National Writing Project

Book Whisperer Author Discusses Writing Project’s Role in Career

Date: September 2, 2010

Summary: Although known as the Book Whisperer, Annual Meeting keynote speaker Donalyn Miller has a lot to say about the National Writing Project and teaching writing.


Annual Meeting keynote speaker Donalyn Miller is said to have a "gift"—the gift to turn even the most reluctant readers into voracious bookworms.

And that gift has earned her a nickname that sits atop her widely read blog and graces the cover of her popular book The Book Whisperer.

"When I was asked how I could get children to read as many books as I do, I said, 'I don't know, it's like I'm some sort of whisperer,'" said the sixth grade language arts teacher from Texas. "They jumped on the name, of course, and I've been the Book Whisperer ever since."

For Miller, the secret to developing successful readers—kids who are not just good at reading, but who also love to read—requires a nontraditional approach.

"I think that often in school, we look at our most struggling readers—or what I call our developing readers—and we design our instruction around them," said Miller.

"But what I've chosen to do is look at the successful readers, the kids who have it going on, who know what reading is all about, and ask myself, 'How did they get that way? What skills do they have that the other kids lack?' And it's not just the ability to read well. It's that love of reading, that knowledge of books and authors, the carving out of time to read."

Fifty, Sixty Books Each Year

Indeed, the number of books Miller can get kids to read is impressive—as many as 50 to 60 books a year.

"Whether we're at home, whether we're at school, we can help kids develop those lifelong reading habits. How do you find books that you enjoy? How do you carve out time to read every day? How do you develop that love of reading that transcends the kind of reading that goes on in school?"

Although known as the Book Whisperer, Miller has a lot to say about the National Writing Project and teaching writing. As a teacher-consultant with the North Star of Texas Writing Project, she talks about how her Writing Project experience helped her become a successful teacher and author.

Miller has become a prolific writer over the years. She publishes one of the most popular blogs in Teacher Magazine , in which she writes about how to motivate young readers and responds to issues facing teachers and other leaders in the literacy field.

In 2009, she published The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, which traces her personal journey as a teacher of reading. She shares her initial enthusiasm followed by the ultimate failure of her early reading units, where she employed strategies such as using whole-class novels, comprehension worksheets, and key vocabulary terms.

As a voracious reader herself, she realized, in horror, that her classroom had become the kind she herself had despised as a student. These kinds of practices can have a negative effect on struggling readers, Miller wrote.

In her mind, Miller sees three types of readers enter her class every year, and she refuses to underestimate the reading potential that any student might hold.

"I see three different trends: developing readers, dormant readers, and underground readers. I developed those terms because I didn't like the negative terminology that we often use to describe kids who are not as far down the road as we would like them to be.

"We use terms like 'struggling' and 'reluctant' reader. And to me, it sets up expectations for teachers to think less of those children. And by that I mean believing they're not capable of doing as much because they're 'struggling' or they're 'reluctant.' And so I tried to think of more positive terminology."

Donalyn Miller offers tips on inspiring children to read in this television interview.

And that is where the Book Whisperer takes over. Although her approach is much more nuanced and complex than a set of reading tips, Miller does have some ideas that are easy for parents and children to latch onto, such as visiting the library often, giving children a greater role in their choice of books, and spending time as a family reading, even just for 15 minutes daily.

"I mean turning off the television, and everyone—mom, dad, all the kids—sitting down with their books to read," Miller advised. "Because if we make time for what we value, and we want to send the message to kids that reading matters, that it's valuable, then we're going to carve out time for that at home."

Miller finds that after a year in her classroom, after reading dozens of books, even the dormant readers discover that their habits have changed.

"I would have to say that dormant readers aren't dormant any more after a year in my classroom," Miller said, "and that they become more like the gifted readers—they take ownership of their literacy and find ways to connect with books that they didn't have before."

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