This week we have a special interview with Kylene Beers about her newly released second edition of When Kids Can’t Read: What Teachers Can Do.
Michelle Flynn joins her to talk about how Kylene’s thinking has changed over the past 20 years since the first edition, what new material is included, and how this book speaks to the urgency around reading. Stay tuned after their conversation for a sample from the second chapter of the audiobook version of When Kids Can’t Read, second edition.
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Michelle: Hey, Kylene.
Kylene: Hey, Michelle.
Michelle: It's so good to see you this morning, and I'm so excited to talk about this beautiful second edition of When Kids Can't Read. I wanted to start with a question around one of the core concepts in the book that reading is a critical skill for all. Can you tell us more about that?
Kylene: Michelle, when I wrote the first edition of When Kids Can't Read a little over 20 years ago, I knew reading was important. We all knew reading was important. I don't think anyone's ever dismissed the value of reading, but one thing that's happened to me in the 20 years between the first edition and the second edition is I've come to understand this very strong connection between strong reading abilities in kids and a strong democracy in our country. And I do think that when I wrote that first edition, I knew that, it was in the back of my mind, but I didn't really see it playing out every day in the country. And now what I recognize is that with the rate at which news comes at us, not just every day, but every hour, and not just every hour, but really almost as quickly as you can hit refresh on your computer, you've got new information coming at you.
And if you don't have the ability to read carefully, responsibly, responsively through all that information, Michelle, what begins to happen is we default to just listening to the loudest voice on television, to the loudest voice coming in at us over our headsets. And when we do that, when individuals default to someone else, then we are actually giving up our democracy. So what I'm looking at doing in this second edition, far more than I ever did in the first edition, is creating this kid who is this independent reader, which for me is not about a certain Lexile level. It's about a kid who knows how to question a text carefully, thoroughly weigh the evidence, and make his or her own decision.
Michelle: Yes, I love that and I love how you center it on creating an independent reader. So second edition, why should teachers pick up this new edition of When Kids Can't read? And I would further say, I would love to hear a couple of the big differences that you write about, that you articulate in the new edition.
Kylene: I think one thing that is important to me is understanding the origin story of this second edition. And the second edition really began as Brad, my husband, and I were sitting quietly one evening and he glanced over at a bookshelf where the first edition was sitting, minding its own business, not bothering anyone. And he went over and picked it up and he looked at me and he said, "So, next year this book will be 20 years old." And my first thought was, that is not possible. We did not age 20 years. When and how did that happen? And he said, "You've never done a second edition. Why don't you think about doing a second edition?" And then he looked at me, and obviously he doesn't write books because he said, "This would be such fun." And I said, "There's nothing fun with sitting in a chair writing a book."
But then I couldn't get that thought out of my head because I was a different person. I am a different person now as a teacher and as a writer and as a thinker and as a member of our society than I was 22 years ago when I was writing that first edition. And I thought, it's really a disservice to myself and to reading to let the first edition sit as my best knowledge. And so one of the things I wanted to do was say, "Here's how my thinking has changed over these 20 years." So one thing that I've done in this book, Michelle, that I really haven't seen done too many times in second editions is I let some of the knowledge that was in the first edition sit there, sometimes in a sidebar and sometimes in the main paragraph, and I'll say, "This is what I was thinking 20 years ago. Here's how my thinking has evolved."
Because we live in a time where changing your mind makes you a flip flopper, and that's just wrong. Why can't people learn more, grow, change, have new thoughts? One of the things that I think reading can do for us is help us change. So if I can't look at my own thinking and pull into my mind everything I've learned and say, "Let me write and show how I'm changing," then I'm a hypocrite. So throughout the book, sometimes teachers will see where my thinking has changed because I want them to come on that journey with me. I love that. I love that the editors at Heinemann were willing to let me do that, to give me the space to do it on the page and to give me the space to do it in the book. It did make the book a little bit longer at times, but I think in the long run, that helps teachers recognize their own journey.
That's one of the big changes between the first edition and the second edition, is I'm making my own thinking a lot more visible, the process of thinking, than I think it was in the first edition. I've also added things that I never considered putting in the first edition. I have a entire section on what's a best practice. I don't think people were even using the term "best practice" 20 years ago, and now everyone uses the term. And yet, when I ask 20 teachers, "What's a definition of a best practice," I'm pretty much going to get 20 different answers. And so we take a deep dive at understanding what makes a best practice, and that means teachers aren't just buying a kit labeled here are best practices. They're understanding the activity to do with kids for sure, but they also have to know their kids and they have to know their context, and they have to understand what is a best practice for one kid actually might not be a best practice for another kid. So none of that kind of stuff was discussed in the first edition.
I didn't have near enough in the first edition on helping kids learn to make an inference. And that to me is the cornerstone of actually being able to comprehend a text. Actually, my son keeps reminding me, this is not really a second edition, it's a new edition. He says, "Mom, a 2nd edition is what comes out three or four years later. You've updated some titles, maybe you've added some new research." He said, "This is 20 years later." And as I've looked at the two books, he's right. The basic structure of the book, a section on comprehension, a section on word work, a section on engagement that remains the same. But what has changed is my understanding of what's important within each of those sections.
Michelle: Yeah. One specific thing I wanted to ask about was why, for instance, you were stepping away from using the term strategies and now embracing scaffolding. There's so many instances like this, but that's just one that I was curious about.
Kylene: I'm glad you picked up on that one, Michelle. When I first wrote, When Kids Can't Read, I explained in some depth what was the difference between a strategy and a skill and a comprehension process with a strategy being that thing that brings our thinking out to the visible level. And what's happened in the 20 years between 1st edition and 2nd edition is that the word strategy has become incredibly overused. So the original research on comprehension strategies was deeply tied to understanding thinking that was happening in your head. So if you want to see if a kid can visualize, that's a comprehension process. It's a way we think. Then you might teach them the strategy sketch to stretch so that you're seeing what they're drawing, which is a reflection of what they are visualizing, what they're thinking. But what's happened is nowadays a strategy can be remembering to count to three before you just grab your friend's pencil off his desk.
That's not really a strategy, that's a coping mechanism. So because the word now is used broadly, I've decided just to not step into that fray. And I just call anything that we give to kids, teach to kids, to help them understand a text better, a scaffold. Now and what I want each teacher to do is decide within her classroom and within her school, what's the best language for their setting. And if their setting says, "We need to still call these things strategies," then do that. And that's all explained in the first part of the book.
Michelle: Thank you. Reading is a huge topic. Are there other big topics that are covered in the book that you want to touch upon?
Kylene: Yeah, so Michelle, I love your question about what are the big topics that are handled in When Kids Can't Read? And I like that question because it was really the question I kept asking myself as I was writing the book, because it is a handbook. It's a 418-page handbook. It's really meant to help someone who wants to understand in sort of maybe four areas, one area being why is it so critical that we improve kids' reading ability across all the content areas. The second area being, how do I help kids understand what they're reading better? And I divide that section in comprehension into three really simple segments, before reading, during reading, and after reading. And then there's a third section that I call word work, and that's where we look at spelling, vocabulary, phonics, helping kids with fluency and automaticity, reading rate, all of those things that must be in place so that comprehension can take place.
And then finally, an area that I think is critical, which is engagement. How do I help kids want to pick up a book, even if it's a book that they don't want to pick up? They have to, I mean, I don't know about you, but every day there are things I have to read and it may not be the newest novel that I want to get through. How do I create the stamina to help myself get through those texts that might not be the first things I really would reach for on my own? One of the parts that I've carried over from the 1st edition is every chapter begins and ends with a letter to George. And that without a doubt, was one of the most important pieces in the 1st edition, and I did not want to lose it in the 2nd edition.
George is a real student, and that is his real name that I taught my first year of teaching.
He was the first student that really made me recognize that as a secondary certified English teacher, I didn't know anything about helping a kid sitting in 7th grade who didn't know how to read. He was just this delightful student who was also incredibly frustrated, embarrassed, and angry at being in 7th grade, unable to do what all of his peers could do with much more ease. So I start and end each chapter with a letter to this kid. Some of the letters I've carried over from the 1st edition because they were incredibly important letters. Many of the letters in this 2nd edition are brand new. So for years, I mean years teachers have written to me and said, "I want to know more about George." And so here's more about George, because all of the letters that I write come from the notes that I kept that first year as a first year teacher on what didn't know. Mostly that's what was going on that year, but what I was trying with him.
Michelle: Yes, I love that. I love the reflection of the letters to George. And George is there, right? He's a constant, there's a timelessness and every teacher I'm sure can identify with that.
Kylene: Every teacher tells me, this is my George. And the kid's name may be different, the age may be different, the gender may be different, the setting may be different, but every kid in America at some point struggles through a text. Even our most skilled readers can be baffled with what they're reading. And so then they stand in front of their teacher and say, I don't get it. And that kid becomes that teacher's, George. And I think one thing I love about when kids can't read is it is a handbook, but it's a handbook with heart because we cannot look at school as simply a place that we go to get better at something so we can pass a test. The longer we continue to do that, the more we will have kids sitting apathetically in our classrooms. What we need to do is look at kids as these precious, generous, loving, genius people that they are. And I think George's humanity in the book helps us do that.
Michelle: 100%. You amplify how important it is to see kids to the whole challenge around understanding what kids need. Humanity absolutely came through. So many questions to ask Kylene, and one of the questions I had was, how can teachers maintain a reading environment? How can when kids can't read the second edition aid teachers in this? I know you've touched upon some things, very specific things, but is there anything you would add here?
Kylene: Michelle, when I think about the environment of a classroom, I think of so many things. I think about where's the teacher's desk? Where are the student's desk? I think about all of the kids who are in the classroom, and I think about the books that are in the classroom. Right now, I'm thinking about all the challenges that teachers face as different communities are beginning to say they don't want particular types of books in classrooms. It's a censorship that I never thought in 2023 we would have to face. And so when you ask me how do we maintain a reading environment, the first thing I think I say to teachers is kids cannot become readers if they don't read. I live in Texas, great football state. There's not a single football coach out there who's going to say, I'm going to create great football players.
We're just never going to use a football. Not going to happen. They're always going to say, I don't need just one football. I got to have a lot of footballs because I'm going to have some kids over here running some plays. Some kids over here practicing catching, I'm going to have quarterbacks over here practicing throwing because they got a lot of different kids who need to be doing different things. So in a classroom, I don't want to see just one kind of book. I want to see lots of books because lots of kids have different needs that different books will address. So the first thing that becomes important to me in a reading environment is are there books for the kids to be reading? And with that, then having all the books in the world without the time to read them makes about as much sense as the StairMaster I've got in another room here in my house.
I've got it, but by God it only works when I actually get on it. And so until I make the time to actually go get on it, it doesn't really matter that it's sitting there. We've got to give kids access to the books and we've got to give them time to read the books. And the teacher has got to know what is going on while kids are reading. And I think that's where many books, When Kids Can't Read-What Teachers Can Do, being one of them steps in to say to teachers as you're sitting and talking with individuals or small groups or even large group before they begin reading, here's the kind of lessons that are going to help kids as they navigate a text. So a reading environment is not just one thing. It's many things. And I know that those things when they come together help teachers create readers.
Michelle: Okay. Kylene, we're excited. There's an audiobook version of When Kids Can't Read, the second edition out. And I look back and I don't believe you've done that before. And I'm just curious to know what that experience was like for you.
Kylene: Yeah, this was actually the first time that I've done an audio version of the book. I think that anytime we have the ability to listen, especially listen and read along, then our comprehension goes up. So when Brett, the publisher approached me and said, let's do an audio version, I loved that idea. And yet I was a little bit nervous with that Michelle. You know, I think a lot of teachers know I am a breast cancer survivor and I continue to be on chemotherapy. That's what keeps me in remission. And I have one fabulous side effect of chemo, which is I'm still alive. And then I have a minor side effect, which is on any given day for absolutely no reason, I can begin to lose my voice.
And so when Brett said, let's do an audio version, I got really nervous because it's a long book. It is a long book. And I just thought, how am I going to handle that much reading? And then I began to think about my daughter who is all grown up, lives in New Orleans, and she sounds a little bit like me. And so we ask Meredith to be the reader of the main part of the book. And then I'm the reader of all the letters to George. And watching her bring this book to life was so exciting. It was a great, great experience. Thanks for asking about that Michelle.
Michelle: Kylene, this has been an honor. I love being in conversation with you. I've so enjoyed reading this beautiful second edition of your work and just your expansiveness of thinking. So it's always a pleasure.
Kylene: Oh, you're very kind, Michelle. Thank you so much. And thank you for giving me the opportunity to begin talking about When Kids Can't Read-What Teachers Can Do. Thanks, Michelle
Meredith: Chapter two: what happens when kids can't read?
Kylene: Dear George, one day, you asked me why reading was so important. I asked you to tell me more. You asked what would happen if as an adult, you never read anything.
You explained you could listen to news, and that lots of books are turned into movies, so you could enjoy the stories as movies. Your question was sincere and you waited patiently for my answer. I don't remember what I said, but I know you walked away saying, "I think I'll be just fine without reading."
Meredith: None of us who read would be the people we are if we never read. In part, that's because reading lets us consider complex ideas. I try to imagine understanding Einstein's theory, medical insights about breast cancer, research about world hunger, a contract to purchase a home, or information about new vaccines only through oral lectures and oral directions and discover I can't envision how to accomplish those tasks, but reading does more than help us understand complex ideas.
Reading helps us become better, better versions of ourselves. If we never entered the world of books, we would be diminished, be less. Books let us experience other times and other places, and at least for a moment, stand alongside others.
Those vicarious reading experiences become a part of who we are and offer us the chance to become empathetic and compassionate people. Perhaps most important, reading helps us resist manipulation and control by others. When we can't read, then someone other than us, a deceitful car salesperson, a duplicitous politician has the opportunity to step in and tell us what that person has decided we need to know.
If reading empowers then the inability or the unwillingness to read disempowers. But reading that empowers is a particular type of reading, it is responsible and responsive reading.
Between 2002 and 2022, Bob Props and I wrote extensively about the importance of creating responsible and responsive readers. Responsible readers. Bob and I defined responsible readers as those who attend to the text, those who do not attribute to the text what the text does not say. They know how to use evidence in the text to help them reach justifiable conclusions.
When emotions are awakened, curiosity, compassion, delight, doubt, responsible readers know how to examine the text to see what evoked such reactions. They question the author's biases and motives to determine if their response to the text is warranted.
Responsible readers know how to use stated and implied evidence that is in the text to help them justify positions. Responsible readers, therefore know how to set aside their own beliefs and dispositions to consider what a text has to offer.
This is hard as most of us read with our worldview shaping our understanding of the text. For instance, according to research from 2007, 2008, and 2017, people who think sex education has no place in high school curriculum and certainly not in middle school curriculum dismiss research that shows kids who take a sex education class delay sexual activity. They might claim the research is not real or worse, decide that even though there is research, it doesn't matter because that's not what they believe.
The language arts teacher who continues to teach grammar and isolation even after decades of research consistently reveal that such a practice does not improve writing is the same person who wonders why students are such poor writers.
Responsive readers understand that reading can help them develop intellectually and emotionally. Students who merely pass their eyes over words looking for the details that will help them pass the multiple choice test will be, at best, surface level readers.
They will not be readers who examine what the information means to them, who consider what the text might mean to others, who understand what a text might mean in the shaping of our democracy. That said, a response from a text is without merit if the reader has overlooked responsibility to the text. Response and responsibility are connected.
Kylene Beers, Ed.D., is a former middle school teacher who has turned her commitment to adolescent literacy and struggling readers into the major focus of her research, writing, speaking, and teaching. She is author of the best-selling When Kids Can’t Read/What Teachers Can Do, co-editor (with Bob Probst and Linda Rief) of Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice, and co-author (with Bob Probst) of Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading and Reading Nonfiction, Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies all published by Heinemann. She taught in the College of Education at the University of Houston, served as Senior Reading Researcher at the Comer School Development Program at Yale University, and most recently acted as the Senior Reading Advisor to Secondary Schools for the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College.
Kylene has published numerous articles in state and national journals, served as editor of the national literacy journal, Voices from the Middle, and was the 2008-2009 President of the National Council of Teachers of English. She is an invited speaker at state, national, and international conferences and works with teachers in elementary, middle, and high schools across the US. Kylene has served as a consultant to the National Governor’s Association and was the 2011 recipient of the Conference on English Leadership outstanding leader award.
Kylene is now a consultant to schools, nationally and internationally, focusing on literacy improvement with her colleague and co-author, Bob Probst.