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Listen to my interview with Pernille Ripp (transcript):

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If I had to pick one thing that makes the biggest difference in the quality of any person’s education, the quality of their life, really, it would be reading. And I’m not really talking about basic literacy—not about the ability to read—I’m talking about reading for pleasure, to satisfy curiosities, to understand how people work and find solace in knowing we are not the only ones who think and feel the way we do.

That kind of reading.

But when I see what my kids do in school for “reading,” it doesn’t really look like reading. I ask them what books they are reading in school, and a lot of times they give me a blank stare. What they do in reading, they tell me, is mostly worksheets about reading. Or computer programs that ask them to read passages, not books, and answer multiple-choice questions.

Knowing this has bothered me a lot, and it led me to Donalyn Miller’s book, The Book Whisperer, and then to Kelly Gallagher’s book, Readicide. Both of these books show us that the reading programs and activities schools are using don’t work very well to raise students’ reading proficiency, especially if they take the place of real interactions with real books. And they certainly don’t do anything to turn our students into people who love to read.

The only thing that can do that is books. Reading actual books alongside other people reading actual books.

What baffles me is that this message still hasn’t reached so many schools. Schools are still shelling out thousands of dollars on expensive programs, putting pages and pages of passages and comprehension questions in front of our kids every day, sending them through the system without ever having them read a real book. Just excerpts. Just passages. Just reading-related “activities,” but little to no time with actual books.

So today I’m going to do what I can to get the message out there by having my friend Pernille Ripp on the podcast. Pernille is a seventh grade English language arts teacher in Wisconsin. She has been blogging for years, she speaks all over the country, and she has written several books about teaching.

Pernille Ripp

Her most recent one is called Passionate Readers, where she writes about her own journey from teaching reading through programs and activities to teaching in a way that honors books and develops a love of reading in every child. It’s an awesome book. The best thing about it is how transparent Pernille is about her own doubts and struggles in this process.

In our interview we talk about why she made the change, what her reading instruction looks like now, and how other teachers can change their own practices. The key takeaways are summarized below. You can read a full transcript of our conversation here.

What’s Wrong with the Way We Teach Reading Now?

In many classrooms that are feeling the pressure of high-stakes testing, instruction tends to emphasize what researcher Louise Rosenblatt called efferent reading, the kind of reading we do when looking for information, as opposed to aesthetic reading, which is done for enjoyment. Reading for information is a vital skill—without the ability to tackle challenging texts, locate evidence to support claims, summarize important ideas, and identify bias, students’ academic progress will be stunted.

Unfortunately, our push toward developing close reading skills has had collateral damage. In far too many schools, reading for pleasure has been treated as an afterthought, something we encourage but don’t really make time for. Instead of giving students time to read, we’re giving them activities, projects, computer programs, reading logs, and worksheets that detract from actual reading.

“We’re constantly reading for skill,” Ripp says. “We’re constantly asking kids to do something with their reading, and then wondering why they’re choosing to leave us and never picking up another book. They can’t wait to get out of school so that they don’t have to read.”

When she criticizes these practices, Ripp has no desire to teacher-bash. “I get it,” she says. “We are all kind of facing the pressure of our districts and our government and our testing and our parents and everybody’s focus on the data to show that these children can comprehend and compete with this global market economy that we’re a part of.”

“But unfortunately,” she explains, “what that has led to is just this further step away from what we know works within reading instruction.”

Even when we do have students read for enjoyment, we require evidence—reading logs, book reports, quizzes—to prove that the reading actually happened.

This was how Ripp taught for several years: “It was exhausting,” she says. “When we did book clubs, it was all about me, and I was reading five different books and coming up with all of the questions. All the kids had to do was show up, read aloud. There was no discussion about which book we were going to read or anything like that. It was just all teacher-centered, all the time, book reports just to prove they had read rather than doing meaningful work after they had finished the book.”

The Catalyst: What Caused the Change

Then one day a student said something that stopped Ripp in her tracks.

“I was doing the ‘reading is magical’ lesson that I think we all do at some point in the beginning of the year, and a kid in front of me whispered to his friends, ‘Reading sucks.’ And you know, I wanted to jump on him and be like, ‘Oh, you just haven’t found the right book,’ because how often have we said that?”

Instead, she asked him to tell her why.

Every year, Ripp invites students to share their thoughts about what they like and dislike about reading on Post-its.

That’s when the floodgates opened: Invited for the first time to honestly share their thoughts about reading, students told Ripp that they didn’t like having to sit still. They wanted to be able to choose their own books, rather than being limited to a certain level. And more than anything, they hated the fact that every time they read something, they had to do some kind of activity related to the reading afterward.

Thus began Ripp’s journey toward what she calls a common sense approach to reading.

Returning to a Common Sense Approach

Once her eyes were opened, Ripp found herself drawn to the people she calls the “pioneers” of a type of reading instruction: Nancie AtwellDonalyn Miller, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Kylene Beers, Stephen Krashen, and so many others. She began to understand that scripted programs and reading-related activities—teacher-centered reading instruction—were not the way to help students become life-long readers. Over time, she shifted to a different approach.

When she talks about her current practices, she emphasizes over and over again that this is nothing new. “We have so many years of really great reading research out there, and yet it seems to be forgotten.”

Here are the most important components of Ripp’s reading instruction the way it looks today.

Time to Read

Ripp’s students are given ten minutes at the beginning of every class period for independent reading. “Every child, every day,” she says. Even though she only has 45 minute blocks with each seventh-grade class, she makes sure they get that time to read every day. “It is sacred time,” she says. When she taught at the elementary level, she was able to give students 30 minutes a day, but she no longer has that luxury.

During that independent reading time, Ripp does check-ins with students. “I’m sitting down and I’m simply saying, ‘What are you working on as a reader?’ And it gives me that two-, three-minute connection with a child if they need to book shop, if they’re not doing well, to see what their reading identity is, where are they on their journey, and then I kind of pull all this information to think about what I still need to teach them (during the other part of class time).”

Students are not graded for this reading. “We can’t actually grade their independent reading, because that’s practice,” Ripp says. So there’s no other work associated with that time: no worksheets, no logs, no written reflections. “Nothing to do except to read. I want them to fall into the pages. I want them to reach flow. I want them to be silent and in this moment of their book.”

Ripp uses the remainder of the 45-minute period to have students work on the other things you’d expect to see in an English language arts classroom. “When they come back to me (after the ten minutes), we then do a mini lesson on reading or writing or whatever it is we’re doing, 10 to 15 minutes. And then they go and do something, and that’s where I assess them.” But those first ten minutes are always, always devoted to independent reading.

Choice

“Whenever I ask kids,” Ripp says, “‘What’s the one thing you wish all teachers of reading would do?’ (they say) ‘Choice.’ And yet, what do we do time and time again? We take away choice from kids, especially kids who might not be where we would hope they would be at this time. We end up with these limited choices for them, and then we wonder why they’re the ones that distance themselves from reading the most, because they never get to develop their reading identity. They never get to go through the selection process. They never get to just read and struggle with text and have meaningful conversations and sometimes yes, make the wrong choice.”

Students in Ripp’s class always have free choice of what they want to read during independent reading time. Through lots of conversations, students practice getting to know who they are as readers so they can make choices that work for them. “They’re constantly evaluating their book choices just either through conversation or self reflection or just their habits,” Ripp says.

Students go “book shopping” for their next read.

If a student finds that a book just isn’t grabbing him, he is free to abandon it. “We should be celebrating when we abandon a book,” Ripp tells her students, “because we know ourselves enough as a reader to know that this will not provide us with a reading experience that will matter to us. And we need to start building up that stamina, so we need books that work for us at that time, and that’s really important for my students to remember, and to know and to recognize that what they need at this moment might be different than what they need a month from now.”

A Robust Classroom Library

Ripp’s classroom library houses several thousand books that students can check out at any time. You read that right: several thousand.

Why so many? “I need a book for every reader,” Ripp says, “and I teach kids that read from about a second grade level to a college level. I teach kids with lives that share no similarities at times and others whose lives are very much like my own. And so I need to make sure that every child has a chance of finding a book that will speak to them.”

Where do they all come from? “(At the time I had) three kids at home, you know, on a teacher’s salary,” Ripp explains. “I can’t go out and spend thousands of dollars on books, and my school didn’t have a lot of extra money, but I would rather that a child can go up to this bookshelf and find a high-quality book pretty much any time they go there rather than have to dig through the junk and hope they find something. So it just became my mission that instead of buying things to make our classroom prettier or anything like that, I bought books. I used Scholastic, I went to library sales and parents donated books, and I was always really picky. It was big for me that the books were good, and then I just purchased books.”

Why not just have students use the school library? Ripp believes students need both. “Kids need to see the books staring at them at all times, and I think that has made the biggest difference for some of my kids who would go through the motions of going to the school library and they would even check some books out, but then when it came down to actually sitting down and read it, they didn’t feel that same need or urge to read it.” Her experience has proven the research that says students read more in classes that have good classroom libraries. “I had a seventh-grader come back to me my first year at the end of the year,” she says, “and he said, ‘You know what made the biggest difference? The books were always right there staring at me.'”

Ripp’s classroom library also includes an incredible assortment of picture books. Having lots of picture books in the classroom helped remove the “babyish” stigma many middle schoolers attached to them. “If you walk into our classroom, yes there’s all those books, the chapter books and all of that, but then all around us are picture books. And it’s just a vibe, right? You feel it when you walk in that this is a classroom where you can have fun and where you get to read and you can choose whatever you want. No one cares what you’re reading in our classroom, because you can pick up picture books at any time.” To start building your picture book collection, take a look at the tons and tons of recommendations for picture books Ripp offers on her website.

Culture and Community

A constant thread that runs through Passionate Readers is the sense that a classroom culture is constantly being built, that every day, Ripp communicates how incredibly important books are to a good life, and how, if we get to know ourselves as readers, and have lots of conversations about our reading, we’ll really get to experience the true magic of reading.

Every year, students are challenged to create their own reading goal based on their unique needs. Each student picks his or her own number of books to read by the end of the year.

 

The 7th Grade Book Challenge is one way she encourages students to build more reading time into their lives. This was adapted from the 40-Book Challenge introduced in Donalyn Miller’s Book Whisperer. Ripp participates in the challenge herself, just one of the ways she shares her own reading identity with her students.

Outside of things like the challenge, the culture is ultimately built on a day-to-day basis. “Teaching reading is not supposed to be quick and easy,” she says. “It’s supposed to be about human connection. It’s one conversation at a time.”

She admits that this new way of teaching is not perfect, and she’s constantly reflecting on how she can do better for her students. “We cannot go in there and expect every child to change, but we can go in there hoping that we can help,” she says. “I tell my students this: I’m not here to make you love reading. I’m here to make you hate it less. And if you already love it, then I’m here to protect it with all of my might.” ♥

 


Pernille’s book, Passionate Readers, goes into a lot more detail than I have room for here. It really walks teachers through how to implement a more reader-centered approach to teaching reading, complete with all the possible obstacles and pitfalls. I really encourage you to get a copy. To read more from Pernille Ripp, visit her fantastic blog at pernillesripp.com.


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31 Comments

  1. Oh, what a wonderful post and interview with Ripp! Thank you for sharing. I have slowly made my way from the limits of reading levels and have been more open to choice and giving students voice in what they want to do. This year, I am trying the 40 book challenge, and I love it. I love being able to tell a kid “a book is a book” when they come asking if a graphic novel counts. I feel so lucky to have a school that has moved forward as well in terms of reading, but we have so much farther to go. I look forward to more of your posts.

  2. Albert Franklin says:

    There is a creative way in which works in the classroom, to get students to read extracurricular books outside of the classroom. Just create a book club in which the students encourage each other to read more.

  3. Melissa CHEESEMAN says:

    Penny Kittle’s book, Book Love, is a must-read for any high school English department looking to reignite their sustained silent reading and responding program.

  4. Laurea Schneider says:

    Thank you for this article! I teach 3rd grade and have always believed in the power of reading. I have hundreds of books in my classroom and give time every day (first thing in the morning) to read the books of their choice (admittedly within a range of levels so a 2nd grade level reader is not reading a kindergarten or 6th grade level book). Often times it is the only reading time some of these students get. This article validated the actions I’m taking to try and teach children the love/power of reading. Seeing a child reach the point where they are successful at reading a book they never thought they could read is the most rewarding experience.

  5. Sarah Ruzic says:

    I am a 9th grade teacher at a “priority” school in Nashville, TN, and, in my 8th year of teaching, I have finally been able to consistently carve out time for independent reading in my classroom. It is amazing, and I have clung to it, then worried about it, then reaffirmed my stance every week of the semester. So… Thanks for the additional affirmation! I do have a question: I feel like I am failing at reading conversations with my kids. When it seems obvious that a student is lost, how do I get him/her to go back without killing their love of reading? How can I learn to support their comprehension before they are staring vacantly at page 85? What books should I read to learn more?

    • I would start with asking them how they are lost and trying to find out why they are lost. They are many reasons kids get lost and sometimes they are not even aware of it. So getting them to tune into their reading and also pushing kids to have great reading experiences helps a lot. My students start wanting better reading experiences and not wanting to be lost and so often that goes back to book shopping again with them. Remember, the point is for them to start independently monitoring their own reading lives, not just rely on us every step of the way. I discuss this more in Passionate Readers but Book Love by Penny Kittle is a must read as well.

  6. Jeanette says:

    I have been reading No More Fake Reading, which also addresses this topic but talks about modeling how to read with excerpts from classic literature and then giving kids time to practice those skills with their independent choice books.

  7. Kofi Kinney says:

    I am a mother of a 2nd grader who takes time to process and has struggles with reading. I want to motivate her more to still have a love of reading inspite of challenges. The school assigns reading comprehension questions with passages every night and asks them to read. What can I do to encourage her to love reading more? She wants to read Decendents 2 books which are over her head . I would rather read the chapters with her rather than those passages – any thoughts . And she wants to start a book club

  8. Kelly Dumas says:

    You have mentioned a whole bunch of great resources that are for primary or middle school level. Is there a source to support reading at the high school level? I have been looking for help with implementing a reading program that also acknowledges SAT, AP testing and other kinds of standardized testing and curriculum requirements that are unique to high school.

    • I would start by reading Penny Kittle’s Book Love; she faces the same pressures and has been a fantastic advocate for how to do this with all of the high school components. Also, Kelly Gallagher’s books are phenomenal too and he teaches high school as well.

  9. Lisa J says:

    I really liked the point about the value of noticing when you don’t want to keep reading and giving students (or yourself) the permission to abandon a book. You probably still have enough information to say if a friend might like it, so even an abandoned book still has a lot of value, in addition to seeing what choices go into developing your “reading identity.”

    Also, sampling and abandoning texts is a lot of what those of us who are researchers do! You need to make sure you choose texts that help answer your research question.

  10. Dea Lenihan says:

    When my son was six he loved to play baseball. We would go outside every day and throw, catch, run the bases, and learn the game. Someone suggested he join the peewee league in town. He was thrilled. After a few Saturdays on the team, he no longer wanted to throw the ball or play outside. I asked him why. “Grown ups ruin everything,” he said. He also said he didn’t want to stay for two hours every Saturday, and play on Wednesdays after school. He didn’t want to get yelled at for not “playing” right…and that was the end of baseball. When I was a kid I could not wait to get my library card…I felt it was a privilege, because my parents made it that way. We left with stacks of books in our arms, excited we got to choose.
    I feel sorry for kids these days–no free time, endless tests, and now forced to keep a reading log…grown ups took away one of the last vestiges that kids had…their own magical space to read.

  11. Andrea says:

    What do we do if we are required by our district to use a basal reading program. HELP!!! I teach first grade and it is so hard for me to copy of a set of worksheets to have my kids respond to reading in writing. I feel like a terrible teacher and I am in my 21st year of teaching!

  12. Clover says:

    These are great reminders of what is essential in reading: time, ownership, and response (as Nancie Atwell named them). My students grow in their skills and see themselves as readers with specific tastes when we give reading and readers time, ownership, and response.

  13. Julie says:

    As a reader and lover of books my whole life, it is so strange to me that parents aren’t carving out time for reading at home. We always have, starting as early as 6 months…bedtime stories every night. Now he reads to us and he will often go grab a book if he’s bored because we’ve spent so much time showing him how fun books are. We check out 30 books at a time at the library and he LOVES new stories. Maybe we need to work on this with parents too!

  14. Allison Krampf says:

    It’s not so much reading, but how much students hate writing that’s an issue.

    • Pernille S Ripp says:

      This is definitely an issue as well and something I work on with all of my own students. Just last week they came up with the reasons when writing is trash or magical and so much of it boils down to them feeling like they have no choice and no real purpose. It is definitely something I am focusing on with kids as well.

  15. Hanna Mason says:

    I teach in NZ and we have used these practices for many years. You need to read for pleasure as well as information. I think it is so important to give kids time to read what they like in order to make it worthwhile for them. There is a place for reading more formally but reading books they enjoy helps to create positive reading habits.

  16. Children are to be encouraged to read for meaning and for pleasure. I have used this method over the years but not extensively as it was used in this discussion. A well managed mini classroom library in all the classes in our schools would enhance children’s interest in reading for pleasure and also for meaning.

  17. Susan Rutledge says:

    This is a thought provoking commentary. Ripp’s experience is quite helpful. This being said, I love reading because I can read for information. Choice is a great idea, but sometimes we have to read or do things we may not be as excited about, so how does that fit into this scheme? I think reading is not just something the ELA teacher does and should be expected to do. I think we are always doing “something” with our reading. I do not think it is necessary to do worksheets and such, but we are always doing “something” with our reading. In my opinion and experience, having students read “texts” they would not normally read has opened up their world to new ways of knowing, doing, and expressions, especially in Math, Science, and Social Studies as well as culture and language. So how does this work then when choice seems to take precedence? Just curious.

    • Pernille S Ripp says:

      We make room for both. My students have to have self-selected choice reading so that they can have pleasurable reading experiences and then we also do things with what we read whether fiction or nonfiction. That comes after our independent reading.

  18. I am always struggling with teaching skills versus analyzing a book to death such that a student never wants to hear its title again! This year I think I have struck a balance but I have a vague sense of guilt because I’m not analyzing novels, stories and poems as much as my teammates. Still growing! I look forward to translating this great information above to what I can use at the 7/8th Grade level. I love Pernille’s work. Thanks for posting this.

  19. I love this yet am concerned that we are preaching to the choir here. We need to get the word out, we need to talk with our elected officials, we need to get INTO the schools as parent voices and volunteers.

  20. Shelley Lebrun says:

    A well written article, but a crucial piece is missing—a parent’s role in their child’s « love of reading ». My daughter’s teachers did exactly what they were (and are) expected to do. They taught her how to read! How to decode, use context clues, read for meaning, infer, make predictions etc… It was (and continues to be) MY role to foster my child’s love of reading. She sees this by watching me read, by having discussions with me about her reading and book choices, by discussing stories with her friends, and by making book purchases/exchanges a regular family outing. I always chuckle when I read articles that simply want to point fingers at schools and teachers rather than work with them! Come on parents—read with your kids!

    • Debbie Sachs says:

      Hey, Shelley! I couldn’t agree more — the role parents have in their children’s lives as readers is undeniable. Parents need to be reading to kids and with kids all the time; as a teacher, it pained me when I’d have parents of kids who wanted to stop reading with their kids once they could read independently. As a mom, I read every night with my kids, I think up until middle school. Great conversations. Great bonding time. I saw the article a bit differently; I didn’t see that it was pointing fingers at teachers. I really thought it was more about making sure that whatever teachers are asking kids to do in the classroom, is authentic. We want to make sure kids have some time in class to simply immerse themselves in a book without always having to “do something” with it. My goal as a teacher was for my kids to be able to transfer what they learned in the classroom to life out of the classroom — so if I wanted them to be readers, real readers when they walked out my door, I needed to make sure I gave them opportunities to practice that. With parent support.

    • Sarah Hyatt says:

      I think some finger pointing is needed — when practices are harmful, that harm needs to be pointed out and the problems identified in order to do better. Of course the influence of parents is crucial to reading, but there are kids who don’t have that luxury and the teachers can’t control it, however, they can control the practices in their own classroom. And for a blog called “cult of pedagogy”, it makes sense that it addresses pedagogy and not parenthood.

  21. Cheryl says:

    This makes me cry! I have been teaching for 20 years and this year we have been forced to teach from a program that only allows for excerpts, passages and worksheets. IT IS AWFUL! Your article really hits home.

  22. Mit b says:

    Why such a negative heading of the article?
    It’s written so well…but to be honest very disappointing title…

    • Hi Mit. Well, I gave it this title for two reasons. One, I do believe our current practices ARE killing the love of reading, and that this is a serious problem, and that many teachers who are being forced to teach reading with passages and computer programs know deeply that these programs are killing the love of reading, so I wanted to speak to those frustrations. And two, I needed to title the piece in such a way that people would actually read it. If I had called it “How to Help Students Love Reading,” it would have been largely ignored. I’m addressing a problem here, not just celebrating something good, so I felt the title needed to reflect that.

      With all of that said, I’m so glad you came over and read it anyway, and that you found value in it.

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