“…Donalyn Miller has solved one of the central problems in language education.” —Stephen Krashen
This review is not exactly timely given that the author of this best-selling book, published in 2009, has already published a follow-up titled Reading in the Wild. I just got around to reading The Book Whisperer and, judging by the amount of requests I see on twitter for teachers guides to TPRS novels, I suspect I am not the only one who unwisely relegated this title to the “someday, if I have time” book pile. Although Miller writes from the perspective of a reading teacher, there is a lot here that should inform the practices of TPRS teachers who believe that reading is an essential part of second language acquisition.
More Reading, or Less Reading?
One point of particuar interest to TPRS teachers is Miller´s critique of reading whole class novels (that is, everyone reads the same novel together). Perhaps TPRS teachers who choose to teach whole class novel units (often structured by teachers guides) fear that the novel will not be comprehensible to students without their guidance. That is, in order to read a novel that is above their students reading ability, teachers are dramatically decreasing the time available to read in class.
Let´s look at the high end of the spectrum: some TPRS teachers read as many as four separate novels in the course of a school year. I suspect it is more common to read one or two novels, along with a good many short class stories. Four novels is an astounding amount if your frame of reference mandates that much of the novel be read aloud together in class, that there be projects, book reports, acting out of crucial scenes, small and large group discussions, map lessons, cultural explanations and all of the non-reading activities designed to support the reader in making meaning of the text. Four novels is not that many, however, if the students are simply reading highly comprehensible texts for pleasure.
Miller´s point is that the circus of lovingly-prepared units limits time for actual reading. Actual reading is what accounts for the incredible gains in language acquisition, not the skill-building activities surrounding the reading. Why not let students choose twenty easy, interesting books to read independently? Why trade the experience of reading twenty books for the experience of dragging the entire class lockstep through four novels that are not truly comprehensible without the help (and distraction) of a multitude of non-reading activities?
Let me be clear: I am not rejecting the captivating theater-like TPRS techniques. Nor will I be abandoning read alouds, kindergarten day, map or cultural explanations. Much of our reading will continue to be typed up after story-asking because I have experienced the power of 100% CI. However, when it comes to reading novels, I think that the author of The Book Whisperer is exactly right in her critique of teaching one novel at a time to the whole class. Student choice in reading and the ability to abandon a book is central to developing a pleasure reading program… and pleasure reading is essential to (a) developing lifelong reading habits and (b) developing academic reading skills. In my own classes I have found something so remarkably obvious that I will never go back to “the one class novel”: students enjoy reading when they get to choose their book. Forget about the complainers; even the compliant students who always do as asked were happier and read more when they chose their own novels.
The full quote by Stephen Krashen is as follows: “Reading in the Wild, along with the now legendary The Book Whisperer, constitutes the complete guide to creating a stimulating literature program that also gets students excited about pleasure reading, the kind of reading that best prepares students for understanding demanding academic texts. In other words, Donalyn Miller has solved one of the central problems in language education.” —Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus, University of Southern California http://bookwhisperer.com/books/reading-in-the-wild/