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March 1, 2012
Vol. 69
No. 6

One to Grow On / Creating Flashlight Readers

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Learning to read is a fundamental rite of passage—as powerful as learning to speak or walk.

In my third year of teaching, I realized that I was teaching some 7th graders who could not read the materials I handed them. The reality was that, even though language arts was my content area, I had no idea how to teach reading. To fill that gap, I went back to school to study reading. The coursework taught me theories, skills, and a sense of the complexity of the act of reading. It did not teach me how to help kids want to read.

Tapping Intrinsic Desire

Learning to read is a fundamental rite of passage—as powerful as learning to speak or walk. The child who learns to walk more or less on schedule is ready to explore and gain dominion over his or her surroundings. It says something compelling about the human drive to explore that children who have impediments to communicating or walking so often overcome those barriers. They invent language, learn sign language, move about in inventive ways, and become skilled in using prostheses. It's as though they are fueled by an energy of the spirit.
Perhaps the teacher's role is to tap into the intrinsic desire of struggling readers to read and connect with a broader world. That's not to say it isn't important to teach them to sound out words, use context clues, or understand the structure of texts. Rather it's to suggest that, at least for some students, those skills might emerge from, rather than precede, their interaction with captivating reading material.
Children's author Katherine Paterson suggests that teachers have erred in creating "stoplight readers." We tend to ask students to read a sentence and stop to define a word, read another sentence and stop to answer a question, read another sentence and ponder the punctuation. Reading becomes fragmented, losing meaning and power. Far better, Paterson suggests, is to create "flashlight readers"—kids who want to read under the covers at night because they can't wait to see what comes next. I think she's on to something.

Commending Reading

So what do we do to increase the population of flashlight readers? Consider the following ideas.
  1. Know your students. In Reading Don't Fix No Chevys, Michael Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm (2002) examined the lives of a group of male adolescents who couldn't or didn't read in school. When the authors asked the students what advice they'd give their teachers regarding reading in school, the number one response was that teachers needed to know and care about them in order to commend reading to them.Similarly, author Gary Paulsen was a virtual nonreader during his miserable trek through school. No teacher knew him well enough to address his emptiness. A librarian in the public library where he often went to escape the cold noticed him, got to know him, and gave him books that seemed like a match. He recalls sitting alone at night in a tiny bedroom struggling to make sense of their words.
  2. Find what's relevant to students and start there. Considered nonreaders in school, the boys Smith and Wilhelm (2002) studied all read outside school. They read books that helped them fix things, news stories that enabled them to discuss politics with their fathers, materials from church. What was worth reading varied from person to person. What remained constant was that the boys felt such a disconnect with "school reading" that they believed they couldn't read.
  3. Allow kids to reach high. Alfred Tatum (2005) found that black adolescent males who'd been unsuccessful readers in school often eagerly read when offered college and adult-level books on complex issues that connected to their lives. We saw the same thing with the Harry Potter books. Kids with learning disabilities, kids who were "too young" to read such hefty fare, kids who refused reading in school begged for a copy of each newly released title and read eagerly through the night to enter Harry's world.
  4. Try everything. Susan Ohanian (1999) recalls an adolescent who refused to admit he could not read. Each time she approached the issue with him, overtly or covertly, he responded, "I can read just fine." One day he saw a copy of Dr. Seuss's Hop on Pop on his desk. He picked it up and for the first time in his life was able to read what was on a page. Time stopped for him as he sounded out the simple words. It stopped for his classmates who realized what was happening. When he finished the book, sweating from the effort, he looked at his teacher and said, "I read it, Mrs. O!" She replied, "I know you did!" To which he responded, "No. I don't think you understand. I really read it!" This was not "denial reading" but "real reading." If teachers feel constrained to use only prescribed school materials with kids who struggle to read, such a breakthrough may never happen.
  5. Read to your students. Their age doesn't matter. When Mrs. Parker read to us in 12th grade, classics that were remote and stale when we read them to ourselves became vivid with possibility. In college, the poet X. J. Kennedy taught me sophomore English. I developed a love affair with Old English and Middle English poems when he read them to us. The voices of people in love with the ideas captured in print were invitational in a way that homework assignments never were.
Reading is about school success, of course, but it's about much more. It's a portal to full participation in life. Every teacher needs to invest heavily in making sure every student opens that door!

Ohanian, S. (1999). One size fits few: The folly of educational standards. Portsmouth, NH: Heinenmann.

Smith, M., & Wilhelm, J. (2002). Reading don't fix no chevys: Literacy in the lives of young men. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Tatum, A. (2005). Teaching reading to black adolescent males: Closing the achievement gap. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia's School of Education and Human Development. The author of more than 300 publications, she works throughout the United States and internationally with educators who want to create classrooms that are more responsive to a broad range of learners.

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