A Slow-Books Manifesto: Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.

From The Atlantic, a piece worth reading by Maura Kelly. Here’s a taste:

Why the emphasis on literature? By playing with language, plot structure, and images, it challenges us cognitively even as it entertains. It invites us to see the world in a different way, demands that we interpret unusual descriptions, and pushes our memories to recall characters and plot details. In fact, as Annie Murphy Paul noted in a March 17 New York Times op-ed, neuroscientists have found plenty of proof that reading fiction stimulates all sorts of cognitive areas—not just language regions but also those responsible for coordinating movement and interpreting smells. Because literary books are so mentally invigorating, and require such engagement, they make us smarter than other kinds of reading material, as a 2009 University of Santa Barbara indicated. Researchers found that subjects who read Kafka’s “The Country Doctor”—which includes feverish hallucinations from the narrator and surreal elements—performed better on a subsequent learning task than a control group that read a straightforward summary of the story. (They probably enjoyed themselves a lot more while reading, too.)

Literature doesn’t just make us smarter, however; it makes us us, shaping our consciences and our identities. Strong narratives—from Moby-Dick to William Styron’s suicide memoir, Darkness Visible—help us develop empathy. Research by Canadian psychologists Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar suggests that reading fiction even hones our social skills, as Paul notes. “Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported … that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them, and see the world from their perspective,” she writes. “This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels.”

With empathy comes self-awareness, of course. By discovering affinities between ourselves and characters we never imagined we’d be able to comprehend (like the accused murderer Dimitri Karamazov), we better understand who we are personally and politically; what we want to change; what we care about defending.


Success with Independent Reading: making me smile

I just received a note from one of my “cyber-colleagues” on the English Companion Ning, and part of it was about Independent Reading:

I also want to thank you for some advice you have given me last year regarding Independent Reading – I have taken some of your ideas, changed and implemented them in my junior classes, and I have had (and am having) unexpected, and dare I say, some wonderful experiences and results. The students have really bought into the idea, and I have seen their reading skills, interpretive skills and just general involvement in class improve. I had three parents actually thank me at our recent parents evening, which is something in our school. Your answer just gave me an extra nudge to go from contemplating to doing.

Can you see my smile?

More about Independent Reading is one click away.

We get mail . . .

I received this email message today—

I am an ESL Instructor at [redacted] and I came across your blog and website. I enjoyed reading it and want to try some of your ideas. I also believe in independent reading (I call it extensive reading). Each student reads different books to the ones we read as a class. I have taught my ESL college-bound students for about 10 years requiring them to read a certain number of pages each day depending on their proficiency level. I started this at the English Language Center at [redacted]. It works, and every semester my students thank me for it too. I like your idea of having them respond on a blog. I will try this with my next class.

This blog does not have thousands of readers, but it is gratifying enough for me to feel once in a while that someone finds my work useful. Thanks so much! As I wrote in my reply,

I can’t express what a profound change class blogs have made to writing instruction. I highly recommend them! The details are more important than one might initially think: threaded comments, ‘Like’ buttons, lists of recent comments, number of posts per author, number of comments per author, etc. That’s why I use WordPress with the ‘Atahualpa’ theme, which can be customized so easily. If you start with a free option, I would recommend edublogs.org—run by teachers, it uses WordPress MU (multi-user), which has many (but not all) of the features you can build into an individual WP blog.

Good luck! Let me know how it goes.

Another teacher wrote to me on the English Companion Ning. We had some correspondence back and forth, and in her latest reply she wrote this:

Thanks for your previous response.  The responses from your students made my day, and I’m glad you linked me to them.  I’d read some of those responses in June, and I remembered why I wanted to try this in the first place.

I’ve been making some changes to what we were doing.  I was having the students answer a question each day about their reading in their diaries, and after looking at what you do again, I realized it was too much.  You are right.  If we want them to read, we can’t heap extras onto the students that take away from getting them to get into the reading habit.  I think it’s going better now.

I was pretty discouraged.  Your message helped me, and I wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done to help me in succeeding in this.

I thought I’d share a quote from one of my student’s blog entries.  She did happen to stumble on a good match for her, but her response gave me a “fuzzy” teacher moment.

Lauren in Missouri said–

My personal reaction to this book was different from all other books I have read. This book grabbed my attention from the first page. As I read this book I didn’t want to stop. I have never wanted to not put a book down. I used to hate reading, and now I hope to find more books like Sweet Hearts.


[name redacted]

These two correspondents, and others like them, have brightened my days. Teaching is hard work, and sometimes we do get discouraged—or at least tired :). So if you have learned something, been inspired, or otherwise benefitted from a colleague’s work, please do take the time to write a note of appreciation and brighten up someone’s day.

Alfie Kohn and I disagree, for once

I’m a big fan of Alfie Kohn. He’s deeply humane, unafraid to disagree with commonly accepted ideas, always on the side of students, tireless in his advocacy on their behalf—and he grounds his opinions in research. I often recommend his books—especially The Homework Myth and Punished by Rewards.

Recently, however, he posted a piece titled “How to Create Nonreaders: Reflections on Motivation, Learning, and Sharing Power” on his web site after its appearance in the Fall 2010 issue of English Journal, and concerning part of what he says in it, I must disagree.

First, a confession: I have for almost thirty years been giving students marks based on the number of pages they complete for Independent Reading. You can read about my Independent Reading program here. According to Kohn, this approach should have been discouraging and demotivating for my students, and if he is right then I have spent three decades turning students into non-readers. But I know that this is not the case. Instead, I have spent thirty years helping non-readers and reluctant readers and second-language learners discover the joys of reading and improve their skills. I have seen the pride in their faces when they have reflected on how many books they have read at the end of the school year—more, often, than ever before; more, sometimes, than in their whole lives up until then. And year after year I have had comments like these from my students as they look back on their year of reading (these are unedited, but I have put portions in bold-face type):


At the very start of the year, the first day actually, Mr. Macknight already assigned us a daily homework, the homework was reading every day fifteen minutes. For the first couple of weeks, I didn’t really take it seriously and I must admit, I barely ready anything. But when our first report cards came out, I realized that my grade could have been better if I only read more, so decided to read much more. At first, I struggled a little bit, since it was a bit hard from reading almost nothing to about a bit more than a hundred pages a week. Something else that made it harder for me is my laptop, since I always wanted to go and do something else, but by reading every day, I also started reading different types of books, different styles, like thrillers, action, puzzle, etc. Reading so many different types of books taught me to like different authors, not one I always read like ‘Anthony Horowitz’, but not only did the independent reading help with that, it also made me learn a huge amount of new vocabulary. This will help me be ahead of people of my own grade in Belgium!!

Jia Xin

I wasn’t in Mr. Macknight class in September and we did not have independent reading or blogs. I did not read much until I came to English A.

At first, I read a lot because I knew that the independent reading could make a different in my report card grade. I am not a native English speaker but I want to maintain my grade so I read novel every night after I finished my homework. Now, I did not read as much as I first came to English A because there were more and more projects and less spare time. You might think that this is an excuse, I think so as well, I became lazy, kind of. I think that I read better in the morning because my mind is clearer during morning when I woke up. I always fall asleep at night when I read novel and I don’t think I remember the events that happened. Sometimes, night gave me the mood of the character in the story and I felt scare of reading it. I read in the morning, which means I have less time for reading because I have to rush to school everyday so I read less.

I changed from a person who wanted to get a good grade in report card so I read more books to a person wanted to dip into a friction that is full of imagination and adventures that I might not even see in my entire life or into a non-friction world that tells me what the real world looks like and how people survive in it. I read at lot in the beginning of this semester and I found out that I really like non-friction stories because I wanted to see the real world outside and how people manage to live in this “world” that we are going to join soon and after. I know I shouldn’t have just read one kind of genre (what I meant for genre is friction or non-friction) but I would try to read other genre that interests me. How did I change? I don’t know the answer. I just know that I read more and found out what I like and just go for it.

I knew that I learned a lot when I read books. I learned new vocabularies, grammars used, culture of the certain country, life of other in real world, etc. I also know what genre or type of books do I like the most, which means I get to know myself better.

Yi Su

Was I ever a good reader? I never was. If I was not in Mr.Macknight’s class and had to write independent journal, I wouldn’t have read a lot. Since my first language is Korean, not English, and even though I’m in Language A, it is hard for me to read books in English. Moreover, expression is different in English. That is why sometimes I don’t get jokes from books. Every time I don’t get what they character is saying, I asked my English speaking friends. As I learn many new stuffs from books, I began to read more and more (Some books, I didn’t write Ind. Reading journals).

Li Fan

Back in 2009 September, I did not really read much book at that time. In fact reading was on my top dislike list, but now reading became one of my habits everyday. This change started from the day I entered Mr. Macknight’s classroom once again after grade 7. The course was still similar to the one before, but this time I learned a lot more from the books I read. Some of the most important reading experiences I gained this year will be to actually enjoy in reading. At first I was forced to read, as a 28 pages or more is needed to achieve a good grade, but as time goes on I started to pay a much closer attention to every vocabulary, every word, every sentence I read. Actually, what is most important to me will be to enjoy reading. Once you are in with the plot line, everything will go together naturally. For this summer, I am planning to read better quality books, as what I need now is to focus more on my use of language and grammar.

Yoo Min

Since English is not my mother tongue, and I am not that kind of person who loves challenging, I hated most of the things that related to English. When I first came to SSIS and read an english book, I almost cried, I thought I was too stupid. I took almost a month to read a book, even though my English skill became better, I still hated reading. I think I would not read even one book for this year if Mr. Macknight did not require us to read. However at the beginning of the year Mr. Macknight told us a good method which is “read what you want to read”. Even though it was pain in the neck to look for new vocabulary, I wanted to because I was curious to know next issue. And this make me spend more time on reading than before. Anyway from now I need to start reading more kinds of deep meaning book rather than entertaining books.

So now, since I usually agree with Alfie Kohn, I have to try to explain why his theory predicts results that I only rarely see in my practice.

In the opening of his English Journal article, Kohn writes, “ . . . it is impossible to motivate students”. But I don’t think of myself as motivating my students to read by giving them grades for it. I don’t even think of myself as rewarding them with grades. Instead, it seems to me that receiving grades for work done is, in the context of a school, simple fairness and justice. Grades, after all, are the currency of schools. Can I imagine a better, more humane way to offer education to young people? Absolutely. But in the meantime, we have the schools we have. And in those schools, students receive grades and credits and diplomas in return for the work they do. It’s a fairly straightforward transaction. Think of it this way: how should a student feel if she is told to do an assignment in school and then informed that she will receive no grades or credit for her work?

But the grades aren’t motivation. And I don’t try to motivate my students at all, really: I try to inspire them. I try to make them believe in themselves and the limitless possibilities of their futures, and I try to show them that if they become readers they will open up doors for themselves. And once they start reading, with the right guidance and help, they begin to discover the joys of reading, and after that my work is easy.

In other words, I see myself doing exactly what Kohn describes in this paragraph:

What a teacher can do – all a teacher can do – is work with students to create a classroom culture, a climate, a curriculum that will nourish and sustain the fundamental inclinations that everyone starts out with:  to make sense of oneself and the world, to become increasingly competent at tasks that are regarded as consequential, to connect with (and express oneself to) other people.  Motivation – at least intrinsic motivation — is something to be supported, or if necessary revived.  It’s not something we can instill in students by acting on them in a certain way.  You can tap their motivation, in other words, but you can’t “motivate them.”  And if you think this distinction is merely semantic, then I’m afraid we disagree.

A bit further on, however, this is how Kohn describes what I do:

Nothing contributes to a student’s interest in (and proficiency at) reading more than the opportunity to read books that he or she has chosen.  But it’s easy to undermine the benefits of free reading.  All you need to do is stipulate that students must read a certain number of pages, or for a certain number of minutes, each evening.  When they’re told how much to read, they tend to just “turn the pages” and “read to an assigned page number and stop,” says Christopher Ward Ellsasser, a California high school teacher.[2]  And when they’re told how long to read – a practice more common with teachers of younger students — the results are not much better.  As Julie King, a parent, reports, “Our children are now expected to read 20 minutes a night, and record such on their homework sheet.  What parents are discovering (surprise) is that those kids who used to sit down and read for pleasure — the kids who would get lost in a book and have to be told to put it down to eat/play/whatever — are now setting the timer…and stopping when the timer dings. . . . Reading has become a chore, like brushing your teeth.”

A very small minority—one to three students per year—have responded to my Independent Reading program in that way. In such cases, I am ready to throw out the system and do whatever works. But in my classes, a very large majority of students are not “those kids who used to sit down and read for pleasure — the kids who would get lost in a book and have to be told to put it down to eat/play/whatever”, and most often the simple act of crediting them for their work is enough to get them started reading.

If I found myself teaching a group of students whose inspiration to read was deflated by giving them grades for it, would I change my methods? Of course! But until then I will have to respectfully disagree with Mr. Kohn on this one point.

Student blogging as 'independent writing'

For years my students have done “Independent Reading”. Now student blogging offers “independent writing”, in which students write frequently for real audiences, read and comment on each other’s work, and can actually enjoy that indispensable element of any skill development: practice.

I began my experiment with student blogging in September without any firm ideas about how to do it. Going on gut instinct, I decided not to comment on my students’ work, nor even edit it. I check each post before it’s published, and if it’s incomplete or shouldn’t be published yet for some other reason, I let the author know. Then I wait for the needed changes to be made.

I also vet every comment. In a few rare instances, I have deleted comments that I thought were hurtful and unproductive, and have let the commenters know why their comments were unwise. But the vast majority of comments have been kind, generous, and helpful.

My guidance of students when it comes to choosing writing topics is analogous to my guidance of their independent reading. They must read novels, and I reserve the right to approve or disapprove their choices. When they get into a rut, I suggest a book or require a book or require that they stop reading, say, fantasy novels. But within those parameters, they choose their own books.

With the class blog, I usually direct students to write on certain topics. I began with assignments related to class work—personal responses to poems and other readings, pastiches of a passage from Great Expectations, profiles of authors from the students’ home countries, original stories based on a Greek myth. Then I began finding interesting articles on other blogs or elsewhere on the web, sharing them with students, and asking them to write their own posts on the same topic. Is group work a good thing? How do you feel about professions that involve working with your hands? What makes a student passionate about learning? Is it right to have a Starbucks outlet in the Forbidden City?

I also created a ‘category’ called ‘On your mind’ and regularly gave students time to write on topics of their own choice. And in December I asked them to write about blogging, to find out how the experiment was going from their point of view.

The results of this mostly hands-off approach have been gratifying. The students in my Grade 8 English class have responded enthusiastically, with just one exception (more about that in a moment). Feeling free to write as they wish, not worried about handing in paper that will be returned with red ink and a grade, they have done more writing on the class blog than they would have done on paper in the same length of time. Their readings of news items and posts from other blogs have expanded their intellectual horizons and broadened their general background knowledge. Most importantly, many of them have begun to discover their own voices, and have actually enjoyed writing.

The analogy with Independent Reading is almost perfect. Students who read only the handful of books assigned for class study never read enough to become really good readers, and students who write only the small number of assignments their teachers are able to assess formally never write enough to become really good writers.

The teachers reading this will be wondering . . . “Sounds great, but how do you assess their blogging?”

Short answer: I don’t. I read all of it, of course, note strengths and weaknesses, and address them indirectly in my choices of assignments and activities.

But when I want a piece of writing for formal assessment, I require students to print a draft. I mark these closely, and the students then produce a finished version which I grade. Keeping the “independent writing” on the blog separate from the pieces written for assessment seemed to me a good idea, and experience so far confirms it. The students, too, say that they enjoy blogging more knowing that their pieces won’t be marked up and graded. I did, however, ask them to post their finished pieces on the blog.

Another way to handle assessment would be to ask them to pick their favourite piece from the blog, revise it, and hand it in to be graded.

Of course, no single approach works for everybody. One of my Grade 8 students hated writing on the blog and having her work read by others, so I told her she could do all of her writing the old fashioned way, on paper, and hand it in to me. Similarly, my Grade 6 and 7 students who are still mastering English have not taken to blogging with the same enthusiasm as my Grade 8s. Essentially, the difficulty in both cases is the same: discomfort. When writing an English sentence is too much of a challenge, the blogging bogs down.

My new idea to help these students (and many of my Grade 8s, as well) is to add another blogging lesson to our weekly schedule. In this second lesson, students will be asked to choose a favourite passage from anything they have read recently (say, one of their Independent Reading novels) and copy it exactly and perfectly into a blog post. This will give them practice writing English sentences that are correctly spelled and punctuated and even, one can hope, well written. I hope to use this activity to build fluency and to work on specific issues like the proper use of quotation marks.

And here’s one last wrinkle: the convergence of Independent Reading and independent writing. Up until now my students have written 3-page journal entries in small exercise books about each novel they have read for Independent Reading. Over the Chinese New Year holiday I have asked my Grade 8s to choose their favourite journal entry and post it to the class blog. Only a half-dozen have been posted so far, but I like it already. When students can read each other’s journal entries, they not only learn about the novels their classmates are reading but pick up ideas about how to write a plot summary, how to describe a character, and how to explain their personal response to a story. I will wait to see what the students think, but I am strongly inclined to ditch the exercise books and have all Independent Reading Journal entries posted to the class blog.

Meanwhile, I would love to hear from teachers or students who have been involved in student blogging. What has your experience been? Any good ideas or suggestions to share? Drop me a comment.

Breathing is more important than reading

Besides breathing, there are some other things more important than reading—but not too many. Sadly, most students don’t read enough to do as well as they should. Many years ago I realized that in school, students do whatever they do to earn grades, and if I wanted my students to read, I would have to give them grades for reading.

I describe the system I worked out in my 2003 article An Independent Reading Program That Works!.

Teachers who would like to give this a try may also want to download copies of my introductory handouts and book-rating sheet, which can be found in the Public Folder where I keep many of my handouts and podcasts for students (and colleagues).