National Writing Project

Book Review: Lifers: Learning from At-Risk Adolescent Readers, by Pamela Mueller

By: Emily Noble
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 1
Date: 2005

Summary: This book describes the experience—in their own words—of several at-risk students who have been struggling with reading for years. Noble describes Mueller's model for a reading workshop for ninth grade students.


Heinemann, 2001. $20; 192 pages.
ISBN 0-86709-514-8
What are "lifers"? We usually associate the term with prison inmates, doomed to a life behind bars, with no hope of freedom or the experiences that life on the outside offers. But there are other lifers who in many ways are similar to prison inmates. They too have little hope of gaining the freedom and experiences of a full and rich life. Their bars are many: fear, negativity, misconceptions, harmful attitudes and stereotypes, and unwillingness to change. In her book, Pamela N. Mueller uses the term lifers to identify adolescent at-risk readers who have been placed in any variety of intervention programs: remedial reading groups, resource rooms, retention, and low-track classes. Her book is a strong and effective means of providing the lifers we know and their teachers with a way to escape their prisons.

Lifers may be the book that changes the hearts of teachers. Written in a large part from the perspective of students who have been struggling with reading for more years than anyone wants to admit, Lifers gets into the skin of the students. As Mueller writes in her acknowledgments: "This book grew out of a desire to learn from a group of students I've always been drawn to, the at-risk readers who populate our high schools in increasing numbers." She adds, "In working with me, they have taught me more than I can ever expect to teach them."

The accounts by Mueller's students of their often-failed attempts at reading made me remember many of my ninth and tenth grade students who struggled with reading. As I sat tutoring my lifers after school, the quiet halls, still at the end of the day but echoing earlier laughter, would sometimes serve to make us feel even more isolated. Early in my teaching, by instinct, I had given my students reading choices, rather than force them all to read the same book. In many ways and with several students, it worked. Some began to look at reading in a new light, enchanted by the possibilities that existed in the world of books. Sadly, others continued to struggle, and many times I believe I failed them. Now, as a teacher-consultant with the Mississippi Writing/Thinking Institute and the Mississippi State University Writing/Thinking Project, I have a chance to share what I know—and, more important, what I didn't know—with other teachers throughout the state. I now bring Mueller's book with me to professional development sessions, often as a way to generate conversation and insight into how the teachers are viewing their students and the difficulties they encounter with reading.

What about the remedial programs that many teachers think are the answer for struggling readers? Mueller compares these programs to the treatment of a patient with a "learning disease" and contends that, in spite of the teachers' best intentions, the prognosis is poor: "For adolescent at-risk readers, though, the hoped-for cure is elusive." She goes on to say that "the cure rate of most intervention programs is limited at best. There is little evidence that participation in any of these programs helps students become better readers." So what happens when the programs don't work? Students move into yet another futile attempt at decoding words, covering material that has little or no connection with their lives. By then lifers have all but given up, and, sadly, some teachers have given up as well.

Making the change from a safe and relatively uncomplicated method of reading to one that requires a wide selection of books and independent choices by students requires tremendous effort. But Mueller's book indicates that the benefits far outweigh the work.

Mueller does not intend Lifers to point fingers and place blame on educators. Rather, she hopes that this journey into the minds of students will allow student voices to be heard and acknowledged. Full of rich and revealing narratives from the students' point of view, the book introduces us to Alexis, a sad teenager who has been a lifer since the first grade. Before she went to school, Alexis loved being read to on her mother's lap. Her experiences with reading were positive, happy times that fueled her imagination and creativity. Only when Alexis entered kindergarten did reading change for her; what had once been an enjoyable social activity became a task of unlocking words and memorizing letters and sounds. Problems with combining letters and sounds changed Alexis's view of reading and diminished her love of stories. She shares her embarrassment in being asked to read aloud in front of kids who "started showing me up." She also talks of her frustrations in being pulled out of her regular class for extra help in the resource room, where, she admits, nothing really went on: "It was fun, but there was nothing to learn." But we also learn that Alexis is now in a reading workshop and likes to read. Alexis tells us what most of us already know: that when she is reading something she likes, something she can "get into," then her mind is in the book and she is "grabbed" by the first page.

In chapter 2, Mueller shares the thoughts of Kayla, a shy lifer who is reluctant to ask for help for fear of appearing slower than the rest of her classmates and who is, sadly, becoming a true "child left behind." Before first grade, Kayla and her mother read books together, and Kayla states she did great in preschool and kindergarten. But when she entered first grade she began having difficulty with reading. "They gave harder words, and I couldn't do them. School just kept going, and I just went along with it. It got worse and worse." She says now that she "doesn't have a clue how they taught us to read." She remembers the teachers sounding out the words the way they should sound, but not speaking the word. That is, the teachers would phonetically pronounce the syllables, el-e-phant, and then wait for the students to say the whole word.

As early as in the first grade, Kayla knew what she needed in order to understand, but she didn't receive it. "I needed to know what the word was in order to sound it out." In the seventh grade, after years of pretending and becoming increasingly frustrated, Kayla was tested to determine her reading grade level. When the test revealed that she was reading on a third grade level, she was placed in a class with five other students with the same diagnosis. Learning better how to sound out the words helped Kayla to a degree. She says that she still has difficulty with big words and is embarrassed to ask for help.

On the bright side, Kayla admits that getting better with words encouraged her to read outside of school. Here is the catch: she reads outside of school. "I picked out books that I wanted to read, not books that some teacher assigned to me. I found that I liked reading, that I could read by myself."

Finally, we meet Mick, a complex young man who has struggled with the mechanics of reading most of his life. Mick feels that there is no point to reading and that it is basically boring. Unlike most of the other students in Mueller's study, Mick had only limited and sporadic exposure to reading during his childhood. He speaks of his father once reading a book to him. Because Mick was able to pretend that he was the giant in the story, he fondly remembers this isolated instance. When Mick entered first grade, he was placed in a "readiness" program. Told by school officials that he was not "capable of going to first grade," Mick began his journey into the world of remediation. Introduced to the sounding out of words, the group had to stay on the same letters and vowels until everybody understood. This is also when Mick began to become bored with reading. Only when he was able to see something in his head was Mick able to transcend the boredom. Needing the story and the characters to come alive for him in order to have a positive reading experience, Mick says that discussing stories in reading workshops and having to answer questions about books led him to think longer and try to understand what he had read. He also tells Mueller that having thirty minutes each day to read helps him. Mick's advice to teachers is that they "give more time and make sure that the kids understand the big words. I would tell them to be sure and ask if anybody needs help and to help the little kids that need it." I couldn't help marveling at the simplicity of his advice, but also at the power that lay beneath the words. In a test-driven school climate, most teachers will argue that time is the one thing they don't have. But if we listen to students and look beyond just covering the material, how can we afford not to give them the time they need?

During Mueller's interviews with the ninth grade lifers, she learned what didn't work. In the accounts of the lifers' reading difficulties, Mueller discovered that educators often pointed fingers at a student's home environment, when in many cases that was clearly not the problem. Most of the reading workshop students Mueller interviewed came to school seeing themselves as readers. It was only after they were introduced to formal reading instruction that difficulty began. Synthetic phonics training with little recognition of the phonemes defeated Kayla early in her reading. Her teacher's failure to recognize this worsened the situation. Mueller describes the "phonics skirmishes" that led to frustration and a growing dislike of reading. Learning how to say words seemed to be the major thrust of the reading experience for these students, to the point that phonics instruction became synonymous with reading. Sadly, if the students didn't get it the first time, they simply were subjected to more of the same type of instruction.

Mueller makes it clear that phonetic instruction—developed in concert with real reading, writing, and reflection—can be effective. The problem, it seems, with this group of students was that they were receiving a steady diet of phonetic instruction only, with little authentic learning taking place. Teachers who are unaware of research or who fail to notice that an instructional method isn't working only exacerbate a bad situation. Teachers who hold on to telling rather than teaching figure heavily in the histories of these students. Very little modeling, guidance, and practice was embedded into their classrooms. Mueller cites a failure to recognize the individual needs of students as a strong reason for the students' decline. Generic instruction—a "one size fits all" perspective—resulted in struggling readers being left behind. And round-robin reading—considered one of the most damaging forms of learning because it intensifies the embarrassment of struggling readers—was used repeatedly in these students' classes.

Because we encourage students to personalize their reading experiences, I urge the readers of Lifers to do the same. The student narratives, rich and full of voice, are primarily found at the beginning of the book; the solutions at the end. In other words, this book is not meant to be read in a linear method. As I read, I found myself moving from one section to another, searching for a solution and often finding additional discussion about the problem.

In the second part of the book, Mueller provides readers with a comprehensive model for a reading workshop for ninth grade students. Based on the premise that students learn to read by reading—and that at-risk readers can improve their skills by being given the opportunity to choose their own books, the time to read them, and the chance to respond to them in a caring community of learners—the year-long reading workshop is not a replacement for English class, nor is it a remediation device. Mueller describes it "not as less, but more, an extra dose of reading for those who need it most." At the time this book was published, Mueller's school was in the fifth year of the reading workshop course. Like anything connected with a change in routine and policy, the reading workshop has had its share of obstacles to overcome. The realities of teacher assignment, student scheduling, and room and furniture availability in an overcrowded and underfunded school were some of the issues that Mueller faced. And she had to combat the attitudes of the students themselves, a challenge that comes with working with lifers.

The reading workshop is by no means a quick fix. Built around reading by choice and interaction among the students, with the teacher facilitating minilessons, it is a process that takes a great deal of patience on the part of teachers and students—especially students who are accustomed to failure. We are all creatures of habit who resist or reject change, even if it is for the better. Students who are afraid of more failure feel safe under the cloak of anonymity. Teachers struggling with assessments and standards are reluctant to devote the time to something new. Because the reading workshop is not about test scores and assessments but is about transforming students from lifers into lifelong learners and readers, the extensive time spent preparing for the workshop is critical.

Based on the writing community in Jane Hansen's When Writers Read (1987), the reading workshop strives to develop a caring community of readers who rejoice in one another's accomplishments. With a class schedule designed around ninety-minute blocks, reading workshop members are encouraged to make the workshop's chosen room—often a makeshift space with cast-off furniture—a place of their own. Students cover the walls with colorful collages and posters of favorite cars and sports figures. Books and periodicals of many styles fill the room, as well as posters that encourage students to "Take Time to Read." Reading preparation is interwoven with the establishment of the community. As part of the early groundwork, teachers conduct minilessons on how to choose a book and how students can begin to see themselves as readers. For each student, setting goals and charting progress in a journal and a weekly progress chart are integral parts of the class. Reflections about reading and responding, and strategies for before, during, and after reading are modeled and practiced regularly. The schedule sets aside time for journal response and verbal response to reading, both vital components of the workshop. Other study strategies include preparing for the reading test, reading graphs and charts, and skimming and scanning for information. Of particular interest to me was the minilesson entitled "Self-Evaluation: Valuing Myself as a Reader." With goal-setting as a priority, this lesson helps students begin to view reading and themselves differently, moving them into a place of independence. Members must also visit a bookstore, have "book buddies," and create book posters. The workshop assesses student performance in a variety of ways; often the student is responsible for completing a progress sheet that is checked by the teacher. Journals and reading logs are also part of the assessment process.

Making the change from a safe and relatively uncomplicated method of reading to one that requires a wide selection of books and independent choices by students requires tremendous effort. But Mueller's book indicates that the benefits far outweigh the work. Slowly and surely, the students become united, thinking and responding in creative and exciting ways. Because a reading workshop is a safe environment for lifers, the students no longer feel they are behind or stupid, but rather participants in a true community of learners. Encouraged to share their thoughts and ideas, as well as their stumbling blocks, the students begin exploring new horizons that promise to take them out of the darkness and toward a place of fulfillment and satisfaction with themselves and reading.


Hansen, Jane. 1987. When Writers Read. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

About the Author Emily Noble is a co-director and the coordinator for literacy development of the Mississippi State University Writing/Thinking Project.

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