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Dedicated to Teachers

Commuter Series: Why Reading Joy Matters

Red Center (2)-2

Students who read more become stronger readers, so how do we get our students to read more? Today, we'll hear from teacher, author, and consultant, Donalyn Miller, advising us that the only way to support the volume of reading that we all want for students is to support their joy in reading. In this excerpt from the book, aptly titled, The Joy of Reading, which Donalyn co-authored with the late Teri Lesesne, Donalyn describes reading joy and explains why it matters to readers.


Heinemann Audiobooks


Below is a transcript of this episode.


Hi, this is Brett from Heinemann. Thanks for joining me on the commute this morning. Students who read more become stronger readers, so how do we get our students to read more? Today, we'll hear from teacher, author, and consultant, Donalyn Miller, advising us that the only way to support the volume of reading that we all want for students is to support their joy in reading. In this excerpt from the book, aptly titled, The Joy of Reading, which Donalyn co-authored with the late Teri Lesesne, Donalyn describes reading joy and explains why it matters to readers.

Donalyn Miller:

Talking with a group of fifth graders, I invite the kids to think about what reading joy feels like to them. The students chat with each other first, then write in their notebooks for a few minutes, reflecting on their reading lives. Later, several kids share their thoughts and experiences.

Kim: "Reading joy is endless time to read and piles of books. I can read whatever I want."

Haley: "Reading joy is feeling like the author is talking right to me, like they see me."

Joseph: "Reading joy is going on adventures in my head."

Poyan: "Reading joy is learning something new. I feel smarter."

Isaac: "Reading joy is using my imagination."

Brian: "Reading joy is laughing when something funny happens to one of the characters."

Kelly: "Reading joy is talking to my friends about the books we like."

Benji: "Reading Joy is listening to someone read a good story."

Kelvin: "Reading joy is when I feel like the characters would be my friends if they were real."

Marcos: "Reading joy is finding new graphic novels to read."

Alex: "Reading doesn't feel like joy to me. It feels boring."

While reading joy varies from reader to reader and from one reading experience to another, we can see some commonalities and trends when talking with readers about what sparks joy for them. How can we continue to support young people as readers through childhood and adolescence? Let's back up and define what we mean when thinking about reading joy, then explore ways that educators and caregivers can foster reading joy for more kids.

What do we mean by joy anyway? Working with adult learners and kids, the two of us often guide other readers through the process of creating their reading autobiographies. A reading autobiography is a timeline of a person's reading experiences, both positive and negative, from their first memories to the present. Reading autobiographies have been around a while. Dr. G. Robert Carlsen collected reading autobiographies from his young adult literature graduate students more than 50 years ago.

Dr. Alfred Tatum formulated the concept of "textual lineages" to describe the texts that his adolescent Black male students found meaningful to them, the texts that shaped them. Dr. Tatum used these timelines to learn more about his students and to inform his decision-making about what texts students might share in class or read independently.

Reading autobiographies can generate self-reflection and teach us about our own and others reading lives. We might be unaware of how a book is changing us while we are reading it and might only recognize its lasting impact years later. Retracing our reading lives back a bit, offers us this opportunity to learn more about ourselves and how specific books and reading experiences helped create who we are now.

A reading autobiography encourages readers to revisit their reading experiences and identify turning points, trends, gaps, or touchstones in their reading histories. While we often live our reading lives in the present and the future, that is the books we are reading right now and what we plan to read next, readers benefit from traveling back through the books we have read in the past, such as childhood read-alouds, books we borrowed during trips to the library, whole class texts we read or didn't in high school. The three years we read nothing but board books shared with our toddlers or research for grad school. All of our reading experiences up to this point. According to Mogi and Luke, "The texts we read have the potential to not only reflect, but may also produce the self." Examining past reading experiences shows us the moments and texts that influence not only how we see ourselves as readers, but also how we see ourselves. What we read can shape who we are.

The connection between our literacy and our identity runs through all of us. Our literacy experiences, whether joyful and engaging or boring and painful, influence our orientation toward reading, define the value we place on reading and how we see ourselves as readers, and often direct what text we read. What we choose to read and how much time and effort we invest in reading or don't affect who we are. Literacy shapes identity and identity shapes literacy. We can't separate the two.

Every book we read offers potential benefits, knowledge, escape, entertainment, insight, and so on, but some books transform us in fundamental ways. Let's imagine we are sitting together getting to know each other. As readers, our conversation might drift to the books we enjoy or feel strongly about in some way. We too will start.

For me, reading the Velveteen Rabbit when I was five or six, I discovered for the first time that books could evoke powerful emotions. I wept when the rabbit was lost. In elementary school, I read every Marguerite Henry book in the school library, feeding a passionate interest in horses and sparking a desire to become a veterinarian. As a teenager with a library card and freedom to read what I wanted at home, I burned through fat tomes from the bestseller lists or anything turned into a television miniseries, like Pulitzer winners Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry or Alex Haley's epic history Roots. At school, I trudged through assigned text, like The Scarlet Letter and the Huckleberry Finn in English class. As a new teacher, reading Nancie Atwell's In the Middle and Ellin Keene's Mosaic of Thought shaped how I saw teaching and learning.

Aware now that my childhood and early adult reading experiences skewed toward white male authors, I have committed to reading more texts written by women and non-binary creators, especially women of color. I read across age ranges, formats, genres, and voices, appreciating everything from graphic novel memoirs, like Almost American Girl: An Illustrated Memoir by Robin Ha, to the international bestseller My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. These wide reading experiences have expanded my worldview, increased my knowledge of the world and its people, helped me confront my biases and prejudices, enriched my life, and provided countless hours of reading joy.

For Teri, her first memory of reading was sitting on her grandfather's lap while he read Pat the Bunny to her. Because the book is interactive, Teri learned that reading aloud might evoke responses. During her tween and teen years, Teri fell into the unconscious delight phase of reading development.

During these years, Teri tore through series books. Cherry Ames and Nancy Drew were her favorites. Later, she dove headfirst into Stephen King and others in the horror genre. But when Teri began teaching middle school, she realized she lacked knowledge of what her students found good reading. Taking a young adult literature course changed Teri's reading once more. She sought out books her students recommended she read. She scoured the bestseller lists for teens, and built her classroom library to include books that might provide joy for her students.

Think about your own reading life. From your first childhood memories to the current day, what books and reading experiences might form your reading autobiography? How does reading fit into the story of your life? Which books have shaped who you are and how you see the world? A reading autobiography is not simply a list of memorable books, but it often starts there.

After revisiting your reading memories for a few moments, jot a quick list of 10 books or so that stand out in your memories for some reason. Don't overthink it. You don't have to impress anyone with this list. If it helps, make a timeline in your mind and revisit different ages. Use some of our guiding questions to spark your thinking.

What is the first book you remember reading? What read-alouds do you remember? At home? At school? What books from your childhood or teen years do you remember reading? What was the first book you read where you connected with the protagonist or subject? What books have shaped your worldview or life choices? What books have you shared with other readers? Do you have traditions or rituals connected to specific books?

Reflecting on your brainstormed list, what do you notice? What reading experiences stand out to you? Did you revisit some books or experiences you'd forgotten? Does this list evoke memories of the people in your life who have shared books and reading with you, relatives, friends, colleagues, students? How have your reading habits and preferences changed over time? Do you see gaps in your reading life? Were there times when reading was difficult or you didn't want to read? Why?

While creating a reading autobiography, readers often identify books or memories that evoke reading joy. Audiobooks we listen to during family road trips, nightly read-alouds as a child or parent, traditions like rereading the same picture book on the first day of school. The influential teachers and librarians who read aloud and shared books with us, and the books and reading experiences we have shared with our own students and children.

Along with the positive reading experiences and memories, people revisit time periods in their lives where they didn't read much, suffered through boring reading assignments, or felt shame or failure as a reader. To deepen the reflective benefits of your reading autobiography, you can select one title or reading experience and write about its importance in more detail. What do you recall about the experience or book? Why is it meaningful or influential to you? Under what circumstances did you read or share this book? Do you connect reading it with significant people or events in your life? What does this recollection show you about your relationship with reading?

For an individual reader, creating a personal reading autobiography or timeline can reveal powerful experiences that have shaped who you are as a reader, educator, caregiver, and person. As teachers and librarians, we can collect reading autobiographies from many readers and evaluate them for commonalities and differences.

This snapshot of readers attitudes, habits, preferences, and experiences across a reading community informs our understanding of readers needs and the supports needed to engage them with reading. You might identify avid readers from less interested ones, or recognize trends in books influencing their education and identity development. You can begin to understand their reading preferences and gaps and the activities they like to do before, during, and after they read.

For K-12, students reading autobiographies work best as a midyear or end-of-year reflection. By framing the activity within the boundaries of the current school year, teachers have more influence over classroom reading conditions and experiences. Additionally, we have learned that we must forge one-on-one relationships with students as readers and people before asking them to reveal their reading lives and share them with others. Sharing details of their reading lives carries vulnerability and risk. Better to wait until you formed a supportive reading community. We have led these activities with students of various ages and backgrounds and have found the most success with older students, upper middle school and high school. Be prepared, older kids often share a lot of negative reading experiences.

For students with reading difficulties or poor reading experiences, reading autobiographies can reinforce feelings of frustration and failure. Individual interest surveys, reading reflections, and one-on-one reading conferences offer safer, low-risk options for students to share their reading successes and challenges with you. Publicly sharing the differences between the kids who enjoy reading and those who don't, undermines the establishment of a nurturing, inclusive reading community, our long-term goal.

Why does joy matter? Sadly, the very joy that feeds reading engagement can be treated as insignificant in school. Data-driven policies and high-stakes testing mandates create cultures that value narrowly defined skills. While effective models of reading comprehension instruction include direct instruction and goal-setting, researchers Duke, Ward, and Pearson have shown us that these are not the only factors at work. Effective instruction also considers students engagement with texts through reading widely and in volume, discussing and analyzing texts, or writing responses.

Guthrie, Wigfield, and You have shown that engagement, a driver of reading joy, fosters reading motivation and interest. Fisher, Frey, and Lapp have tracked how increased reading motivation sparks reading volume and variety. And Sullivan and Matt have highlighted how those factors correlate with higher math and reading scores. Numerous studies from researchers, such as Wasik, Hindman, and Snell in 2016, Sullivan and Brown in 2015, and Cunningham and Stanovich in 2003, have shown that avid readers possess broader vocabularies and background knowledge.

As Krashen has said, "Graduating strong readers benefits society through higher educational attainment." Higher levels of education increase productivity according to the Economic Policy Institute. It follows that reading opportunities encouraging joy are not a waste of instructional time or teacher concern.

Additionally, we cannot lose sight of our higher aspirations for students. Sending people out into the world who find comfort, entertainment, edification, inspiration, provocation, and joy from reading improves the quality of their lives and relationships with others as noted by 2018 research by Dodell-Feder and Tamir. According to researchers based at the University of Sussex, reading even reduces stress levels better than relaxation methods like listening to music or playing video games.

If our goal remains educating the whole child by attending to their cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development, it seems that fostering lifelong reading behaviors would help more young people reach their full potential and health. There's more to life than school and work. There's more to reading than school-based value systems for it.


I hope you can take a moment to think about your own reading autobiography and to reflect on what brought you joy. Well, that's it for our Commute this morning. If you'd like to hear more, you can stream or download Donalyn and Teri's audiobook, The Joy of Reading, wherever you get your audiobooks. Thanks for listening and let us know what you'd like to learn more about in our time together. You can learn more about Heinemann's audiobooks at heinemann.com/audiobooks.



Donalyn Miller’s work champions self-selected independent reading, providing guidance and resources that foster children’s love of reading and the development of positive reading identities. A national and international consultant and bestselling author, Donalyn’s published works include The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009), Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013), and Game Changer: Book Access for All Kids (co-written with Colby Sharp, Scholastic, 2018) as well as articles in Gifted Child International, Education Week Teacher, The Reading Teacher, Voices From the Middle, Educational Leadership, Horn Book, School Library Journal, and The Washington Post. Recipient of TCTELA’s Elementary Language Arts Teacher of the Year (2011) and TCTELA’s Edmund J. Farrell Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award (2018) (for her contributions to the language arts teaching profession).

Donalyn is also a co-founder of The Nerdy Book Club, an online community which provides inspiration, book recommendations, resources, and advice about raising and teaching young readers. Donalyn and her husband, Don, live in Texas atop a dragon’s hoard of books. You can connect with her on her website BookWhisperer.com, or on Twitter at @DonalynBooks.

Topics: Podcast, Teri Lesesne, Donalyn Miller, Heinemann Podcast, commute

Date Published: 09/25/23

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