Underground Readers

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In Donalynn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, she describes various types of readers in her own terms.  Instead of struggling or reluctant readers, she uses the terms “developing readers” and “dormant readers.”  She also describes a third type of reader:  the “underground reader.”  While I still plan to dissect The Book Whisperer here, that is not what I am doing today.  No:  I want to talk about my experience growing up as an “underground” reader.

As defined in The Book Whisperer, “underground” readers are students who love to read, but due to circumstances beyond their control, they keep their reading lives separate from school.  They may love to read, but they usually do not have the time or opportunity to read what they would like in school.  Underground readers may even go out of their way to get in as much free reading time as possible during school.  They are the students who do not want free reading time during class to end.

While I do remember having some free time read all throughout my k-12 years, it would have never been enough.  As a child, I remember sneaking time to read and hurried through my work to have more free reading time.  I even remember taking a book out to recess once or twice.  I loved to read as a child.  I still love to read.

Unfortunately, my love of reading didn’t have all that much to do with school.  To be fair, there were times when my reading life was influenced by school.  For example, some of my favorite elementary school and childhood memories involve a teacher or librarian reading to my class.  For this reason, I included Roald Dahl and Laura Ingalls Wilder on a list of childhood favorites.  You can read the original list and explanation here.  I probably would have read Laura Ingalls Wilder on my own as a child – eventually – but nothing compared to Mrs. Butz reading Little House in the Big Woods to my second grade class.  As for Roald Dahl, he happened to be a favorite of several of my teachers, and I can’t imagine elementary school without his books.

As influential as those authors were to my early reading life, I read so much more on my own.  I had the freedom to read widely.  I took full advantage of having a mother and an aunt who were elementary school teachers – and a grandmother who also loved to read and discuss books.  I recognize that I am in the minority, and I probably would have developed a love for reading no matter what.

That just isn’t good enough.  I have to agree with Donalynn Miller.  The conventional way reading is taught today underserves “underground” readers.  Teachers don’t let them explore their love of reading and give them the skills and permission they need to make their own reading choices.  This was true twenty to thirty years ago during my childhood, but it is even more true today.  For example, I can’t imagine being told by a teacher or librarian that I couldn’t check out or read a book because it wasn’t at my “level.”  I also can’t imagine taking AR after AR test just to fulfill a silly requirement – and NOT because I truly wanted to read the book.  Instead, Donalynn Miller provides a great format for serving ALL readers, including those who already love to read.

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