13 Must-Read Books for ELA Teachers

Kelly Gallagher
Kelly Gallagher
15 May
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Recently, I was asked: “What are five books you recommend that ELA teachers read?”  In an attempt to answer this question, I closed the door to my office, began pulling my favorite professional books off the shelves, and two hours later, I came to the conclusion that trying to narrow the list to a mere five books was an exercise in brain-numbing futility. Heck, I can name five books by Donald Graves alone that every teacher should read.

As I began perusing my old books, I kept running into titles that had profoundly changed my teaching practices—many of which I had not revisited in quite some time. Spending time with them again was like a reunion of sorts, a return to all these brilliant educators who have shaped my thinking as a teacher (and more importantly, shaped my students’ thinking). Some of these books are known by almost all teachers— Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle, or Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design, for example.  But for every one of these iconic books, I also found myself holding a title in my hand and thinking, “More teachers should know this book. This book is a must-read.”

Here (in alphabetical order) are thirteen books that I think every ELA teacher should read:

A Mathematician’s Lament by Paul Lockhart

It seems odd that I start this list with a book about the teaching of math, but the concerns addressed in this book apply to all content areas. Why are so many kids turned off to math? Lockhart argues that the current methods used to teach mathematics contribute greatly to the rise in math phobia.  Instead, Lockhart says, the teaching of math is an opportunity to foster creativity, a chance to develop our students’ imaginations. This book, if I may say so, is sort of a math version of Readicide.

How the Brain Learns by David Sousa

Sousa, an expert on brain development, presents a research-based rationale for why and when certain instructional strategies should be considered. Our brains are “novelty seekers,” and Sousa’s book is full of suggestions to make your classroom conducive to learning. Sousa opened my eyes to the effects past experiences have on learning, as well as to the importance motivation plays in the learning process.

How Writing Shapes Thinking by Judith Langer and Arthur Applebee

The act of writing is generative—it generates new thinking. If we want our students to deepen their thinking, they need to be doing a lot more writing. Not only does more writing equal better thinking, but, as Langer and Appleby note, different kinds of writing produce different kinds of thinking. For example, the kind of thinking generated when a student writes a summary is different than the kind of thinking that is generated when a student writes an analysis. Written in 1987, this book remains relevant.

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Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf

This is a good companion read to the Sousa book mentioned above. Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist, explains how the reading brain has developed in human beings over the past 5,000 years. Wolf explains the modern-day dangers of “word poverty,” and the implications word poverty has on our instruction.

Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn

Bribing students with points, stickers, and/or candy may work in the short run, but as Kohn argues, this type of motivation has deleterious effects.  “Do this and you’ll get that” actually harms students in the long run. Instead, Kohn makes the argument that teachers should work to strengthen intrinsic motivation in our students. This book is not just a valuable read for teachers—it has real value for parents of young children as well.

Response and Analysis by Robert Probst

At a time where the CCSS have devalued the importance of a reader’s prior knowledge and personal experiences, now is a good time to revisit this book.  In it, Probst outlines methods that lead to student-driven interpretation and analysis.  An important read for anyone who teaches literature.

Shades of Meaning by Donna Santman

This book illustrates how to teach readers the skills and strategies of comprehension and interpretation within the framework of a reading workshop. As Santman says, “I never teach my students about the text, but rather a strategy for reading the text.” A great book to help teach critical reading skills, and though it is written with middle school in mind, it is applicable to grades 4-12.

Strategic Reading by Jeff Wilhelm, Tanya Baker, and Julie Hackett

One of my favorite books on the teaching of reading. This book helped me to see the importance of making the reading process visible to my students, and like the Santman book, focuses on teaching students how to learn.

Teaching Argument Writing by George Hillocks

Giving students an argumentative prompt and having the entire class answer the same question is not really teaching argument. It is teaching students to answer your question. Hillock’s idea that meaningful argument arises from inquiry completely changed the way I approach this genre in my classroom, and given that argumentative writing is clearly the favorite CCSS discourse, this book should be widely read.

The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer

Good teaching involves much more than technique. It involves the heart, and in this book Palmer discusses the importance of staying passionate while working in a system that often works to harden teachers. A good book to return to when the hardships of teaching begin to weigh upon you.

The Literature Workshop by Sheridan Blau

I have probably learned more about reading from Sheridan Blau than from anyone else on the planet, and this book explores serious questions for teachers of reading: How do you get students to understand the importance of confusion? How do you motivate students to read the hard stuff? How should you deal with contradictory interpretations? A rich and thoughtful book.

With Rigor For All by Carol Jago

In an age where curriculum is being dumbed down, where difficult great books are being set aside in favor of lighter, trendier selections, Jago’s argument that great books should be taught to all kids is more important than ever. This edition is filled with specific strategies to get help your students find the greatness in books, but it’s Jago’s rationale behind the use of these strategies that I find compelling. (The section where she explains the reasons why great books matter should be required reading for any teacher or administrator overly focused on test prep).

Well Spoken by Erik Palmer

Because they are often not tested, listening and speaking have become the forgotten language arts. This book is filled with numerous ideas to elevate our students’ listening and speaking skills. I particularly like how Palmer’s approach to the writing of a speech mirrors the practices found in writing effective essays—that students must be first taught to identify the speaker’s purpose and the intended audience and work outward from there.

There stands my list of thirteen underappreciated books for ELA teachers—which raise new questions: “Which titles did I overlook? What books should be added to this list?” With these questions in mind, I now invite you to nominate other influential yet underappreciated books. Once the conversation on this posting runs its course, I will post a final list here on my website.

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