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Review of The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

“…Donalyn Miller has solved one of the central problems in language education.” —Stephen Krashen

book whisperer2This 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/

5 thoughts on “Review of The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

  1. “Slow the car down, Peto”. The idea of removing the whole class novel from my classes is going to stretch me. Reading class novels with the students is high on my list of things I love about teaching. In the 3 different levels I teach, we read class novels together, usually over a period of 11-13 days, in 70-minute class periods with other activities during that time period, including creating stories together.

    Your comment, “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.” is certainly intriguing. It makes me wonder if I’m, or more specifically, if my students, are missing out on something.

    I’ll have to let this idea simmer for a bit and do some hard-core reflecting on why I like whole class novels and whether another alternative would work in my class, with my students.

    I have a LOT of questions on this but my comment is already too long. I might have to pull you aside at ACTFL so you can explain how this works with your students.

    …always growing, right?

    1. Haha, from everything I have seen online about your classes I am sure that your students are not missing out 😉

      I will be teaching levels 1, 3 and “1 for heritage speakers” next year. I will rely heavily on FVR for heritage speakers and level 3, where I’ll do a lot of book talks to introduce the themes that we would have done if we were doing whole class novel units… I look forward to talking to you about how it’s going in November. Maybe I’ll need a shoulder to cry on.

      As for the enjoyment piece, I am hoping to pair with one of my colleagues who does whole class novels and develop some sort of student response sheet so that we can quantify the difference in student enjoyment. Still trying to figure out how that might work…

  2. Thanks, Mike, for adding to my reading list. 🙂 I’m guessing you and this author will convince me not to use the class novel when/if I get the chance to teach novices again, and to also add lots of FVR opportunities even as I keep the class authentic novel in intermediate/pre-advanced classes.

  3. I also found “The Book Whisperer” inspiring and use its “matchmaker” concept when recommending novels for outside reading. My A students read one novel of their choosing outside class each quarter, per Blaine´s advice. This has been a very positive experience. With more variety in novels now, it is getting easier to recommend something that students can read and enjoy.

    There is something wonderful about the whole-class novel, though. I tried the novel-a-quarter plan and was overwhelmed. I wondered how on earth anyone had time for all the activities people suggested. I now do two novels a year and build my curriculum around the novel and the country it is set in. It is great for the whole class to learn about a country or issue together in depth. If everyone read different novels, we would miss that experience.

    But you´ve given me a lot to think about. Maybe I´ll try the choose-your-own-novel one quarter and see how it goes.

    1. I forgot that Blaine does that! That is a great suggestion too for teachers who want to experiment with FVR or those who are just starting to build their library but do not want to take the whole class down that road yet.

      There is something wonderful about the immersive experience of a whole class novel, I agree. It is great to all explore a single country together. I am going to try to retain some of that experience by having weekly or biweekly book talks in which I choose one book in the library and we explore it a little as a way of developing interest in the book. Not nearly the same depth as a quarter or semester long exploration, but I´ll take just the most compelling extension activity and after briefly describing the book we´ll spend part of a class period on themes related to the book. That way I can introduce Felipe Alou and then choose one cultural item from the Dominican Republic to spark their imaginations, next week introduce Esperanza and we´ll experience a little of Guatemala. Students will be exposed to a wide variety, while no one will have to suffer through several weeks of a book that does not interest them.

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