Monday, March 16, 2015

Helping Your Student Find the Key to Reading

I wish Donalyn Miller had been my teacher growing up. In her book, The Book Whisperer, she explains how she became the teacher she is today. Yes, she embedded a great many instructional leaders’ insights into her teaching philosophy. It’s apparent she knows her stuff when it comes to educational best practices and instructional pedagogy.
However, the one thing that shouted from the pages at me was this: Every student loves to read…many just don’t know it yet.

I was one of those kids. Class clown. Bit of a smart aleck. Always had a catchy comeback for anyone who dared to cross me. But most importantly, I used all these “techniques” as a smoke and mirrors ploy. The truth was, I wasn’t a very good reader. What took some students five minutes to read took me fifteen, at least. I was always one of the last students to finish a test. Friends would read books in a matter of days. It took me weeks. So, as I grew older, I slowly succumbed to the age-old lie which every poor reader says to himself or herself: I hate reading. For us, reading is dumb. Reading is stupid. Reading is for geeks.

Do your children ever voice those words? Ever espouse those beliefs?

The change in me didn’t happen until I was in middle school. I was twelve going on thirteen. It was summertime. My mother took me and my best friend to Daytona Beach for a long weekend. When we arrived, it was raining. Thwarted by Mother Nature, our beach plans became after dinner mall plans.

We walked around and ducked in and out of stores. We finally made it into a book store because my mother—God love her—was an avid reader. Still is. When we entered the store, a book caught my eye. The movie had just come out in theaters, and I wanted to go see it that weekend. When I picked up the book, Jaws, my mother asked me, “Do you want that book?” I’m sure it took a minute for the words to come out because I know her heart had to have stopped beating, if only for a few seconds.

“Sure,” I said.

I started reading Jaws that night. I took me about two weeks to finish it; a speed record for me. I guess you could say I devoured that book. And from that moment on, a love for reading grew inside. Now, I read several books a year, even write books!

The book Jaws became the key that opened up the door to reading for me. At that time in my life, I wanted to be a marine biologist. Hence the interest in a book like Jaws. Donalyn Miller would say, “Yep. That’s all it takes. A little time. A little effort. A little investigative prowess on the part of a teacher and/or parent. Once that key interest is found, capitalize on it. Get that kid everything you can get your hands on that revolves around that subject and lay it before him. If he starts reading a book and loses interest, tell him it’s okay to stop, but don’t stop completely! Pick up another book and give that one a try.”

That’s what happened to me. As I read Jaws, I was asking questions like, “Do sharks really get that big?” and “Can sharks really jump onto boats and sink them?” and (a big question for a 12-year-old, but one that set me on a love for history as well was) “What’s Captain Quint talking about when he tells the story of the USS Indianapolis?”

You can just imagine what happened. I set out on a quest. I was researching, investigating, finding other reading material which answered those questions. Then guess what happened next? You got it. More questions. And I needed answers. The doors that were once all locked up had been opened by a key named Jaws and an author by the name of Peter Benchley. That key showed me things I had never seen before on the written page, and I was loving it.
Back at school, all my teachers had me read stories I hated. Unfortunately, we do the same things today. We teach them how to read by using stories which reinforce their negative feelings toward reading as a whole. For example, what 7th grader wants to read an autobiographical story about a miller’s daughter in 1925? Or an abstract poem about a flower that never grew? Or a propaganda piece about the environment, taken from a book not one middle school student will ever read? Ever!

We educators shoot ourselves in the proverbial foot by forcing students to read things they hate before they develop a love for reading. That’s like force-feeding a child broccoli when he’s still gumming food out of a Gerber jar on a rubber-coated spoon. Not only can he not handle the complexity and texture of the broccoli, he’s not ready for it yet. It’s the cart-before-the-horse-syndrome. The push in today’s educational landscape is to give students what we call “complex texts.” That’s all well and good so long as a student loves to read. Giving a student who has developed a love for vegetables some broccoli to try is the best way to introduce him to a very complex taste. Horse first. Then cart.

As a parent, the best thing you can do is find the key for your child. Ask your child a series of questions about his or her likes and dislikes. Make sure you listen between the lines. If they are young children, they will spout the typical answers, “I want to be a fireman” or “I want to be a doctor” or “I want to a football player.” The trick is to dig deeper. Why do they want to be those things? Is it because they like the limelight? Or is it because they want to help people? Is it because Uncle Frank is a police officer, or it is because they love cops and robbers and have a skewed view of law enforcement? As you dig, look for the veins that show you where the mother lode is located. For me, what my mother didn't realize was that she was tapping into my key without even knowing it. I loved the ocean. I had a growing desire to be a marine biologist. So, Jaws went right along with interests I had already developed. So, what happened to the marine biologist? Why am I not in a diving bell scouring the ocean floor for clues to life, the universe, and everything? Well, it's like this: I get seasick. In my desire to become a marine biologist, I found out you have to spend days, even months, on a ship, on the ocean, bobbing up and down, smelling diesel fumes, and trying not to heave your lunch over the gunwale. So, I made a career decision. Keep feet on terra firma. But by the time I had come to that conclusion, the key had been secured into the lock of my reading door, turned, and I had pushed the door open pretty side. Like I tell my students, "What you don't want to do with your life is just as important to know as what you do want to eventually pursue. It helps narrow down the field considerably." 

It's not always about subjects or areas of interest, though. Sometimes, it’s a particular author who may turn on a student to reading. Gary Paulsen and Mike Lupica have turned many a boy on to reading through a mutual love of the outdoors and sports, respectively. Stephanie Meyer used vampires and werewolves to tell a love story, and turned girls on to reading along the way. For me, it was a subject. For others. it’s an author. For others, it’s a mutual respect for a type of writing because “Mommy likes it, too.” Just remember, it's not that your child hates reading. It's that he or she just hasn't found anything they want to read yet. Once they do, they'll go crazy. And, it doesn't have to be just young people. I know of an adult (I won't mention his name here) who "never read" (His words...and his wife's, too). I asked him to read one of my manuscripts because of his specialty in the work force. Now, he owns an e-reader, and his wife has to monitor the credit card and limit his purchases.  

Regardless of the interest, capitalize on it, and then help your child expand their horizons along the way. Whether it be a love for gaming, a desire to go camping, a love for fishing, an almost "obsession" with fashion, use that to your advantage. There are magazines, books, websites out there on almost everything. Vet them, hand them over to your child, and watch the miracle of reading begin. And, never stop helping your reader keep pushing the door open. When their horizons expand, help them find that reading material, too. Barn doors are big. They can open just enough to let a small child out. They can open more and allow a horse to escape. But if you want the tractor, you know, the big one, those barn doors need to be opened wide.

The wider the better.


C. KEVIN THOMPSON is an ordained minister with a B.A. In Bible (Houghton College, Houghton, NY), an M.A. in Christian Studies (Wesley Biblical Seminary, Jackson, MS), and an M.Ed. in Educational Leadership (National-Louis University, Wheeling, IL). He presently works as an assistant principal in a middle school. He also has several years experience as an administrator at the high school level.

A former Language Arts teacher, he decided to put his money where his mouth was and write, fiction mostly. Now, years later, Kevin is a member of the Christian Authors Network (CAN), American Christian Fictions Writers (ACFW), and Word Weavers International. He is the Chapter President of Word Weavers-Lake County (FL), and his published works include two award-winning novels, The Serpent’s Grasp (OakTara, 2012; winner of the 2013 Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference Selah Award for First Fiction) and 30 Days Hath Revenge - A Blake Meyer Thriller: Book 1 (OakTara 2013), as well as articles in The Wesleyan Advocate, The Preacher, Vista, The Des Moines Register and The Ocala Star-Banner.

Kevin is a huge fan of the TV series 24 , The Blacklist, and Criminal Minds, loves anything to do with Star Trek, and is a Sherlock Holmes fanatic, too.

Facebook:          C. Kevin Thompson – Author Page
Twitter:            @CKevinThompson
Goodreads:        C. Kevin Thompson

*Generic photos courtesy of

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