Friday, December 11, 2009

"Just Right" Books

What I am going to talk about today may seem like a no-brainer, yet it is one of the most common reasons why kids struggle with reading.

Do you remember Goldilocks? Yes, she tried out beds that were too hard and too soft. Not a comfortable fit! She kept trying. Finally, she found the one that was "just right" and fell fast asleep.

Books are the same way. Kids love to pick up the latest craze (i.e. Harry Potter), but, in MANY cases, these books are way too hard for them. They may stumble through every other word, or worse, they can read every word, but have no idea what is happening in the story. The latter is tricky for us as listeners because it sounds like they get it, but if you ask them what is going on, they will either tell you the movie version, look at you blankly, or give you a vague description of, " well this guy is doing this stuff and the girl..." Let me tell you another secret - if kids are talking about their books and they can't remember to call the characters by name, RED FLAG! Of course, as your child is just starting on their reading journey, you may need to teach them to talk about their characters by calling them their names.

The problems with books that are too hard are obvious. They won't understand, and eventually, they will hate/give up on reading because it is not fun -- it's too hard.

On the flip side, your child may be picking up/sticking with books that are no longer challenging for them. They will frequently be finishing books in a short period of time and needing another one. This commonly happens between second and third grade. Second graders may be reading shorter books (Henry and Mudge, Magic Tree House) and able to finish them quickly, most of the time in one sitting. We will talk about that issue another day - remind me if I forget.

The problem here is that they are not growing. They need the challenge to get better, just like a weightlifter has to gradually continue to add weight to the barbell to help his muscles grow when he gets accustomed to a set weight.

Back to just right books. Kids need to develop an INTERNAL understanding/voice that knows what a just right book is for them. They need to get that "feeling" that they are reading exactly what their level is. Many times they will ask the librarian or their teacher to tell them what "level" they are reading -- based on tests that teachers have done to find their reading level. Now hold on - knowing their levels through assessment is very important. I think as a teacher I always needed to sit and listen to them read first thing in the year to find out where they are reading independently, what level I need to use with them to instruct (they are 85% there), and also where they top out and get frustrational (decoding and comprehension totally break down). But that is a good gauge for me to know a number...say AR level, second grade, etc.

Every year, my goal is to help students become independent and have a voice in their learning. They need to understand what they are doing as good readers and writers. So the best thing is to show them what good readers do -- they read books that are just right for them, and they go about selecting those books in several ways. (one of which is not to go to a bookstore and ask the salesclerk if they have any novels on a college sophomore level, for example).

So let's think -- how do we, as good readers, select books? When we do, how do we know if those books are too hard or too easy for us?

ask other readers for recommendations
read a small portion to see if we are interested
read the book jacket
read authors we already have read
we read advertisements or book reviews

I will talk about each one of those along the way.

OK, so we selected a book. There are a few ways to test our understanding. I will quickly give you one common way we do it with kids...

The Five Finger Rule: read a page...if you come to 5 or more words you don't know/can't say/don't understand on that one aren't ready yet. I stress the "not ready yet." THEY WILL BE!!!! Encourage them to work out their muscle where it is able to work right will grow and they will be able to pick up these harder books soon. One caveat...they need to be HONEST and stop to recognize they are missing more than five words. Struggling readers have great survival skills...they can mumble and bluff their way through words, convincing themselves they understand. They will substitute words they know (which is another type of strategy when used appropriately with context works -- another day) and pretend they get it. This is where it gets tricky. They do, in their hearts, know they aren't getting it, but they want to in the worst way. We need to tell them over and over it is ok they aren't there yet. Steer them to other books with the same genre (subject/style), only find one on an easier level.

There are so many series now that are made at different levels...many of which are "chapter books" -- children's authors have responded for the need for these early readers which transition kids from easy decoding to short, managable chapters with vocabulary they can handle.

So tonight, do the 5 finger test with your child. Or better yet, read to them and show them as an adult (use a magazine, newspaper, or hopefully you are in the middle of a novel) how you can do the same test for yourself!

Tomorrow...the weight test. (No, this isn't the Biggest Loser, don't worry)

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