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 of 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
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.