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Read All About It

It’s likely that you don’t remember many of the milestone events from your childhood—taking your first steps, speaking your first word, or sleeping in a big-kid bed for the first time. The same could probably be said for learning how to read. Do you remember reading your first word? Memorizing the alphabet? Learning the difference between their, there, and they’re? If you’re like most people, you probably don’t.

But chances are you do remember favorite books from your childhood—whether you read them yourself or listened to someone else reading them—and how they made you feel. Reading is much more than entertainment; it’s a fundamental learning tool that increases vocabulary, spelling, grammar, empathy, and writing skills in both children and adults. That’s why reading is so important in all grade levels at University School of Milwaukee, and why our teachers dedicate so much time and energy to teaching students how to read, and also how to love reading.

A Lower School student reads to her Preschool buddy.

Eleanor Zenga '33 listened intently while Kree Lea '30 read to her. (Photo taken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

At University School of Milwaukee, reading is the foundation on which all curriculum is built. But learning the mechanics of how to read is just the start. Teachers and administrators expect that graduating seniors will leave USM with the ability and stamina to read and analyze complex texts, to be critical consumers of content, and, ultimately, to engender within themselves a lifelong love of reading. They understand that habitual, consistent reading—shown in study after study—results in better reading comprehension, writing style, vocabulary, spelling, grammatical development, increased empathy, and success in life.

A teacher reads with her students during class.

First grade teacher Kelly Strains led (from left) Serena Xiao '32 and Lauren Polos '32 in a guided reading session.

If learning how to read—how to interpret characters and signs as having a particular meaning—seems daunting, imagine teaching it. “Personally, I think teaching a child how to read is probably one of the most challenging things to do,” said Gina Bongiorno, assistant head of Preschool and Lower School, and a former 4th grade teacher at the school. At USM, prekindergarten and junior kindergarten students start with the basics—learning the alphabet letter by letter. Using a phonics-based curriculum, students learn a short song associated with each letter of the alphabet to help them remember what the letter looks like and sounds like.

"Memorizing a list of words, their meanings, and spellings is not as effective as being exposed to a broad vocabulary through free, voluntary reading"

They continue these lessons in kindergarten, adding gross-motor activities to help cement the knowledge into their long-term memory, as well as learning to form words by pairing different letters and sounds. “A solid foundation in phonics is vital for being able to decode and comprehend more challenging vocabulary,” said Bongiorno.

As students progress through Preschool and Lower School, they are introduced to USM’s guided reading program, in which teachers facilitate reading education via small-group, intentional instruction. Lower School teachers analyze the skill level of each child, determine their needs, group them appropriately with other students, create individualized lesson plans for each group, evaluate if and when they have secured that skill level, and identify where they should move to next. “The purpose of the small group is so that teachers, on a daily basis, can hear each child read and meet with them specifically to evaluate their understanding of any given skill,” said Bongiorno. “In the Lower School, we use kidney-shaped tables that allow the teacher to sit in the middle of the group, hear and watch every single student track words and read text, and provide individualized instruction as needed.

A young student reads quietly during class.

Just as important as teaching students how to read, however, is helping them develop a love for reading. Giving students freedom and autonomy to choose their own books is critical to building engagement. Starting as early as junior kindergarten, students are allowed to choose books from the library and take them back to the classroom. In kindergarten, they start bringing their books home. “Students get really excited when they can check out their own books,” said Judy Clegg, Preschool and Lower School librarian. “They are encouraged to look through the books and decide independently if one seems interesting to them.”

Renovations to the Stratton Preschool and Lower School Library in the summer of 2019, which included new, lower shelving (making books easier to reach), new flooring, lighting, and furniture, yielded dramatic results. Students checked out 1,485 more books during the 2019–20 school year—which was held online for two months due to COVID-19—than the prior year. “Everyone who sees the remodeled space for the first time is awestruck,” said Clegg. “It is very open, inviting, and kid-friendly. But most importantly, the design makes it easy for students to find the books they’re looking for.”

By the time students reach Middle School, the importance of free, voluntary reading becomes more evident. According to award-winning linguist, educational researcher, and author, Dr. Stephen Krashen, children who develop a habit of reading for pleasure gain “involuntarily and without effort, nearly all of the so-called language skills that many people are so concerned about.” These skills include having a large vocabulary, the ability to understand and use complex grammatical constructions, strong writing skills, and good spelling—all of which contribute to improved test scores. “Reading transcends every subject because students have to read in every subject,” said Francine Eppelsheimer, USM’s long-time Middle School librarian, who retired in June. “If we want them to become better learners and better students, they have to be strong readers.”

Students read in the recently renovated Lower School Library.

Children enjoyed the recently remodeled Stratton Preschool and Lower School Library while Libraian Judy Clegg worked in the background.

“One of the things that we’re really determined to do in Middle School is to get kids to love reading and develop a personal reading habit,” said Brad Dunning, assistant head of Middle School and former English teacher. “We have some non-readers in Middle School, some reluctant readers,” continued Eppelsheimer. “But all students—all children—are readers. You just have to find the right book.”

To nurture the habit of reading for pleasure, Eppelsheimer hosts regular book talks for each Middle School grade, in which she introduces new books and old favorites, across all genres. She also works with students individually to help them find books that might appeal to them. “I always have conversations with students about the books they are reading. If they return a book, we talk. I want to know, did they like that book? If not, well, let’s see what else we can find.”

In addition, Middle School teachers introduce choice into the curriculum, meaning students are able to choose their own books related to a particular topic. “It requires teachers to somewhat tailor the curriculum directly to the child, but all of the activities we do—whether comprehension, writing, decoding, summarizing, or identifying themes and motifs—can be done with any book,” said Dr. Laurie Walczak, Upper School English teacher and former chair of the Middle School English department. “That was a huge turning point for getting kids interested in reading, because it’s a book they have picked and are invested in. When you relinquish that control over to them, it works.”

A Middle School student reads intently at his desk.

Graham Leverett '28 read from "The Night Diary" by Veera Hiranandani in his 5th grade English class. The class discussed what they read and made connections with their lives or other books they have read, as a way to build vocabulary, spelling, grammar, and empathy.

That said, the whole-class novel is still an important pillar of the Middle School curriculum. It’s a chance for students to read a book that stretches them while participating in whole-class discussions and debates. “Studying a novel in class is much more challenging than reading a novel at home for pleasure,” said Elaine Griffin, head of Middle School. “Rather than simply read the text passively, students in our English classes learn how to analyze a text, examining how characters grow and change, how symbols and themes develop, and how the use of language contributes to the meaning of the work. Our faculty teach students to interrogate texts so that they can become more discerning readers.”

To ensure that students have time to read, the Middle School has incorporated Outside Reading Books, which is dedicated time in school each week when students and faculty read from books of their choosing. In his research, Krashen found that students’ motivation and interest in reading is higher when they get the opportunity to read in school. He discovered that, in 51 out of 54 comparisons, students using free, voluntary reading performed as well or better on reading tests than students given traditional, skill-based reading instruction. Part of the reason for this, according to Krashen, is because language is too complex to be learned one rule or word at a time. Memorizing a list of words, their meanings, and spellings, for example, is not as effective as being exposed to a broad vocabulary through free, voluntary reading. “If kids are not going to read outside of school, then it’s our job to give them time in school to read,” said Walczak. “If your reading skills don’t stay strong, your writing and vocabulary skills fall apart—it’s all connected.”

"Students using free, voluntary reading performed as well or better on reading tests than students given traditional, skill-based reading instruction."

Since joining the Upper School English faculty in 2019, Walczak has found it can be challenging to promote voluntary reading amongst older students. “We’re competing against very busy schedules, between homework, athletics, and extracurriculars,” she said. “And we’re competing against technology.” Walczak established an Upper School reading challenge, where she invited students to read 20 minutes a day or finish two books outside of school by the end of the year. When students finish a book, they put their name alongside a picture of the book on a bulletin board. “As an Upper School English department we are very serious about making sure kids are reading independently, because reading has such a significant impact.”

Upper School Librarian Laura Klein employs a variety of methods to promote student- and faculty-recommended books, including presentations, hallway posters, the USM book club Instagram page, and on carts in the English classrooms. Klein often sets up tables outside of the Jack Olson ’67 Commons a few days before winter and spring breaks to display popular books, so students can conveniently find material to read over break. “The pop-up library allows students, staff, and faculty to quickly check out a book that sparks their interest, and it generates conversations,” said Klein. “This accessibility has added many new patrons to the Stratton Upper School Library.”

An Upper School student quietly reads in the library.

Jordan Sadoff '21 caught up on her reading in the Stratton Upper School Library.

Like the Lower School and Middle School librarians, Klein dedicates much of her time to supporting teachers’ classroom instruction with library resources, and also helps to coordinate author visits—which are a vital component and key differentiator to USM’s reading programs in all divisions. USM has a long history of welcoming well-known and respected authors to campus, including, in recent years, Jason Reynolds, Elizabeth Acevedo, Alex Kotlowitz, and Sherri Duskey Rinker. “USM validates the importance of literature, and that makes it an exciting place to be,” said Klein. “When students have the chance to meet the author of a book they have read and to engage with that person, that connection is profound.”

"All students–all children–are readers. You just have to find the right book."

Upper School humanities teachers selected “A Land of Permanent Goodbyes” as the assigned summer reading for 9th graders in 2019 and 2020, and Klein assisted with bringing the author, Atia Abawi, to campus (in 2019 and virtually in 2020). Many of the author visits are held in conjunction with independent bookstore Boswell Books and sponsored by the USM Parents’ Association. Meeting an author in person gives students a chance to see how books are created, and it also adds a layer of engagement between the book and the student. “We are so lucky to have these authors visiting our school,” said Walczak. “As a kid growing up, I would have loved to have those kinds of opportunities.”

We don’t assume that our students will remember how they learned to read. But we do believe that they will remember how reading made them feel. Because a book that we can’t stop thinking about, one that we read long past our bedtimes and that we’re sad to finish, does so much more than entertain. It expands our world, teaches us new ways of living and seeing, and inspires, challenges, and motivates us. It is our duty to advance our students’ reading education beyond the mechanics of interpreting letters and symbols. By encouraging a love of reading, teachers and parents are ensuring that a child’s education continues long after they leave school.

Tips to Foster a Love of Reading

Helping children develop a love of reading is a wonderful way to get them on the path to better writing, a diverse vocabulary, and increased empathy—but it’s not always easy. Below are five tips to help you get started.

Read to Your Kids

This may seem obvious, but it’s an important first step in fostering a love of reading. Listening to a story being read out loud promotes fluent reading and teaches children to emphasize certain words, follow punctuation, and even change our voices to match characters. Depending on your child’s age, you might offer to read the book together by alternating words or pages. Get them involved by asking them what’s happening, or what they think will happen next.

Find Books That Interest Them

Go to the library together to pick out books, and ask your child which book to start with. If your child doesn’t like the book, stop reading it and pick out another. Having ownership in what they are reading empowers children, adds confidence, and promotes a positive attitude towards reading.

Model Reading in Your Home

It’s important for your child to see you reading—and enjoying it—in your free time. Make it a goal to spend 20 minutes a night to read as a family with no screens allowed. Make your child aware that reading is an enjoyable way to spend free time. It’s not something you have to do, it’s something you get to do!

Make Reading Fun and Special

Get creative with where and how you read, perhaps by setting up a picnic and reading outside, or pitching a blanket tent inside and reading with flashlights. Dress up as your favorite characters, or build scenes from the book using blocks, paper, and crayons. Read to family pets or stuffed animals, or set up a virtual meeting and have your child read to a family member remotely. Above all, keep it fun and light.

Incorporate Reading in Other Ways

Ask your child to help you write down the grocery list, or read a recipe while helping you bake or cook in the kitchen. Subscribe to age-appropriate magazines, which kids love because they come in the mail and often have colorful photos, games, and fun articles.

Make Connections Between the Book and Real Life

As you’re reading, find ways to make parallels between the book and real life. “I remember feeling like this when…” or “Doesn’t this seem like something grandpa would do/say?” Not only does this build engagement with the book, it helps children identify particular actions, emotions, and feelings with vocabulary.

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