Dawn Wink: Dewdrops

Writing, Teaching, Language, Landscape, Life

Reading Journeys: No Single Path


Reading together, 2003

Reading together, 2002

Reading Journeys: No Single Path

Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty.  It should be offered to them as a precious gift. —Kate DiCamillo

(originally published in Tumbleweeds, Summer 2015)

“Mom, I’m stupid.”

Wyatt slumped over a book at the kitchen table. Homework had become an ever-increasing experience in tears over the past year for my 7-year-old son in second grade. He wasn’t reading. He didn’t follow what research said he would do. Raised in a home filled with books, read to aloud for hours every day since birth, Wyatt should’ve been reading by now, according to all the research studies. Yet he wasn’t.

I didn’t understand what was happening, and the months slipped by. I talked with my mom, a professor in education and expert in literacy, for hours, trying to figure out what was happening. Nothing fit. What I did know is research that showed the most effective way to create a reader is pleasure reading and a balanced approach to instruction, which weaves together both a sight word and phonetic approach.

Redwall series, Brian Jacques

Redwall series, Brian Jacques

Wyatt bombed at standardized tests and prescribed reading programs. Yet we spent three hours a day reading aloud. He inhaled the Redwall Series, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings aloud. He LOVED to be read to. The mystery of what was happening grew. The school began talking about “reading intervention” programs. Everything in my 20 years of education and my maternal intuition told me that a prescribed reading program would extinguish any hope we might have of Wyatt not only learning to read, but loving to read.

I did something I never thought I’d do. I’ve spent 20 years working for and promoting education. I pulled Wyatt out of school in January of second grade—to read.

I wasn’t sure what we’d do, but I did know what we would not do. We would not test. We would not use a deadening prescribed reading curriculum that leaches away any relevancy or love of reading away through lack of context and story. Wyatt would never be forced to read aloud, in private or public. We would only read what Wyatt wanted to read.

Which brings us to my own paradigm shift. Mom, the professor in education, said to me over the phone one day, “He can’t read any of the books you read to him. They’re too hard.” I scanned our shelves of Tolkien, Jacques, the classics. Wyatt had the verbal vocabulary of a doctoral student of literature, but within these books there was nothing he could read. “I’m sending him the Captain Underpants series,” she said. My own literary snobbery reared its ugly head. “Mom, you can’t! The primary vocabulary word in those books is ‘poop!’”

Captain Underpants

Captain Underpants

“I can. There will be a box addressed to Wyatt. When it arrives, you are not allowed to touch it.”

The box arrived. I gave it to Wyatt. He pulled the series of graphic novels for young children, the primary literary focus of which is the body sounds and functions that so delight young boys the world over. Filled with drawings, these books convey story even for a young reader who can’t read every word. I hesitantly began to read them aloud to Wyatt. He giggled, thrilled in the inappropriateness, pointed at the underwear – and delighted in reading. I left the books scattered randomly around the house, where he would find them.

Wyatt began to read. Captain Underpants, the weird little dude running around in his tighty-whiteys, did what no prescribed reading program or standardized test ever could: he drew Wyatt into the world of reading for the sheer pleasure of story. I heard him giggling as he read Captain Underpants’ mantra of success, “Tra-la-laaaa!”

Wyatt went back to school the fall of third grade. He’s been reading wheelbarrows full of books ever since. He soon made the leap from Captain Underpants to Harry Potter to J.R.R. Tolkien on his own, and I’ve long since lost track of the tomes of adventures, places, emotions and ideas that have become a part of him through reading. He is now a freshman at Adams State University in Colorado and continues a voracious reader.

 Which brings us to the prescribed curriculum and standardized testing so rampant in today’s schools. Research study after research study demonstrates the most effective way to create fluent readers is self-selected reading (pleasure reading!) and a balanced approach to literacy instruction.

Literacy occurs best for both kinds of learners, when it is relevant and meaningful. Relevancy, meaning and critical-thinking tend to be lost in prescribed reading programs. Research demonstrates again and again that self-selected reading (pleasure reading!) is one of the most effective ways to develop literacy. We don’t need more tests, we need more libraries and time every day in schools for students to read for pleasure. Let kids choose what they want to read and create time for them to do so.

This research includes children in this country whose primary language is one other than English. Research demonstrates that the most effective way for English Language Learners to learn to read in English is let them read what they want in whatever language they choose. Literacy in an additional language is based in literacy in the primary language. Want Spanish-speaking kids to read well in English? Let them read as much as possible in Spanish. We only learn to read once. Then, we apply that to whatever language we’re reading.

The tsumani wave of standardized testing doing its best to destroy public education in recent years is based not in pedagogy but in profit. No research proves its efficacy. None. This wave of standardized testing, dressed up in finery of “accountability” and “standards” (who could possibly be against those?) is founded in profit for testing and publishing companies. Requirement of standardized tests, their accompanying study materials, and prescribed curricula have turned public education into a multi-billion dollar industry. The results include not only an exponential loss of time to learn. The results include not only an exponential loss of time to learn, there is the loss of the humanity of all that creates a depth of learning, a reveling in ideas for their sheer brilliance and potential, an opening of the world.

As a professor in the field of teacher education, I see the effect that standardized testing has on teachers and children. Third grade teacher, Missy, said, “My students barely survived the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA). I was prepared to grit my teeth and bear it. I was not prepared to be in tears within an hour of starting the test. One little third grader, who has been struggling to write this year, and who was doing better with gentle encouragement and clustering, broke into tears and was literally sitting in front of her computer crying within 40 minutes of starting the test. Crying Sobbing.”

I wish I could give teachers like her a solution. Instead, I tell them that standardized testing doesn’t equate with learning; standardized testing often doesn’t even authentically evaluate knowledge. What it does do is detract from exponential amounts of quality instructional time that students could be exploring, learning, experimenting, and growing. The most powerful dynamics in education are not found on Scantron forms. They are found in the hearts of teachers and students.

I thank the stars that the madness of the Third-Grade Reading Retention Bill did not pass the state legislature in the 2015 session. The average age around the world when children learn to read is 8 years old, when their brains have reached an age-appropriate level of development. There is no single path to reading. There are kids who learn to read at 3 years old and others who learn at 9. The beauty and mystery of the human brain is there is no single time that this occurs in all children.

Wyatt, reading by fireplace.

Wyatt, reading by fireplace.

I think of all of the little Wyatts in schools today, all of the boys and girls drowned in standardized tests and prescribed curriculum and content, rather than lifted to the world of thinking, of reading, of ideas, of exploration, of brilliance. All of the children telling their parents, “I’m stupid,” based on a test unfounded in pedagogy. I think of all of the teachers who enter the profession for the love of ideas, content and children, whose hands are now bound, their expertise questioned and stripped away, by standardized and prescribed curriculum created not by experts in education who understand pedagogy, but by business profiteers.

What I know in my heart is that had I left Wyatt in school, subjected him to a prescribed reading program, he never, ever would have known the magic of reading. Yes, he would have learned to read technically, to decode, and would have struggled the next steps of the trail, but he never would have stood at the top of the mountain to drink in the vast view from its peak. He would not have become a reader.

There are very real human costs to education for profit. Families choose to leave public education to give their children an educational experienced focused on ideas and learning, rather than testing and rote memorization. This creates inequity in education, as it is only families with financial means able to avoid standardized testing. This should not have to be a choice. The poorest among us endure the most standardized testing and prescribed curriculum.

It will take us at least a generation to recover from this testing and profit-making era of education—a generation of individual children and teachers left to pay the price.

Luke and Clyde

Luke and Clyde

What can we as parents do? Fill our homes with books, leave them scattered everywhere around the house, let our kids read what they want (even if the main vocabulary word is “poop”), go to libraries, talk about the story of books (not the sounds of syllables), and read our own books in front of them and talk about what we love about the book. Keep the power and the magic of reading alive.

Reading and learning are meant to be meaningful ways to transcend time and space, to grow and explore, to travel anywhere anytime, to be reminded that, no matter our circumstances, we are human and walk a shared path. Reading opens the world of ideas, emotions, events and experiences. To reduce reading to a prescribed curriculum, rote memorization, or an experience in shame when one is forced to read aloud or made to feel less-than another, is a travesty and betrays all that reading is meant to create and encompass. How marvelous that we learn to read best by reading what we want! Dav Pilkey, author of Captain Underpants wrote, “If you read, you can explore and experience all kinds of new and exciting things.”

That is what reading and school should be all about.

* * *


Krashen, S. (2004). The Power of Reading: Insights from Research, Libraries Unlimited.

For more information and research on pleasure reading see: http://www.sdkrashen.com/

Freeman, D. & Freeman, Y. (2011). Between Worlds: Access to Second Language

            Acquisition, Heinemann, NY, NY.

Wink, J. & Wink, D. (2004). Teaching Passionately: What’s Love To Do With It?,

            Pearson, NY, NY.

Information on standardized testing: Susan Ohanian: www.susanohanian.org





Author: Dawn Wink

Dawn Wink is a writer and educator whose work explores the beauty and tensions of language, culture, and place.

44 thoughts on “Reading Journeys: No Single Path

  1. Thank you Dawn for sharing your experience. Elizabeth and I sadly were not able to implement this concept with our reluctant reader. We really fall into that category ourselves 😦 I realize there is still hope.
    I so believe in Joan Wink/Dawn Wink and the power of your messages! Could I share this with my educator-sister in Louisiana and
    one here in College Station ? You and Joan both are awesome. Love Cathy

    • Dearest Cathy, of course you may share this with your educator-sister in Louisiana and College Station! Absolutely. And there are reluctant readers, Cathy, that are on their own reading journey that may not include tons of reading. It does happen. Other gifts in other places. Sort of my experience with Math… 🙂 Love and hugs to you!

  2. Thanks for writing this Dawn. It is a wonderful testimony and so appropriate for all of us to consider as we continue our journey as teachers. You’re doing great work for all of us by putting this out there!

    • Hey Heather! How is the Grand Canyon? Thinking of you. Thanks so much for taking time away from the gorgeous desert to read this and share your thoughts! Much gratitude. Happy beloved Arizona!

  3. Thanks. good article. My youngest went through the same thing to emerge the most vociferous reader you could imagine. Best – miss you Connie Durand

    Date: Mon, 1 Jun 2015 00:45:40 +0000 To: connie.durand@hotmail.com

    • Hi, Connie – I am preparing to teach EDUC 201A this evening and I am thinking of you. So grateful to know that your youngest went through a similar journey! Miss you, too. Dawn

  4. Very true! Lots of people have forgotten what is important now-days! Students prefer hi-tech than a reading book!

  5. Dear Dawn, It was difficult for me to read about Wyatt’s struggles of learning to read but Captain Underpants sure saved the day and lightened the narrative. The story demonstrates the need for good parenting during the education process. In this instance, it took parenting of the parent for Wyatt to break through the barriers! You bring up more reasons why I should count my blessing for how I was raised, myself going through elementary school in the 1960s. Although the folks were a bit frugal, we had shelves of Golden Books, my brother and I belonged to book clubs and we each had our own library card. Your children are the best, you have plenty to be proud of!

    • Dear Dan, those were some difficult times with Wyatt’s reading. Thank you. And who would’ve guessed Captain Underpants would come to our rescue? What a great lesson not only in literacy, but in life, for me. Oh, shelves of Golden Books, book clubs, and a library card – so unexpensive and yet open the world. What blessings from your own parents to have these books and rhythms! My kids amaze me all the time, yes, plenty to be proud of! Thanks so much, Dan.

  6. Dawn, I just love this post. It says so much about what I’ve been thinking about when I have college students who don’t read – for school, for pleasure, for anything. And they are the product of the testing culture you critique. Being the optimist, you see a turn-around in the near future. As I see OCU slashing its Arts & Humanities & Social Sciences programs, I see a couple of generations lost to this short-sighted view of education. So you give me hope.

    I am in WA for a week, fixing some things at my new house that will make arriving with dogs a bit easier: the builder-installed fence wasn’t intended for escape minded small dogs. It would tempt a full sized German Shepard to make a run for it. We think we can fix it in a day – that’s the hope, especially if we can rent a nail gun! Wish me luck!


    Sent from my iPad, please excuse auto correct bloopers


    • Marie, yes, yes, and yes. You received the kids for whom reading was associated with testing and boring. Can you imagine?! The pleasure, magic, power, emotions, and potential of reading siphoned away from their experiences. I think of our discussions we had in the History classes, with deep reading for the sheer experience embedded throughout. Thanks so much for this.

      And your in WA at your new home! Glad you’re getting that fence addressed now, before those escape-minded small dogs arrive. Send pics!


  7. Dawn, I loved this post. Thank you for confirming what my gut has been telling me about our RtI, guided reading, packaged approaches. Have you heard of the Daily Five and the Two Sisters? I’ve been using their approach for the past few years and really feel good about it. They echo your call to give children choice and free reading time.

    • Rachel, I thought of you when I was writing this post. Yes, trust your gut on this one. No, I haven’t heard of the Daily Five and the Two Sisters. Thanks so much for this, I’ll look them up. Choice and free reading time – the research on the efficacy of this on reading unrolls into the horizon. Check out Steve Krashen’s latest work at http://www.sdkrashen.com.

  8. I just LOVED this! Yes to C.U. Did you know he is censored in some places? And Yes to Redwall! My struggling reader loved books on tape and CD. He must have listened to The Trumpet of the Swan, read aloud by EB White 100 times!

    • Hey dear Ashley, C.U. is censored in some places?? No, I had no idea! Wow… Oh, the Redwall series. I’m so glad to know we share this. I still laugh when I think of the hares! And the descriptions of food – incredible! The writing, vocabulary, language of those books are just exquisite. I have such wonderful memories of being curled up reading these with the boys. The Trumpet of the Swan – 100 times. Love it. Thank YOU for keeping the magic of reading alive through your own books and art!!

  9. AMEN to all you have written! Having been a reading specialist in elementary school for many years, I couldn’t agree more. I think you should send this piece to Robert Knott who writes articles on education for The New Mexican. You should also send it to Susanna and Hannah but they probably wouldn’t be able to relate.

    • Jane, this means so much to me, coming from you – a reading specialist for many years. Thank you so much for adding your wealth of experiences and wisdom on this. Thanks for the thoughts on sharing with Robert Knott. Great idea and I’ll do. Susana and Hannah wouldn’t get it. Only people who actually understand education, pedagogy, and literacy understand.

  10. Thank you so much for sharing this personal account, beautifully filtered through your perceptions and observations as a top-notch educator. Years ago Lavar Burton would appear in small TV ads encouraging parents to read to their children and his catch-phrase said it all: READING IS FUNDAMENTAL. Sadly, the current standardized approach does not take into account the fact that each child is on her/his own path when it comes to this essential step in learning, really in life. And consequently too many children are shunted to the side and what that does to their self-esteem and their love of learning is disastrous. So kudos to you… and to Wyatt, and to Luke and to Wynn.

    • Liz, you convey the essence of what is happening now with reading and how this impacts kids and their self-esteem and love of learning here. Yes, yes, and yes. Thanks so much for highlighting this!

  11. Beautifully shared – the sweat and glories of one of the most precious gifts humans have – reading!!
    Thanks sista!

  12. dawn Wink, how gutsy and insightful you are! Where did THAT come from!!😜 loved it!!!

  13. Great piece, Dawn!

  14. Beautiful, Dawn! What a world of insight there is in that simple acknowledgement that reading is not about the mechanics of decoding the words; it’s about a story that engages the reader, tighty-whiteys and all. It’s the love of the words and the images they conjure in our brains that makes us want to read. As a writer rather than a teacher, I cringe at the standardized tests and what they do to students’ and their innate love of learning. Thank you for sharing Wyatt’s journey and your insights. Besitos from me!

    • Susan, thanks so much for bringing your voice to this conversation! I love this, “It’s the love of the words and the images they conjure in our brains that makes us want to read.” Thanks so much for taking the time to write – and thank goodness for writers like you who keep the magic, power, and potential of reading alive! Besitos to you!

  15. So powerful, Dawn! You’ve eloquently expressed the thoughts of every teacher in America!

    I must admit, as a teacher, I was also a Captain Underpants snob. That book would be the ONLY book some kids would check out of the library, and it would drive me crazy! Over the years, I finally became more accepting, realizing that the only thing that mattered was the child’s personal engagement in reading. Sometimes, it’s the teachers who are the slow learners! I now have a new affection for Captain Underpants!

    Thank you for writing such contemplative and inspirational blogs. You always get me thinking! I especially liked the one about Luke and his Shanghai pies! I found myself at a standstill trying to raise money for my continued training. Once I read Luke’s story and how the entire family came together to make his trip happen, it made me pound the ground even harder to reach for my goal.

    Love you dearly, my friend! Laurie

    • Laurie, a fellow reformed Captain Underpants snob! I love that we share this, dear Laurie – made me laugh out loud! Here’s to shared Captain Underpants journey and affection.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the piece about Luke and his Shanghai pies. Oh, I know your parents will dive right into whatever ideas you have. I can’t wait to hear about what you create.

      Love you dearly, too! Dawn

  16. Love this and find it to be so true!


  17. Dawn –What a wonderful piece!May I share the text — without photos or contact information — with my students in solitary confinement at the penitentiary?Leah Weed

    • Leah, of course! Yes, please do. So often people don’t ever get to experience what reading can be and then blame themselves for not being good readers. Yes, yes. I’d love to connect after about your experiences.

  18. Love it Dawn!

    Sent from my iPhone


  19. I agree with Susan — bravo!

  20. Dawn! This is so well done and packs such an important message for all parents, teachers, grandparents, administrators etc., etc., etc. Wyatt has had a very special mommy and grandma!! Love, Shirlee

    Sent from my iPhone


    • Shirlee! Hey, I’ve been missing you! I hope this finds you well. So wonderful to hear from you. Here’s to coming all together (parents, teachers, administrators, etc.) to create these kinds of experiences. Love to you, Dawn

  21. Bravo!! (There’s nothing else I need to say.)

  22. Yes, yes, yes…I’m teaching kids to read in 7th,8th, and 9th grade, and the first thing I did was establish free reading in class! They balked at first, but it has no strings and they just ‘relax and read’ before we do any other instruction…and they love it AND their reading has improved by leaps and bounds!

    • Mamawolfe – Oh, do you understand this! I love that you’ve created time for them to just read. What a gift for all! If only every teacher would do this, what a difference it would make it. I loved reading how by choosing their own books, they not only love to read now, their reading has improved dramatically, which is what all the research demonstrates. Love it!

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