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!)

1 comment:

Joe Average Writer said...

Because it's close to Valentine's Day, I agree wholeheartedly, and no, I will not apologize for the pun. (See also, David Lubar's Punished! for more.) There's a quote I posted outside my door recently by James Patterson who said, "There's no such thing as a kid who hates reading. There are kids who love reading and kids who are reading the wrong books," which is the essence of this post. Several years ago, an administrator asked me what my purpose was with what I was teaching in 8th grade. I told her that if I could get students to develop a love (or at least a "like") for reading and help them to develop a habit, then I have done my job. It's simplified, but it's a good starting point for leveling the playing field.