It’s Not Complicated by Donalyn Miller
I have been blogging, writing, and talking about children’s independent reading lives for over ten years—starting with my first Ask the Mentor column for Education Week Teacher in 2007. I am not the first or the last educator to take on this topic. Scores of literacy leaders, like Daniel Fader, Rudine Sims-Bishop, Stephen Krashen, Teri Lesesne, Alfred Tatum, Richard Allington, Laura Robb, Nancie Atwell, and many more have been fighting for the reading lives of young people their entire careers—long before I came along. The work will continue long after me—led by folks like Pernille Ripp, Cornelius Minor, Kimberly Parker, Sara Ahmed, and Tricia Ebarvia.
Literacy still matters, but the literacy opportunities we provide children have to change. We have to change. The children cannot wait while we figure it out. I know more about the conditions that engage (or fail to engage) children with reading today than I did in 2007. I will continue to evolve in my understanding as I go forward. I don’t have all of the answers, but I am a seeker. Teachers must remain students of our profession for our whole careers. We hold on to what we know as long as it serves kids, and not one minute longer. Our two greatest skills remain kid-watching and reflective practice. Who are my students? What do my students show me they know and need? What have I tried that worked? What have I tried that didn’t? What am I going to do about it?
Here’s one thing I know for certain changes reading for kids.
Everybody knows. We (as a society) just don’t care enough.
It’s all about access.
Access to books increases children’s future prospects and has a significant influence on the level of education they will attain, their productivity, their health, and their quality of life. Buy the books and give them to the kids. It’s not complicated. Why are we making this so hard? It’s frustrating. It’s defeating at times. In one of the richest countries on Earth, we cannot provide all of our children with the books they need. Before you protest about how much it will cost, figure out the cost of not doing it and get back to me. We can provide all of the books children need for summer reading for less than $200 a child (Allington and McGill-Franzen, 2013). The cost to Society for failing to graduate students with strong literacy skills and an orientation towards reading cannot be fully quantified. As author Jennifer Nielsen asked in a recent speech, “Do we understand the societal implications of failing to help kids find the magic of reading? Reading fosters empathy for others.”
I know getting books into kids’ hands isn’t flashy or ground breaking. It’s not new. We’ve been talking about it forever. Unfortunately, we have never successfully provided consistent book access to all children. While we scramble to implement one-to-one laptop programs, we never figured out how to get a paperback into every kid’s hand. Ensuring that all of our children have access to books 365 days a year may not get you in the local paper or earn you superintendent of the year, but it is one act that communicates you care about what kids really need to succeed personally and academically.
Who has book access in your community and who doesn’t?
What role does differential book access play in perpetuating systemic, discriminatory educational and social structures?
Who does it benefit to deny meaningful literacy opportunities to some children and not others?
Many of our children live in book deserts without meaningful, consistent access to books at school or home. Children in urban and rural communities—disproportionally children from historically marginalized groups—suffer the worst. They don’t have consistent, quality access to books at school or home, and the gap between the haves and the have-nots widens every day.
A child from a middle income home may have as many as ten access points in their lives where they can find a NEW book to read, including classroom and school libraries, public libraries, brick and mortar bookstores, Amazon one-click ordering, book fairs and subscription services. Children who do not have these resources may have only one or two places they can find a book to read— predominately their school and public libraries. This means that the book access we offer children in school and public library collections must be as varied, relevant, current, and engaging as possible. For many children, this is the only book access in their lives and it has to count.
We also have to consider barriers that prevent all children from access to the books they need and want to read. For many of the children we serve, there are tangible obstacles preventing equitable book access.
Some actions that will increase book access for all children (a starter list):
Determine the factors that might prevent families from using the public library. For many families, access to the public library isn’t “free.” Barriers such as limited services, residency requirements, or location can hinder equitable access. Is your library closed some nights or weekend days? What identification does your library system require to get a library card? What fees and dues are charged? Where is the library located? How hard is it to reach on foot or by public transportation?
Re-evaluate your school and community library fine programs. Last year, the New York Public Library system discovered that blocking check out privileges for patrons who owed $15 or more in fines prevented 20% of NYC children who had library cards from checking out any books. President of the New York Public Library, Anthony W. Marx, knows that poor children lose their book access more often under such policies, “No one is suggesting that people — including children — should not be held responsible for bringing books back. People talk about the moral hazard. But there’s also a moral hazard in teaching poor kids that they will lose privileges to read, and that kids who can afford fines will not.” As a result of these findings, the New York Public Library system announced a fine forgiveness reset for all children under the age of 18 who owed library fines.
Advocate for librarians. Access to librarians increases children’s test scores, closes the achievement gap, and improves writing skills (Lance, 2012). If your librarian is also a technology support specialist or course instructor, they need clerical help to focus more time on reading advisory and less time on paperwork. School Library Journal recently provided these suggestions for fighting library cuts and advocating for librarians. Find more information supporting the effectiveness of school librarians by accessing Scholastic’s School Libraries Work! research brief.
Develop summer reading programs that increase access and book ownership. The best school-based summer reading programs that exist physically put books into the hands of children before they leave for the summer. Book donation initiatives and long-term checkouts from school and classroom libraries guarantee that all children have access to books for summer reading. According to Allington and McGill-Franzen’s research, “…providing self-selected books for summer reading produced as much or more reading growth as attending summer school! For the poorest children the effect of our summer book distribution was twice as large as attending summer school (2013).” Don’t assume that subscribing all students to online databases and computer-based reading programs provides every child access to texts over the summer. Not all children have wi-fi or access to a computer or device at home.
Get rid of reading incentive programs that demotivate children from reading long term or develop internal motivation to read. The research is ubiquitous—incentivizing reading has long-term negative effects on fostering children’s internal motivation to read. I recommend reading and discussing No More Reading for Junk: Best Practices for Motivating Readers by Barbara A. Marinak and Linda Gambrell (Heinemann, 2016) and Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards for more information about the negative consequences of reading incentive programs. Furthermore, summer reading programs that demand children log pages and minutes do little to motivate readers and don’t provide any evidence that reading with comprehension really took place.
Purchase and donate new books whenever possible. Every child should own at least a few new books. When children’s book access is limited to other people’s cast-offs, it is unlikely they are receiving current, nourishing, quality reading material. Book ownership is a powerful factor in the development of positive reading identities. Additionally, when we buy new books, we support the artists who write and illustrate for young people. Blog posts, reviews, and tweets are great, but book sales ensure artists can keep making art. If you read a book in ARC (advanced reading copy) format and you like it enough to recommend it, buy the final book. Review copies are marketing tools to build advance buzz and interest in the book. If we want more books written by authors we love, we need to buy their books. This is particularly important for authors and illustrators from historically marginalized groups, who have already overcome discriminatory obstacles to become published in the first place and may not get a second chance if sales aren’t good enough.
Provide young people access and encouragement to read any text they want in any format they can. There’s abundant research on the benefits and appeal of audiobooks, e-books, graphic novels, serial fiction, picture books, poetry, or any format you can imagine. As a teacher who taught students with a wide range of reading experiences, abilities, interests, and development, I celebrate any format that fosters reading engagement and reading growth. It’s not a competition or hierarchy. The best books for kids are the books they can and will read.
Dedicate your time and resources toward literacy initiatives that put books in kids’ hands—especially kids from marginalized communities. Here are a few literacy organizations and initiatives that I recommend. This is by no means a comprehensive list. Please add the organizations you support in the comments, so we can all learn about them and support them, too.
Evaluate whose voices are missing in your school and classroom libraries. I see article after article bemoaning the poor reading performance of boys and children of color and listing perceived deficits in children and their families as the root cause. What books are young people reading in school? Do all children have the opportunity to see themselves and their families reflected in books? Whose “canon” is valued? Children deserve positive, affirming portrayals of all of their experiences—not just stories of oppression and suffering that perpetuate stereotypes. Lee and Low has a created a list of steps to creating a diverse book collection—a vital evaluation and development process.
I am just getting started, but this post is already 1800 words long, and I have said enough for now. I know that many of you are working every day to increase children’s meaningful, consistent book access. What ideas and resources do you have to share? What obstacles and issues do we need to add to the conversation? Please leave your suggestions in the comments. I look forward to learning from all of you.
Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer(Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp). Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.