It's a Book Talk. It's a Literature Circle. It's a Reader.
It‘s a Book Talk. It‘s a
Literature Circle. It‘s a
Conquering Aliteracy with Contemporary Middle
Grade and Young Adult Fiction
An Action Research Plan
University of Maryland University College
This presentation was prepared for EDTP 645, section 9041, taught by Dr. Fazio.
In 1987 Bernice Cullinan, former emeritus professor of reading at NYU and director
of the Critical Reading Project, coined the term aliterate. Aliterates are those who
can read, but choose not to read. The questions that face teachers are why has
there been a rise in aliteracy and how do we fight a disease without a definitive
cause. The answer to why aliteracy has sharply risen over the last 30 years lacks a
single answer. It could be that ELA teachers, most of whom are lovers of the
classics, are willfully ignorant of the possibility that the Western Canon is not
beloved by all. For some neither Gatsby nor Expectations are all that Great.
Approaching every student as though they are future English scholars is a mistake.
It could be that ELA teachers inundate students with poem, short stories, and novels
they find irrelevant to their lives. Professor Donald R. Gallo of Cleveland State
University addressed his own years as an aliterate student by stating, ―Why was I
supposed to care about a Puritan woman who got pregnant from having sex with a
minister.‖ Of course, ELA teachers should strive to help students find the
connections between themselves and Hester Prynne, but we should also strive to
give students opportunities to self-select. It could be that ELA teachers rarely give
students the opportunity to explore their own reading identity. We rarely give them a
choice. We rarely let them have the power. Power, choice, is how we fight a disease
without a definitive cause.
• Student indicates he is not interested in reading.
• Student states that he only reads comics, but rarely.
• Student declares ―the assigned books are boring.‖
• Student lives in a house without any books.
The research participant, age 16, is a reflection of the
statistics gathered, collated, and revealed in 2007 by the
National Endowment for the Arts.
To Read of Not to Read:
A Question of National Consequence
By National Endowment for the Arts, 2007
Percentage of Students Reading for Fun
Never of hardly ever read
Read almost everyday
pp = percentage points
Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics
This study seeks to explore the
impact book talks and literature
circles have on aliterate students.
What impact will book talks and
literature circles have on aliteracy in
the secondary ELA classroom when
students‘ interests and curiosities
This study will help me determine the
effectiveness of introducing
contemporary middle grade and
young adult literature into the middle
school classroom using book talks
and literature circles.
Aliterate ~ A person who can read, but choose not to read.
Book talk ~ An oral presentation designed to convince or interest
someone into reading a particular book.
Literature circle ~ A small book discussion group where participants are
determined by interest rather than ability.
Reluctant and Non-readers ~ Individuals who show little or no interest in
Middle Grade Literature ~ ―works in a wide variety of genres and
forms, including multimedia formats, with topics relevant to the interests
and needs of young people in‖ late elementary, middle, and early high
school (ALAN Review Mission Statement, n.d.).
Young Adult Literature ~ ―works in a wide variety of genres and
forms, including multimedia formats, with topics relevant to the interests
and needs of young people in middle and high school‖ (ALAN Mission
How Classics Create an Aliterate Society
By Donald R. Gallo
Here the cause of aliteracy is attributed to the ELA classroom
presenting students with characters and books that fail to engage
and lack relevancy to their lives. Gallo suggests the students failure
to connect to the presented material is a direct result of irrelevancy.
Western canonical characters, like Hester Prynne, support his
argument as he asks how they relate to the life of a teenager. A
student‘s inability to relate means they rely on the teacher to relay
meaning and importance. Here is the suggestion that in addition to
finding no pleasure in the reading of these texts the students also
derive no meaning. Gallo suggests secondary students are not
unwilling to engage these texts, but lack the maturity to properly
engage and in this way ELA and reading become equated with
negative experiences. These negative experiences squash the
desire to read and based on this literature breeds aliteracy. For
Gallo, aliteracy results because ―the love of reading‖ is not an
explicit curricular goal (2001, p. 35). Ramsey picks up where Gallo
ends and constructs a different truth about aliteracy.
The Fifth Way of Looking at an Aliterate
By John J. Ramsey
Ramsey challenges a view of aliterate students, which promotes
the idea that they are lazy or deviant. He believes the important
questions to as ask about aliterate students are why they dislike
reading and are they suffering because the texts they are assigned
outmatch their skill level. The texts students are given force them to
struggle and contributes to a sense of inadequacy. Here the blame
for aliteracy is in how students are taught to read or for what they
are asked to mine from the texts – plot, character, theme, etc.
Ramsey suggests student should be taught to ―strip [texts] for ideas
and values‖ not the rote memorization of basic literary elements
(2002, p. 54). Students are aliterate not because they choose to be,
but because they way they are taught has fostered a bad attitude
about books and reading. Bushman considers the subject and like
Gallo places the blame for aliteracy on text selection.
Young Adult Literature in the Classroom
or is It?
By John Bushman
Bushman‘s (1997) survey reveals that while some students enjoy
reading the classic canonical texts presented in class when given the
choice of self-selection contemporary works are a common, but not
homogenous choice. Armed with this knowledge he turns to another
revelation from his survey, which is the rapid decrease in outside
reading as the students age. Bushman (1997) believes since teachers
have not been explicitly tasked with ―making young people lifelong
readers‖ they feel successful in their jobs if they manage to ―pass
along a cultural/literacy heritage‖ which focuses on classic works of
literature (Bushman, 1997, p.6). As a result, student leave school as
alliterates, a term coined in 1987 by Bernice Cullinan, which denotes
those that can read, but choose not to read. Bushman‘s asserts it is
necessary to introduce students to texts they will read once their
formal education is over rather than just what teachers believe they
What the Literature Lacks
All of the articles successfully identify how classroom and
curricular choices foster aliteracy, but none of the authors
seems willing to place any blame on the students. Could it be
that the students have been wholly acted upon when it
comes to aliterate behavior? When students enjoy reading
classrooms and the systems of education along with the
student is praised. Why is the opposite not true. There
seems little doubt that a growing schism between what
students are assigned to read and what students want to
read is growing. It is also true that the ELA curriculum needs
an infusions of the contemporary. However, none of the
literature addresses the possibility of choice. The idea that
some students really just do not want to read. Is this a
Conduct a small scale literature circle using a
―Just Hanging Around‖
Excerpt from Chapter One of Sidekicked
It‘s Tuesday and I‘m in costume, but just barely. That is to say that I
have my mask and outfit on, so nobody knows who I am. Or almost nobody, at
least. Which pretty much sums up my life as a whole.
It‘s Tuesday, which means it was sloppy joe day in the
cafeteria, which is bad enough, but that‘s not the worst thing that can happen
It‘s Tuesday—middle of September, only about a month into the new
school year—and I‘m hovering over the Justicia community pool, which only
two weeks ago was still filled with a dozen drowning bugs and the farewell
tinkle from the last toddler to be dragged screaming out of it.
Today it is filled with acid.
Continue to ascertain student interests.
Conduct a book talk using books relevant to the
Qualitative Data Collection
Was the student excited about or interested in the
Was the student able to answer basic comprehension
questions on the selected chapter – characters, setting,
Was the student interested in continuing the book?
Did the student respond positively to the book talk?
Did the student discover books that suited and/or captured
Did the student begin reading for pleasure?
I used the Reading Interest Inventory as a springboard for
I presented the student with a book that suited his initial
I engaged the student in relevant discussions.
I answered his questions on various topics.
I allowed time to explore interests outside of his
I used these interests to select appropriate books for our
Quantitative Data Collection
Reading Interest Inventory:
Before & After
Books Read for
Note: All 28-Oct-13 values were ‗0‘
Books in the
As all initial answers were zero the student progressed
exponentially in each of the three categories.
From no for books for pleasure to one. This was the result
of an author PowerPoint meant to engage readers.
From no books in the home to one. This involved my
intervention and guardian willingness.
From not interested in books to definitely interested in two.
This was the result of a book talk.
We Can All Win
Author Chris Crutcher said, ―Education doesn‘t happen until we can get into a kids imagination‖
(Speech, 2013, November 25). I believe I got into my student‘s imagination and discovered his
interests, heard his voice, and then I listened. I was able able to introduce him to the possibility
and power of reading. After three weeks and 12 sessions my 16-year-old student progressed
from a reluctant non-reader to reading a book just for fun. He even discovered through a book
talk two books that aligned with his newfound interest in Greek Mythology. These results are
certainly promising and the methods used were effective. Will it hold? Will he continue his
journey as a reader without me? I hope so. I believe so. What I definitively know is that I would
do it all again.
I would reconsider reading only the first chapter of the book that captured his imagination and
inspired his wonder. Time was limited, but certainly a chapter a day or a few times a week was
within my reach. It was shortsighted, but it is not a mistake I will repeat.
I cannot conceive of my classroom without book pairs, book talks, and literature circle. Research
on the effectiveness of literature circles tends to focus on emerging, struggling, and reluctant
readers and details their importance. Literature circles can and do engage non and reluctant
readers. In fact, they are beneficial for all students no matter their interest in reading. We know
that stronger readers are stronger writers, which is important to every teacher. We know that
stronger writers score higher on standardized tests, which is important to the test-centric system
of education. We know building a reading habit in adolescence makes it more likely they will
continue the habit as they grow. When we engage readers everyone wins.
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