Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Reading in the Wild: Developing Reading Preferences (#cyberPD)

When Twitter connections selected Reading in the Wild (Donalyn Miller) as this year's #cyberPD book study, I found myself grateful for the chance to go back to the treasure trove and reread parts of the book alongside so many others. For more on the #cyberPD project, visit Literacy Learning Zone for this week's installment.

Also, join us next Wednesday, July 30, 7 p.m. CST when we chat live on Twitter with Donalyn Miller (hashtag #cyberPD).

"Determining readers' expressed preferences in what they like to read helps teachers connect with students and value their individual reading tastes...Wild readers develop authentic preferences through wide reading and heightened awareness of the variety of texts available. Encouraging students to read what they want while exposing them to high-interest, engaging, quality texts of all kinds fosters their engagement and provides the diverse experiences they need to find texts that will meet their reading interests and needs both today and tomorrow." 
-Donalyn Miller (Reading in the Wild, 2014, p. 192)

In my current job in a summer program, I'm delivering math tutoring. But my reader-heart is happy because I get to engage in a lot of talk about the students as learners with my literacy colleagues. The population of students served by the summer program attend a different elementary school than the one in which I work, and this has made for an interesting learning experience. This temporary change in communities has provided me with distance in my perspective since I have no previous experience with the kids. I've noticed the way this impacts my reflection.

When we started the program a few weeks ago, we had to get to know the students we'd be seeing. They came with essentially no data (the previous year's standardized test score was of little help in designing short-term goals). On one side of the room, I surveyed students about their math attitudes and played games to observe their number sense and computation strategies. I could overhear my counterpart on the other side of the partition, questioning students about their interests in reading: books they've enjoyed, authors they like, genres they prefer. There was a lot of wait time between questions and responses. When the students did answer, it was mainly the same responses: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Goosebumps, Captain Underpants, animal books.

Whether fair or not, I found myself processing these conversations and reminded of one of Donalyn's prominent points: We must build relationships with our students. Students will reveal information about what they need as readers if you listen to them. These students seem to have exposure to series. They also seem to be reading in the same circle of books.

Immediately, I wondered: What do conversations with MY former students, those I consider to be "wild reading ready," say about my reading instruction and the opportunities I facilitated?

Nurturing students as wild readers depends on balancing and advancing several factors. Giving students choice in independent materials is crucial to their buy-in and engagement. Safeguarding time for students to read is a priority for acceleration and growth. Yet, neither can operate smoothly without the students' awareness of their reading identity--part of which is recognizing and attending to their preferences. Until they do, do students really have autonomy over selecting independent reading materials?

And, they don't--as a rule--come with that awareness.

So then, how do kids develop preferences?

Kids develop preferences in music, clothing, food, hobbies, favorite idols, largely in part to outside influences. They observe the world around them, making note of the preferences of others in their sphere of influence: adults, older kids (siblings or otherwise), and peers. Sometimes they experiment and learn by trial. Sometimes they assume someone else's preference as their own. And still, at other times, they have to be forced into trying something  and finding out if it fits their preference by a trusted other. (How did you first try calamari?)

And then, in typical reflective fashion, I went a step further: what does this mean for me as a teacher? How do teachers help students develop preferences?

As a teacher, I should challenge my own preferences a little more. I want to be explicit with students about how I choose what I'll be reading, and I want to demonstrate how I weigh one book against another-especially when it challenges my preferences. I'd like to encourage colleagues to help share their reading preferences with students also, to show students more of ourselves and communicate that not all readers are shaped in the same mold.

I recognize I need to be more aware of the reading diet I feed my students. I need to expose students to a wider variety of texts and facilitate experiences with these books that enable my readers to make more informed judgments about their preferences. When I first moved to grade 4 three years ago, my grade-level partner and I modified the 40-book Challenge. I looped the following year and discontinued the challenge, determining my group didn't need the same level of scaffolding in 5th grade. However, I think I am going to recommit to a modified genre challenge. My incoming 4th graders need the structured support to engage in self-discovery of their preferences.

However, simply instituting the challenge and providing the students with a genre graph won't do the metacognitive work of developing students' reading identities. That will come in the ways I guide students to be reflective. I will need to be intentional with coaching students to analyze patterns in their behaviors and choices to arrive at conclusions about their preferences. We'll need to, together, make use of logs, surveys, and notes from conferences and observations. I'll need to listen, and reflect back to readers what I hear, gradually lessening my input to encourage their independence.

And eventually, my readers will be better equipped for release into the wild.

How do you help your students develop their reading identities and uncover their reading preferences?


  1. Great reflection, Melissa! I especially liked your thoughts behind how we form preferences in all areas of life, not just in our reading, and you revealed some of the many different factors that can influence us.

    With my third graders, we do reading surveys at the beginning of the year to start the conversation about reading and preferences, and they create and reflect on quarterly reading goals to help challenge themselves in their reading. I think these scaffolds as well as classroom conversations help them become a little more metacognitive about themselves and their processes.

  2. Melissa-Great post this week! I enjoyed reading your thoughts about Chapter 5. I would be interested in hearing about your modified 40 book challenge. I did a modified 40 book challenge this year and I struggled with it a little bit. I tried to put myself in their thinking...what if I had to read 2 science fiction books? I would HATE that! So I went back and forth with this idea this year.

  3. Melissa,
    When discussing conversations about reading preferences with your summer program students you said, "These students seem to have exposure to series. They also seem to be reading in the same circle of books." This caught my attention. It speaks to the impact of community on our reading preferences and habits. It also reminds me of the importance of growing my students beyond our community. Using Twitter, Shelfari, and blogs, I can find ways to extend our community for students which in turn will help grow their reading. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful reflections on ways teachers and learning communities are significant in growing wild readers.