Question: A few of the readers in my class just seem unable to stick with a book from beginning to end. What can I do to help them commit?
Daniel, a fourth grader, seems to have picked up and put down more books than almost any other student in his fourth-grade class this year. In fact, his teacher worries that he may not have finished a single book all year aside from the ones read in small groups or with book clubs. Daniel’s ability to read is on par with his grade-level peers, but he just doesn’t ever seem to find a book that he really wants to commit to. His teacher knows Daniel needs support with this, so she decides to investigate the issue a little further through conferring…
We all know those readers who have a difficult time committing to a book. In fact, as readers ourselves, we both know we’ve sometimes been in Daniel’s shoes; buying or borrowing a book we couldn’t wait to dive into, and then later finding our interest or attention waning. In reading as in poker, knowing when “to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em” is a very real challenge. Students like Daniel, who abandon book after book, are sending a definite signal for help. Offering a series of focused conferences can be a lifesaver for these students. Today, we offer some ideas about how you might structure a series of conferences to support readers like Daniel.
What’s really going on here? Our first suggestion for conferring with Daniel, or readers like him . . . tap into your own curiosity. After all, we confer to learn first and teach later. What we see on the surface isn’t usually the whole story with our readers, and the solution for chronic book hopping is definitely not a one size fits all issue. Readers abandon books for lots of different reasons. So, rather than jumping in with solutions right away, we recommend starting with a sense of wonder: ask, listen, and think. With readers like Daniel, there are two things that we are immediately curious about:
- Is book choice the culprit?
- If not, what else might be getting in the way?
Uncover past and present success. Some readers need extra support in finding their way to books that will draw them in and hold them from the first page to the last. So, when we confer with students like Daniel, we work double time to uncover any possible clue about types of books that might hook the reader in. We use our best detective work to take note of any clues that we can build on. We invite conversation using prompts like.
- How do you find books you’re excited to read?
- Tell me a little bit about the last book you read and enjoyed. What was it about that book that kept you interested?
- What are some topics you’re interested in? What are some things you like to do outside of school? Have you considered reading books about those topics or hobbies?
As Daniel’s teacher engages him in conversation, she might discover, for instance that one book he’s read and was definitely excited about was The Magic Finger. This is a highly visual, humorous, yet thoughtful short novel by Roald Dahl. Daniel might also reveal that he’s loving the guitar lessons he recently started taking. These bits of information can provide insight into text characteristics, genres and topics that might work for Daniel.
Offer a customized book stack. Once you’ve taken time to reflect on student interests and past successes, you might consider pulling together a customized stack of possibilities for a reader. We first heard about offering students a customized book stack from Donalyn Miller, and we’ve seen the power of this for readers again and again. Good things often happen when you approach a reader with, “These books made me think of you. Let me tell you a bit about a few of them and hopefully you can find something that piques your interest.” This strategy is a bit like an emergency care package for a reader in need, narrowing the field of endless possibilities, to a short list of thoughtfully matched titles, and giving you more information about what sparks or doesn’t spark a reader’s interest.
For example, Daniel’s teacher might came back the next day, with a book stack for Daniel, saying something like, “These books made me think of you. There’s a mix of humorous books like The Magic Finger, some graphic novels with great images and captivating storylines, and a few books about musicians just like you. Take your time browsing through them to see if one or more may interest you. I’m going to check back with you later on to see what you find.”
Buddy up. As adult readers, we love finding “reading soulmates” who can become ongoing sources of book recommendations. One way to keep readers engaged is to help them develop strategies and networks for seeking out and giving book recommendations. Peer recommendations can be magical when it comes to book finding, often carrying more clout than those that come from the teacher!
One way a teacher might help a student like Daniel is to identify other readers that might be able to offer recommendations. A conference can be used to help him think about and name a few friends who might become a source of good book recommendations. Once some readers with similar interests are identified, guiding the student to come up with possible questions to ask the friend can be helpful. These questions can then be left on a sticky note or bookmark as a tool to be used over time.
Look for patterns. Sometimes students can have the most carefully selected texts in their hands, and yet things still don’t work out because the need for support goes beyond book choice. If you suspect this is the case, it’s time to put your detective hat back on and invite the student to do the same, working together to uncover patterns and causes of disengagement. In fact, you might say something like, “Recently, it seems you start off really excited about a book, but then lose interest. Sometimes readers decide they are going to spy on themselves, or study their own habits, to better understand a problem they’re having. Does that sound like something you’d be interested in working together to do?” To guide this exploration of the reasons a student is abandoning books, we offer a few possible options you might propose to a student:
- Keep a list of abandoned books. This can be a simple list on sheet of notebook paper or something more structured, like a table with space to record date started, date and page abandoned, possible reasons for deciding to stop. Some teachers even have student jot a few notes about why the chose the book to begin with.
- Mark the spot. Show the student how to use a sticky note to mark the spot where they give up on a book. Here, they can jot down what was in their mind at the moment they decided the book was not longer working for them. Ask them to hold onto the book and the note until your next conference, so that you can rewind the decision together, gleaning whatever nuggets of insight possible.
Chronic book hopping is a common issue, especially with readers in the intermediate grades. Yet, it can also be quite complex to overcome. And although the surface symptoms might look the same from reader to reader, the reasons and solutions span a wide continuum, far beyond the scope of a single blog post. We’re hopeful for Daniel because he has a teacher who is curious, compassionate, and committed to thoughtful and frequent conferring. Our hope for all readers is that they have a teacher who values conferring as a way to work through whatever it is that stands between them and a thriving reading life.
Conferring allows us to know and nurture readers, one day, one book, one thoughtful conversation at a time. This we believe.
This is the final post in our blog series, Tackling the Tricky Parts, dedicated to helping every teacher strengthen their conferring practice so every reader can thrive. Past posts in the Tackling the Tricky Parts Series:
Next week, we kick off a new blog series: Ten Reasons We Confer
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 Publishers, June 2018.