#RaisingReaders Monday: Relabeling “Struggling” Readers

I’ve had Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child in my to-be-read pile for a very long time. I kept passing over it to read other books, mostly because I had been told that it was an amazing book – for classroom teachers.

I work hard on getting kids to love reading. I help out at the library, I support literacy organizations near and far, but one thing I don’t do is face a classroom of students every day. So I thought it was okay to overlook this book.

I was mistaken.

Ms. Miller’s qualifications as a reading expert are extraordinary. She’s taught 4th through 6th grade with a proven track record of building and nurturing readers, improving test scores, and getting students to read 40 or more books a year, plus acted as a mentor to other teachers through her blog at teachermagazine.org. She’s the author of 2 books about reading, and the coordinator of the amazing community website known as The Nerdy Book Club. (I think I have a little literacy crush. Shhhh!)

Within the first 20 pages of The Book Whisperer, I realized that Ms. Miller and her book were treasure troves of information for every parent who’s ever wondered what to do about their child’s reading – whether that child reads too little or reads non-stop.

I would also call it essential reading for teachers, curriculum specialists and school administrators. But for the purpose of my humble blog, let’s stick to parents.  I really want to share with you some of the information from this book!

One of the first topics Ms. Miller addresses in The Book Whisperer is the three Types of Readers she encounters in her classroom. She calls them Developing, Dormant, and Underground Readers.

I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard an educator refer to your child in any of these terms.

This week I’d like to discuss the group that The Book Whisperer refers to as Developing Readers.

We frequently hear students who read below grade level, for any number of reasons, called “struggling” readers. Ms. Miller encourages us to relabel this group Developing Readers. Why? For starters, it’s a more positive term – and kids respond to the positive phrases we use to describe them. Being told time and again “we know that reading is hard for you” and “you struggle with reading” by adults, these kids start to see themselves as people who will never read well or easily. As parents and educators, we should be striving to give them the opposite impression! More than that, developing is a much more accurate term. These students who read below grade level are, as Ms. Miller puts it, “on the same path” as their peers reading at grade level. They just haven’t made it as far down the path as quickly as those peers. They are still building and developing the skills and mastery that they need to confidently read at the same level as their peers.

So how do we help them to skedaddle down that path? Well, we get them reading more regularly, that’s how!

Kids who’ve had trouble reading and who have been reading below grade level for any significant amount of time generally receive extra services at school. Remedial reading instruction and test-preparation classes are a big part of those services. These students are being shown and taught lots of great skills to better decode words, grow their vocabularies, and improve their fluency. Sounds great, right? It is.

Except that in most schools, these kids also spend 75% less time than their peers actually reading. So their chances to independently practice all these skills in real reading experience are so small that they keep falling farther and farther behind.

If your kid falls into this category, take time to think about this. How can you, your child’s teachers, your support system, get your Developing Reader more chances to read? Your biggest task now is to make reading interesting, exciting, fun, manageable – and frequent! That 20 minutes a night you hear recommended for “every student” won’t give your child enough practice to catch up with those ahead of him on the path.  So how do you – the parent – get your child reading more??

  • Let the Developing Reader choose books and magazines that are interesting to him/her.
  • Ensure that there is daily time at school and home for independent reading – not just reading instruction.
  • Provide frequent opportunities to try out new and different types of reading materials:graphic novels, non-fiction, sports, jokes and riddles, biographies, fantasies, mysteries, websites, instruction manuals, cookbooks….I could go on and on. (For many more ideas, there is a wonderful website called The Best Website for Kids Who Hate to Read included on my Links to Like page)
  • Make sure that the reader can bring books back and forth from school. This way when a kid gets “hooked” on a book in class, he/she can bring it home and read more while still excited to see what happens next!  Series are great for this, too! (see Hook Them with a Series for suggestions.)
  • Build a home environment that makes reading for pleasure and for information appear both fun and important. (For more tips on this, see my earlier post Rebuilding a Culture of Readers.)

Next week we’ll keep up the discussion of Donalyn Miller’s Types of Readers by addressing Dormant Readers, which many currently call reluctant readers. I hope you’ll be back to join the conversation then.

In the meantime, keep your eyes open for information about my guest posts on several parenting sites coming up later this month! And cross your fingers for me- it’s a flurry of querying and submitting manuscripts around here!

Happy reading, friends.


18 thoughts on “#RaisingReaders Monday: Relabeling “Struggling” Readers

  1. Wow this is so great! I’m a nanny and one of the boys is special needs, and we’ve been working on reading. It’s such a great and rewarding experience to see how much he’s grown, and to see him start to look forward to our reading time. I try to make it fun, and challenge him to come up with stories on his own so he really falls in love with them. It feels great to pass on my love of words! 🙂


  2. Katey, what an excellent article 🙂 Last year I purchased Donalyn’s second book for my daughter-in-law (she’s a teacher) and she was familiar with The Book Whisperer too. Donalyn obviously knows her stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad it was helpful to you. Honestly, I’ve read a lot of books that give parents advice on helping kids who are reading below grade level, but this was the first one that made it so clear that all the skills and tricks in the world won’t help the child catch up if he/she doesn’t have the opportunity to practice them. I know you’re clever and crafty enough to find a way to motivate that little boy! Good luck!


  3. Great post! I love everything Donalyn Miller does! I sure wish that one of my daughters could have been in her class. I find it so powerful to think about letting our Developing Readers just read. I think this is an easy thing for parents and educators to forget. Happy to be part of this discussion!


    • I’m so glad to have found your blog and to see you drop by mine. I’ve been lucky enough to see my 3 daughters in classes with excited, innovative teachers who value reading. It’s been wonderful to learn from their expertise and share the job of raising my readers with them!


  4. The Book Whisperer! This is an excellent read. As a parent to five boys and an Oma [grandparent] to seven grands and an educator to hundreds of students over the years, I have taught many children how to read. I have a Master of Education – Reading Elementary and a Reading Recovery Certification and know what *good reading* instruction looks like. Donalyn Miller knows what *good reading* instruction is all about and shares that in her amazing book. ~Suzy Leopold


  5. Katey, thank you for highlighting The Book Whisperer on your blog. I am glad that you found the book meaningful and thought-provoking. I enjoyed looking through the links you’ve provided for additional resources, too. Happy Reading!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Darlene,
      I’ll send you an email about it. Thanks so much for asking! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. make sure to check out the new one up 10/13 regarding “reluctant” readers, too!


  6. Pingback: Make Poetry Fun and Relevant for Every Child: an Interview with poet/educator Laura Shovan | kateywrites

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