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Nancie Atwell's Elements for a Successful Reading Workshop

In the MiddleWith our In The Middle Wednesday series, Nancie Atwell talks about reading workshop, the need for easy access to good books and time for students to enjoy them.

We loved the way you showed us so much about your teaching of reading in the recent video Reading in the Middle. What are the most significant things you do to help kids read well? Do American schools support or interfere with kids’ becoming people who love to read?

There are a handful of key elements in establishing a successful reading workshop—in creating a place where kids love books and want to practice reading. The first is a good classroom library. I was dismayed recently to learn about a school system in California where teachers have been forced to get rid of their libraries in order to focus exclusively on a mandated core “reading” program. The word reading requires quotes in this context because core programs ask children to do everything but engage in real reading.

Students need easy access to intriguing books. A teacher who's launching a reading workshop might begin as I did, by borrowing a selection of great stories from the school library and signing them out to individual students.

Next, teachers have to open up the worlds of individual books—their plots and characters—to students. Reading workshop is much more than a pleasant study hall. Conversations, conferences, literary letters or letter-essays, book displays, and especially booktalks (an invention of young-adult literature specialist Teri Lesesne) bring books to life for kids.

For years Teri gave booktalks at NCTE convention sessions targeted at middle-school teachers. I took copious notes and bought every title she introduced, because her riffs were so entertaining and inviting. When I brought the practice into my classroom, kids and I booktalked over 250 titles a year, which means they enjoyed more than 250 personal introductions to works of literature—sales pitches about beloved books that others might love too.

But bottom line, what students need is time, time, and more time to read books and get lost in them. At my school, the Center for Teaching and Learning, every child’s baseline homework, K–8, is to read or be read to for at least a half an hour every night; this is in addition to daily time in the classroom for independent reading.

Voluminous practice is the only route to reading proficiency. Voluminous practice builds stamina, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. It sharpens tastes and preferences. It gives children knowledge of genres, authors, and literary features, and it encourages the development of critical and analytical skills. Every national and international assessment shows that the best student readers are the habitual, independent readers. And yet...

Education in grades K–12 has become so market-driven that a reading program based on individual titles of trade books has a hard time getting a foot in the door. Reading workshop isn’t high tech; it doesn’t come in a box with a scripted manual, provide a menu of “reading activities,” or claim slavish alignment with the Common Core State Standards. But without it, students will never get the volume of practice that leads to expertise, not to mention a lifelong habit of reading books.

Reading workshop has a powerful simplicity: students get good at a thing by doing the thing, and the thing is so pleasurable they want to do it again and again. But educational publishers, who control what happens in way too many U.S. classrooms, can’t package it or generate profits from it. Today the heroes of our profession are the classroom teachers who know about reading, children’s or young-adult literature, and the tastes and needs of their students and who assume the crucial responsibility of putting the right book in a child’s hands at the right time. There is nothing more important.

This blog post is part of In the Middle Wednesdays series. Please visit http://www.heinemann.com/InTheMiddle to learn more.

Topics: Reading, Writing, In the Middle, Middle School, Nancie Atwell

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