Question: I have some readers who pick the same book or types of books again and again. Shouldn’t I be pushing them toward more variety?
Juan is on a mission to know as much as he can about outer space. Day after day in his second-grade classroom, he immerses himself in books about space. Every single informational book he’s read in the past month has been about space. When he reads fiction, he prefers books that take place in space. If he can’t find a new book about space, he chooses to reread one he already spent time with. When Juan’s teacher suggests it may be time to move to a different topic, encouraging him instead to try out an ocean book or something from the sports bin, his interest in reading takes an immediate dive. It seems as though if Juan can’t be reading books about outer space, he’s not that interested in reading at all.
Sometimes students fall so in love with a topic, a series, an author, or a genre that it seems nothing else will do for them as readers. As teachers who know the importance variety can play in developing well-rounded readers, it’s not uncommon that we try to push students in another direction and in doing so, unintentionally create disengagement.
We worry less about about what many perceive as a reading rut – reading the same topic, book type, or title over and over again – and more about the level of engagement we see in a reader. Because Juan is so intentional and committed to his book choices, we don’t think he’s really in a rut. We think of a rut as a place we get stuck because we don’t know a better option. Students in true ruts look very different. They are students who aren’t truly engaged or excited about their reading. They are simply choosing the same types of texts over and over because they haven’t found or don’t know how to find a better or different option. These students will definitely benefit from our use of conferring time to support book choice.
Juan, on the other hand, loves what he’s reading and shows true engagement day after day. So we’d tread very lightly here; weighing the importance of variety with the real risk of disengagement. If we have to choose between a reader obsessed and a reader disconnected, we know which way we’ll go every time. In Juan we don’t necessarily see a book choice problem. Instead we see intense self-determination and passion.
Rather than focusing on book choice at all, we see an opportunity to focus our conferring efforts in a different direction altogether. In our book, To Know and Nurture a Reader: Conferring with Confidence and Joy, we offer teachers a framework for thinking systematically about which direction we might focus on within a reading conference. To help sort out what we observe of our readers we offer four essential questions to consider. The answer to each question helps us to land on an intentional and important focus for the reading conference.
Book Choice: Is the reader consistently finding texts that lead to high levels of engagement? Engagement is key.
When we think about Juan, the answer to this essential question is definitely YES. With books that he cares about, the stage is set to dig deeper, and we would typically move to confer in a different direction. Our mantra when it comes to book choice: Engagement first. Variety later. When you’ve got engagement, you’ve got all sorts of possibilities. But, on the other hand, if the student hasn’t found texts that are working to hold their engagement, book choice is likely the place to dig in.
Healthy Habits: Is the reader making intentional decisions that result in lots of time spent reading both in and out of school?
As we reflect on the healthy habits question in light of Jaun’s deep exploration of space, again we come up with a resounding YES! Juan is making intentional choices and plans. He is actively reading at school and at home, working to find more and more texts to feed his passion. In fact, we think Juan’s reading habits could even be highlighted for other students, as an example of how following a passion is a way to keep yourself reading more and more.
“Students, you may have noticed that Juan has been reading books about space for many weeks, now. Look at all of these different kinds of books he’s read all about the same topic. Sometimes we help ourselves grow as readers by reading lots of different kinds of texts. That’s called variety. But, sometimes, rather than reading lots of different kinds of texts, we help ourselves grow by deciding to go deep within one topic, instead.. That’s what Juan is doing. He’s going deeper within one topic that he cares deeply about. Juan knows so much about space, yet he’t still interested in thinking, talking, reading and writing more about it. Any of you could do the same thing. You could help yourself keep reading and growing by choosing a topic you love and reading many, many books on that same topic. ”
On the other hand, if we have students for whom we’re genuinely worry that reading growth is being affected up by lack of variety in the reading diet, we know we’ll have much more positive outcomes if we can empower the student as a partner. We might say something like, “Let’s work together to make a plan that will help you try out some new types of texts, while still getting plenty of time with Captain Underpants. Do you have any ideas about how we might tackle this?” This type of an invitation nudges the reader toward action, but leaves room for him or her to shape the plan, rather than simply telling them what they need to do.
Strategic Process: What strategic actions is the reading taking to solve problems and make meaning of the text?
To become increasingly strategic in their problem solving and meaning making students need texts they are motivated to read. So, anytime a student is pursuing a high interest topic or text, we can capitalize on the high engagement to affirm and extend the student’s range of strategic actions. For example, when Juan reads his books about space, his teacher notices he does so with increasingly eloquent expression and intonation. Noticing and affirming fluency in these texts will help Juan transfer this same attention to meaning into future texts. Juan’s interest in the space has also naturally motivated him to tackle texts with more complex challenges, creating prime opportunities for new learning. For instance, suddenly Juan is hungry for more strategies for tackling the big long words in some of his space books. Using the topic of space as a springboard, Juan’s teacher has endless opportunities to teach problem solving and meaning making strategies, that will transfer to any text or topic.
Authentic Response: How is the reader using reflection, connection, or action in strategic ways?
This question helps us to think about the ways we might support readers strengthening the reading experience by selecting meaningful and authentic ways of responding as a result of reading. We don’t want to underestimate the rich possibilities that exist for thinking, conversation, writing, and action when students go deep within a topic or text. Recently, one of Christina’s students decided to read Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets for the second time. When Christina sat down to confer, inviting him to reflect on his choice to reread, he was noticing how much he felt he missed during his first reading. Had Christina not provided space for a reread, he would have missed out the details, deeper understandings, and evolving thinking that can only be experienced on a subsequent read of the same book. So, just imagine the rich thinking going on with Juan as he synthesizes all of that understanding and learning about space exploration. Juan’s teacher has the opportunity to explore with Juan what all this research on space might be leading up to for him. How will he engage in reflection, connection, or action? Maybe deeper thinking about how space exploration impacts us? Book talks to share with other readers? Writing an all-about book focusing on space exploration? Letters to NASA? The possibilities are truly endless, and we’re pretty sure Juan will be excited to consider what seems right for him.
Many times what might look like a rut is simply a stage that a student will naturally move through when they’ve saturated their curiosity or obsession. Our guess is that Juan won’t still be reading solely about space a year from now. But who knows? Maybe what’s going on with Juan is much more than a phase. Maybe Juan has already discovered a passion so intense and so true that it will drive the trajectory of his lifetime.
We never know where our influence ends. . .
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 29, 2018, How might I support English language learners through conferring, especially those who with very limited English?
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.