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Interview on Choosing Books for Struggling Readers

Ella Rain
Pam Allyn
Pam Allyn, Executive Director of LitLife and LitWorld

The task of choosing books for struggling readers can be overwhelming. Pam Allyn is an author and literacy expert who has taken time out of her busy schedule to answer questions about inspiring children who struggle with reading to choose books that suit their skills and interests. Pam is the Executive Director of LitLife, a pioneering organization that dedicates itself to implementing innovative approaches to literacy education.

About Pam Allyn

LTK: You have dedicated so much time and energy into helping children. What inspired you to make literacy your life's work?

PA: From the time I can remember, books have held compelling power for me. My mother's voice reading to me when I was young launched me into a lifetime of love for the written word. Characters in great books I read as a child encouraged me to find my own voice and to explore worlds I never would have imagined. My family is a family of people who deeply love children. My grandmothers were both teachers and they encouraged in all of us a deep respect for the inner lives of children and the dignity of childhood. In this way, I learned that it is an honor to spend time with children, and to learn from them too. In my work, I saw very early how stories and the power of words can change a child's life, especially children who may have experienced suffering or loss. I have done a great deal of work with children in foster care and it has always been a miracle to me to see the healing power of a beautiful children's book or a wonderful poem for a child who has faced a world of sorrow. I feel grateful every day that I get to spend so much time with children and with stories. It is all a pleasure and a joy.

Books for Struggling Readers

LTK: Do any books for struggling readers stand out?

PA: I encourage parents and caregivers to acknowledge the power of reading for children no matter what they are reading. As parents, we tend to value the book with the award on it, or the book that has chapters in it more than we value the back of a cereal box or a funny comic strip. Struggling readers need to know that they too belong in the world of reading. By affirming choice in our readers and giving them the opportunity to read and browse a variety of options, we are signaling to our children that we value the hard work that goes into becoming a reader. I encourage parents of struggling readers to read aloud to their children, and to read aloud in a variety of genres, including poetry and nonfiction. These are genres that often appeal to the struggling reader: poems are short, and nonfiction inspires browsing. Some of my favorite authors include Shel Silverstein and Seymour Simon, but not because they write for struggling readers. I love them because they welcome all readers into the reading club.

LTK: What type of information can parents expect to find in What to Read When?

PA: I wrote What to Read When for all the many parents who have written to me over the years asking my advice for building a wonderful home life for literacy for children. In the first part of my book, I lay out an acronym: READ for how parents can make the home a safe place for a reading life. READ stands for Ritual, Environment, Access and Dialogue. Then, I take parents on a chronological journey through the years sharing with them great books to read to children as well as an explanation of what they might see at each age as their children develop as readers. Finally, I share a compendium of great books according to categories children themselves have suggested to me, emotional categories such as going to school and friendship that will help parents select books according to the needs children are expressing and the book that will match every experience.

LTK: Why is it important to encourage children to choose their own books?

PA: Choice is a powerful tool in helping children build an authentic reading life. The more we give our children room to breathe as readers the more they will want to read. Create baskets in your child's bedroom stocked with books they love. Offer them a Kindle or iPad and give them a "book allowance" to purchase a certain number of books they love. Make regular trips to the library and stock up there. Always be aware of your child's passions and urge them to select books with those in mind. The child who loves humor can select a joke book, the child who loves sports can snap up a baseball series. Let real life and reading intersect in ways the child can control and determine.

LTK: Do you have advice for parents of boys who struggle with reading?

PA: My new book from Scholastic is entitled Pam Allyn's Best Books for Boys. There are some great book titles in here! But my biggest advice is to really look at your own preconceptions about "good readers". Make sure you embrace your sons' reading lives in all their reality rather than become frustrated because they'd rather read a gaming manual than a chapter book. All reading is practice, and our boys need to practice. Celebrate minutes read and don't make the goal too big. Start with a few minutes a day in which you both flop down on the couch and read together. Add minutes over the course of time. Let the reading time be short and build it up. Be celebratory about the time your son spends reading, more than what he chooses to read.

Pam Allyn's Organizations

LTK: Can you share some background information about LitLife?

PA: I founded LitLife in 2002 to bring the highest quality professional development to teachers all across the country. We are now well known for our tailored and thoughtful approach to working side by side with teachers in the area of literacy education. I am very proud of this work, for I love teachers and I regard the work as deeply sacred. In that spirit, I want to be sure that if teachers want to be treated professionally, they have to live in a professional way. Giving them access to information and coaching is the first way to achieve that goal. My team of 30 colleagues works very closely with select school districts to achieve measurable success for students as readers and writers. Our approach is called "The Complete 4" and it creates a framework for teachers to study all aspects of children's literacy development and truly make an impact.

LTK: You are the Founding Director of Books for Boys. Are there any children's books that stand out as favorites for at-risk boys?

PA: There are a few authors who have inspired the boys over the years in ways that go far beyond the words on the page. Walter Dean Myers, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Langston Hughes and Jack Prelutsky are some who have helped us turn at risk boys into lifelong readers. I am eternally grateful to all of them.

LTK: LitWorld is an amazing organization that has helped many children. Are there any particular children's books that this organization needs?

PA: Thank you! I hope everyone who reads this site will get involved with LitWorld. We encourage all of you to become part of our "LitCorps" and touch a child's life with the power of words. There are so many ways to do so! We love book sharings and encourage you to check out the book match system we have developed on our site for people who want to donate books. We are always grateful for your time and energy. There is not one particular book we need, but we love the beautiful energy that comes from sharing books with children in need and are so glad to support these efforts.

Special Thanks

Special thanks to Pam Allyn for taking time to answer questions about helping struggling readers.

Interview on Choosing Books for Struggling Readers