April 12, 2024

Everything I Know about Reading Instruction I Learned from Oprah Winfrey

Today at 3, Oprah practices her schwa sound before an amazed audience!

Appeared in May 2000 issue of Curriculum Administrator Magazine

Contemporary language wars polarize and demonize advocates of phonics instruction and whole language while panic about childhood literacy sweep the land. Entire textbook series are being discarded and teachers feel increasingly confused and disempowered by swings in curriculum policy. One voice of calm and reason stands out in these turbulent times — Oprah Winfrey.

Since beginning Oprah’s Book Club in 1996, Oprah Winfrey has revolutionized book publishing and reenergized fiction reading in America. Viewers from all walks of life have been exposed to a wide variety of authors and voices because of the program. Oprah’s enthusiasm for a book can make it rocket up the bestseller list. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon had sold 360,000 copies between 1987 and October 1996. The publisher rushed 730,000 additional copies into print upon news the book was being recommended by Oprah’s Book Club. An “Oprah author” can go from obscurity to celebrity faster than you can say, “Harry Potter.”

Let’s explore some lessons from Oprah that educators might use to enhance student literacy and instill a love of reading.

A Love of books
Oprah shares her love of books with her audience. She talks excitedly about books she read over the weekend or while on vacation. That enthusiasm is infectious.

Modeling reading
It is quite apparent to her viewers that Oprah reads all of the time. Students should see their teachers read for pleasure and information.

You can read for pleasure and more
Oprah reminds us by example that reading is a pleasurable pursuit, but some of her book choices are not all fun. Some books make us feel, think, laugh, cry and act.

Reading is social
After you read a book you want to talk about it with friends. Kids should be encouraged to do so in the classroom in the hope that this sharing of books will take place outside of the classroom as well. Let’s trade book reports only read by the teacher for social rituals in which kids discuss books recommended by the teacher and their peers. Teachers should encourage the organization of kid-led book clubs. The Internet offers opportunities to discuss books with even larger groups of readers.

Books taste better with food
If you think about most important business meetings, social events and special occasions are accompanied by food. Oprah’s book of the month is always discussed over a meal. Bookstores have figured out that cappucino helps sell books. Somehow school has forgotten a custom that has endured for thousands of years.

The book selections are immune to fads and trends
While kids should be encouraged to read currently popular books and introduce them to the class it is the teacher’s challenge to expose kids to more timeless texts. Oprah makes books popular via the Book Club, but does not jump on blockbuster bandwagons.

Use the power of new technology to support older technology
One of the lessons of Oprah’s Book Club is that television may be used to enhance the reading of books. Television’s ubiquity and power may be used to improve all sorts of other media forms. The World Wide Web can be used in all sorts of ways to inspire reading and for kids to publish their own writing.

Oprah’s Book Club demonstrates that readability, a formula for determining the level of difficulty in reading a text, is no match for motivation. Afterall, hundreds of thousands of viewers have tackled some very difficult books upon Oprah’s recommendation. Great teachers know that kids of various reading abilities can read all sorts of books if inspired to do so.

Engage the author
Part of the appeal of Oprah’s Book Club is the discussion with the book’s author after viewers have had a month to read the book. Kids can certainly write to authors, email them, visit publisher web sites and create their own web-based tributes. Local authors may be invited to talk about their work or the writing process. Best of all, classrooms can lead book club events for kids who have read the writing of their classmates.

Don’t forget nonfiction
Like other talkshows, Oprah provides a frequent vehicle for nonfiction authors to discuss their work as well. Kids should be encouraged to read all sorts of materials from comic books to Shakespeare.

Buy paperbacks
Oprah’s selections are immediately available in convenient and affordable softcover form. Schools should be much more concerned with kids having lots of books to love than whether the book will physically endure decades of use.

Marketing and accessibility
Oprah’s Book Club has ensured that her sometimes unconventional recommendations are available for purchase at nontraditional outlets like Starbucks and discount superstores. Classrooms should be stocked full of all sorts of books and school libraries should be as desirable a destination as the local bookstore. Ask yourself, what lessons might I learn from the local bookstore where kids and adults go for pleasure as often as to shop?