Help! My students want to choose books I’m afraid are too hard!

BlogFB Design Space (2)
Help! My students want to choose books I’m afraid are too hard!

As Carmen looks around her third-grade classroom, she sees her peers reading chapter books like Clementine, The One and Only Ivan, The Spiderwick Chronicles, and even Harry Potter. She mentioned to her teacher, Mr. Chen, that everyone’s books seem “so fat and brainy” and the books she’s reading look like “baby books.”  Most of her peer’s current reads exceed 100, 200, and even 300 pages. Carmen longs to read the same books as her friends. In Carmen’s opinion, most of the classroom library books at her current “level” look like they’re for much younger kids. Mr. Chen is at a loss. He knows that if Carmen is to grow as a reader, she’ll have to spend lots of time with books she can actually read and comprehend. But, Carmen is so determined to read what her friends are reading. Like many kids in her position, she just wants to fit in.

The last message we want to give readers is, “You can’t read this book. It’s too hard for you.” So, what can teachers like Mr. Chen do to help readers like Carmen find books they love, can read, and feel proud to hold in their hands? 

  • Start with conferring. Possibly the most important thing we can do for these readers is to regularly show up as empathic and committed partners. Rather than take a book out of their hands, we take a more gentle approach. We ask, “How’s it going?”  We listen with our ears and with our hearts. We ask, “Would you describe this book as relaxed reading, stretch reading, or somewhere in between?”  When readers are determined to hang onto a challenging text, we offering a hand up with new strategies for tackling more complex text, like reading a few pages at time and then switching to something more relaxed. When readers are fatigued or frustrated we offer new possibilities in the form of titles, authors, series, and topics. And we always we keep searching for ways to somehow give striving readers the access to the out of reach texts they so desperately want to be reading. 
  • Choose read-aloud texts strategically. The read aloud provides every reader access to rich and wonderful texts at and above grade level.  And, on the other hand, the read aloud is also the stage on which a teacher can”bless” books of all types, from poetry, to picture books, to first in a series books that might be just within reach for striving readers. By making sure that our read aloud texts are readily available to students after we’ve read them, students like Carmen will often pick them up, choosing to reread them, because suddenly, the first read by the teacher serves as a scaffold to success with independent reading.
  • Make use of audiobooks. Audiobooks can be a lifesaver for students like Carmen, and in the digital age, they are accessible and manageable. With access to an audiobook, Percy Jackson and texts that may seem unaccessible are suddenly a viable option. Audiobooks can also be a powerful tool when it comes to helping striving readers participate in book clubs.  In fact, earlier this week, one of Christina’s fifth graders told her that listening to the audio version of Savvy by Ingrid Law is a “total game changer” for the way he can talk and contribute in his fantasy book club. We recommend checking out Epic and TumbleBooks for some great audio book options to get you started.
  •  Create authentic reasons to spend time with easier texts. One simple but powerful strategy for students like Carmen can be to pair them with reading buddies in the younger grades and charge them with finding books to read aloud to these younger students. Whether it’s a few select students or the entire class, with a kindergarten reading buddy to prepare for, there’s suddenly good reason to have Pete the Cat, Elephant and Piggie, and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie in your book box. And as students prepare to read for younger students, they have an authentic purpose to read and reread these texts with purpose and success.   
  • Reconsider the offerings in the classroom library. When kids resist the books we offer, there is often a valid reason. Clifford the Big Red Dog is a likely path to humiliation for a struggling fourth-grade reader who just wants to fit in. So make sure the library is stocked with both readable and age-appropriate choices. For older readers not yet reading at grade level, we offer four of our favorite options including:
    • Novels in verse: These are novels that use narrative poetry (verse) to tell the story, rather than traditional prose. Because of the poetry format, there’s lots of white space on each page, which can make pages appear less intimidating to reluctant readers and can help readers feel a sense of progress across a text more easily than word-filled pages might. Some timeless examples we love include Love That Dog (2001) and Hate That Cat (2010) by Sharon Creech, Gone Fishing by Tamera Will Wissinger (2015), and Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (2013).
    • Graphic novels: In children’s literature today, graphic novels abound! It’s important to know they aren’t just easy reading, however. Graphic novels contain rich storylines and offer lots of opportunity for deep thinking but may seem less intimidating to some of our readers. In addition, the images and matching text and dialogue will help your readers stretch themselves to better understand books that are text alone. Examples of some of our favorites include the Babymouse series by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, the Bone series by Jeff Smith, the Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey, and Sisters (2013) and Smile (2010) by Raina Telgemeier.
    • Highly visual informational texts: Look for high-interest texts with lots of photographs, diagrams, and other visual features. When in doubt, ask your students what topics they want to explore. National Geographic and Capstone Press are two of our favorite publishers of beautifully designed, highly visual informational texts for readers in all stages of development.
    • Compelling Series: Shorter chapter books in a series keep readers moving along with their favorite characters from one text to the next, developing the skills and stamina for longer more complex texts along the way. Scholastic has a wonderful line of chapter series books called Branches that range a spectrum of young reader interests, and are designed specifically to help readers bridge into reading longer chapter books. Depending on the age and reading level of your students, you might also consider series like Ivy and Bean series by Annie Barrows, The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skene Catling (2006), and the I Survived series by Lauren Tarshis.
  • Equip students with language for reflecting on book choice. Simply telling students “their level” and pointing them in the direction of a corresponding basket or section of the library may seem like a quick and easy means of managing student book choice, but if we insist readers use levels as a primary means of selecting texts, we not only jeopardize the self-concept of readers like Carmen, but we prevent all readers from developing the book choice skills they’ll need in the real world, where books aren’t organized by level and we aren’t there to judge the suitability of a book.  If students are going to carry on as readers outside the walls Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 7.52.26 AMof school, they’ll need the skills to pick up any book and reflect on intersection of interest and challenge that book presents. By helping students learn to recognize their interest level and readability of a book along a continuum from relaxed reading to stretch reading, we empower students to be more reflective about the books they choose. We rely on the Book Choice Reflection Tool (To Know and Nurture a Reader: Conferring with Confidence and Joy), to help us tackle this work with students of all ages. But of course teaching students to navigate book choice is messy, long term work, requiring a healthy dose of patience and a thoughtful mix of whole group, small group, and individual support across the entire school year.  
  • Keep asking, “What next?” Because Carmen is struggling with book choice, everything else in the reading classroom is at risk, including healthy reading habits, strategic reading process, and authentic response.  A teacher committed to regular conferring can partner to help Carmen find great books that work right now, while also planning to help her develop skills that open up more opportunities in the future. Of course, all of our students need our conferring attention, yet for readers at risk of frustration and disengagement, conferring can be a critical lifeline. 

This post is part of the ongoing blog series, Tackling the Tricky Parts, dedicated to helping every teacher strengthen their conferring practice so every reader can thrive. Watch for our next series installment on April 22, 2018,  What can I do when students pick the same books over and over again?  To get every post in the series delivered directly to your inbox, you can use the FOLLOW box on the right hand side bar or this page.  We promise we won’t overwhelm you with junk or share your e-mail with anyone.

Past Tackling the Tricky Parts Blog Posts

April 1st: Tips to Help Students Develop the Independence They Need So You Can Confer

April 8th: How Do I Confer with a Student Who’s Reading a Book I Haven’t Read?

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 5.20.27 PM


If you want to learn more about developing a joyful conferring practice that really works, check out our book, To Know and Nurture a Reader, coming from Stenhouse in late spring 2018.

How do I Confer with a Student Who’s Reading a Book That I Haven’t Read?

BlogFB Design Space (5)Question: I haven’t read the book myself, so how will I be able to confer with a reader about it?

Sylvie’s fifth-grade students are voracious readers. On most days, at least one of her students brings a book into the classroom that is completely unfamiliar to her. Even though Sylvie has tried to keep up with her students’ book choices, she has found that it is just not possible to know every book that every child in her class is reading. She wants to confer with her students, but she isn’t sure how to talk with them when they are reading a book that is unfamiliar to her. 

Trying to read everything our students are reading is a noble goal, but it’s simply not realistic. In fact, if you have read every book your students have read, your students probably aren’t reading enough. There are just way too many great books in the world to limit the choices of our students to those we’ve read ourselves!  So, in this post, we offer some suggestions for how to engage in meaningful conversations with students, when they are reading something you have not read. 

  • Explore how the reader found his or her way to this book.  Finding one engaging text after another is what keeps a reading life vibrant and growing. So, anytime a student has found their way to a text that is unfamiliar to you, you are presented with the opportunity to explore their book finding process.  How did the reader find the book? What was it about this book that made them believe it would be a good-fit?  Whether we learn that a student got a recommendation from a friend on the bus, found the book on their cousin’s book shelf, or checked it out from the public library, an opportunity to affirm book finding strategies is an invaluable use of our time in the reading conference.  (To Know and Nurture a Reader also has an entire chapter dedicated to leveraging the conference to support student book choice.) 
  • Let students know when you’re unfamiliar with the book they are reading. A simple statement such as “This book is new to me. Tell me what you think I should know” can give a great deal of insight not only into the book itself but also into our students’ level of engagement and understanding.  We want our students to take the lead in a conference. Asking students to discuss a book that’s unfamiliar to us puts them in the perfect position to do just that. It empowers them to teach us. 
  • Remember this is a conversation, not a quiz. The conference is about the reader- not about the book. Whether you know the specifics of a book or not, your goal during the conference is not to quiz readers on specific details to judge their answers as right or wrong. Rather, we confer with the goal of helping ourselves better understand how a reader makes meaning, solves problems, and reflects on what they are reading, so that we can affirm and extend their efforts in strategic ways.  Our goal is to provide strategic feedback that can be used not only in this text, but in any similar situation or text in the future.
  • Use what you know about the genre.  Within each genre are some predictable ways that readers can learn to think and talk about texts.  For instance, consider what you know to be predictable about mysteries. Every mystery involves some type of mysterious event or crime. They also usually include a character who is doing the detective-like work of trying to solve the mystery. It likely includes victims, suspects, clues, and possible motives. Mysteries keep readers engaged because they keep them guessing, predicting, and moving forward in search of clues. Knowing the basic components of a genre, such as a mystery, positions a conferring teacher to better navigate the conference – not in book-specific ways – but in genre-focused ways. Questions like the ones listed below will not only give you glimpses into the reader’s understanding of this text, but into his or understanding of the genre itself, setting you up to affirm or extend their grasp of the genre in ways that can be applied to any other books within that genre they choose to read in the future.
    • What are you noticing about this mystery that is the same or different from other you’ve read?
    • Who are the characters, and what roles are they playing in the mystery?
    • What is the mystery in this particular text?
    • Have you discovered any clues so far?
    • What is your current thinking around the mystery? Has that thinking changed as you’ve read the book? If so, how?
    • What predictions have you made so far? Have any of your earlier predictions been ruled out?  If so, how?

This same kind of thinking can be applied to any genre. Think about an informational text.  What are some things you know to be true about informational texts that could help you engage in conversation with readers in genre-focused rather than text-specific ways? (i.e. What are your noticing about how the information is organized? Does this organization help you understand the content? What are the features that set this nonfiction book apart from other nonfiction books? What are some examples of learning that is new to you on this topic?) 

  • Keep a few powerful, open-ended questions in your toolkit. One of the most critical tools in the conferring teacher’s toolkit is an array of open-ended questions that can be used in varying combinations. Below we offer some of our favorites that can work with any book or reader.
    • What might be important for me to know about this particular book?
    • What are you thinking about as you read? Why do you say that?
    • What would you like to discuss in our conference today?
    • Does this book seem more like relaxed reading, stretch reading, or somewhere in between for you as a reader? What makes you say that? 
    • What has been challenging so far?  And, how have you helped yourself?  
    • What questions have come up as you read this book (part, chapter, etc.)?
    • What type of feelings is this book bringing up for you? Tell me more about that.
    • Has your thinking changed at all since starting this book? If so, how?
  • Encourage students to offer book talks or recommendations to other readers.
    Screen Shot 2018-04-05 at 8.36.45 AM
    Book recommendations can be verbal, written, digital, or even in pictures! We’ve learned about countless books over the years through student recommendations.

    If you are aren’t familiar with a text, it’s likely that the some of the other students in your class aren’t either. So, when a student is  highly engaged with a text that is unfamiliar to you, one powerful action might be to encourage the student to recommend the book to others.  You may want to ask students, “who else do you think needs to know about this book?  How might you let them know about it?  These questions make the reading process social and connected across the entire classroom community of readers.  Whether students make recommendations to partners, small groups, online, or using paper and pencil, making a book recommendation is one of the most authentic forms of reader response we know. (To Know and Nurture a Reader has an entire chapter dedicated to leveraging the conference to support authentic reader response.) 

  • Ask the student to read aloud while you listen in. One surefire way to get a small glimpse into the book your student is reading is to ask them to share a bit of the book with you by reading aloud. They might choose to read a little bit wherever they’ve left off, or you might ask them to page through and find a section that they think would be important to share with you. As you listen, you’ll be able to think about the child’s accuracy (possibly taking a mini-running record) and fluency with the text. Plus, you’ll be able to get a basic sampling of the reader’s comprehension, with questions like, How might you retell (or summarize) the part you just read? Tell me more about what’s happening here. Help me to understand how this connects to the rest of the story.
  • Keep pushing yourself to read books, series, authors, and genres that your
    Screen Shot 2018-03-28 at 10.45.48 AM
    This is a stack of what one of Christina’s fifth graders read in December and January- Christina has only read four of these titles herself.

    students already are or might like to be reading. One practical suggestion to help you keep growing in your knowledge of books is to read a sampling, a first in the series, or a single title by a popular author for starters. This will give you a foothold and can help you make recommendations to students. However, it’s just not possible or practical to think you’re going to read every book in and out of your classroom library. Rest assured, you are not alone. Not knowing every book your students are reading definitely is not a barrier to conferring.

Much of the art of conferring hinges on the art of conversation. The goal is not to grade their understanding of the book. The goal is to get students engaged in meaningful conversation that will reveal to you their strengths, strategies and readiness for next steps as readers, whether or not you know the specific book in their hands.


This post is part of the ongoing blog series, Tackling the Tricky Parts, dedicated to helping every teacher strengthen their conferring practice so every reader can thrive. Watch for our next series installment on April 15, 2018,  How might I use conferring to support students who are reading significantly below grade level?  To get every post in the series delivered directly to your inbox, you can use the FOLLOW box on the right hand side bar or this page.  We promise we won’t overwhelm you with junk or share your e-mail with anyone.

Past Tackling the Tricky Parts Blog Posts

April 1st: Tips to Help Students Develop the Independence They Need So You Can Confer

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 5.20.27 PM


If you want to learn more about developing a joyful conferring practice that really works, check out our book, To Know and Nurture a Reader, coming from Stenhouse in late spring 2018.


Tips to Help Students Develop the Independence They Need So You Can Confer

BlogFB Design Space (3)

Question: I want to regularly confer with every reader in my classroom. But, how can I respond to students who persistently seek my attention while I’m trying to confer with others?

Aaron, a second grade teacher, is working to establish both independent reading and conferring in his classroom. However, as soon as he starts to dig in with one student, he finds himself interrupted by other students who want his attention. Joey needs to go to the restroom; Ava has can’t find her book bag; Isaac keeps tattling on the kids around him. Aaron is beginning to wonder if  his kids just aren’t ready for this level of independence yet, or if maybe they need something “more structured” than independent reading to do while he confers.

Because conferring calls on us to be wholeheartedly present with just one student at a time, What will the other kids be doing? often comes up when we talk with teachers about conferring. Our answer is clear and simple: they’ll be reading self-selected texts. After all, conferring is our primary means of reflecting on what students are doing as they read independently, so we can find meaningful ways to cultivate thriving reading lives. In other words, conferring is something we do while students read independently, in order to understand, affirm, and extend how they read independently.

However, helping your students learn to carry on with engaged independence is not something that just happens overnight. This is tricky, ongoing work that takes clarity, patience, and persistence on your part. To get you started we offer a handful of strategies that will work with any age or stage of reading development. 

  • Let your students know what conferring is all about. Be honest and up front with your students. Let them know that you’ll be conferring with individual students and why. Kids need more than just rules. They need to understand the why or reason behind our expectations. “Every day while you read, I’ll be doing this thing called conferring. That means I’ll be having important conversations with individual readers. When it’s your turn, I’m sure you won’t want other students taking my attention away from your important work, so it’s important that you don’t interrupt when you see me conferring with other readers.”
  • Avoid reinforcing interruptions with attention. When another child comes tapping on your shoulder, use your teacher superpowers to stay calm and to carry on as though nothing has happened; if possible, avoid eye contact and verbal responses. This reinforces the critical idea that as you confer with one reader you are completely unavailable to others. You can let your students know in advance that this is what they can expect.
  • Consider a physical reminder. In the beginning, you may find it helpful to attach a physical reminder to your conferring clipboard or notebook that you can subtly point to without missing a beat in the conference. One of our favorite suggestions for this came from a teacher who using a Do Not Disturb sign from a recent hotel stay, taping it to the back of her clipboard and simply point to it with her finger when someone attempts to interrupt a conference.
  • Trust and encourage your students to make decisions without you. Sometimes we can actually perpetuate interruptions by insisting on a great deal of control in the classroom. For instance, if every student needs to check in personally before going to the restroom, every full bladder will mean a conferring interruption. How completely we are able to give our attention to the student next to us is directly related to how much we trust (and coach) the rest of the students to make decisions without us. So, one key to interruption-free conferring is to make sure your kids know you want them to solve problems for themselves. Of course, if there’s vomit, blood, or fire, you’ll want to know, but aside from true emergencies, your students need to know you trust and expect them to work things out for themselves. Clear, consistent messaging can help: “If someone is sick, someone is hurt, or someone is in danger come and get my attention right away. If it’s anything else, work it out for yourself or ask a friend to help you. I trust you to find good solutions for yourselves.”
  • Make a note and follow up. Hopefully, whenever you confer, you’ve got a clipboard, notebook, or digital note taking tool at your side. So the next time someone interrupts, just make a note. Jot the name of the student and the reason for the interruption, and plan a follow-up conference to learn more about what’s really getting in the way of engaged reading for that student.  Conferring is your path to individual problem solving and action planning.
  • Never underestimate the importance of book choice. Whenever we notice students who are persistently off track during independent reading, we immediately get curious about book choice.  What’s in that book box or what book is being read? What strategies is the student using to select texts? What texts have worked and not worked for them in the past? What support might we be able to offer to help them find more engaging and well-matched texts? We default to wondering about book choice because we know that book choice and engagement are inextricably linked. When students have books that they care about and want to read, sustained engagement is much more likely. But when the books in their hands don’t engage them, things can quickly start to fall apart for young readers. So helping all readers stay engaged for long stretches of time each day means ensuring they have the access, the strategies, and time to find books that are worthy of their attention.
  • Keep teaching toward independence.  Independent reading routines are established gradually, over time, with explicit modeling, practice, and feedback. Of course there are many possibilities for what might get in the way and some students will need more differentiated support than others. If persistent interruptions are coming from lots different students, consider additional whole-group instruction to support independence. If it’s more like 4-6 students that need  support, consider a series of small group lessons focused on strategies for book choice and/or independent problem solving. If the interruptions seem to be coming from just one or two students, these readers could likely benefit from a series of focused conferences. No matter what the group size, independence increases when we help students develop skills for problem solving on their own, find engaging texts, choosing appropriate reading spots, setting personal goals, and making daily plans for their reading.

We hope the suggestions we’ve offered give you some ideas for problem-solving in your own classroom. Interruptions are a common challenge, but certainly not an indication that conferring isn’t right for your classroom.  Hang in there. Trust your students. And most importantly, trust yourself to find your way.

Every child deserves a teacher committed to developing a thriving conferring practice.

This post is part of the ongoing blog series, Conferring: Tackling the Tricky Parts, dedicated to helping every teacher strengthen their conferring practice so every reader can thrive. Watch for our next series installment on April 8, 2018, I Haven’t Read the Book Myself, So How Will I Be Able to Confer with a Reader About It?  To get every post in the series delivered directly to your inbox, you can use the FOLLOW box on the right hand side bar or this page.  We promise we won’t overwhelm you with junk or share your e-mail with anyone.

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 5.20.27 PM

If you want to learn more about developing a joyful conferring practice that really works, check out our book, To Know and Nurture a Reader, coming from Stenhouse in late spring 2018.


Welcome from Kari & Christina

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 8.41.01 AMWelcome to our blog, To Know and Nurture a Reader! We’re so glad to have you join us.

A couple years ago, we began a writing journey together with the goal of supporting educators in creating a joyful conferring practice to support all of their readers. Fast forward to now, and we’re excited to say that our book, To Know and Nurture a Reader; Conferring with Confidence and Joy is available for preorder and will be in the hands of teachers in May.

As a complement to our book, we decided to launch this blog. To begin we offer a series of posts dedicated to supporting teachers as they tackle some of the predictable challenges of developing a thriving conferring practice.  Each blog post in the “Tackling the Tricky Parts Series” will focus on a common challenge we’ve encountered ourselves or that we’ve heard about in our work with teachers across the country. Each of the posts includes a question, a classroom scenario, and some ideas you might consider when tackling this challenge. The posts will fall into one of three categories:

  • Setting the Stage for Success
  • Meeting the Needs of Every Reader
  • Embracing the Messiness of Choice

But this isn’t a one way conversation.  We’d love to hear from you as well! What are the reasons you value conferring with readers? What do you find tricky or troublesome?  What works for you? What ideas do you have to share with other teachers that we haven’t thought of or included?  Please help keep the conversation alive by reaching out in the way that suits you best:


Here’s a preview of what you can look forward to in the coming weeks: 

Sunday, April 1st: Helping Students Develop Independence so You Can Confer

Sunday, April 8th: Conferring with Students Who Are Reading Books Unfamiliar to You

Sunday, April 15th: How might I use conferring to support students who are reading significantly below grade level?

Sunday, April 22nd: What can I do when students pick the same books over and over again?

Sunday, April 29th: How might I support English language learners through conferring, especially those with very limited English?

Sunday, May 6th: What do I do when a reader has trouble committing to a book?


We look forward to learning with you and hearing from you on this journey!

Kari & Christina