Donalyn Miller is a reading expert who also writes a blog. I took a look at her site today and the first post I read was about how the reading curriculum does not encourage reading. You already know the arguments, but one interesting one Miller added is that she read three picture books with her granddaughter but the books did not count as reading because there are no words.

I wrote the books down to check out of the library. I love wordless books. My kids don’t, but I read them to the kids anyway. I do it when I know the kids will put up with it, like when they think if I read them a book I will forget about practicing piano.

The Troublemaker by Lauren Castillo

Flashlight by Lizi Boyd

Fora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle

Also, if you’re really into wordless books, I love I Can’t Sleep, by Phillippe Dupasquier.

Aside from the wordless picture books, Miller’s post serves to explain why the schools are so stuck in a rut: Here is a reading teacher complaining that other teachers are not doing enough to make kids love reading. Yet this teacher’s vision of loving reading is reading all the books she likes.

There is no Walking Dead on her book list, even though it’s one of the most popular series for boys (including my son).

I glanced down the page to see what her earlier posts are like, and the next post was an apology for her not answering her emails. She told people that she has about 300 unanswered emails in her in box, and if she answered them she’d never have time to be with family and friends.

But wait? Isn’t answering emails reading and writing?

What Miller needs to learn is how to read emails quickly and give a two sentence response. Noa Kageyama  has a signature file in his email that includes a link to an explanation for his terse email responses. He doesn’t write more than five sentences, a tactic which is among the best practices for email.

The good news is that if you are only going to write a short response, you only have to glance over a long email. To get the gist. Because you are not responding to all the details.

Miller needs to teach kids how to do this sort of reading, because this is information processing at the rate that adult life in the information age demands. But she can’t teach it to students because she can’t do it herself.

There’s a reason that teachers like this make so little money: they don’t have skills for the information age, and they are teaching reading as if students are in school forty years ago.

Luckily you can make up for this by teaching your kids to read and write in a way that allows them to process information the way that works for this century. Here are some ideas:

1. Don’t memorize anything. Read to know what is available, and get great at searching when you need specific information.

2. Archive all your emails instead of deleting them. You don’t need to process the information you receive via email, you need to know what is in your email so you can search it if you need that information later.

3. Teach Getting Things Done. Fanatics call this system GTD. It involves prioritizing, making lists, and having the self-discipline to stick to the system. The result is that you have both long-term and short-term goals and you know what you are doing each day to meet them.

4. Respond quickly. Our kids won’t use the same tools we use to communicate, but they will have tools that spew information at a high rate. So teaching a quick response is the reading system they need now. If you respond very quickly, people accept a one-sentence response. If you wait three weeks and then respond with one sentence you look like you don’t have a grip. You needed three weeks to think of that response?

5. Forget timed reading. This is like factory worker reading—not what anyone needs today. Have your kids read to meet a need. Maybe they want to know how many stars there are. Maybe they want to know what it’s like to have a first kiss. Maybe they want to cheat in Castle Crashers.

The only bad kind of reading is forced reading. Kids who do timed reading or reading charts are being forced to read in a way that’s not true to them. Parents who let emails pile up because they have to read and respond to every single word—they are doing forced reading, too. And both types of forced reading is guaranteed to exhaust the spark that makes us read to learn.

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42 replies
  1. Pam
    Pam says:

    Excellent article! I’ve been disheartened by those insane reading programs since my kids were in kindergarten. First, the books on the list are boring. Second, a kids thinks she can only read what’s on the list. Third, schools have done away with hiring trained librarians, So you get someone in the library who is more concerned with limited the number or the level of book, So a kid isn’t allowed to explore. Fourth, don’t even get me started on the timed tests. My son, who had a bigger vocabulary than his first grade teacher, was put in the stupid reading class because he couldn’t read fast. He doesn’t do anything fast. He speaks slowly and deliberately and intelligently. I had to fight hard to make them stop giving my son that stupid test.

  2. Editormum
    Editormum says:

    Great points on reading! I’ve always been a good reader, a fast reader, but these days, it’s overwhelming. I was sad that my sons “don’t like to read” even though I know it’s only because they have to sit still and they’re not wired for that.

    At least, they don’t like to read until they find a book that captures them. After years of fighting to get him through the literature assignments in our homeschool curriculum, I was dumbfounded the day I went looking for my older son and found him curled up among the pillows on my bed, reading Jurassic Park. He reads well above grade-level, but the material MUST catch his interest.

    I’ve been thinking for a while now that there ought to be two “reading tracks” in education, kind of like there are in math. In math, if you’re just not all that into the theoretical, artistic math stuff, you can skip the higher level stuff and go for “business math” or “practical math.” In reading, why not have a track for those who want to pursue the deeper levels of literary scholarship, and another track for those who want the basics so that they can function in day-to-day life?

    By the way, I’m DYING to know what the missing links lead to in points 3 and 5 …

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Amazing that I would hit publish with that many notes to myself. I like that you guys all know LH means put in a link. I thought it was my secret language for myself, but we all know my secret language. That’s nice.


  3. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    When people complain about piled up email…I just don’t get it.

    Just like you talked about not being the hardest worker (or staying later than everyone else because you look incompetent or bad in time management), people who can’t handle email are…weird.

    I think some people let their email fill up with junk. that’s easy, make a junky email address and then make an address that you don’t share with anyone but the most important people. Make an address for bills and receipts and so on.
    Sometimes a quick answer or “let me think about it” is all you need.

    I cannot enjoy books that take too long to get to the good part. Maybe I’m too much in a hurry. But those people who believe good reading = long books by certain authors = class and smarts…whatever. I can’t handle it. I’m too busy getting stuff done to have the patience to read 30 pages before I know what’s going to happen.

    By the way, Accounting for Dummies guy, if people wanted to wade through all the words and junk they’d go to a college class not read a book. We’d rather watch a video and get it over with.

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      I feel like I have too much e-mail! Your comment forced me to articulate to myself why I get so overwhelmed. I’d never really thought about it before.

      Not all, but enough of my e-mails require some sort of creative collaboration. Like I need to come up with a clever way of incorporating a product. Or come up with a merchandising idea. Or nail down the details of an event that I’m co-hosting.

      But so few of the e-mails I receive are *that* inspiring that I feel moved to respond quickly. Instead I need the time to marinate on an idea before responding. In the meantime more e-mails pile up and the vicious cycle continues.

  4. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    I think the most important “information age” skill that nobody is teaching is how to read for links. Google and other search engines use semi individualized machine learning (which is awesome), but it limits your ability to find new information sources.

    If you know how to use links to grow your information web, you don’t have to get your Google Search right the first time, you just have to know how to follow a logical train of thought using links.

    Great article!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The first thing I did when I graduated college was read books. I felt like it had been a decade since I had time to read a book I was not assigned in school. I had pent up need to go through book stores learning to pick my own books. It was one of the great joys of my 20s.


  5. Liz Ness
    Liz Ness says:

    We both (my son and I) love graphic stories/novels. A good one for the younger crowd is Owly by Andy Runton (event he dialog is illustrated–no text). Right now, my son is enjoying the Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi–he could hardly wait for the recent one to be released.

  6. Jana Miller
    Jana Miller says:

    I’d comment on your post but I didn’t read the whole thing…..haha.

    I totally agree. And when my youngest was in school, he could only check out a book that was in his range as determined by the teacher. Ugh. Made me crazy! So I homeschooled :)

    • Karelys
      Karelys says:

      I love this comment! Makes me chuckle!

      My kid is not school age yet so I don’t know what it’s like to make such a big decision based on seeing your kid screwed out of life.

      What I don’t see people talking about often at all is how homeschooling is also about the parents. This morning I was in a hurry cutting up chicken and potatoes to roast in the oven right before work. My husband is helping someone out with landscaping work and I return he’ll get about enough money to go to a Seahawks game in November. I chuckled. Life is so much easier and enjoyable when I work and he takes care of us. It’s weird to most people.

      Then I think, I want to homeschool to not be harried about by someone else’s schedule. I want to do things my way. I want to enjoy life. I don’t want to be hussling to get my kid out the door and feel super frazzled. For what? An education that’s not worth it? All those years invested, for what return?

      Maybe I’ll be too lazy to drive him to Seattle for awesome music lessons or I’ll be too disinterested to do Suzuki method. But you know what? At least well remember the childhood years as fun and experimental and adventurous.

      At least that.

      So yeah, homeschooling is about us as parents too!

  7. redrock
    redrock says:

    If you exceed a certain number of emails a day only highly selective answering will work. Even if you scan your emails to weed out the most important ones – and even if you adhere to the 5 sentence rule. Let’s say you write a maximum of 5 sentences, each sentence and average of 10 words with an average word length of 5 characters – that makes 250 characters per mail. Let;s say some of your emails are significantly shorter, take 150 characters per answered email. Now let;s say of the 300 emails only 1/6 is meaningful/useful that adds up to 150 x 50 characters and 7500 characters in total – about 5 pages of double spaced text. A lot of writing! But email writing is very different from writing for a publication, project report or letter to your dear friend. Email writing can be done quickly with a relatively limited vocabulary with few exceptions. So, I don’t think email writing teaches writing for other purposes – it only teaches email writing. Admittedly, that is a good skill to have.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      Communication skills.

      Which is what a lot of people lack and suffer from when entering the work force or just…you know…adulthood and everything that comes with it.

    • mh
      mh says:

      Bah. People who insist on responding to every point in an email are invariably last-word freaks.

      If a person is 300 emails behind, they need to set up an FAQ we page and get on with life.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        I think that if you’re getting 300 emails a day and it’s not junk, then yeah, set up the FAQ.

        If people are still emailing you with questions addressed in that page then just direct them there.

        And at that point, you should probably have an assistant that reads through your email (which should already be separated in work email, website email, etc.) and the assistant can respond to those who are too lazy to read the FAQ. Those legit questions can be weeded out by the assistant and you respond.

        • redrock
          redrock says:

          yep – no way to catch up and answering all of them is just an illusion. Although if one waits long enough they just become outdated …

          • Anna M
            Anna M says:

            I’ve read that tech companies are really trying to find the thing to replace or significantly improve our email experience. I know companies are training their employees to not send emails unless it can’t be helped. Lots of people have a problem keeping up with their email. Learning how to write an email that can cut through the volume some people have, now that is a good skill.

      • Zellie
        Zellie says:

        This idea confuses me. If all points in my email are not to be responded to, why should I bother giving the information?

        I have tried numbered points and brief questions or statements, but invariably this results in requests for more detail or explanation of why it is relevant. Then I have to do the thinking and email all over, replacing the information I carefully removed for brevity. And then my answers may still be skimmed?

        Having trouble adapting to this form of communication. This is with people living in different states/countries, so email is the main thing.

        • redrock
          redrock says:

          I think it depends very much on what email is used for – in project planning and discussions you need to write more. If I get the fifth email from the same student asking a question about HW which at this moment popped into their mind I get cranky because it forces me to answer (or at some point not answer) five separate emails interrupting my work flow five times.

  8. Joy
    Joy says:

    Love this. About a year ago, I stopped forcing my younger son to read, since then he has read things that interest him, especially on video games, internet, and graphic novels, but he is MUCH calmer and happier. Four years ago, we started homeschooling/unschooling when my oldest sons teacher wouldn’t LET him read a harder book (this a after my 7 year old wrote her a note asking too). I couldn’t believe it, so I pulled him out of school and he proceeded to read all 7 Harry Potter books in 2 months.

  9. Nur Costa
    Nur Costa says:

    That was a very useful advice. Not only for kids, but for young adults who are recently incorporating to the working experience.
    You could do a post about 20-something students who recently graduated. And need for these kind of small tips for better organization at work.
    Thanks for sharing, Penelope!

  10. Daphne Gray-Grant
    Daphne Gray-Grant says:

    This is one of your best posts ever. I like the way you caught a reading teacher who fails to respond to her emails. How stupid is that? Love the 5-sentence reply idea. I’m going to try that myself — as I have here.

  11. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Points 3 and 5 have LH, which I know means “link here”, are there links for these or is it something to update later? I really wanted the link in point 3!!! GTD/getting things done.

    In #5, castle crusher cheat link… :)

    I think these reading experts live in a vacuum. No one challenges their ideas or assumptions so they don’t know that we unschoolers know a better approach to reading. Read to your kids, audio books, and get them books they want, not what you want. My oldest reads gaming stuff, so we get magazines on minecraft and now world of warcraft. She is 7 and reads and comprehends at a jr. high/high school level, but it’s not the classics, it’s not “educational”, but it’s what she is interested in for now. I can’t imagine what it would do to her if I said “No, you can’t read this until you read Anne of Green Gables first”… she is in charge of what she reads, not me. I just get her the resources.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      It’s the “White Coat” effect.

      If a doctor says something people don’t really challenge it until there are bigger voices already challenging it. But they won’t do it in front of a doctor. Maybe in the internet or at home.

      So often people tell me “but the doctor says it’s good to do xyz….but the doctor recommended…”

      I just say “if you already trust your doctor and have a good relationship then go with it because he/she is your primary care provider and they need to have a continuous history of what’s going on with your health.”

      But in my mind I think “okay, let’s look at history! look at how doctor’s recommended cigarettes. And that we stay away from butter. And a whole bunch of other things!”

      Same with “experts” who are in a vacuum. No one challenges them openly. But look at the history of how things have progressed.

  12. Mel B
    Mel B says:

    If you are looking for wordless books you should check out 2 by the same author:

    Journey and Quest by Aaron Becker. It’s one story that starts in Journey and continues in Quest. They are my favorite to recommend at the bookstore I work at for customers who are interested in wordless books. The illustrations are colorful and the books would definitely work for older kids.

    • mh
      mh says:

      And “Arrival” by Shaun Tan (but not “Lost and Found” by the same author – ultra depressing)

      Also “Tuesday” by David Wiesner — puts a grin on every face.

  13. Jessie
    Jessie says:

    Thanks for the idea and I can use this to convince the kids to enjoy reading without forcing them to memorize and read a lot.

    Whenever I receive emails, I just archive this if those aren’t important and I also made auto rules and folder on my MS Outlook.

  14. Eager Reader
    Eager Reader says:

    This is a kick ass post.

    I’ve been advocating for many years, in private, that publishers should create literary porn (with cars and guns) for pre-teen boys.

    I mean, if we want kids to read, right?

    Really most preteen boys do this on their own – racy sci-fi, Penthouse etc. Probably the ones who are natural readers do this – the ones we want to influence and inspire don’t discover this stuff. They just watch movies and play video games.

    I read Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot” to tatters partly because of the sex…(when I was 12).

    Why did humanity create the printing press anyway? Proselytize religion and share porn, right?

    And the internet dropped religion as it’s prime mover…to focus on porn.

  15. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    So how do I get my 7yo son to slow down his reading? He’s reading so much, so fast, and so far ahead of “grade level” that he’s learning great vocab, but he’s not reading carefully (with often hilarious results). He threatened to throw a “trantum” the other day, and he thought a character called Neil was “Neli.” I assume he’ll figure it out eventually, but then I cringe as I remember a paper I presented in college about someone who was “pee-us” (pious). If you never hear your great vocab words spoken aloud, it can get embarrassing pretty quickly.
    We’ve tried to read together, out loud, but he gets so impatient. (And I totally get where he’s coming from.)

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I don’t see any harm in what he’s doing, to be honest.

      During my 20s I read a book a night. I think I probably didn’t read all the words. But whatever. I got a lot out of each book I read. I think we read at the pace we need to for what we want to get out of the book.


  16. karelys
    karelys says:

    I remember long ago, a guy emailed me explaining how he liked me and why he thought we should date.

    I didn’t know how to respond. So I waited until my thoughts were together to email him back. It took like a week or two and he sat me down and we talked and he mentioned (which I’ll never forget) “I emailed you and you never responded. Normal email etiquette dictates that someone responds within a day or two.”

    No one ever taught me that!

    I try to return my voicemails at the office within 3 hours max. Emails to my boss I respond RIGHT AWAY. Emails to other people I try to respond within hours or before the end of the day.

    For personal calls and voicemails I want to make sure to call back within the day and within the hour (if possible) for email.

    All of this makes me think that people need new training on how to handle email. The expectation of the communication rhythm. Also voicemail. People HATE voicemail.

    I should write a list and make Buzzfeed post it.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      Looking back I see how I should’ve emailed the guy “I don’t know how to write down my thoughts. Please give me until the end of the week to do so.”

      But I was immature and didn’t do that.

      Everyone has a different idea of what is an appropriate way to communicate and we need parameters.

      I know this post was about reading but I just care for this topic obsessively.

    • Adrianne
      Adrianne says:


      You point to something that I think is a valid interim response that can be put forth prior to committing to a final reply – that it can be okay to reply with a “Let me think about this and get back to you” kind of response, prior to sending a formalized answer. I actually do this when I really do need some additional time to craft a response – never received push-back on this technique from a recipient. Sometimes, the sender just wants acknowledgement that the initial message was received.

  17. Cheryl
    Cheryl says:

    Two best picture books ever! At almost 60, they still make me laugh outloud:

    Tuesday by David Wiesner

    Elephant Buttons

  18. Alicia
    Alicia says:

    Hey Penelope…quick question!

    I recently read an article about the new startup in higher education called the Minerva Project. Was just wondering your thoughts on it. Do you think it’s better than traditional university? If for something such as business, would a degree at Minerva be a good starting point or would simply venturing out and starting your own business still be the best?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Good question, Alicia.

      Here’s a link about the Minerva Project, for those of you who are interested:

      I think the project is stupid. In general I think the idea of the future of education coming from Silicon Valley is just absurd. They are living in a bubble. All their kids – statistically – will be very successful no matter what education they have.

      The Minerva Project takes kids that (supposedly) could go to Ivy League schools but choose to go to Minerva because it’s free. That seems crazy to me. You go to Ivy League for the seal of genius – like, everyone sees that on your resume and it’s a free pass. You meet other people at college with a free pass.

      Why would someone give all that up for Minerva? No one has heard of it outside of Silicon Valley and people don’t have a sense of how smart you are if you went there.

      I say if you are thinking of Minerva for college just go get a job instead.


  19. VegGal
    VegGal says:

    I hope you realize that writing is changing because of this too. It’s actually one reason I love your blog. You are quick and to the point. You don’t drag on. You post pictures instead of trying to describe in words. I don’t have to skim much to get through your posts! :)

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