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Reading Makeover

By Danny Brassell
 | May 11, 2017

Reading MakeoverHis teacher insisted that Pablo was illiterate, but after an hour of observing Pablo text message friends, check e-mails, and scan the Internet for various chat rooms related to the manga TV series Yu-Gi-Oh, I begged to differ. Pablo was highly literate. His teacher had been using a definition of literacy from a century ago.

When working with teachers, administrators, and parents, I always ask: What good is it teaching kids how to read if they never want to read? Whose bright idea was it to force-feed students “classics?” Why did book reports become such an accepted panacea to demonstrating reading comprehension? When did educational bureaucrats forget that “variety is the spice of life?”

Don’t get me wrong. If students love reading The Scarlet Letter or summarizing the theme of A Separate Peace, by all means, let them. In my work with struggling and reluctant readers (newsflash: most are boys), it never ceases to amaze me how the same child who will not budge to open up a textbook will devour comics. I’ve seen “reluctant readers” spend their entire recess breaks swapping statistics from trading cards. Why? There’s a spark.

“If a student has a spark (or better still, a fire), a curiosity about a topic, learning is more likely for that student,” says educator and author Carol Ann Tomlinson.

Want to make a student a better reader? Give that student things s/he wants to read. In my experience, it doesn’t matter if a person reads James Joyce or James and the Giant Peach; what matters is how much that person reads.

Minutes matter. Pay attention to which students read the best. It is the students who feel most confident reading. Confidence comes from practice, and proper practice comes from passion.

We need to reimagine literacy. I love physical books, but I am not conceited enough to impose my own preferences on others. My wife adores her Kindle. My youngest daughter used to love LeapFrog. There was a time when my son’s interest in reading only revealed itself when he scanned the menu at Denny’s. And you know what? That’s fine!

The best way to make students better readers is to find their passions and adjust our approaches accordingly. The bad news is that when you have 33 students, you probably need to find 33 different accommodations. The good news is that there is a much greater possibility that you will inspire students to become lifelong readers.

Danny BrassellDanny Brassell has spoken to more than 2,000 different audiences worldwide. He is a best-selling author of 15 books, including Read, Lead & Succeed and The Reading Makeover, based on his popular TEDx Talk.

Danny Brassell will present a session titled “The Reading Makeover” and will copresent a Special Interest Group session titled “Consequential Validity: Reimagining the Student and Assessment” at the ILA 2017 Conference & Exhibits, held in Orlando, FL, July 15–17. He will also emcee the ILA Sparks Lunch on Sunday, July 16.

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  1. Cameron Lloyd | May 23, 2017

    I appreciate that Mr. Brassell has a passion for helping struggling readers. I believe that he cares deeply about literacy and about children. That being said, I have to take issue with the main thrust of his prescription to this problem. Namely, that "The best way to make students better readers is to find their passions and adjust our approaches accordingly." This idea is currently quite trendy, but I don't think it's back up by much research--and it's the case of taking the kernel of a good idea far too far. Yes, help students find text topics that interest them; that's a laudable goal. However, people have reading difficulties because of limited decoding skills or their limited vocabulary/background knowledge--or both. Simply providing texts on scattered topics of special interest to individual students is not going to do anything to ameliorate those issues. So, the idea, while lovely, cannot be the basis for a serious effort at bringing below-grade readers up to speed. Students need a comprehensive curriculum (or interventions) providing systematic phonics instruction and a broad background in a range of different topic domains, from science and social studies to the arts and music. Mr. Brassell himself says that providing differing types of texts matched to student interest for a class of 25+ is a trying task. Indeed, it's nearly impossible. Teachers who fail to do so while believing they should feel guilty and terrible, and teachers who somehow manage such a feat are engaging in a task of limited utility. It saddens me that we in the education world can sometimes tolerate such high-minded but substantively thin ideas to circulate so widely. It's the students who suffer.

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