Margin Notes

Atomic (Reading) Habits Part 1


In Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, James Clear defines habits as “the compound interest of self-improvement. The same Atomic Habitsway money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them.”

When thinking about habits, whether positive ones we’d like to start or negative ones we’d like to break, Clear encourages us to set ourselves up for success by focusing on the slight changes in daily habits that will help us progress, over time, to where we want to be. Each of these slight, gradual changes is an atomic habit: “a regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do, but also a source of incredible power, a component of compound growth.”

We can break habits down into a cycle known as the Feedback Loop: “a cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes  associated with the cue. Thinking about habits as a cycle means that we can identify our cues and triggers and then intentionally plan the responses that will give us the reward we desire and motivate us to continue. We can leverage the Feedback Loop by following the 4 Laws of Behavior Change:

  1. Make it obvious.
  2. Make it attractive.
  3. Make it easy.
  4. Make it satisfying.

Atomic Habits gave me lots to think about in terms of my own habits and why it’s often hard to be consistent with the good habits we know and want to maintain. I gave up making New Year’s resolutions years ago! It also led me to do a lot of reflection on the reading habits we literacy educators aim to instill in our students. This book gave me many new insights into our quest to create environments where readers develop lifelong reading habits.


One of the most fundamental aspects of teaching reading is helping students develop an individual reading identity. Everything we do is in the service of our students seeing themselves as readers. Clear makes some interesting points about the connections between identity and habits:

“The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. It’s one thing to say, ‘I’m the type of person who wants this.’ It’s something very different to say, “I’m the type of person who is this.’”

“The more pride you have in a particular aspect of your identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain the habits associated with it.”

“Improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are.”

“Ultimately, your habits matter because they help you become the type of person you wish to be. They are the channel through which you develop your deepest belief about yourself. Quite literally, you become your habits.”

The question, then, becomes how we can use our knowledge of habits to develop students’ reading identities and vice versa. If habits compound over time and become who we are, it is critical that we set students up for success by providing lots of opportunities to practice. In “Raise Reading Volume Through Access, Choice, Discussion, and Book Talks” Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey provide strong evidence of the correlation between independent reading and reading development. If we want students to view themselves as readers, they must spend long periods of time in books they can read and want to read.


According to Clear, our habits are dependent on context. He describes environment as “the invisible hand that shapes human behavior.” In many ways, our habits are directly influenced by our surroundings:

“Despite our unique personalities, certain behaviors tend to arise again and again under certain environmental conditions.”

“The cues that trigger a habit can start out very specific, but over time your habits become associated not with a single trigger, but with the entire context surrounding the behavior.”

“Our behavior is not defined by the objects in the environment, but by our relationships. Think in terms of how you interact with the spaces around you.”

“The central idea is to create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible. Much of the battle of building better habits comes down to finding better ways to reduce the friction associated with our good habits and increase the friction associated with our bad ones.”

“Whenever you organize a space for its intended purpose, you are priming it to make the next action easy.”

It is essential that we create an environment for reading that “makes the next action easy.” In “Reading and Talking About Books: A Critical Foundation for Intervention,” Cheryl L. Wozniak reminds us of the conditions that foster literacy success identified by Brian Cambourne (1988): immersion, demonstration, engagement, expectation, responsibility, approximation, use, and response. Using these conditions as a guide, Wozniak designed a six-week reading intervention incorporated teacher book talks, interactive read-alouds, independent reading with unrestricted choice of texts, access to high-interest books, and partner talk. At the end of the intervention, students communicated “more positive attitudes toward reading, perceived themselves to have higher reading abilities, read more and for longer, and were more engaged during language arts time.”

In other words, an environment that supports a positive relationship with books and reading helped these students see themselves as readers and motivated them to develop the habits of readers. It isn’t enough to put books in the classroom, we need to celebrate them and give students time to experience them.


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