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Examining and Changing Our Reading Habits

By Gravity Goldberg
 | Nov 02, 2016

cue routine reward1Reading in the same ways day after day can become a habit. Habits are not choices, and by nature we tend to lack awareness of what we are doing when we are involved in them. As a result, we become stagnant and often unaware of the other choices and possibilities that exist. If I always tie my shoes in the same way, I no longer even think about it and I forget there are other ways. If I always read a book in the same way, I miss other dimensions and may end up skimming the surface. As more and more focus is placed on reading with rigor we can think about what rigor really means. It is likely not reading by habit and instead involves reading deeply with choices in mind.

The habit loop

The best-selling, influential book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg (2014) brought attention to habits and began to clarify the difference between habits and choices. Duhigg explains the habit loop, which consists of a three-step process. First, there is a cue or trigger. When the cue happens, our brains begin to identify the routine we should follow on the basis of previous experiences. The loop ends when there is a reward. After a while of following this loop, our routines become automatic and we no longer have awareness of what we are doing and it no longer feels like a choice. Duhigg explains:

When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in the decision-making. It stops working so hard, or diverts attention to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the habit will unfold automatically.

When we read by habit, our brains are not working very hard and we might not be making decisions that help us more deeply understand our books.

Consider Tim, a third grader, who reads in the same way every day, no matter what the text. He reads and follows the character’s actions, not noticing the character’s motivations, emotions, or relationships. As he reads, Tim asks himself the question, “What did the character do?” over and over. It was not until Tim began talking to his reading partner, Michele, about her books that he realized there were other elements to pay attention to—he was stuck in a habit loop. Michele is a reader who tends to think about why the characters are making the choices they do. She tends to ask herself the questions, “Why did she do that?” and “What is motivating her now?” As Michele and Tim had conversations, they began to realize there were multiple ways to read a book and they had choices concerning what they wanted to think about. They might not have consciously chosen their reading habits, but they still had them.

To help students become aware of their reading habits you might do the following:

  • Model how you, the teacher, reflect on the habits you tend to follow as a reader.
  • Create a class habit chart and invite students to share their habits so they can begin to change them.
  • Offer students a few minutes before independent reading time to jot down a plan for what they are going to think about as they read. Students can look back at their plans and see patterns they might want to change.
  • Pair up students to discuss how their reading habits might be not only helping them as readers but also limiting their thinking too.

Turning a habit into a choice

“Once you can break a habit into its components, you can fiddle with the gears,” Duhigg said. Perhaps we always sit in the same seat at lunch. Maybe we always tie the left shoe before our right one. The small repetitive acts add up to living a lot of our lives without awareness, on “autopilot.” The clearest example for me is driving home after a long day. It is scary to arrive home and realize I was not paying attention at all, that my mind was on autopilot, and I somehow made it home and don’t remember the drive. Best-selling author Don Miguel Ruiz teaches something called “non-doing.” Non-doing is when you consciously choose to break the pattern you always do. That could mean tying the right shoe first or sitting in a different seat at lunch. When we practice non-doing, we are giving ourselves new perspectives and bringing awareness back into our lives. From awareness we can make choices. As a reader this might mean choosing to focus more on the characters’ motivation rather than reading by habit and paying attention only to the plot. Readers can choose their own “non-doing” strategy.

To help students change a habit into a choice you might do the following:

  • Connect the strategies you teach to when a reader would choose them. This helps readers view strategies as choices.
  • Give students a few minutes at the end of independent reading time to reflect with a partner about what habit they broke and how it had an impact on their thinking.
  • Read aloud and discuss books showing a character that broke a habit. A few of my favorites are The Incredible Book Eating Boy, by Oliver Jeffers, The Old Woman Who Named Things, by Cynthia Rylant, and Naked Mole Rats Get Dressed, by Mo Willems.
  • Use a visual to show the habit loop and explain it to students. Let them know that the way to change a habit is to replace the old routine with a new one.

Remember that sharing our habits is not about judging them or beating ourselves up for having them. We all have habits, and they all help us in some way. The key is to realize when we are stuck in a reading habit and turn it back into a choice.

Gravity Goldberg headshot-2Gravity Goldberg is author of Mindsets and Moves: Strategies that Help Readers Take Charge(Corwin 2016) and coauthor of Conferring with Readers(Heinemann, 2007). She leads a team of literacy consultants in the NY/NJ area and presents to teachers across the United States. At the heart of Gravity's teaching is the belief that everyone deserves to be admired and supported. She can be reached viae-mailand onTwitter.

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