When I was a teacher, during ELA time, students in my 3rd grade classroom typically chose books to read that were “on their level,” thanks to a straightforward reading leveling system from Fountas & Pinnell. We thankfully had an extensive classroom library and students learned how to choose good books, track their reading time, and thoughtfully respond to what they were reading. (It all worked perfectly and was wonderful and my classroom was always filled with angelic students excited to read.*) (*This might be slightly exaggerated.**) (**Definitely exaggerated.) The point is, we had a system and a structure that supported students in making independent book choices.
Summer, however, looks a little different. Of course, some students are in more structured settings with opportunities similar to my classroom above. Many others are on vacations, at camps, hanging out with grandparents, tagging along to a parent’s job, at the babysitter’s house, with older siblings or cousins, or taking care of younger siblings or cousins. Keeping kids reading during the summer is a huge priority for many schools, families, and programs – but it can often be more challenging than in a traditional classroom setting. As parents or caregivers, it is often difficult to help kids choose books in these less structured settings. Here are some tips for adults to support children in their lives in making good book choices, even during the more unstructured summer months.
We adults typically choose books to read using three major criteria: interest, purpose, and fit. For example, my two recent book selections were Lauren Markham’s “The Faraway Brothers” and Jojo Moyes’ “Still Me.” Markham’s book is a nonfiction account of two immigrant brothers from El Salvador and their journey to the US, ending in Oakland. Moyes’ novel is a romantic comedy about a woman from small town England figuring out life in New York City. Extremely different books, but both satisfied the “interest, purpose, and fit” criteria of choosing: I was interested in both (unaccompanied minor immigrant experience; romantic comedy), both served a purpose (helping me become aware of the challenges immigrants face even once they arrive in the US; helping to purely entertain me), and both were books I could read and understand on my own without a lot of support.
Kids should be encouraged to choose books in the same way!
Interest: What’s interesting to you? What do you want to read about? Whether it’s sharks, cartoons, super heroes, friendships, adventures, basketball, underdog-nerdy-kid-hero-story, or family challenges, there is usually a book out there for any interest a child might have. Simply by asking them to think about what topics they are interested in can help them find books that they will be excited to read.
Purpose: Why are you choosing to read to read this book – do you have to read it for school or book club, do you want to learn something new, do you want to understand something better, or do you just want to enjoy some time reading? Helping children ask themselves these questions can be challenging, but ultimately this process can help them with the metacognitive awareness of their reading as they grow up. Sometimes we adults pick books because we have to read for work or book club. Sometimes we want to learn or better understand something. And sometimes we choose a book just to enjoy it. Knowing why they are reading a book can help children make good book choices.
Fit: Is the book not too easy and not too hard? There’s nothing wrong with sometimes reading a familiar, easy book (I pick up Harry Potter from time to time, and I have definitely read it before. I know I’m not the only one!). There’s also nothing wrong with sometimes going for a really tricky book, something that is challenging and might require some additional support (James Joyce’s Ulysses comes to mind for me here). But for the most part, we want to encourage children to choose “just right” books – so they can read on their own, enjoy it, and understand it without it being too easy or boring, or too hard and challenging. Children develop quickly and it’s sometimes challenging to help them find books that are a “just right” fit, so this is a tried-and-true tactic that kids can use at any time: The Five Finger Test.
The Five Finger Test
Choose a book that looks interesting to you. Open the book to any page and begin reading. Read the whole page. As you read, put one finger up for each word you don’t know.
At the end of the page, count how many fingers you have up:
0-1 fingers: easy – you can read this book on your own, but it might be a little boring!
2-4 fingers: just right – you can read this book on your own and it seems like a good fit!
5+ fingers: too hard – this book is a little too challenging right now – try reading later on or with some help!
By helping children become aware of their own reading interests, their reading purpose, and book fit, we can help children make good, independent choices for themselves outside the structure of school classrooms. That being said, these tips are meant to be suggestions and not rules; if a child is engaged by Harry Potter or Things That Go for the 3rd time that week, sometimes it’s best to just let it ride – we’ve all been there.
Rebecca Schmidt is the Program Director of the Oakland Literacy Coalition.