The Voices We Carry

When I began teaching at one of the oldest standing schools in Springfield, MA, I inherited two seven-foot-long wooden tables whose age rivaled that of the hundred-year-old school in which they were found.

These beautiful, solid oak tables were once pristine and untouched by the years. However, time, use (and misuse) marred them — leaving a nonetheless rich testimony of the thousands of students that sat at them over the course of a century. These engraved tables tell the stories of hopeful relationships that were to last “4 ever,” folks that proclaimed existentially that they were “here,” and the occasional disheartening racial epithet decrying one group or another.

Like those tables, students may carry a lasting imprint from their experiences—both positive and negative. A couple of years ago, at the end of a typical school day, a smattering of students spilled into my room to get extra help, work on a portfolio or have a quick conversation. Aakifa,* a student whose family had left Africa in search of freedom and opportunity, wore a brightly bedazzled magenta hijab. She came in quietly and began to work on an assignment, waiting until everyone had left to approach me.

Her eyes welled with tears. Earlier in the day, a student targeted her because of her religion. He hurled painful and hateful words at her. Aakifa was called many things, but the word “terrorist” stung the most. She was angry and wounded. She expressed her love for this country and pride in her education. And she was devastated that someone could be so ignorant and cruel to say such things about her. These words were carved deeply into her mind and were carried with her as a reminder that, to some, she was not welcome.

In the absence of information, I have seen people, sometimes students, create narratives and apply them to people who seem strange to them. And yet our schools, communities and cities are so diverse.

I believe that the only way to create community and understanding is to share stories. It is through dialogue that we can experience empathy and find our shared humanity. Aakifa’s story has been carved into my mind. She is why all educators need to provide platforms for their students’ experiences, commentaries, and identities to be shared. Students spend so much of their lives in our buildings, and creating an inclusive space where all are received and acknowledged is essential. Our students need to know that their voices are welcome, worthy, and powerful.

In Southbridge, MA, we have a diverse population; this diversity is our strength. Therefore, we are building into our curriculum ways for the entire student body to express this strength. It is essential to allow each student the opportunity to find and use their voice. To begin this curricular initiative, we designed a senior capstone project, The Voices We Carry. The goal is to expose our young scholars to the work of student journalists that are writing and recording personal commentaries (first-person narratives intended to connect personal stories or experiences to bigger social, political or cultural themes going on in the world today). This provides space for our students to share their own perspectives on larger issues by telling their own stories.  The work is similar to what students are doing at New England Public Radio’s Media Lab

Through this project, students learn the tools of author’s craft and apply these tools to their own personal commentary. Once these personal commentaries are written, they will be recorded using the technology that exists in the majority of our students’ pockets: the ubiquitous smartphone. These digital files allow us to share our students’ amazing voices—not just within the school community, but the larger community of Southbridge (and beyond)—by hosting them online.

Agency is a key design element in all our literacy initiatives within Southbridge Public Schools. Empowering students to choose meaningful books or share their personal narratives fit into the vision of We Read Big. Reading about others’ experiences or sharing our own helps us to demystify the world around us and binds us through community. This platform sends the message that we value the diversity of our students and that their stories matter.

Read more from Adam: 

*Name has been changed. 

For the Love of Guided Reading

Nikki Woodruff is a contributing author to Responsive Literacy: A Comprehensive Framework.

When do I get to read with you? Is it my turn yet?

These are comments I often hear in my classroom before I start guided reading. Children love guided reading — a time when they gather in small groups (4-6 readers) to talk about books together with the teacher, who selects books carefully in order to engage children in reading a text at their instructional level.

Guided reading is also my favorite time of day! It is a time for our small group to be engaged in conversation about a text that they have all read. They have ownership over this text and are excited about talking about the book.

As a teacher, I love the challenge of choosing that just right book for my students based on engagement and readers’ strengths and needs.

I love writing a book introduction that will be supportive of my readers.

I love the joy of hearing the readers read and respond to the book through conversations together.

I love it when the kids want to shove all the books they have read in a book bag to go home and share them with their loved ones.

I love it all!

A 15–20-minute guided reading lesson provides time for the teacher to gather homogeneously grouped children and provide laser-focused instruction. But thorough preparation is key. Teachers must first gain an understanding of how children process text, which is possible by making keen observations of reading behaviors. These observations will inform the teacher’s strategy when forming groups based on their reading development, serve as the basis of an effective instruction plan, and help the teacher to teach for effective processing based on the data collected during the lesson.

Here are some important things to note related to the process of planning for and implementing a guided reading lesson:

It is important for teachers of guided reading to collect data on their readers. Teachers must know:

  • What books the children enjoy reading
  • What their interests are
  • What they do at difficulty
  • The experiences and knowledge they have
  • How they respond to text
  • How the reading sounds

Teachers then carefully choose a book based on engagement as well as the strengths and needs of the readers.

Next it is time to plan a supportive and powerful book introduction that incorporates the meaning of the text, the structure of the book or language structures and visual information (new vocabulary, high-frequency words, etc.). Teachers must set readers up to be successful on the first reading of this text by giving them a purpose for reading.

After the book introduction, teachers listen in as students read and support them with any problem-solving strategies.

After the reading of the new text, it is imperative that the teacher follow up with a conversation about the meaning of the story. In her 1991 book Becoming Literate Marie Clay defines reading as “a message-getting, problem-solving activity which increases in power and flexibility the more it is practiced” (Clay, 1991, p. 6). This is a time for readers to extend their understanding of the text through conversations with peers. Readers honor the meaning of the text through a conversation about the story, and create a culture of conversations books and reading.

After the discussion of the text, teachers teach for processing based on the needs of the readers. This is a time for teachers to use the evidence gathered during the reading and comprehension conversation to teach based on the individual needs of each reader in the group. Ideally, readers will be able to then apply this knowledge to the reading of a new text.

At the end of the lesson, teachers should engage students in word work. This is a time to provide instruction around visually processing the text, not teaching at the word level.

Finally, teachers should consider asking students to write about reading. This extension of the lesson provides opportunities for children to think deeply about the meaning of the text through writing.

It is through this powerful context of guided reading that children grow as readers. Guided reading is a time when teachers carefully plan and teach intentionally, based on readers’ needs, so that students can apply these newly learn strategies in their independent reading. It is a time for children to develop a love of reading!


Clay, M. (1991). Becoming literate: The construction of inner control. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Learn More:

Interactive Read-Aloud: The Bedrock of the Literacy Block by Lisa Pinkerton, contributing author, Responsive Literacy.

Is There a Silver Bullet for Literacy? by Pat Scharer, editor of Responsive Literacy.

Empower Tomorrow’s Leaders Today

Fourth grader Mia Gomez greeted me with a warm, proud smile before Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s State of the City address in January. The Mayor was recognizing Mia and her brother Maximo as shining examples of the impact of a summer program they had completed, which blended academics with enrichment and social-emotional learning (SEL).

It was an evening her parents could not have imagined a year earlier.

Mia’s parents told me she used to struggle with math and found reading to be painfully difficult. As a young student, her lack of confidence and ability to articulate challenges were becoming more evident, and the effort she put forth each day in school lessened. They say this changed, however, after Mia enrolled in BELL Summer. 

“My Mia now stands up in front of the class and speaks with control and more confidence,” Mia’s mom, Katiria Gomez Morales told me that special night. “Reading is one of her priorities now. She learned how to make it interesting and has fun picking the right books that fit her interest.”

Teachers like Julie Latessa have witnessed Mia’s transformation from a struggling student to a thriving scholar. “Mia blossomed during the summer. She went from a shy, quiet student to a scholar who is strong, confident, and determined,” Latessa said. “I give great credit to Mia’s incredible theatre arts teacher, Magnolia Perez. She helped develop Mia’s self-confidence by creating a safe place for students where every member of the learning community is valued and respected.”

What’s even better is that Mia’s newfound love for math is translating into higher test scores, and improved homework and class work during the school year. Mia’s story is one of countless that shows the power of SEL and how it’s inextricably connected with academic achievement.  

SEL –The Key to Building Educated Leaders for Life

SEL fosters the attitudes and skills needed to be a successful learner. CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, defines SEL as the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

The BELL SEL Approach 

At BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life), a national nonprofit, we have seen countless participating students, known as scholars, blossom like Mia did last summer. To create the leaders of tomorrow, we must equip students with a holistic blend of skills much earlier in the education continuum, as early as pre-K.

SEL skills increase students’ capacity to learn academic subjects. Scholars need to learn more than facts in order to do well in school. SEL helps students communicate more effectively with their teachers, and to collaborate with their peers to help them acquire and retain the information. Scholars experience success, gain self-confidence, and become more prepared to succeed in school, and in life. 

When scholars develop their SEL competencies, we also see higher attendance rates as they are more motivated to learn and are committed to school. SEL helps students develop the will to keep trying when they do not understand a concept right away, instead of assuming they just are not good at that subject. SEL makes school something they look forward to each day instead of something to endure or avoid. 

Schools that incorporate social-emotional learning also tend to have fewer disciplinary incidents. Students become less likely to act out in class or get suspended when they have a strong grounding in SEL strategies. They develop self-awareness that helps them understand their emotions and use strategies to control themselves when facing stress or frustration. 

This approach yields positive results year after year. In 2017:

  • BELL Summer scholars gained 2 months of reading skills and 3 months of math skills.
  • Ninety-four percent of educators and 91% of parents reported that scholars have more confidence in themselves.
  • Ninety-one percent of teachers reported that scholars exhibited a growth mindset.
  • Eighty-eight percent of parents reported that their child had a more positive attitude about school.

As you design and develop afterschool and summer learning programs, consider infusing a strong SEL component. You, too, may find that it will build your students’ self-confidence, determination, and social skills. They will be well on their way to becoming better students and peers, and will be empowered with knowing that their brains and talent are just the starting point. 

SEL can transform lives, just like I saw it change the lives of Mia Gomez and her family.

Interactive Read-Aloud: The Bedrock of the Literacy Block

Lisa Pinkerton is a contributing author to Responsive Literacy: A Comprehensive Framework.

My favorite literacy practice is Interactive Read-Aloud (IRA), which I view as the foundation of any literacy block. IRA is a daily instructional practice that takes only 15-20 minutes and complements any literacy curriculum or program. Teachers who wish to foster book joy and promote strategic thinking need look no further than this highly engaging and responsive artform. 

General Setting and Structure

Sitting together on the floor near the teacher, students listen to the teacher read aloud, most often from a picture book. She uses her voice, gestures, and expressions to bring the story alive through her genuine love of the book. Stopping at two or three places, the teacher invites students to engage in deep thinking and conversation. These stopping points are planned and purposeful; they provide students with the opportunity to build conversation and share their thinking about the text. Questions such as What are you thinking? What are you wondering? and What are you noticing? invite students to think broadly and deeply. It is most beneficial if students can sit in a circle. When students can see each other’s faces, they are able to respond to each other in a more authentic manner.

Benefits of Interactive Read Aloud

Because the teacher reads the book aloud, students are freed to think inferentially and analytically about the text, which fosters deep meaning-making. IRA creates a collaborative literacy environment, one in which students are actively engaged in constructing meaning together with their peers. IRA also helps to promote a shared language for talking about texts as well as responding to the thinking of others. Thus, the literacy community supports each individual in creating a deeper understanding of the text than they could create on their own. Whole-group IRA experiences build students’ ability to think and talk critically about texts during other reading contexts, such as guided reading and independent reading.

The aim of Interactive Read-Aloud is to engage readers in the creation of a shared reading experience, one that fosters relationships between students, books, and teachers. Walking in the shoes of characters with experiences unlike their own can help to expand students’ understandings of what it means to be human, building empathy for others. Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emerita of Education at The Ohio State University, created a powerful metaphor that helps guide how teachers might think about the selection of texts to read aloud. Bishop conceives of books as windows and mirrors: window books give readers access to lives and experiences different from their own; mirror books allow readers to see themselves reflected in the books they read. Teachers have a responsibility to ensure that all students have access to both window and mirror books in their classroom reading experiences. IRA has the power and potential to give students access to books that both validate their own lived experiences and expose them to experiences outside their own.

Book Joy

When a teacher shares a book that she loves with her students, she nurtures book joy, providing opportunities for students to grow a love of books and reading. My students, from preschool to college age, have felt that same read-aloud joy. Interactive Read-Aloud brings the magic of stories alive in vibrant classroom communities. The benefits from this highly supportive classroom practice, one that takes just 15–20 minutes a day, are exponential. 

Learn More: Read Is There a Silver Bullet for Literacy? by Pat Scharer, editor of Responsive Literacy.

Latest Lexile Innovation Helps Beginning Readers and Their Teachers

Below is a guest post from Tim Klasson of MetaMetrics.

High-stakes reading requirements for lower grade levels are being adopted into law across the country. Many of these requirements demand that students demonstrate reading on grade level by the end of third grade. That makes attention to the multifaceted nature of reading development and exposure to a wide variety of early-reading texts, appropriate for a student’s level, more important than ever.

For the past five years, MetaMetrics has focused on enhancing the Lexile measurement system of early-reading materials for grades K-2. Through these enhancements, educators have a valuable tool by which to target student reading growth across these crucial grades. Teachers will now be able to more accurately match beginning readers to book features that support the needs of each student.

Here’s what’s new with the Lexile measurement system and how it helps beginning readers and those helping them learn to read:

The Lexile® scale is extended for beginning readers.

Previously, all books measuring below 0L were simply given a “BR” (Beginning Reader) code. Now texts with a BR code will receive a Lexile measure (e.g., BR100L). The higher the number after the BR code, the less complex the text (e.g. BR200L is less complex than BR100L). The addition of a Lexile measure for books below 0L provides a clearer picture of the complexity of these texts and allows for greater differentiation at the beginner level.

K–2 content is now measured across more dimensions.

Early-reading texts have unique characteristics such as easy-to-decode words, repetition and patterning to help students learn to read. Incorporating input from teachers and reading specialists, and through studies on the reading behaviors of young students, MetaMetrics researchers spent several years analyzing hundreds of characteristics that influence text complexity. This research identified nine characteristics that most accurately and reliably measure the complexity of K–2 content. These nine characteristics were incorporated into the algorithm that is used to determine the Lexile measure of a book or piece of text, ensuring that Lexile measures are more reliable and accurate for these early-reading texts.

New information is now offered to help identify and address different types of text challenges.

The nine early-reading text characteristics fall within four early-reading indicators dealing with structure, syntax, semantics and decoding. 

These early-reading indicators are provided alongside Lexile measures for texts with measures of 650L or below (See Figure 1). A Lexile text measure of 650L corresponds with the complexity of typical reading materials at the end of second grade. 

This new information can help identify important text features that may present reading challenges. For example, a text with a low decoding early-reading indicator (i.e., many easy-to-decode words) could be selected for a student who is ready to apply their knowledge of basic sound and letter relationships and patterns and practice reading independently. The early-reading indicators can be used also to ensure that a reader is getting exposed to a variety of different types of reading materials. To learn more about the early-reading indicators, view our video Using Early-Reading Indicators in the Classroom

With these enhancements, finding the most appropriate books for beginning readers is easier. Explore the enhancements by using:

Learn more about these enhancements and view an informational webinar by visiting





The Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge is Now Open

School is still in session, but today marks the beginning of the Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge! This free, online reading program motivates kids to keep reading all summer long, which helps prevent learning loss while school is not in session.

Starting today, May 7, kids can log their reading minutes to earn digital prizes. Educators, public librarians and community partner organizations can all register participating young readers by creating an account at any time and setting up classes or reading groups. At the end of the summer, we'll acknowledge the Best in State schools, along with the Top 10 Libraries and Top 10 Community Partners!

Kids will be able to earn these great new prizes on our brand-new Summer Reading Challenge website that's completely mobile friendly—perfect for logging reading minutes on the go! Along with loads of free resources (including videos, printables, and an interactive map), the site also features a new timer feature that acts as a stopwatch to help children track their personal reading time.

Additionally, from now until the end of the Challenge on September 7, we're unlocking a magical Harry Potter surprise each week; just log in with your educator, library, or community partner account to check them out!

Plus, registered educators, public librarians and community partners have until June 4 to enter two special Summer Reading Sweepstakes for a chance to win a magical Harry Potter-themed prize pack!

It's only been a few hours since the Challenge began, and kids have already logged 79,298 reading minutes! Phew! Are you ready for a magical summer of reading? Get started at now!

Making Sense of School Segregation (or Trying to)

I've run across a few interesting stories about school segregation in the last few weeks. The three articles below look at the national, the local (New York City) and the historical. 

There Are Wild Swings in School Desegregation Data. The Feds Can't Explain Why (Education Week: Andrew Ujifusa and Alex Harwin)

School districts self-report orders or plans to desegregate, but the numbers of districts doing so have fluctuated wildly over the last several years. 

Here are the numbers:

  • 2011-12 school year: 1,200+ districts reported a desegregation order or plan
  • 2013-14 year: only 171 districts reported orders or plans
  • 2015-16 year: 334 districts reported orders or plans

Experts are struggling to make sense of these disparities, which some have attributed to shifting definitions of segregation order/plans. 

Why Are New York’s Schools Segregated? It’s Not as Simple as Housing (The New York Times: Elizabeth A. Harris and Josh Katz)

New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio attributes (as do many others) school segretation in the city to housing segregation, which he also claims cannot be fixed. This New York Times article looks at how patterns of families sending children to schools outside their zones adds nuance to this complex issue. ("The schools they pick, the study found, tend to share two main features: They had fewer poor students than the zoned schools the families were leaving, and they had higher test scores.")

Study: Racial segregation remains constant over 15-year period (Education Dive: Roger Riddell)

This study also suggests that housing segregation is not the sole factor in school segregation. "Integration efforts from the '70s and '80s have waned as more recent court decisions permitted a scaling back of oversight for many districts, resulting in some cases in resegregation."


All Children Deserve Access to Authentic Text

Children are linguistic geniuses. By the time most kids enter school, they have already learned at least one home language with all its many intricate complexities including thousands of words. As children become readers, the opportunity to experience the rich, alluring language of literature can set them on the path to becoming joyful, lifelong readers. In this literacy journey, the key is providing young readers with opportunities to read text that inspires and engages them—right from the very beginning—to think and feel deeply about the text on the page, to make connections between the print and their own lives, and to imagine lives beyond their own. In other words, all children deserve access to the joy and many pleasures of authentic text.

What do we mean by authentic text? Authentic text is real, living language written to engage readers and draw them in; it may entertain, inform, or persuade. It invites active reading, robust problem-solving, and deep analysis because it comprises conceptually rich, compelling ideas and language from life. Early literacy expert Lesley Morrow defines authentic texts as, “A stretch of real language produced by a real speaker or writer for a real audience and designed to convey a real message of some sort.” Unlike contrived text, authentic text is never written or assembled for the purpose of teaching reading or delivering a set of skills.

An important distinction between authentic and contrived text is how readers engage with it and children learn from it. When it comes to literacy instruction, both authentic and contrived text can be used to teach reading strategies and skills. But while contrived text requires the teacher to mediate between the text and the reader to ensure learning, authentic text can instruct on its own because of its rich content and language.

Furthermore, authentic text provides natural scaffolding for the reader—the structure and patterns of real language support comprehension. Authentic text helps students understand how language works in the real world, and invites them to take part in that world by moving in, out, and through the world of ideas and living language.

Children need time every day to read authentic books: real books featuring funny, scary, enchanting stories by authors children can find in the bookstore or library. And children need books that they can sink their teeth into and discuss and debate with their peers. Early literacy instruction that incorporates authentic text supports young readers’ ability to learn language and vocabulary, and ignites their love for authors, illustrators, topics, and genres.

While interactive read-alouds and independent reading enable our students to lose themselves in the pleasure and glory of literature, children also benefit immeasurably from small group instruction with authentic text. Years ago, British educator Margaret Meek pointed out that what “readers read makes all the difference to their view of reading.” All the more reason to invite students to read text that engages their imaginations, stirs their emotions, expands their knowledge, and encourages them to ask new questions about the world.

Reading makes us smart. Indeed, the biggest differentiator between those who succeed in school and those who don’t is independent reading. An analysis of 99 studies that focused on the leisure-time reading of authentic text by students from preschool to grade 12 and college students found that print exposure created an upward spiral of literacy confidence and competency. Students who practiced voluminous reading got a boost in oral language sophistication, reading comprehension, and technical reading and writing skills. For each year of independent reading, students’ skills improved, bolstering their overall achievement (Mol & Bus, 2011).

The enriching effects of authentic books are especially important for those youngsters who are challenged by reading. As Steph Harvey and Annie Ward write, “Striving readers, who are often reluctant to read at all, deserve and need engaging text rich with meaning to lead them into the world of language” (Harvey & Ward, 2017).

Our students deserve to feast on the robust language and complex linguistic structures of authentic text while solving crimes with Dog Man (Dav Pilkey), delighting in words with the Word Collector (Peter Reynolds), and dancing in the rain with Tessie (Come on, Rain! by Karen Hesse). Let’s make sure that all children love reading so much that they define themselves as readers—both at school and at home—assuring that they will want to develop and refine remarkable, rewarding, and long-lasting reading lives of their own.


Harvey, S. & Ward, A. (2017). From Striving to Thriving: How to Grow Confident, Capable Readers. New York: Scholastic.

Mol, S. & Bus, S. (2011). To Read or Not to Read: A Meta-Analysis of Print Exposure from Infancy to Early Adulthood. Psychological Bulletin. American Psychological Association. Vol. 137, No. 2, 267–296.

Meek, M. (1988).  How Texts Teach What Readers Learn. London: Thimble Press.

Morrow, K. (1977). “Authentic Texts and ESP.” In Holden, S. (ed.). English for Specific Purposes. Modern English Publications.

Why Fluency?

Timothy Rasinski is co-author of The Megabook of Fluency. He joins EDU to answer the question "why fluency?"

I have been an advocate for reading fluency ever since I was an elementary school intervention teacher in the late 1970s and early 80s. I still recall working with students who were experiencing significant difficulty in reading, and not making much progress with them by using traditional instructional approaches in word recognition and comprehension. It was quite frustrating to provide what I thought was the best instruction possible, and yet see my students continue to struggle.

Fortunately for me, I was working on my Master’s degree in reading education, and one of my professors had his students read some recent professional articles that were just then coming out on this topic called reading fluency. I recall that I was not even sure what reading fluency was. Nevertheless, the articles described repeated readings and assisted reading where students read a text while listening to a fluent and expressive rendering of the same text as ways to develop fluency. I was intrigued by this research (and also frustrated by my lack of impact with my own students), so I decided to try the methods described in this professional reading. Lo and behold, these students who had previously been making minimal progress, despite my best efforts, began to take off in their reading. Not only were they reading more proficiently, the success they were experiencing from working on fluency led many of them to see themselves as true readers.

Nearly forty years later, I am even more convinced that reading fluency is essential to success in reading. I view reading fluency as a link or bridge between proficiency with words (word recognition and vocabulary) and reading comprehension. Fluency involves decoding words so effortlessly, efficiently, or automatically that a reader’s cognitive energy is freed from the task of word decoding and can be applied to the more important task of text comprehension. Fluency also involves reading with a level of expression (prosody) that reflects and even amplifies the meaning of the text that is being read.

Research has demonstrated again and again that fluent readers are good comprehenders, and those students who struggle with fluency very often manifest difficulties in reading comprehension. Indeed, studies have found that a large percentage of third- and fourth-grade students who perform poorly on  high-stakes silent reading comprehension tests also have difficulties in one or more components of fluency. Poor fluency leads to poor reading comprehension. 

Fluency is critical. Yet, the problem with fluency is that it is often taught and nurtured in order to make children read fast to improve their oral reading fluency (ORF) scores. When readers try to read as fast as possible, how are they able to read with meaningful expression? Short answer: they can’t! As a result, many teachers dismiss fluency as nothing more than speed-reading instruction. 

The approach to reading fluency that my colleague Melissa Cheesman Smith (read her post on joyfulness in fluent reading here) and I take in our new book The Megabook of Fluency is that reading fluency should be joyful, engaging, and authentic reading that focuses on both developing automatic word recognition and expressive and meaningful reading. It is so exciting to see students rehearsing poetry, performing songs, and playing with and reciting written language in various ways to reflect different meanings. Their faces tell us that fluency can be fun, and our assessments tell us that the approaches to fluency that we advocate in The Megabook of Fluency can lead to more proficient readers who see themselves as the readers we want them to become. 

Independent Reading and Choice

When students self-select books to read, they have opportunities to read what interests them, what they care about, and at the same time, they discover what kinds of books they enjoy. This year, I learned a humbling lesson about self-selecting books for independent reading: it doesn’t always work the same way for striving readers as it does for proficient and advanced readers.

In January, I started working with a group of fifth graders who were reading at a mid-first grade level. They consistently selected books far above their reading level. Each time this happened, I gently suggested to a student to save the challenging book for later and then offered three books for him or her to consider. The student always checked out the book he or she couldn’t read. I pushed my feelings of discouragement into the recesses of my mind. At least three times a week, I gave a mini-talk on how reading books with ease independently offered the practice that could improve fluency and understanding.

Obviously, students needed to save face in front of peers who were reading long books. That was a problem in their regular language arts classes, but not in our extra reading class. I fought my desire to tell them what to select, knowing the change had to come from them. This pattern remained the same for several weeks, and I learned to live with it.

These students were part of an extra reading class called “Pathways” that met daily for 73 minutes. Two of my colleagues and I taught this class of twenty-four students who read two to four years below grade level.

One day, after the read-aloud that always opens the class, I told students: “In this class you’re always safe. Everyone will celebrate choosing books you can read and enjoy.” That comment seemed to be a tipping point because during independent reading time, several students selected books they were able to read and enjoy. However, it took six weeks for all students to feel positive about selecting books they could read with ease.

I share this story to emphasize that it was essential that students, not teachers, made the decision to choose books they could read. Moreover, some students need time to trust that no one will make negative comments about books they select. By giving them time, by explaining they are safe in our class, we open the doors for students to develop an independent reading life. If we believe that self-selection develops responsibility and independence, then giving students control over this aspect of learning is crucial to their reading development.

It’s important for teachers to know this: books for independent reading shouldn’t be leveled. Leveling can prevent a student from selecting a challenging book that the student has strong background knowledge about and truly desires to read. I’m reminded of an eighth grader who wanted to read Laura Elliot’s Under a War-Torn Sky. He knew a great deal about World War II, and desperately wanted to be part of the group reading Elliot’s book. Though a challenge, his strong desire overcame any obstacles, and he willingly reread sections until he understood them. In addition to choice, there are other things that create joyful reading and allow students to spread the word about a beloved book to peers.

Time for Reflection

Have you ever closed the last page of a book and wished you hadn’t finished it? The need to revisit events, to be that character and think about the character’s decisions claims your mind and heart. You don’t move. You feel compelled to mull over and relive favorite parts. Time to reflect, returning to and thinking about events and characters brings satisfaction and pleasure to readers. Remember these moments in your reading life and offer students time to reflect and savor parts of a book that touched them deeply, to discuss the book with classmates, and to recommend engaging books to others.

The Power of Discussing Books

Reading is social. That’s why students love talking about books with a partner or in a small group. Discussions reveal a range of interpretations supported with evidence from the text. In addition, students practice active listening as well as organizing their thoughts, so they can communicate their thinking to peers. Discussions move students deeper and deeper into the layers of meaning of a text and move them from literal, superficial interpretations to inferential thinking. Besides discussions, it’s beneficial to offer students ways to advertise to others books they couldn’t stop reading. Doing this provides students with a list of books their peers enjoyed. Moreover, peer-to-peer recommendations for reading offer students choices they might never have considered.

Advertise, Advertise

What follows are four ways students can hear about and explore books their peers enjoyed—books they can check out to read.

1. Elevator Talks: Marketers use these short talks to sell a product in sixty seconds by honing in on its excellent points. In school, students set up an appointment with their teacher when they complete a book and want to present an elevator talk. Have students jot some notes they want to include in the brief talk. Then, they have sixty seconds to sell a book to classmates.

2. Book Log Conversations: Every six weeks, set aside ten to fifteen minutes of class time for students to review their book logs and choose a book to share with their group. It could be an abandoned book or a book the students loved. Groups hear about books and have the option to note the title and author if it’s from the school library or check it out of their class library.

3. Graffiti Wall: Students enjoy writing short book recommendations to peers. Place a large piece of construction paper on a bulletin board or a wall and have a marker pen nearby for students to post beloved books. These short reviews are positive, point out one important reason why the book was a great read, and recommend the book to one student or a group who is passionate about the topic or author.

4. Class Blog: Set up a class blog and invite students to post original book trailers they created and/or short book reviews. Students read the blog to explore books classmates posted and also to add a comment to a peer’s post.

Students love choosing their books. Recently, I interviewed a group of sixth graders about reading, and several told me that they don’t enjoy reading a book that’s “required.” They want choice because that’s what motivates them to read. Moreover, when students have time to sit back and reflect on a completed book and also discuss it with a partner or a small group, their motivation to read can soar. Because peers value their friends’ opinions, it’s also beneficial to advertise books so students observe what peers enjoy and can explore books they might not have selected on their own.

This post is part of an ongoing series on independent reading. Read more:


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