I Am What I Read: 5 Ways to Nurture Reading Identity by Paula Bourque


Over the past few years as a K-8 literacy coach I’ve worked with students to help them create and connect with their writing identities. I wanted them to live “writerly” lives and explore what it meant to be a writer. I wrote a book about that exploration (Close Writing).  I know, as writers we put a little bit of ourselves on the page every time we compose and it can leave us feeling vulnerable and unsure if we don’t have encouragement and nurturing. I also explored books with students and encouraged them to find those titles and authors that spoke to them, but it wasn’t really the same thing as contemplating their reading identities. I was encouraging and nurturing their interest and engagement, but not necessarily their reading selves.

I was sitting in one of Donalyn Miller’s sessions at the recent ILA conference in Boston. She invited us to reflect on our reading autobiography and contemplate the notion that the books we read and when we read them are integral to our reading identities. I thought about which titles became heartbooks to me (those that really connect to me deeply) and how the circumstances in my life at that time drew me to them.

My attraction to We Were Tired of Living in a House occurred after several moves my family made before the end of my 1st grade year. Those kids were adventurous with change! My adoration for Pippi Longstocking during my 3rd grade year coincided with a fear that my parents might divorce. (They didn’t!) Seeing Pippi thrive without parents gave me hope and much-needed happiness.  In 4th grade I reread Island of the Blue Dolphins at least half a dozen times as I faced fears of death, loss, and abandonment. Each time I thought of a book that was incredibly meaningful to me, I could see how intertwined those texts were with my life at the time.

I had a personal epiphany. The same way I believe writing not only reflects our thinking, but also shapes our thinking rang just as true for our reading.  Our choice of books is often a reflection of our thinking, (interests, preferences, biases, etc) but it can also profoundly shape our thinking (perceptions, beliefs, framing, etc).  Reading those books reflected the needs I had at the time, but they most likely influenced the person I was becoming.

We Are What We Read

So what are the implications for the readers in our classrooms?  How can we help nurture their writing identities?

ONE- We can share our  reading identities with students and invite them to contemplate their own. I love this quote by Thich Nhat Hahn, “Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed.” Recognizing and encouraging our reading identities can be transformational. Give students opportunities to discuss or write to help them explore:

  •      Musings such as “I’m the kind of reader who___” or “People might call me a ______ reader” can begin those conversations and initiate that reflection.
  •      Revisit those thought prompts as the year progresses to continue the conversation and contemplate on how we have changed as readers or how our reading may have changed us.

TWO- We need to have a LOT of books and a WIDE variety of them.  We should think more reflectively about the choice of books that we provide in our classroom and ask ourselves:

  •      Do the selections merely reflect our preferences?
  •      Are we subtly (or overtly) becoming “gatekeepers” (not adding controversial books to collections) as Teri Lesesne cautions against?
  •      Do we consciously select more windows and mirrors so that our students can see themselves or walk in another’s shoes as they engage with books?
  •      Do we believe We Need Diverse Books and act on that belief when buying books?
  •      Do we purposefully collect books with our students’ reading identities in mind?


THREE- We can reflect on which books we share and promote.  It’s not enough to have variety and diversity in our collections if we don’t read, discuss, and promote these books with our students. Merely placing them on the shelf or in a tub will not guarantee they will find their way into the hands and hearts of our readers. We cannot underestimate the influence of teachers to normalize, advocate, or elevate the topics and books our students gravitate toward. We can ask ourselves:

  •      Do we only share books with minorities featured in a historical context or tied to special occasions? (MLK day!)
  •      Is a disability central to the plot of the story or could it simply be a trait of one of the characters?
  •      What do we notice about our choice of read alouds? Do they only reflect our reading identities or are they selections to enhance our students’ identities?
  •      What books do we promote and how do we promote them?

FOUR-We can invite our students to create their own reading autobiographies.  I love the Nerdy Book Club post by Brett Vogelsinger from 2015.  Though his students were 9th graders, I think we can all think of ways to help our students reflect on their choice of books and how they may impact not only their reading lives, but their personal lives.  I think how amazing it would have been if my teachers had helped me reflect on my reading choices and how those were affecting and shaping my life. It could start by asking our readers to:

  •      Make a list of heartbooks
  •      Make a timeline of when you read those books and events going on in your life at the time
  •      Brainstorm books that deepened or changed your thinking. Discuss why/how that can happen.
  •      Brainstorm books that you dislike or abandoned. Discuss what it is about these books that were unappealing? Why do you think that was?

FIVE- We can cultivate a reading community that supports all reading identities. Our children are bombarded by messages of individualism and “otherness” by news, social media, and even political leaders. So while we nurture and support each child’s reading identity we can explore and celebrate our reading community.

  •      We can be sensitive to the shame readers may feel with regard to their identity as readers and reframe perceptions about “good readers.”
  •      We can be mindful of public displays of reading charts/logs/graphs that quantify volume and neglect personal connection.
  •      We can encourage socialization around reading-book clubs, blogging, social media, lunch-bunches, anything that connects readers and celebrates reading community. Socialization has been shown to make experiences more meaningful-how can we do this more with reading?

Are these the only five ways we can support reading identity? I’m pretty sure you all know the answer to that one! As we get into the school year and get to know our students, so many more approaches will become evident. I’ll use this as a starting point and welcome even more ideas from my nerdy nation! I believe I am what I read. I believe that is just as true for my students.


Paula ReadsClose writing coverPaula Bourque is a K-8 Literacy Coach at five schools in Augusta, Maine and the author of the Stenhouse book Close Writing: Developing Purposeful Writers in Grades 2-6.  She’s president of the Maine Literacy Council and blogs about literacy and learning at LitCoachLady.com. You can find her on Twitter @LitCoachLady and on Facebook at Lit Coach Lady. When she’s not reading or writing she’s spending time with her two teens and husband in Maine-usually with a camera in her hand!