Using Family to Build Love for Reading
By: Betty Ommerman
Newsday, January 13, 2001
When Rachelle R. Wolosoff decided to have her third-graders read books on their own -- not counting those for class assignments at Waverly Park Elementary School in East Rockaway -- she had her students write letters to family and relatives asking why they think it's important to read books. They also asked them what their favorite book or story was while growing up.
"I got the idea from an article I read this summer in American Educator, the professional journal of the American Federation of Teachers," Wolosoff said. The magazine's letters column mentioned an article published in the fall of 1999 about Jim Burke, a high school teacher in San Francisco.
Concerned about some of his students who said they hated to read, Burke had written a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle asking readers to write to his students about the role books and literature played in their lives. More than 400 readers responded. "The students were visibly affected by this attention," Burke wrote in the newspaper, and suggested other teachers to follow suit.
Wolosoff then learned that another teacher, Nancy Creech, who teaches a mixed class of first- through third-graders at Dort Elementary School in Roseville, Mich., had her students write a similar class letter that was published in the Detroit Free Press. The youngsters received more than 200 letters and e-mails from readers as young as 9 and as old as 85.
With those two results to stimulate her, Wolosoff then decided to have her class write similar letters. But, instead of writing to a publication, she decided in October to have her 21 third-graders in the Lynbrook school district write to people they knew. The youngsters received 28 letters and, according to Wolosoff, they're now all motivated to read.
"I personally believe that we cannot insist that children read without explaining why," she said. "And what could be better than getting an answer from a person a child knows."
If reading could be compared to a disease, Wolosoff believes it could be called "contagious." She has found, "When others explain what reading means to them, children understand it's something they will enjoy doing all their life and not just something being forced upon them in class. They'll read 'cause they've grown to love reading."
Sometimes, all it takes is a special interest to get students to love to read. Third-grader Jessica Rosen appears to fit that mold. Interested in gymnastics, she says, "I especially like books about gymnasts winning the gold medal. You feel like you're sitting in a first-row seat. Reading is like traveling the world and going back in time. Books are great because they take you into an imaginary vicarious voyage while relaxing."
Jessica's parents, Mimi and Jamie Rosen, wrote the class, "It's always wonderful to wind down at the end of the day, very often as a family, and read a favorite story ... Reading is a time of togetherness for the family."
Jessica's classmate, Andrew Malordy, added poetically, "Reading is like a bird singing in the morning. It's a free ticket to a new world. My favorite book is 'Harry Potter 3.' This inspired me with the wizards and fantasy. If you watch TV instead, you can't imagine the pictures. Reading will make you smart and you'll learn more. Inspire your life with the wonderful world of fantasy."
Wolosoff, who herself admits feeling that "reading was being forced down our throats in school when we were children," has developed a plan of teaching reading strategies she believes work. It includes having the students learn to visualize what they read, and write questions and take notes.
"I tell them the main idea the author is trying to get across may be surrounded by lots of little details and they have to home in on the main ideas," she said. "That's especially true with nonfiction reading. They highlight key ideas and write notes in the margins. Children then have the tools to comprehend what they read."
When youngsters question something they hear about, or read, in class they can be excused to research the answer to their queries through the classroom encyclopedias, computers or through books in the library. The children then present their research to their fellow classmates.
Wolosoff believes this strategy not only makes the students happy, they understand what they read, but it can also help them gain poise in speaking before others. They learn how to make eye contact while reading, as well as how to maintain good posture and enunciate words correctly.