Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Reading: How Do You Choose a Book?

As you may know, I spent thirty-four years of my career as an English teacher. Over that time I have worked with over 5,000 students, some who came to me as readers, and some who were not. During the time these kids were my students, I did everything I could to find just the right books, the ones that would satisfy those students who were already readers, and books that would engage those students who were not.

I admit, I might not have turned every one of those students into the avid readers I wanted them to be, but I did see progress. End of year reading tests showed significant improvement in their reading skills, and an increase in both vocabulary and comprehension. And yes, many of these kids were turned on to reading.

This year's crop of 9th graders at my school are the last students I had in English class, yet I see these students now coming into the library to ask for a recommendation, check out a book, and coming back to tell me if they liked it or not. Students who have moved on to the high school and college stop by occasionally or send me an email or message on Facebook to get recommendations and leave feedback about books. And I even hear from students I taught at the beginning of my career, and friends I went to high school with, who are still interested in what I have to say about a book.

Talking about books is one of my joys in life, and I'd have to say the same thing about teaching.

Last week I had the opportunity to work with a large group of students in our school, a group that would be classified as struggling readers, and the question came up from one of their teachers: "How do you choose a book?" The old classroom gears clicked into place, and I found myself teaching a lesson on choosing the right book, especially for the struggling reader. Since I have many parents ask me one-on-one for the same type of advice, I decided I should share this information in a public forum--my blog.

The number one factor at getting someone to read is to help them choose a book that is interesting. Now that might sound ridiculously simple, but it's often not. So many teachers select books for their class assignments based on what they personally enjoyed, what books are available in group sets, and what the Common Core tells them the students should be reading (usually the first indicator that this book is not one the students will enjoy. A student who is a non-reader will not be engaged by classics, multicultural, or historical fiction unless they have sufficient scaffolding from an engaged teacher who can guide them through the book, but this constant need for spoon-feeding also takes away the joy of reading. It's a lose-lose situation that will do more damage than good in the long run when it comes to developing a lifelong reader.

I've found that too often students have been forced to "read" (by the way, they usually don't) so many books in these categories that they honestly don't know what they like or what they would be interested in. This is where I come in and try to match the student with a book I think they might enjoy. I admit I have an advantage over many teachers in that I read 100-150 books each year, most of them in the middle grade and young adult categories, and I have an uncanny memory when it comes to book titles and author's names. I spend a couple of minutes with the student, asking about their life, their interests, the last book they read or had read to them and that they enjoyed, then I pull a few titles from the shelves, give a three or four sentence blurb about the book, then let the student choose for themselves. If nothing looks interesting, I give them several more books to look at. Usually the student will select a possible book by that time. Then we get to the reading part. 

The second thing for the student to consider is the difficulty of the book. If the kid can't read and understand the words, there is no way he or she can read and enjoy the book. No enjoyment--no more reading. It's as simple as that.

Here's a simple way for students to decide if the book will be too difficult for them--it's called The Five-Finger Rule. Once a book is chosen, the student starts to read the first five pages. Every time they come across a word they don't know, they hold up a finger. If by the end of five pages they have held up five fingers, the book is too difficult for them. Time to choose a new book. See, I told you it was simple.

Anything fewer than five fingers, the student is ready to read the book. But what about those 1-2-3-4 words they didn't know? Most teachers, and probably parents, will say, "Look it up!" WRONG! We don't every want kids to STOP their reading progress to go look up a work they don't know while they are reading. Most of the time the word doesn't really matter anyway. So how should they tackle new words, ones that can improve their vocabulary? Again, we have a 5 Finger Rule. 1. The first time you run across a new word, skip it. 2. The second time you run across that same word, make a guessed based on what's going on around it. 3. The third time you see the same word, ask an expert. This could be the friend sitting next to you. 4. The fourth time you see that same word, make another guess based on all you now know about that word. 5. The fifth time you see the word, write it down so you can look it up AFTER you have finished your reading session. If you see it that many times, it's probably important and you'll see it again so you might as well know what it means.    

This process brings us back to the original question, How do you choose a book? By now, the student has read five pages in a possible book. They know if the book is too difficult for them and they should know if the book is interesting enough to entice them to read the next five pages. If the answer is yes, then go for it, but if the answer is no, abandon that book and choose another.

A child must have the opportunity to read books that speak to them, books they enjoy, books that are interesting to them, not to the parent or teacher. There is no such thing as a non-reader, just like there is no such thing as someone who doesn't like to read. The true problem is that for whatever reason--faulty teaching, misguided ideas about the value of books, or simply lack of opportunity--the students who thinks they hate to read, simply hasn't yet found the right book.

Be the adult who leads them to discover the lifelong enjoyment of reading. Just like my students have proven to me, they will thank you for it, and they will lead the next generation to a life of reading enjoyment because you did.

(If YOU have a question about teaching reading or writing, or you simply need a good book recommendation, be sure to leave a comment. I'm always happy to help!)

Saturday, February 08, 2014

February Goals

Setting goals is a good way to at least keep a written record of all the things you'd like to get done in a given period of time. Of course, life happens and sometimes those goals get moved into the next period of time. That's what happened this month to some of my goals, but a few new goals got inserted, including a huge writing project that I didn't anticipate at the time I wrote my January goals.

So, even if it looks like I didn't accomplish everything I planned to do, know that I did accomplish some pretty huge things that I'm excited to share with my readers when the time is right.

In the meantime, let's see how I did in January at meeting my goals:

1. Finish revisions for Always a Bridesmaid: Grace, the first novella in my new series
Although I'm about a third of the way through revisions instead of completely done on this goal, lots of progress has been made on the series as a whole. First, the series has a brand new title! "Always a Bridesmaid" is gone and the new series title is "A Gateway Romance." There were a few reasons for this change, including the fact that another author already has a series with the original title. The novellas and accompanying full length novel already written for this series all have major scenes that happen at The Gateway in Salt Lake City, thus the new name, which ties the books all together. Another change will be the fact I'm using a pen name for this new line of books. I made this decision because of branding. I didn't want my juvenile readers to confuse my middle grade and young adult novels with the new romance line, and it also made sense to have them separate from my non-fiction and magazine articles. I actually chose my pen name when I was in high school and first considering a writing career and it has great meaning to me. Marie Ellsworth is a combination of my mom and dad's middle names. Since my mother gave me a love of reading and writing, and my father taught me about business, using their names reminds me of their contributions to who I am today. Watch for official announcements on the blog and my Facebook pages when the first novella will be released.

2. Approve cover art and format Kindle edition of Grace
Progress is also being made on this goal, although we are not quite ready yet for a reveal. Since this is going to be the first book in a series it is vital that the cover design is one I am totally, absolutely in love with. So far we have the series title and author name banners and font chosen. I've been looking at lots of photos, hoping to find the perfect couple, season, and location to match the storyline in Grace. Again, I'll let you know as soon as we've found the perfect combo.

3. Complete a client edit (Visit the Precision Editing Group website if you're interested in hiring an editor)

4. Write two entries for Living in an Osmond World and find appropriate cover art
I wrote one entry for this book, which may actually be released in March if some of my other goals stay where they belong. I haven't found the cover art yet, but I know I have something in the hundreds of photos I've taken over the years. I just have to dig into the photo albums to find the one I want. 

5. Finish reading Pirates of the Caribbean: The Price of Freedom by A.C. Crispin
Two years ago I promised one of my sons I'd have this book read by the time he returned from his LDS mission. That day is almost upon us and I'm only halfway through the book! It's good, but the book feels like it weighs 30 pounds and it wear me out to hold it in place so I can read. Plus I got sidetracked and read The Children of Huron by J.R.R. Tolkien, another book my son wanted me to read, so at least I got something done toward a reading goal. 

So, what kind of goals can I set for February?
1. Complete revisions and cover art for A Gateway Romance: Grace and release the book on Kindle
2. Critique and revise Tamlyn, the second novella for the Gateway romances
3. Finish drafting Kira, novella number three in the Gateway romances
4. Finalize Living in an Osmond World text and cover art
5. Finish reading Pirates of the Caribbean: The Price of Freedom

Check back in March to see how I'm doing, but in the meantime do yo need to set some public goals of your own?

January Book / Movie Review

What a crazy month January turned out to be! A huge writing opportunity came to me which completely threw me off my schedule for so many things. Project complete, I'm furiously trying to get caught up again. Since I didn't want to miss any of my planed blog topics, the first order of business today is to jump back in time and write the blogs I missed for the past two weeks. Thanks for being patient. 

Saving Mr. Banks

Since the premiere of this delightful film, critics have tried to debunk it. Everything from Meryl's Steeps' inappropriately timed comments about Walt Disney being sexist in a time when everyone was sexist, to biographers who insist "the story didn't happen that way," and now members of the Disney family fighting over their inheritance. My response? Who cares?

Saving Mr. Banks was a wonderful film about--of all things--forgiveness. Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson were fabulous, and both should have received Oscar nods for their work, yet they were ignored. I grew up watching Walt Disney on television and Hanks played him perfectly, even managing to capture the twinkle in Walt's eye.   

If you haven't yet seen the movie, you must. Be sure to take some tissues, yet know you will come from the theater with a song on your lips and a lighter step than when you went in. Oh, and you'll want to pull out your copy of Mary Poppins to watch as well when you get home.

Ender's Game 

I'm not sure exactly how long ago I first read the novellette that grew to become the multi-book series about Ender Wiggin and the other children who were taken to battle school to save the world. At the time I though the science fiction would remain just that--fiction. How wrong I was. Has anyone stopped to consider that author Orson Scott Card actually invented the iPad? No wonder it took so long for this movie to be made. Technology had to catch up with the ideas Card had all those years ago.

Ender's Game is worth seeing just for the performances of Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley alone. They made the movie.

I will admit, having read most of the book series helped me understand the significance of the events, the relationships between Ender and his Battle school colleagues, and why his sister was so important to him, but even viewers without that background will become involved in the story.

I love the fact Ender's Game left the door open just far enough that we might just see a sequel.

Rump: The True Story of Rumplestiltskin
Liesl Shurtliff

If you're looking for a delightful story to read with your upper elementary or middle school student and you like retold fairy tales then Rump might be just the book for you. 

The story starts with poor Rump, who has never known the rest of his name, discovering that he has inherited a wonder skill--he can spin straw into gold. But like all things that seem too good to be true, Rump soon discovers that what he thinks will be his ticket to freedom actually binds him into chains. 

Shurtliff has done a wonderful job of developing reasons as to why Rump would want to take someone's baby, why names are so important, and how friends and family are the greatest riches anyone could ever ask for. 

Rump is a finalist in the Middle Grade category for the 2013 Whitney Awards.