#5: Teach Kids How to Choose Books

This is the fifth post in the Building a Reading Community blog series to kick off the 2022-23 school year. All posts in the series can be found here.

I just spent the first two days of school with my new group of 5th graders. We are already on our way to growing into a community of readers. Over the past two days, I observed my fifth graders choosing and reading books from browsing boxes set at each table. I also spent a lot of time listening to their conversations to learn more about them.

In a couple days, I’m going to give our first book choice lesson of the year. Years ago when I set students free in the classroom library prior to teaching about choice, I noticed some students didn’t know where to start and seemed a bit overwhelmed by all of the reading options. This caused some of them to just grab a book without previewing it, which in many cases led to unengaged reading or repeated book abandonment. Because of this, I started explicitly teaching students how to choose books.

Two Questions to Consider When Teaching Book CHoice
  1. Interest: Does this book look like it will interest me?
  2. Readability: Do I understand what I’m reading?

Inviting students to ask themselves these two questions (or versions of the questions) when considering whether or not to select and stick with a book has the power to guide them in an authentic, transferrable way each time choice arises.

The way these questions are framed and explained in the lower and upper grades will vary. For example, when thinking about question two, in a first grade class, I might ask students to consider if they can read most of the words on a page yet. If not, this is a book that might be saved and understood for later instead of a book to read right now.* I avoid the terms “just right” and “at your level” because those are fixed, rigid, and often have a negative connotation with young readers. Instead, I opt toward language that emphasizes growth and learning. I’ve found students engage more in this deep thinking about their choices when it’s framed as “books to read now,” and then “books to look forward to reading later.” Those books for later can even be saved on a to-be-read list. Students learn that the more they grow and learn as readers, the more books they will be able to read and enjoy in the future!

In a fourth grade class, it will look and sound a little different. I might invite students to ask themselves if they want to talk about the book with a friend after trying out a few pages. If it is a book they do not want to talk about or a book that just isn’t holding their interest, it’s time to pick a new book. The big idea is that I want to give students tools and strategies so they can successfully choose books on their own. Much more is involved in book choice, but this is a good starting point to think about the language of book choice in the elementary classroom. Pages 49-54 in  Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading go much more in depth.

Keep in Mind
  • Book choice is an art, not a science. It might be messy and mistakes will be made. Embrace these times as learning opportunities for next instructional steps.
  • One lesson on book choice is never enough for all students. Some students will likely still need your support with choosing books they can read and want to read. Teach toward independence, but don’t expect it immediately.
  • *While kids must have access to books they can accurately read (decode and understand), they also need to explore books of high interest- even if they can’t yet decode all the words. For example, if a 1st grader wants to read a book about dinosaurs but can’t decode all the words, of course you encourage them to keep that book! They can have that book AND books they can accurately decode. Book choice is nuanced and complex. To learn more about the different types of books (emergent story books, decodables, etc.) that will especially support kindergarten and first grade readers, take a look at pages 96-100 in Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading.

Up Next in the Series: #6: Make Use of Common Procedures and Language. All posts in this blog series can be found linked here. To learn more about teaching students how to choose books, take a look at pages 49-54, 86, and 115 in Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading. Additionally, Kari Yates and I wrote an entire chapter about teaching book choice in our 2018 book, To Know and Nurture a Reader.

#3: Establish Daily Supported Independent Reading Time

This is the third post in the Building a Reading Community blog series to kick off the 2022-23 school year. All posts in the series can be found here.

Now that we’ve explored getting to know your students and getting books in their hands from the start, let’s move on to establishing a predictable time for reading each day. In some schools, teachers still need to actively make the case for the beneficial role of voluminous reading. If this is the case for you, there is help in the research!

Oodles of studies have found many different benefits to students engaging in a high volume of reading. If you’re interested in taking a look at some of those studies, Donalyn Miller beautifully wrote about and linked many of the research articles seven years ago in her piece titled I’ve Got Research. Yes I Do. I’ve Got Research. How About You? Over the years, I’ve referenced this piece again and again when helping teachers make the case for independent reading in their schools. More recently, Dr. Richard Allington and Dr. Anne McGill-Franzen, published Reading Volume and Reading Achievement: A Review of Recent Research, which also shows evidence that reading volume plays a key part in reading development.

The way to achieve a high volume of reading for all of your students is by creating an established time for daily supported independent reading in class. Unfortunately, there is some misunderstanding about how daily supported independent reading time looks and works in a classroom setting. Some think that independent reading time is unproductive in classrooms; hence the need to still make the argument for it. But, this is simply not true. After reading Miller and Moss’ No More Independent Reading Without Support, I started adding the word supported when speaking and writing about independent reading time. This is a critical piece. While students are engaged in reading, the teacher is always actively supporting them. This support can come in many forms: book choice support, environmental support (places to comfortably sit, help with eliminating distraction, etc.), intentionally planned instructional small groups based on student strengths & needs, individual reading conferences, and authentic reading stations/centers (mostly in the primary grades). Without support in place, many students might not experience the success in reading that they all have a right to find.

A reading community cannot be established and continually nurtured without a sacred time each day set aside for supported independent reading. In my own teaching schedule, this time occurs each day from the moment students walk in the door for about 25-40 minutes. Then, there is another supported reading time later in the day as well. With all of the distractions, interruptions, and schedule irregularities that take place in elementary schools (have I ever mentioned the lost hour in my classroom a few years back thanks to an ant invasion?), this guarantees my students will receive the reading support and time they need each day. All teaching schedules and situations are different, so I recommend taking a look at your schedule with the expectation that interruptions will arise, and selecting a time of day or two for daily supported independent reading with a contingency plan in case an interruption pops up. If you’d like to see sample schedules, here are two from my colleague’s kindergarten classroom and my own fifth grade classroom.

Whatever time of day you choose to dedicate to supported independent reading time, the key is to be consistent while still embracing flexibility. If reading time is interrupted, think about and have a plan for how you can fit it in later in the day.

If it seems that more time needs to be created in your school day, take a hard look at your schedule and ask yourself what you can eliminate. If a literacy coach or a like-minded supportive grade level partner is available, you might consider asking them for schedule advice as well. Many teachers find more time in their schedule when they eliminate old practices like morning seat work (worksheets to keep kids busy) and Daily Oral Language drills, which have not been shown to improve students’ authentic reading and writing.

In the words of one of my fifth graders from this past school year, “Reading books I love everyday and talking about them with my friends was the best part of 5th grade!” I’m so excited to support more students find this joy within the reading community this school year!

In the coming posts in this series, I’ll discuss more on supporting students during supported independent reading time. Stay tuned!

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Up Next in the Series: #4: Make the Shift to Asset-Based Thinking. All posts in this blog series can be found linked here. To learn more about daily supported independent reading time, chapter two in Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading has you covered!