It is a scene that too often plays out in elementary schools.
John leaves the library with a book he selected himself, one on crocodiles and alligators. As he sees his teacher, he says excitedly, “Look Mrs. Mills, I have a book on alligators!” She glances at the book, takes it from his hands, and looks through it. “I don’t know, John, this seems like it’s going to be a bit hard for you. I want you to return it and get one that is easier for you to read.” John’s face falls as he takes the book back and heads to the library.
Helping children find a book that is right for them is a tricky proposition. John, for example, was excited about his book, and this excitement might have motivated him to read it whether it was “too hard” for him or not. Mrs. Mills, on the other hand, was concerned about the book’s difficulty level, because she wanted John to be a successful independent reader. But while she may have had the best intentions, this teacher doused some of the fire and excitement John had about reading, and perhaps books in general.
To become proficient and passionate readers, children need to engage in many different types of reading. One type is guided reading with a teacher. This begins with assessment of the child’s reading abilities, often considered to be the instructional level of reading. Then the teacher supplies a leveled text that is not too easy and not too difficult for the child, with controlled vocabulary that allows him or her to easily read about three-fourths of the words. The teacher then supplies the support needed for the child to be successful in reading the text, helping him or her build skills that produce accurate, fluent, and meaning-making reading. Working directly with a teacher, students can be assessed immediately on their ability to comprehend the text and receive help, if needed, in the form of mini-lessons or a change of text.
Another type of student reading is self-selected reading. In its truest form, this involves the student’s choosing, with little or no intervention from adults, his or her own reading material. The texts can be chosen from a home, class, school, or public-library collection, with selections based on the student’s interests and purpose for reading. If a boy is interested in car racing and recently watched a race on TV with his family, for example, he might pick a book on Dale Earnhardt when he visits the library. Often, students will browse the books to decide if the pictures are interesting, if the text is overwhelming or just right, and whether the book piques their overall interest.
These self-selected books are just as important to children’s learning to read as guided or leveled reading. Through self-selected reading, students gain both a sense of independence and greater self-confidence. When their choices are validated—when the book is interesting and they enjoy it—they learn that they can make good decisions on their own. What’s more, knowing that they can make wise reading choices can increase their motivation, a key component of independent reading. When a child is motivated to read a book, for whatever reason, this often compensates for any reading difficulties.
Through self-selected reading, students gain both a sense of independence and greater self-confidence.
Not only can motivation help a reader decipher a challenging text, but it can also increase engagement with the text. And this is one of the most difficult tasks for struggling readers to master: becoming engaged in what they are reading. When a child reads more, he or she becomes a more able reader. So our goal must be to help children find texts that will motivate them to read and keep them engaged, so that they will in turn read more.
It is a continuous circle: If children are motivated to read, they will spend more time reading and become more engaged in reading, which then motivates them to read more. Motivation is vital.
How do we help struggling readers with their motivation and self-selection of reading materials? Let’s return to John and his alligator book. If the book was too hard for him, adults could have helped him read it, offered to read it to him, or arranged for someone else to read it with him. One of the easiest things to do is to model good reading and read aloud to the child. Reading aloud is especially important for children in the years before entering school. When an adult reads aloud, a child hears the correct intonation and phrasing, and is exposed to vocabulary that may be difficult to read alone. The website ReadWriteThink.org provides a podcast of parents giving suggestions for quality picture-book read-alouds.
Adults also can show children that reading is important by spending some of their own free time in independent reading. This isn’t easy, with today’s busy schedules, but when the TV is turned off and others are reading, a child learns that reading is valued. Adults likewise can make sure that children’s schedules have enough downtime, when reading can be a selected activity. Reading with a child and listening to him or her read can give that child needed encouragement and assistance.
Providing opportunities to experience books in varied settings can build motivation. This might mean going to a local story time at a library or bookstore, or scheduling visits to the library to check out books. Giving books as gifts can also encourage struggling readers. The International Literacy Association provides excellent book lists with suggestions for readers at all levels and ages.
Helping students become thoughtful and independent readers is one of schools’ and society’s biggest challenges. One strategy that might help is called the “five finger” or “Goldilocks” strategy. This simple approach helps the child independently determine whether a book is too difficult, or “just right.” The student opens a book, and reads one or two pages. As the child reaches an unfamiliar word, he or she holds up a finger. If four or five fingers are up at the end of the selection, the book may be too difficult. If there are only two to three fingers up, the book is likely to be a good fit.
Once children learn this strategy, they can use it any time they are seeking a book to read. With luck, it will help them find texts that engage their imagination and feed a desire to become lifelong independent readers.
A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2015 edition of Education Week as Reading by Choice: Let Students Choose the Books to Tackle