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Empowering Readers: A Quick How-To

empowering readers

Every Friday night, a calm descends over my house. We eat dinner as a family and once dishes are cleared, everyone grabs a book. As I settle into my special reading spot on the couch, the entire week begins to fade away as, for the first time since the previous weekend, I can finally relax. When it comes to slowing down, we all kick back in different ways. Some people watch movies while others go for long bike rides, or maybe we like to stretch out for a nap, all of which are beneficial and worthwhile. Still, how many of us think of reading as a viable stress reducer? As teachers, we look for ways to empower readers but often fall short of reaching all students. Last week, I had the opportunity to engage in a discussion about building reading capacity on Learning Unwrapped, an online program dedicated to discussing learning. The episode (linked here) was just the beginning of an important conversation; in fact, we will be doing a second episode to delve into the topic more deeply. For now, here are some of the key takeaways that resulted from our discussion of the vital process of building readers. 

Choice, Choice, Choice

Pre-Covid, one of my favorite pastimes was browsing in bookstores. I would flip through books, reading the first few paragraphs of each one to see if I might want to keep going. More often than not, I would put a book back on the shelf, deciding in a short moment that it was not for me. How many of us want to read books we have no interest in? There are times when a class needs to be on the same literal page with a text, such as when a particular topic is being studied or assessments are given. However, as much as possible, we want to let students self-select their reading. This simple practice greatly increases the chance they will not only read, but also grow as readers. It also builds engagement in the class and trust between teachers and students as we send the clear message that student preference matters to us.

School Libraries Matter

When I managed a department, our storeroom of books was well-stocked and impressive. Still, our collection was nowhere near as comprehensive as what the library down the hallways could offer. Sometimes, I was not able to find enough books to provide the variety students wanted for activities like book clubs or literature circles. When that happened, I brought my entire class down to the library. One year, my seniors were enthusiastic about the poetry collection Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. A girl in my class had read the book and she was talking it up so well that her friends wanted to read it, too. My department had no copies, but the library had just enough for the students who wanted to read it together. They formed a book club, did related assignments that were based on skill rather than content-specific, and convinced even more students to give poetry a try. What could be more empowering than that?

Read Across Content Areas

One of my favorite P.E. teachers keeps a collection of articles and readings about different topics in physical education, and he makes them regularly available to students in class. His practice is exemplary, but it is also not as common as one might think. Reading does not exist in English class alone, and the more that teachers in all subjects own the need for literacy, the better we will serve students. Suppose that a student does not really enjoy fiction but loves to read about his interests, which include sports statistics and culinary arts. If teachers across an entire school provide reading on a regular basis, more students will be more likely to engage with texts that truly interest them. The access and opportunity that results from making literacy a schoolwide goal is too significant to be ignored.

Validate Illustrated Texts

In Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, protagonist Belle (an avid reader) has an eye-roll moment when antagonist Gaston puzzles at a book she loves. “How can you read this?” he asks. “There’s no pictures!” Belle responds, “Well, some people use their imaginations.” This moment may be cute, but it is also short-sighted and dismissive. We know that people’s brains function differently. When I read, my brain makes pictures, but I know plenty of people for whom that is not the case. That aside, illustrations exist in books geared toward younger people for a reason. Pictures act as a gateway to the narrative, and once children latch onto the visual images and begin to engage with the story, they are more likely to apply their enthusiasm to the text as well. Without illustrations, we would lose so many future readers. Furthermore, when older readers access illustrated texts, as is the case with graphic novels, the images do not detract from the words. I have taught graphic novel versions of Shakespeare plays, and the original text is right there on the page for students to interpret. The pictures just add another layer of accessibility, which can be helpful and can even encourage hesitant readers to try more challenging texts.

When we discussed these and so many more ideas on Learning Unwrapped, a constant theme throughout the conversation was the continuing need to open reading access for all children. This challenge is so vast that we had to table our discussion of solutions until the next episode on May 6th, but one simple answer came up toward the end of the show: give children books. Lots of books. Make them available in multiple places, in multiple languages, in a variety of topics and formats. Children who read will become better readers, and our job is to nurture their growing love of books. While there is so much more we need to do, it all starts with making sure that the texts we provide are plentiful, freely accessible, and shared with joy.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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