book. Mrs. Miller definitely seems to be emphasizing quantity over quality and from what I gather, she asserts that any reading is excellent and profitable for children. Her students get to choose from just about anything they’d like to read (though she did say she doesn’t allow them to read adult fiction without parental permission….but that was the only mention of parental input in the entire book). That basically assumes that anything in the kids’ and young adult’s section is morally appropriate for every child and provides literary value. I don’t believe that to be true. In addition, several of the books she listed as her student’s favorites have content I don’t approve of and that do not, in my opinion, exemplify attitudes that I would really want my children becoming desensitized to and mimicking. I’ve had a lot of conversations with my kids regarding the books we choose and have equated it with food. Like I’ve told Elliot, there are a lot of ”junk food” books out there. While I don’t expect every book he reads to be a classic and I know he needs some just for fun books, for the most part we believe in a steady diet of quality literature that nourishes, inspires, shapes, teaches, and enriches us. Elliot’s response to this has been quite positive. He has communicated that he understands that and that he enjoys the good books I suggest for him. So there will be a “controlled freedom” when it comes to choosing reading material.
Read for the Heart: Whole Books for WholeHearted Families by Sarah Clarkson
Sarah Clarkson is the daughter of the well-known author, speaker, and homeschooling mother, Sally Clarkson. Sarah’s life and education were built upon their strong Christian faith and the wonderful books her parents surrounded her with. The way she goes into detail about how blessed she was to have parents who valued reading and gave her the gift of a childhood brimming with good books was very inspiring and made me excited about providing that for my kids too.
Sarah also discusses the decline of reading among today’s children, but she surmises that it is due to the new technology that they’re immersed in. She claims that things like television, video and computer games, and all the other devices now available to kids have stolen their ability to find books enticing and entertaining. The amount of television the average family watches when compared the the amount of time they spend reading is pretty shocking. Similar to what I read in The Book Whisperer, Sarah states that reading is the key to educational success and that it is impossible to be a successful student apart from mastery of the written word. The amount of exposure children have to a variety of words directly correlates with their vocabulary, thus it is the greatest determining factor in their success in all subjects. Still more on the subject: “Children who were surrounded by words from an early age were able to advance in every area of education, not just reading. On the other hand, children who lacked exposure to words lost ground in every area of study and mental development.”
Starting off, this book very much resembles the some of the what I read in The Book Whisperer, however it didn’t take long for Sarah’s quality over quantity philosophy to be clearly seen. Don’t get me wrong, she stresses that doing a lot of reading is exceedingly beneficial to a child, but she certainly doesn’t suggest that a child should be reading anything and everything or that it should be completely his/her choice. She has a lot to say about the parent’s discernment in choosing their children’s books.
She begins by discussing picture books and how much the quality of books we choose for our very young children sets the stage for their relationship with good books in the future. Similar to what I regularly say about myself, she admits that she has a personal vendetta against all the modern picture books with plain artwork and watered-down text, which she explains is insulting and assumes that children are not capable of deeper thought and an appreciation for beauty. She states, “Children fed on stick figures, cutesy drawings, and cartoon-like characters will have no appetite for Dickens, Rembrandt, or C.S. Lewis when they’re older.” I wholeheartedly agree! (Part of the reason Five in a Row appealed to me so much is because of the quality of the picture books.) I’m a firm believer in the importance of quality children’s books from early on . I confess, I am that mom who says “no” to certain books at the book store and then steers the kids towards other higher quality books. If it’s going to go on my shelf at home, I’ve got to see some real value in it. My kids have never been disappointed with our purchases.
There’s way too much in this book to go into great detail about all of it, but you’d be right in supposing that if she believes in quality from the beginning, she also believes in it throughout the rest of childhood. She goes through a number of genres such as the golden age classics, children’s fiction, historical fiction, biography, fantasy, poetry, music, art, nature, and books for spiritual growth and character development. For each of them, she expounds on her enjoyable, imaginative, thought-provoking experiences with them and why those kinds of books were important in shaping who she has become. Finally, at the end of each section she lists a variety of book titles of which she can personally vouch for the content and literary quality. I found this extremely helpful. While lots of the ones she lists are already ones I had planned on reading or giving to my kids to read, there were many new ones I learned about too. I currently have a list of hundreds of books that I feel good about, in regards to both appropriateness and literary excellence. My kids have more than enough to choose from between now and the time they’re in junior high and beyond. Great books are plentiful!
Both of these books were really excellent and I gained something from each of them. I believe you can have it all, both quantity and quality when it comes to children’s books. There are so many wonderful books out there that there’s really no need waste your time settling for less. I can verify from experience that when a child has been exposed to lots of great literature, they will begin to find it thoroughly enjoyable, and naturally they will want more of it and the “junk food” books will be a lot less appealing.