Friday, 24 May 2013

The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child by Donalyn Miller

I bought this mainly to help me with running my small but perfectly formed Book Group.  It's about reading at school, and how this is not something that works particularly well, especially once students get to secondary school age. It brought back all sorts of memories of English lessons at school.  Perhaps surprisingly, for someone who went on to become an English teacher, I absolutely hated most of my English lessons at school.  I remember either being bored rigid as I listened to people reading at a completely different pace to me, or terrified that I might have to read aloud, and other kids might laugh at my Southern accent.  Now I am 34, I find it amusing when kids (and indeed fellow members of staff) laugh at my Southern accent, but at the time it was excruciating.  At the time, it wasn't a gift.  I couldn't say "I'll only say "puppy" for you if you get ten out of ten in your spelling test".  Listening to me say the word "puppy" is often the preferred treat in my classroom.  Works for me: it's cheap, easy to arrange, and doesn't rot their teeth.

Anyway, I hated English.  I particularly hated "silent reading".  The selection of books was always terrible and/or falling to bits, and everyone either talked or fidgeted, which meant I could never quite get in the zone for reading.  Nor, it appeared, could anyone else.

Part of the problem, I think, is that there is no comfortable space to read in the normal English classroom.  A hard, small plastic chair at a wooden table, held together by twenty years' worth of chewing gum was not the place I would have chosen to read.  Added to this, worrying that the school bully might be attempting to spit bits of chewed paper at me through the hollowed out plastic bit of his biro did even more to distract me from the task at hand. And I LOVED reading, and spent most of my spare time doing it.  I don't imagine that those who didn't enjoy reading in the first place were particularly inspired by these lessons.

However, Miller has made me think again about the reading lesson.  Enthusiasm on the part of the teacher and very firm boundaries are the key in her classroom.  Plus, plenty of choice.  I am lucky enough to work in a school with a wonderful library and librarian (plus assistant!), and I have small classes and a comfy reading corner in our main classroom.  Two weeks ago I decided to re-vamp the reading lesson.  We put out the comfy bean-bags, get out the reading rulers of various colours for our dyslexic students, and they all curl up with a book they have chosen.  We listen to them read, and then for the last half hour have reading time.  Last Tuesday I read a couple of chapters of The Hobbit whilst several 12 year old students snuggled on bean bags around my feet, reading books of their choice.  The only sounds were pages turning and occasional relaxed breaths.  At the end of the lesson no-one really wanted to go anywhere.  "I loved that lesson, Miss" said a self-proclaimed reading hater as he left the lesson.  Me too. 

Highly recommended read for anyone involved in promoting reading amongst young people.


  1. It sounds wonderful - both the quiet, relaxed reading and Donalyn's book. I always enjoy reading her blog posts and articles. She makes good sense and her passion for kids and connecting them with books always shines through. As does yours!

  2. Thank you Susan, that's a very kind thing to say :)