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Teaching Opinion

High-Interest Books & Giving Students Time to Read & Talk About Them in School

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 26, 2020 11 min read
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(This is the final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What books have resonated most with your students, and why do you think that has been the case?

In Part One, Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez, Sarah Said, Jennifer Orr, and Tatiana Esteban share their experiences. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Sarah, Jennifer, and Sarah on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Mary Ann Scheuer, ReLeah Cossett Lent, Maria Walther, and Nancy Boyles contributed their commentaries.

Today, Rita Platt, Susanne Marcus, and Keisha Rembert “wrap up” the series.

Book recommendations

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a national-board-certified teacher and a proud #EduDork! Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergartner to graduate student. She is currently the principal of St. Croix Falls and Dresser Elementary Schools in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, and writes for MiddleWeb:

“Books are my life!” I recently heard this comment from a 1st grader who was thrilled to finally be able to read books to herself. Her comment filled me with joy. I love to read and believe that nurturing readers is a gift we give them. Moreover, because research shows that people who read tend to be more empathetic than those who don’t, it is a gift we give to society as a whole.

Over the years, I’ve worked with readers of all ages and have found some books to consistently resonate. Two things stand out as common among them. One, students like books they can read (don’t throw out that leveled library yet!) Two, students tend to like books better when they have time to both read and talk about them in school.

When I was a librarian, we had a saying: Right book. Right reader. Right time. The idea behind it is that our most important job is to help students find books that resonate with them. That is even more important when working with students who have been identified as reading below grade level or who have self-identified as not being “good” at reading or not liking to read. I am going to focus my response on those readers because they are very near and dear to my heart.

Below are perennial favorites of the kiddos I’ve served from 1st grade through high school. Note that they are all fiction, but there are many equally well-loved nonfiction books that I am happy to share, just ask!

Kindergarten and 1st grade readers love Elephant & Piggie books by Mo Willems. They are cute, laugh-out-loud funny, and they have simple text in the form of back and forth conversations. They also love Tedd Arnold’s Fly Guy and the Hot Wheels Beginning Reader Series.

First and 2nd grade readers are excited to start reading “chapter books” but don’t always have the skills or stamina to do so. There are many beginning chapter books that make my students crazy for reading. Hey Jack! and Billie B. Brown by Sally Rippin, The Owl Diaries by Rebecca Elliot, Dollar $tore Danny by Johnathan Rand, and The Bad Guys by Aaron Blabey fit the bill for many. Baby Mouse graphic novels by Jennifer L. Holm also grab my readers and hold them.

Third and 4th graders have been reading the My Weird School Series By Dan Gutman. They follow A.J. and friends as they meet the weirdest teachers in the world. These books are so funny that my own children once asked me to only read them during the day so I didn’t wake them up laughing! They also enjoy the I Survived Series by Lauren Tarshis comprised of gripping short historical-fiction reads. Middle-grade-aged characters survive everything from Hurricane Katrina to the Nazi Invasion to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and more. The Sports Series by Jake Maddox flies off of the library shelves with truly incredible stories about every sport you can imagine. The books have both male and female protagonists and are highly engaging.

Fifth and 6th grade readers get hooked on the “if you liked Diary of a Wimpy Kid you should try...” books. Clueless McGee by Jeff Mack, Timmy Failure by Stephan Pastis, Dork Diaries by Rachel Renée Russell (this one has a female protagonist), Max Crumbly by Rachel Renée Russell, The Last Kids on Earth by Max Braillier, and Big Nate by Lincoln Peirce They are hilarious, full of cartoons, and have middle-school-aged characters.

Junior high and high school students love many of the books shared above. But, remember, I am focusing this list of texts that resonate on students who either are below-grade-level readers or who claim to not like to read. For those students, the Townsend Press Bluford High Series can be a revelation. The books are inexpensive (~$2 each) and feature diverse characters in real-life situations. I’ve seen more reluctant readers finish a Bluford as their first novel than any other book. Also popular are books written in verse. AdLit offers a fabulous resource list here.

Making personal connections

Susanne Marcus is an ESL educator with over 30 years experience in the K-12 setting. A two-term past president of NYS TESOL, Marcus has presented numerous workshops at professional conferences. Recently retired from the Great Neck public schools, Marcus currently teaches TESOL graduate courses in New York City and Long Island. She is an ELT trainer for NYSUT, presenting TESOL seminars for teachers. Marcus is the recipient of the NYS TESOL 2014 Outstanding Professional Award:

In my experience teaching secondary ESL students of all language backgrounds, proficiency and L1 literacy levels, there are a few books that stand out as ones that students have made very personal connections to. We know that when a personal connection is made, learning and personal growth are more likely to occur. Four of my most favorites are:

Sarah, Plain & Tall by Patricia MacLachlan (Newberry Award winner)

Journey of the Sparrows by Fran Leeper Bus

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

The Arrival by Shaun Tan (wordless picture book)

Sarah, Plain and Tall is a classic story, often read in 2nd through 4th grades. A widower with two young children in Kansas in the 1880s places a newspaper ad for a wife, and Sarah, a single woman from Maine, answers his ad. The book is full of descriptive vocabulary of the landscape of Kansas and Maine, but what appeals to my students and me most are the themes of change, family, loss of loved ones, loss of one’s mother, marrying someone you don’t know, abandonment, and of course, traveling and settling in a new place you must call home.

For many of my ESL classes, I read aloud to them as they read silently. We view films of the Midwest today and in the 1800s .... we study the vast geographical differences of regions in the U.S.A. as well as regional dialects of English. There is so much about the power of memory in healing one’s loss in this story that it is immediately relevant to many of my ESL students’ lives. We compare/contrast life in the 1880s to life in present day U.S.A. as well as of traditional cultures to contemporary cultures. Reading about fictional American characters (from places unknown to students) frees them to speak openly about similar challenges or loss they’ve had to face. It is safer to discuss emotional issues related to fictional characters rather than issues related to one’s personal life.

While many of the teaching activities/projects available with this book are not developed for ESL students in mind, they are easily adaptable for ELLs of all ages. So many writing activities can be created from this book, and it wonderfully lends itself to a general overview of the regions of the U.S.A. Depending on the edition, the book’s cover does not present as a children’s book so older students are not offended by carrying it around. Another bonus is that the book is widely available as a recorded text, and it is short enough to read in less than half a semester.

There is a film adaptation made of the story, screenplay written by MacLachan herself, and I have used excerpts after we read a bit. Then, we often write reflections on if the film character matches our own character images in our heads. For those students really intrigued by the story, there are four sequels that bring the reader into the family’s life, as they grow up after Sarah’s arrival in Kansas.

The Arrival by Shaun Tan is a newer book I’ve used successfully with beginners and SIFE (Students with Interrupted Formal Education) ELLs. It is full of neutral-colored images, shadows, and muted tones, perhaps of a time long ago, even with elements of science fiction, that tell the story of an immigrant who leaves his family for a better life elsewhere. In 128 pages, this graphic novel captures the plight of an immigrant starting over through its dreamlike illustrations. The illustrations can be interpreted in infinite ways and frees up students to use their imagination in any way they can. I’ve asked some students to narrate the drawings, others to create dialogue, and other true SIFE/New Arrivals to list the items they see in a few drawings. Others are asked to choose their favorite drawing and explain why. Students can later present their stories using multimedia or simply by telling their narration. Overall, this story is relatable to anyone who has been lost, afraid, or confused in an unfamiliar place, so students may surprise you with their personal interpretations of it!

The classic novel The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton has as its central theme the conflict of social classes, or as my ELLs say, the conflict between the rich and the poor kids. Set in the 1960s in the Midwest, it is a wonderful study of American popular culture at the time. My secondary ELLs have enjoyed this story on many levels. Related activities include:

  • character analysis, how people change over time and in response to events
  • setting maps
  • family trees
  • music of the time
  • cars of the time

What many of my older ELLs realize is that the story’s central conflict is more about our ability to cope with fear, loss, grief, and life’s challenges than it is about the disparity between rich and poor. The story, therefore, is truly relatable to so many ELL students.

Journey of the Sparrows by Fran Leeper Buss recounts the journey of youngsters losing their father, fleeing the civil war in El Salvador in the 1990s, and settling in Chicago. It is a harrowing immigration story of crossing the border, which sadly is quite relatable to many ELLs today. For my intermediate-advanced Spanish-speaking students, this story resonates as it includes many Spanish words and symbols. Initially, one may think the novel will be easier than it actually is, even for those who are Spanish speakers. However, with the many symbols, numerous characters, and advanced vocabulary, some aspects of the book are challenging. Many students benefited from hearing the book read aloud and reading chapter summaries in advance. The plot unfolds with well-divided chapters that lend themselves to short chapter summaries.


Keisha Rembert is an 8th grade English and U.S. history teacher at Clifford Crone Middle School in Naperville, Ill. Keisha feeds her love of learning by continually refining her craft and has been the recipient of several grants affording her the opportunity to take courses at some of the world’s most renowned universities. She was named Illinois’ History Teacher of the Year for 2019:

Night by Elie Wiesel is a class favorite from the curriculum. Books that flew off my shelf this year were Scythe by Neal Schusterman, Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, and The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. I think these books challenged the notion of what teens think and do. I think they offered my students “windows.” These were also my personal favorites, so I was offering the books often, and they garnered a “cult” following.

Thanks to Rita, Susanne, and Keisha for their contributions!

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