Why I Applaud The Student Who Reads Only Two Books

imageedit_5_2583117499Author, teacher, and reading-writing workshop guru Nancie Atwell recently won the $1 million Global Teacher Prize. I have been a fan of Atwell’s work since I read her book In the Middle during my first year of graduate school. In fact, I was star struck two years ago when Atwell sat on the floor next to me during an NCTE workshop (note my shoulder proudly photo bombing Shana’s picture of the goddess herself). While I have subscribed to Atwell’s philosophy since I began my career in education, I was shocked to read in the media coverage that her students on average read 40 books per year.

My students do not.

Don’t get me wrong; the majority of my students read a large amount, yet while I could calculate the average, it would grossly misrepresent the true value of their accomplishments. I have some students who breathe books and complete them at breakneck speed. They add leaves to our book tree at an astonishing rate, yet admittedly not all my students are like that. By the end of the year, some have only completed two or three independent books in total. As a first year teacher (last year), I felt like I had failed these students. As far as I was concerned, the good teachers didn’t run into this problem. They only spoke about the record-breaking kids, not the ones that kept me wracking my brain for a solution. It felt like I was the only teacher who had the two-book-reader.

Last year, mine was TJ. TJ couldn’t seem to make it through a book. Many of my hesitant readers have learning disabilities or attention deficit disorders; in past classes, they have felt little success in reading whole class novels. When they arrive in my classroom they are resistant to choosing their own independent reading books. TJ was no exception; he had ADHD and struggled to focus on his reading both in and out of class. I’d watch him stare at a page for five minutes straight without being able to settle his mind and read a line. During conferences TJ discussed his book and claimed he was interested in it, yet he moved at a snail’s pace. By the end of his foray with Jarhead, I couldn’t imagine him undergoing the same tedious process with another book. I thought he’d quit. But he didn’t. Through reading conferences, daily reading time, and check-ins with his parents, I was able to help TJ develop a routine and gradually become a reader. Yet the greatest influence was TJ’s friends. Seeing so many of his peers reading on a daily basis motivated TJ to continue working towards his goals.

By the end of the year, TJ had read two independent reading books and three whole class reads, “more books than [he] had ever read before.” This was a feat arguably equal to if not mightier than some of my students who read 80 or more books. TJ developed persistence and stamina even if he couldn’t keep up with many of his peers. He was proud of his accomplishments and determined to become a better reader the following year. As a teacher, that’s what I want for my students—to push them to succeed and accomplish more than they thought they were capable of.

We all have those students (or maybe it’s still just me) but we must praise and hold these students in high esteem. We must brag about their successes and triumphs just as much as we praise the work of our highly motivated readers. After all, every book is a learning experience and an accomplishment.

Do you have a “two-book reader”? What is your story, and how did you work to motivate that student?

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10 thoughts on “Why I Applaud The Student Who Reads Only Two Books

  1. carriegelson March 20, 2015 at 9:37 am Reply

    TJ’s story is important. He can now identify as a reader. Readers don’t need a particular number of books on their list. They need to feel like books can be in their world. Thanks for sharing his story and his pride here.


    • jackiecatcher March 21, 2015 at 9:09 am Reply

      “They need to feel like books can be in their world.” I love that! Isn’t that one of our goals as English teachers: to help students see themselves as lifelong readers?


  2. Jackie March 20, 2015 at 8:10 am Reply

    TJ will probably remember this year of reading for so long to come–who knows what he might accomplish, now that he sees what reading can be like for him?


    • jackiecatcher March 21, 2015 at 8:44 am Reply

      It’s funny how often I have students return and tell me, “Ms. Catcher, I’m still reading!” It’s amusing that they’re shocked by their new reading habits. I love it!


  3. Ruth March 20, 2015 at 7:51 am Reply

    Over the past 40+ years of teaching, I have had many TJ’s. To finish a book on one’s own and to tackle (yes, deliberate word choice) yet another is a HUGE success. My dad loved to read, but it took him for ever to finish one. He request and finished Gulag Archipelego! Wee read when we read. When that is validated, we learn to read more and not just for the sake of a teacher, but also for ourselves.


    • jackiecatcher March 21, 2015 at 8:20 am Reply

      So so true! I am a relatively slow reader compared to many of my English teaching friends and I share that with my students. We all must develop our own reading goals and learn to develop stamina and persistence. That is the beauty of the reader’s writer’s workshop within our classrooms. Thank you for your story Ruth.


  4. Erika B. March 20, 2015 at 7:45 am Reply

    Yes! I do. And I think we’d be remiss if we genuinely thought others do not. Because, the ‘two-book-reader’ lives within our classrooms, within our society, and within our hearts!

    Your stamina and persistence with TJ was symbolic to the movement he made as well: persistence in not only the act of reading, but within the determination to continually promote and support the act of reading. Wow! You are something, J!


    • jackiecatcher March 21, 2015 at 9:11 am Reply

      I always love your stories Erika. I know you’ve had your fair share of TJs and they’ve been so blessed to be under your guidance.


  5. Gary Anderson March 20, 2015 at 6:55 am Reply

    Without your thoughtful guidance, TJ would have read zero books independently, and he would’ve probably fake-read the whole-class novels. You’re right that the number isn’t all that important. Progress is important, as well as the pride and wonder he displayed at his accomplishment.


    • jackiecatcher March 21, 2015 at 8:17 am Reply

      Well said. Given the right tools, environment, and support, students like TJ are capable of becoming engaged readers.


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