Lars Guthrie's Reviews > The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers

The Reading Zone by Nancie Atwell
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Feb 07, 2010

really liked it
Read in January, 2010

'The Reading Zone' sets itself up as a manifesto. The answer to its subtitle, 'How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers,' could be neatly summed up with one word: 'choice.'

Following a quick tour of her hushed classroom—'nineteen students…reading nineteen books'—Nancie Atwell makes the declaration of principle that is this brief but powerful work’s raison d’etre: 'The only surefire way to induce a love of books is to invite students to select their own.'

Furthermore, 'starting in kindergarten and going straight through until the end of high school, free choice of books should be a young reader’s right, not a privilege granted by a kind teacher.'

And if you haven’t gotten the idea, Atwell explicitly states: 'this book is nothing less than a manifesto.'

Agree or disagree, Atwell certainly makes you examine your own priorities and those of our educational system.

While raising the caveat that perhaps there is no one 'surefire way' when it comes to children and literacy, I’ll join the cause. I’ve seen curiosity about, and enthusiasm for reading stifled by assigned books and reams of seatwork—from worksheets to dioramas. I’ve seen kids learn to hate books I love, as the joy of discovery is drained away by study guides and overanalyzation.

I agree with author Jon Scieszka (, picked by the Library of Congress to be last year’s national ambassador for young people's literature: 'It's so concrete that we can just give boys books that they enjoy and not try to force them to read other books that we enjoy.'

I came to 'The Reading Zone' after it was cited in a New York Times article ( had me cheering, about the reading workshop approach that Atwell, and Lucy Calkins of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College, have developed.

Although I’m dubious when the words 'research shows' crop up, or statistics are employed without citation, my gut, and common sense, tells me to buy into Atwell’s claim that 'the single activity that correlates with high levels of performance on standardized tests of reading ability…is frequent, voluminous reading.'

Atwell not only makes a strong case for giving kids choices. She also insists that teachers be readers themselves, and conversant with what kids are reading, so they can guide their students to the books that will engage them.

She helps guide those teachers with many references to authors and novels that pepper the text of 'The Reading Zone.' Additionally, she points to the reading lists ( put together by the students at her school, the Center for Teaching and Learning in Edgecomb, Maine. These are invaluable surveys of what is happening in children's and young adult literature.

Teachers will find lots of practical and down-to-earth advice on how to run reading workshops, from the logistics of classroom lending libraries to book talks and assessment methods.

Any book with a cover picturing a boy in the 'reading zone,' comfortably ensconced in a classroom overflowing with books, avidly reading one of the novels in one of my favorite series, the 'Tomorrow' books by John Marsden, has got to be basically all right.

But there were some aspects of 'The Reading Zone' that troubled me. Shortly after making her initial bold argument that 'free choice of books should be a young reader’s right,' Atwell quotes Frank Smith: 'Children know how to comprehend, provided they are in a situation that has the possibility of making sense to them.'

Readers familiar with the 'reading wars' of past decades (they were supposed to be over, I thought) will recognize that Smith as one of the founders and chief proponents of the 'whole language' movement. It’s disingenuous of Atwell not to acknowledge this, and to implicitly dismiss, as she does at several points in The Reading Zone, the opposing school of thought.

The subtext of Smith’s words is that reading is, analogous to Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, a skill with which we are born. To say this is a view that has been discredited is perhaps too strong, but it is easy to make the case that in the last couple of decades much evidence has come forth that at the least puts such an outlook in serious doubt.

The reason why people began looking for that evidence was because, despite immersion in great literature from the earliest age, it is clear that some children still have difficulty learning to read. There has been a plethora of books and articles advocating more explicit and systematic reading instruction, from neuroscientists like Sally Shaywitz to educators like G. Reid Lyon and Louisa Moats.

Yet when Atwell rightly asserts that teachers should read about teaching reading, it is as if those works had never been published. Instead, her recommended list is very one-sided, including such paragons of whole language as Kenneth Goodman and Regie Routman.

My own experience over the last thirteen years helping poor readers overcome their difficulties tells me that throwing children into an ocean of books, and assuming they will swim, means that some will drown. Reading is more than a psycholinguistic guessing game.

'It’s wonderful how often children are able to put together all the clues,' Atwell tells us, 'and read the correct word the next time through.' For a poor reader who sees others automatically reading words the first time through, it can also be frustrating.

Atwell dismisses those who choose 'to define reading…as the pronunciation of nonsense syllables in isolation.' I’m not sure anyone defines reading that way. Learning how to decode print, however, which might involve reading nonsense words, can be liberating for a poor reader.

Beneath Atwell’s passionate and heartfelt thesis is a vein of dogmatism that is unsettling. She says kids should have choices, but won’t let them choose books of which she doesn’t approve, like “teen celebrity bios.”

Atwell is negative about teaching comprehension strategies for fiction, such as those in Ellin Keene and Susan Zimmerman’s great Mosaic of Thought. She refers to Louise Rosenblatt’s two modes of reading: efferent, where we are garnering specific information, and aesthetic, where we are living through a story. But as Atwell herself points out, these are 'parallel frames of mind, existing on a continuum.'

That gets at the crux of my problem with the otherwise excellent 'The Reading Zone.' The learning process is not black and white. There is a time and a place to read fiction in an efferent mode, and to read nonfiction in an aesthetic mode.

Children should be given freedom to choose books that lead to enthusiastic reading. Children should learn effective strategies to develop into good readers and critical thinkers. These should, and can be parallel avenues toward producing successful readers and successful members of society. If we limit education by restricting pedagogy to one correct school of thought, we are limiting learners and teachers.
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Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by 4th-8th (new)

4th-8th Book choice is often the only way to inspire reading. My experiences with two sons who struggle with reading actually brought me to Goodreads as the perfect data base for reviews and making lists of books. If a book sounds good I check out the vocabulary and readability on Amazon with the books that have the “look inside” feature. Then it is on a list or I am off to the library or book store. And I certainly agree that reading personally chosen books will never replace a systematic reading program for those who have language based disabilities such as dyslexia. The whole language approach will not give a dyslexic student the tools they need to decode text. Mastery of text needs to be in place before reading can be a somewhat satisfying experience. Our education system cannot take this for granted in the equation of helping to make a reader.

Lars Guthrie Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I've noticed that sometimes high interest can push reading levels up, and there is some research that backs that up. Kids have to learn how to read, but they also have to have a reason to read.

message 3: by 4th-8th (new)

4th-8th Your last sentence is dead on. My oldest son seems to have both now. The youngest is still working on the reason, and I am hoping for that leap. He is the big audio book fan. Jonathan Mooney of 'Learning Outside the Lines' said he did not learn to read until he was twelve. Perhaps it has something to do with executive function developement at that age, as long as high interest books and remediation have been provided.

Lars Guthrie If you ever have a chance to see Mooney speak (if you haven't heard him yet), he's great...a wild man full of enthusiasm and a shining example to kids that you can be different, you can struggle with things, and yet you can still be successful.

Kurt Fischer, the director of Harvard's Mind, Brain and Education Program, spoke at a conference I went to a few years ago, and referred to a study done on boys diagnosed as dyslexics who became successful readers. The commonality was that most found a subject area they were passionate about around seventh grade. The commonality in that subject area was war, and specifically the Civil War. I just thought that was fascinating, even if it is one isolated study.

In line with that and your observation about Mooney learning to read at twelve (although he says he still has to work hard to do it), a recent article in the NY Times ( mentioned a study where "scientists found that the brain’s ability to link letter combinations with sounds may not be fully developed until age 11 — much later than many have assumed."

Thanks for getting me thinking about this stuff, Joan.

message 5: by 4th-8th (new)

4th-8th I saw Mooney two years ago and now our local advisory committee for students with disabilites is having him speak at the annual special ed conference, so I am bringing my sons. It should really hit home with them.
My almost 12 year old son's subject is humor. He likes a laugh in a book. His only print author now is Rick Riordan. We are all going to see Lightning Thief today. I know Riordan gave up rights to the movie, but I really hope they proclaim as the book does, that ADHD and dyslexia are part of being a demigod. Riordan writes about his son's diagnosis in his blog of 2005 captioned Learning Disabled Hero
He was a middle school teacher and a parent of 2 LD sons at the time he wrote his first Percy Jackson book.
I will read up on Kurt Fischer. Thanks for the lead.

Lars Guthrie I would be interested in your opinion of the movie. I know all about the Percy Jackson books, having had a number of students who are addicted to them. I've read the first three and am about to start on 'Battle of the Labyrinth.' But I hadn't read 'The Learning-Disabled Hero' blog, and will now post a link to that on my website ('Lars's Library'). Thanks.

message 7: by 4th-8th (new)

4th-8th The movie did mention ADHD as a strength and did show Percy's dyslexia in action, but overall it did not do the book justice. I took a poll after the movie and two boys who had read the books several years ago rated the movie from 7 to 9. One boy who just finished the book recently rated the movie a 5. On the ride home there was much discussion amongst all the PJ readers about the good parts of the book that the movie missed. I was amazed at how much detail my dyslexic guys recalled; I could not recall as much. The movie seemed like a half hearted attempt of the book. We all agreed that the actor who played Grover was really funny, and we would like to see more of him. If there is another movie, a different director might help or maybe we just liked the books too much to be objective.

Lars Guthrie Thanks, Joan. I've been dubious about many of the children's books that have been turned into movies recently, and after hearing that 'The Lightning Thief' had pushed Percy's age up to 17 (a marketing decision), was particularly wary of this one. Your boys' awareness of what was lacking shows something we already know: that problems with back brain automatic thinking do not indicate problems with front brain critical thinking.

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