Margin Notes

Atomic (Reading) Habits Part 2


This is the second post in a series reflecting on Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones by James Clear and the insight it offers for our Atomic Habitsquest to create environments that foster lifelong reading habits. You can read the first post here.

In Atomic Habits, Clear presents two habit-related rules that educators can leverage when planning for their reading workshops: The Two-Minute Rule and The Goldilocks Rule.

The Two-Minute Rule

According to the Two-Minute Rule, when you start a habit it should take fewer than two minutes to do. The easier your habit is to start, the higher the likelihood that you will take the step:

“This is a powerful strategy because once you’ve started doing the right thing, it is much easier to continue doing it. A new habit should not feel like a challenge. The actions that follow can be challenging, but the first two minutes should be easy. What you want is a ‘gateway habit’ that naturally leads you down a more productive path.”

“You can usually figure out the gateway habits that will lead to your desired outcome by mapping out your goals on a scale from ‘very easy’ to ‘very hard.’ For instance, running a marathon is very hard. Running a 5K is hard. Walking ten thousand steps is moderately difficult. Walking 10 minutes is easy. And putting on your running shoes is very easy. Your goal might be to run a marathon, but your gateway habit is to put on your running shoes.”

“Make it easy to start and the rest will follow.”

We know that students become better readers through a high volume of engaged reading. In their article “Raise Reading Volume Through Access, Choice, Discussion, and Book Talks,” Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey describe what is referred to as the “Matthew Effect”: “There is strong evidence that students who read early and more often in turn become more proficient readers and thereby read more often, hence the reference to Matthew 25:26 and the maxim ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.’” So, in light of the Two-Minute Rule, what are the gateway habits that lead to lifelong reading habits? What are the conditions we can create that will make it easy for students to get into engaged reading as quickly as possible in reading workshop so “the rest will follow”?

Access to texts students want to read and that serve as “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” (Sims Bishop, 1990)

 In No More Reading for Junk: Best Practices for Motivating Readers Barbara Marinak and Linda Gambrell make it clear that “if we want students to be motivated readers, we must create a classroom context that is text-rich and celebrates the joy and value of reading.” Students need easy access to an engaging, inclusive, and representative classroom library as well as a variety of print and non-print texts.

Daily time dedicated to independent reading

 NCTE’s Statement on Independent Reading (2019) makes a clear connection between volume of reading and student achievement: “Independent reading leads to an increased volume of reading. The more one reads, the better one reads. The more one reads, the more knowledge of words and language one acquires. The more one reads, the more fluent one becomes as a reader. The more one reads, the easier it becomes to sustain the mental effort necessary to comprehend complex texts. The more one reads, the more one learns about the people and happenings of our world. This increased volume of reading is essential” (Allington, 2014).

 Choice in what they read

 When a group of teachers co-authored The Top Five Reasons We Love Giving Students Choice in Reading to describe how their classrooms were transformed by a commitment to self-selected independent reading, they shared five (plus one bonus) benefits they experienced:

  • choice empowers students,
  • valuing student choices values the student,
  • choice leads to real and meaningful conversations,
  • choice helps establish and deepen relationships,
  • choice leads to independence, and
  • choice changes the reading life of the teacher.

Opportunities to be social about their reading

 Gay Ivey makes the connection between engaged reading and social interaction in The Social Side of Engaged Reading for Young Adolescents. Engaged readers are “motivated to read, strategic in their approaches to comprehending what they read, knowledgeable in their construction of meaning from text, and socially interactive when reading (Guthrie et al.).” Ivey continues, “it is this last part, the social dimension, that we found in our own work to be more substantial than previous research has led us to believe, particularly for young adolescent readers…Reading for these students was far from a solo act. They talked in and out of school, to friends, to peers outside of their social groups, teachers, and family members. They talked during ‘silent’ reading times, at lunch, in math class, on the bus, and via text message and Facebook. In fact, they talked so much that students began to consider it normal, everyday conversation.”

A teacher who reads

 In Passionate Readers: The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child Pernille Ripp encourages teachers to reflect on who they are as readers and share their reading identity with their students: “When we decide to bring our own identity as readers into our learning communities, conversations about what it means to be a reader occur naturally if we allow them to. These become examples for our students of what adult reading role models look like and should inspire further conversations as their own reading lives take shape.”

The Goldilocks Rule

 The Goldilocks Rule states that “humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.”

“The human brain loves a challenge, but only if it is within an optimal zone of difficulty.”

“Once a habit has been established, however, it’s important to continue to advance in small ways. These little improvements and new challenges keep you engaged. And if you hit the Goldilocks Zone just right, you can achieve a flow state.”

“Improvement requires a delicate balance. You need to regularly search for challenges that push you to your edge while continuing to make enough progress to stay motivated.”

So, the question is, how we do motivate our students to develop and sustain lifelong reading habits?

In No More Reading for Junk, Marinak and Gambrell explain the relationship between reading motivation and achievement: “We believe that motivation is central to reading development, and if students are not motivated to read, they will never reach their full literacy potential. It is simply not enough to teach our students to read; we want them to leave our classrooms with the intrinsic motivation to read for pleasure and for information and to read widely and deeply across a wide array of genres.”

Jeffrey D. Wilhelm and Michael W. Smith wrote The Power of Pleasure Reading: What We can Learn from the Secret Reading Lives of Teens to share the findings from their study of teen readers. They found that participants reported experiencing “the pleasure of work” or accomplishment as a result of their reading. Wilhelm and Smith report that “when given choice, kids tend to read what they need. Our informants gravitated toward books that challenged them both to be better readers and to be better or more whole people, books that assisted them to outgrow themselves, that helped them consider new perspectives and see new possibilities in themselves and the world, and helped them to do functional work, and to socialize and to identify themselves.” In other words, when given the freedom to choose their own reading materials, students challenged themselves as readers.

Gay Ivey and Peter H. Johnston share similar findings in their article Engagement with Young Adult Literature: Outcomes and Processes. Students who were given time for self-selected independent reading reported increased agency: “Students had a substantially stronger sense that they could have an effect on things: their reading, social relationships, emotions, and life narratives.”

More reading increases students’ skills and confidence, leading to more reading.

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