Author Conversations: Kim Yaris and Jan Burkins

We recently sat down with Kim Yaris and Jan Miller Burkins, authors of the new book Reading Wellness: Lessons in Independence and Proficiency. During the conversation they talked about how teaching kids the importance of the heavy lifting their brains do while figuring things out during reading helps them become more independent readers and learners. Watch the video below and then preview the book online!

Add comment October 6th, 2014

Quick Tip Tuesday: Buzz About Books

“Buzz About Books” is just one of the many classroom activities Steven Layne discusses in his new book, Igniting a Passion for Reading: Successful Strategies for Building Lifetime Readers. Steven says that activties like “Buzz About Books” allow the kind of free-flowing, vibrant discussion to take place that truly gets students excited about books and reading. It also helps teachers get a good picture of what their students are reading outside of the classroom.

The best decision I ever made was to stop trying to grade or assess these types of discussions with my students. As you have read in the earlier chapters, I advocate putting a lot of things in place to help match “the right reader with the right book” (Lesesne 2003). One way to all but guarantee stronger discussions about independent reading choices is by doing everything we can to get kids the right books in the first place.

I realize there can be some confusion when I begin talking about book discussions because some readers will wonder if I am talking about books used for literature circle discussions, novels selected for whole-class book study and discussion, and so on. Let me be clear. In this particular chapter, I am focusing on students’ independent reading selections; in other words, everyone in the class is quite possibly reading something different — something that has been self-selected. I might have any number of things happening in my classroom, but there has always been an expectation that, in addition to our major unit of study, kids are doing some independent reading at home (not every night necessarily) and in school (with time I provide). It’s important to me to honor the text they are reading independently, and some time scheduled for book discussions without the trappings of assessment has worked brilliantly. I decided long ago to call these book-discussion sessions “Buzz About Books.”

As with most everything discussed in this book, readers can alter my suggestions to suit a particular building, grade level, time frame, and so forth. I tend to assign students to discussion groups at the very beginning of the year, so there is some degree of incentive for kids to keep moving forward in their books. If students are in groups with their best friends, they can cover for one another more easily than will happen otherwise. Failure to be engaged in independent reading is not typical when kids are being matched with the right books; however, the reality of discussing what’s happening in your story with peers who aren’t necessarily your best friends can keep some kids motivated to move forward in their books simply because having nothing to say in their discussion group makes them uncomfortable. As the year progresses and kids get hooked by the reading bug, I often begin letting them create their own discussion groups.

When kids gather together in their groups, the meeting time is generally about fifteen minutes. Groups are sized at four, ideally; I go to five rather than three so that when there are absences the group can still have enough members to feel functional. My objective as the teacher is to join a group and remain with them for the entire discussion session — moving to a new group next time. At the beginning of the year, I often will circulate in an effort to be sure groups are getting off to a great start. Within a couple of weeks, though, I am certain to be a full-fledged participant in the process, which means I don’t simply sit in with groups and observe or listen; I participate.

The most miraculous thing I have done to make these groups functional is to supply a focus item for them to discuss when they meet. They know that they can spiral their discussion off in any direction — ask one another questions or whatever — but having a focused topic with which to open the discussion helps everyone become more active participants. Figures 6.1 and 6.2 provide a complete list of the topics I have developed for these book discussions. For younger readers, topics can be adapted as necessary from my “Buzz About Books!” discussion starters

Teachers working with older readers can select from the large number of samples I have provided (Figure 6.2) without much need for alteration and reuse many of these throughout the course of the year. Each focus topic is broad enough that it can be easily discussed, despite the fact that every student is likely reading a totally different book. When a group meets, they can move in any order. I leave all of that up to them. Each student in turn will show the group the book he or she is reading so group members can begin to become familiar with the cover. The student will then identify the title, the author, and the page number he or she is currently on and rate the book from one to five stars thus far. Once this brief information has been provided, the student will address the focus topic with regard to the book he or she is reading.

Occasionally, I will have students freewrite about a focus topic for a few minutes. I may then have them share their writing in groups orally or turn it into a carousel, with everyone’s piece moving around the groups for silent reading. At other times, I ask for volunteers to read orally for the class. I have been known to collect the writing at times and just read through everyone’s piece to see how things are coming.

Add comment April 20th, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Independent reading conferences

In this week’s Quick Tip, Tony Stead shows what an independent reading conference looks like in his classroom as he helps a student select a just-right book. Check out his recent book, Good Choice: Supporting Independent Reading and Response, K-6, for more sample conferences.

The Conference in Action

Once children know when they will be attending the conference and are prepared for the encounter, the conference can begin. The conference must be a focused event, so I follow a sequence of implementation procedures to help with this task. These procedures include the following:

Implementation Procedures

■ I ask the student to tell me what he or she has been working on in independent reading. This is based on the tasks set at the previous conference. These tasks stem from each student’s ability to internalize the different strategies modeled in the whole-class settings.

■ Once the student has identified his or her goals, I ask a series of questions based on the goals. I may also ask the student to read part of the text to me to check his or her fluency, phrasing, and expression. If the student is unable to identify his or her reading goals, I remind the student what they were. At this stage, I usually end the conference because it’s obvious that the student is not prepared. I reschedule the conference for another day and make sure the student works on established goals during independent reading.

■ If the child is struggling with the set goals, I provide the appropriate scaffolds and make recommendations. I make sure I follow up with the child before the next conference so that I am not waiting an entire week to see whether the student has internalized the modeled strategies. This follow-up is not in the form of an additional conference, but more of an informal conversation. The conference with Jessica on pages 117–119 demonstrates this procedure.

■ If the child appears to have accomplished the set goals, I congratulate him or her and set new goals. I record these goals in a notebook or conference record sheet. I also have the student record his or her new goals.

■ If I find that I have several students struggling with specific strategies or goals, I call them together for small-group instruction. If I find that the majority of my students are struggling, I reintroduce the focus in a whole-class setting.

The following are two transcripts from conferences that demonstrate the previously described procedure. The first is with Jessica from Betty Mason’s second-grade class. This conference shows what I do when a child is struggling with his or her set goals. The second is with Kirk from Peter’s fifth-grade class. In this conference, Kirk has achieved his set goals, so I concentrate on other aspects of his reading.

Conference with Jessica in Grade 2

Focus: Selecting Texts That Are Comfortable Reads

Tony: Hi, Jessica. Would you like to tell me what you’ve been working on in your reading?

Jessica: Getting books that are right for me.

Tony: What do you mean, “books that are right”?

Jessica: Well, ones that I can read the words.

Tony: Do you think understanding what the words are saying is also important?

Jessica: Yeah.

Tony: Did you find any?

Jessica: I got three of ’em.

Tony: That’s terrific. Would you like to read one of them to me?

Jessica begins reading a book about fish. Her reading of the text is slow and labored. She mispronounces many words. My running record reveals that this book is too hard for her. After she has read four pages, I stop her because she is struggling.

Tony: Jessica, I’m noticing that you are having problems with some of the words.

Jessica: Some of them are hard for me.

Tony: So do you find this is an easy book to read and understand?

Jessica: I can read some of it.

Tony: Do you understand it?

Jessica: Some bits.

Tony: That’s great if you can understand some of it. Is there another book in your book bag that’s a bit easier? Maybe a book where you can read nearly all of the words and understand what’s happening?

Jessica: Well, I think that they could be a bit hard.

Tony: Then why don’t you go back to the classroom library and find one that feels just right. Remember how we talked about using the chart to help you select comfortable texts?

I refer Jessica to the chart created in the whole-class mini-lesson. Refer to pages 93–94 in Chapter 6.

Tony: Do you think you can do that, Jessica? Or do you need more help? Maybe one of your friends can help you.

Jessica: I think I can do it.

Tony: That’s terrific, Jessica. I’d like you to do that for me, and after I’ve finished my next conference, I’m going to come over to see how it’s all going. Does that sound good?

Jessica: Yeah.

I write down Jessica’s goals on her conference record sheet. I also write down the words: “I’m going to find something I can read and understand” on an index card and give it to Jessica. This is her record of her set goals. This is put into her book bag so that she has her own record of what she is going to be working on in her reading.

Tony: Okay, Jessica. I’ve written down in my notes that you are going to find a text that you can read and understand. I’ve written this on a card for you. It says, “I’m going to find something I can read and understand.” So can you tell me what you’re going to work on?

Jessica: Find something I know how to read.

Tony: And not only be able to read but also be able to . . .

Jessica: Understand.

Tony: Excellent. I’ll be over soon to check how you’re going.

At the end of my next conference, I go over to see how Jessica is doing. She has selected two books that appear easier. I congratulate her on her selections and ask her to find a few more. I tell her that when I meet with her next, I want her to bring one of her new selections to share at the conference. If Jessica had again struggled making appropriate selections, I would either have provided her with further support, or met with her in a small group with other children who were encountering the same problem.

Add comment February 16th, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Independent reading and author studies

In his book Good Choice, Tony Stead outlines strategies that foster successful independent reading in grades K-6. In this week’s Quick Tip, Tony talks about author studies as a way for students to reflect on their own story writing and to encourage reflection about their reading.

Specific author studies are a valuable means of strengthening students’ understandings of plot, setting, recurring themes, connections, and literary devices such as mood, voice, and author craft.

As a classroom teacher, each year I would select a specific author and provide my children with copies of the author’s books to explore. The author study would take from one to three weeks, and we would spend between twenty and thirty minutes daily studying the works of that author. The authors I chose depended on the suitability of their materials, which was based on the interests and the reading levels of my children. For instance, an author study on Eric Carle was terrific for first graders because most children were able to read his books independently, and many of his books were about animals and insects, which are of high interest to first-grade children. Note: Author studies can be on books that children cannot read independently. In this scenario, the teacher can read the author’s books to the children, which will provide the springboard for discussions.

First, I collect as many copies of the author’s publications as possible. In addition to publications I already own, I also collected books from the school library and my local public library. When implementing an author study be sure to have enough books for each child to have access to his or her own book. If this is not possible, then two children can share one book and the children can buddy read. An assortment of the author’s publications are best, rather than having twenty-seven copies of the same book, because I want my children to look for recurring themes and author craft. After I have amassed enough books, I place them into several baskets and label the baskets with the author’s name.

I begin the study by reading one of the books to the class to immerse them in the author’s works and promote discussions. After the reading, the children can talk about the book based on discussion areas I provide. I place these headings on a chart and record children’s observations.

Over the next few weeks, the children read different books by the selected author, either individually or in pairs. At the end of each session, I bring the children together to discuss what they have discovered and add their findings to the chart. For the section titled “About the Author,” the biographical details in the books, together with researching websites about the selected author, provide the children with a wealth of information.

It is also useful to write a class letter to the author and send this to the author’s publisher. I tell the children that the author may not reply because he or she is busy writing or illustrating new books, but we usually receive a letter from the publisher. Most well-known authors have someone to handle letters from children; sometimes a signed letter from the author will arrive. The children are thrilled when this occurs. This chart acts as a great springboard for children to examine their own story writing and the craft they are using to hook their readers. I also encourage children to conduct their own author studies of their favorite authors and give them an organizer to assist them with the task. Refer to Appendix H for a copy.

Discussion categories can vary and will differ depending on the grade area taught. I found that when conducting author studies with children in upper elementary school grades, the categories became more specific about the author’s craft and included mood, voice, use of suspense, recurring themes, character traits, and emotions the author evoked. For children in lower elementary school grades, the categories were simple and dealt primarily with likes, dislikes, reactions, and connections.

1 comment December 8th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: What is an independent reading workshop?

In this week’s Quick Tip Kathy Collins, author of Growing Readers and Reading for Real, takes you on a “tour” of several classrooms during independent reading time.

In many classrooms around the country, teachers have given careful consideration to ways and methods of providing their students with time to read independently, and of course, their conceptions differ. Imagine that right now, you and I are going on a professional journey together (paid for in full by our districts, of course). Our quest is to step inside classrooms and observe what’s happening in the name of independent reading so that our vision of the independent reading workshop becomes clear. Okay, grab your notebooks and let’s go.

Our first stop is at my school, P.S. 321 in Brooklyn, where I’ll show you the independent reading workshop in my classroom. My students are gathered in the meeting area, looking at and listening to me as I teach a mini-lesson on a comprehension strategy that proficient readers use. Each day I begin independent reading time with a mini-lesson like this one in which I offer whole-class, direct, explicit reading instruction. I wrap up the mini-lesson (which typically takes less than 10 minutes) by sending the students back to their reading spots for private reading time. It takes a minute or so for the room to settle. The children have their own plastic file holders with several books inside. They are reading a range of texts, from easy books with one line of text on a page to chapter books, because each child is reading a book at his or her independent reading level. I assess the children often so that I can guide them toward the books that match them as readers. As the children read independently, I offer individualized direct instruction during one-on-one conferences with readers. I take notes about each child during these reading conferences.

After 20 minutes I tell the children it’s partner reading time. I briefly remind them of one of the ways we’ve learned to talk well about books. The children quickly move around to meet with their reading partners. The noise level in the classroom has risen slightly as the children begin reading together and talking about their books with their partners. During partner reading time, I confer with some partners and then I gather four children for small-group direct instruction. Today, I’m supporting a small group of readers in a guided reading session because, based on my assessments, they are ready to move to the next level of text.

After about 10 minutes of partner reading time, I stand up and again get the children’s attention. “First graders, I hate to say it, but reading time is over.” There is an audible group sigh, and a couple of children plead, “Just another minute, we have to finish talking about this page!” I smile and tell them to use a sticky note to save their spot so they can continue their conversation tomorrow. Then I say, “Please put the book you’re going to read at home tonight in your take-home bag, and bring your bag and your body to the meeting area for share time.” For the next few minutes the children gather again in the meeting area, and I share some of the great work I observed during reading time today.

During this visit to my classroom, you witnessed instruction throughout the independent reading workshop. The instruction began when I modeled and demonstrated a reading strategy in the whole-class mini-lesson. Then, as children worked independently and with partners, I coached and instructed them during reading conferences. I pulled a small group of children together to offer more assessment-based instruction. Finally, during the teaching share, you saw that I reinforced the day’s lesson by sharing some of the ways children were successful with the strategy I taught.

The next stop on our journey is my old elementary school, where independent reading is known as silent sustained reading or SSR. As we go into a classroom, we listen as the teacher instructs the children to take their SSR books out of their desks. “Remember that this is a quiet time,” she reminds them. As we look around, we notice that the children are reading a huge variety of books, and the room is very quiet. I used to look forward to SSR time when I was a student. We only had it twice a week: on Wednesdays after library time, and on Friday afternoons, and it was exciting because our teacher would let us read any book that we brought in or borrowed from the library.

Let me be honest here: what excited me most about SSR wasn’t necessarily having time to read my own book. What I really looked forward to was the possibility of “getting the call.” My teacher randomly picked children who would get to be her helpers during SSR time. Oh, how I hoped my name would be chosen! I loved to be a helper and do things like use the staple remover to take down the construction paper jack-o’-lanterns with accordion legs in order to make way for cornucopias and five-finger turkeys. I longed to be the one to collate and staple homework packets for the following week.

Unfortunately, during those many SSR times when my name wasn’t picked, I had trouble concentrating on reading my book. I was distracted as I watched my lucky classmates hand masking-tape loops up to our teacher as she stood precariously on bookshelves putting up the maps of the continents we had colored during social studies. During SSR time, the teacher may or may not be teaching reading. My teacher spent SSR time catching up on the other work she needed to do with the help of some eager children. It seems that often SSR time is less an instructional opportunity and more of a management structure that enables teachers to get some other things done while children are quietly looking at books.

Our next stop is a first-grade classroom during literacy center time. The teacher is meeting with a small group of children for guided reading at a cashew-shaped table. The rest of the children are working in small groups around the room. Some are plugged into the tape recorder at the listening center, and others have Big Books and shared reading texts spread out on the floor. A group of children are practicing spelling and making words with magnetic letters. Almost everyone seems busy and engaged. As we continue looking around, we see a group of children sitting at a table with a basket of books in the middle, all reading books from the basket and debating about who has the scariest Halloween costume. This conversation about costumes began when two of the children were looking together at the book Rattlebone Rock.

I ask the children what they are doing at this center. One child looks up and says, “It’s the independent reading center. We’re reading Rattlebone Rock. This is the browsing basket.” Again, like SSR time in the previous classroom, the independent reading time in this classroom is a management structure that enables the teacher to do something else, in this case, to meet with guided reading groups. The teacher is not teaching directly into the children’s independent reading because she is working with one guided reading group after another. When she finishes the second of the three guided reading groups, she transitions the students into another center.

The next school we visit is in a district where independent reading is called DEAR time, or “Drop Everything And Read.” During DEAR time everybody in the school, including the principal, the custodian, and the guidance counselor, stops what they are doing to read something, anything. As we walk around the school, we see adults reading catalogs, professional literature, district memos, magazines, novels, and newspapers. We see children sitting in their seats reading a variety of texts as well. The building is relatively quiet as everyone focuses for a while on his or her own reading.

The obvious power of DEAR time is that a school becomes a community of readers. It’s exciting for children to see grown-ups around them reading, in much the same way as it can be thrilling for children when a teacher joins a game of tag at recess or the principal sits beside them in the cafeteria and eats her lunch. During DEAR time, however, if everyone is dropping everything to read, no explicit reading instruction is going on. Of course, the power of modeling reading is important, but we have to ask, “Is that enough?”

Now, as our journey nears its end, let’s talk about what we observed. In each of the classrooms I’ve described, the children were, in fact, reading self-chosen books independently. One of the main differences, however, between the independent reading workshop in my classroom and independent reading time in the next three examples (SSR, independent reading during literacy centers, and DEAR time) is the absence or presence of direct, explicit instruction. In some classrooms the only instruction children receive during independent reading time is on management and procedures, because the teacher is engaged with other tasks (e.g., her own reading, her to-do list, or guided reading groups). By contrast, during the independent reading workshop, the teacher provides whole-class, individual, and small-group direct, explicit reading instruction to her students. In addition, when children read independently during independent reading workshop, they read just-right books, which are books that match their independent reading levels. Children can read their just-right books with fluency, comprehension, and at least 90–95 percent accuracy (Calkins 2001).

1 comment September 29th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Making connections with nonfiction

In Reality Checks: Teaching Reading Comprehension with Nonfiction, K-5, author Tony Stead outlines practical approaches to ensure that all children can become confident and competent readers of nonfiction. In today’s Quick Tip, he talks about how he selects nonfiction texts that help students make connections to their own lives, thus enhancing their comprehension.

It is independent reading time in Jackie Martinez’s fourth-grade classroom, and the children are immersed in their reading. They have been making nonfiction selections as part of their daily reading, and it is reflected in the wealth of informational books scattered across the tables. There is almost a dead quiet in the room as the children hungrily devour their selections, but this is suddenly broken by Rachel’s quiet sobs at the back of the room. As I approach her, I notice she is reading a book about dogs and has the page open to a section on the Labrador retriever.

She looks up at me through tearful eyes and says, “It’s too sad. Miranda has gone, and she could do everything that these dogs can do.” I quickly realize that these tears are not from physical pain but from mental anguish. Rachel had lost her dog Miranda only three days earlier.

As sad as this event was, it confirmed that real comprehension occurs when a reader makes this type of connection with a text. Even though it is important for readers to be able to recall facts and locate new information, it is when they connect with the information they read that even deeper meaning occurs.

Readers naturally make a host of connections as they read and this is especially true of nonfiction, yet rarely do we consider informational texts an avenue for such connections. We rely on narrative as our main source of initiating discussions on connections with self, other texts, and the world. Yet connections with nonfiction are powerful, especially when children bring some kind of background knowledge to the piece being discussed. In Rachel’s case, the valuable information in the piece on dogs is not where her focus lies. Sure she is finding out valuable information about dogs that she will no doubt be able to discuss if asked, but her thinking is locked into the memories of her deceased Labrador, and the text is providing a springboard for these memories. This connection with informational reading I understand well, for nothing is more wonderful than reading a piece about a foreign place I have visited. I am absorbing the information I’m reading, but it is when my thinking meanders to past adventures in that place that I am truly connecting with the text.

This concept of making connections with nonfiction was one I had been experimenting with in Silvia Conto’s grade 1/2 split classroom in New York. I had intentionally started in a primary classroom because I believed this was a fairly new concept with young children. Although it is true that many teachers of children in early grades encourage their learners to make connections with nonfiction when an issue arises, I think it is more of an impromptu happening. For example, if the teacher happens to be reading a piece that mentions spiders, at best a handful of children will get to share past experiences with them. Children are rarely given time to make such connections and thus are never able to build on past experiences and go deeper with their thinking.

I began taking this notion of connections deeper by revisiting Harvey Daniels’s book on literature circles, specifically the revised edition, which has a notable section on nonfiction. Daniels sees making connections as an important component of nonfiction discussions: “Just as with novels, we want kids to capture their responses as they read and bring to the discussion their questions, connections, feelings, judgments, words, phrases, and doodles” (2002, p. 202).

I also revisited Aidan Chambers’s publication on book talk titled Tell Me, for I had used it many times in the past when helping my children make connections with narrative and wanted to see how I could transfer these strategies to nonfiction.

I selected the text Winter by K. Pike, from the the Go Facts series. I selected a text on seasons for a number of reasons. Primarily I wanted a book with content to which all the children could make some kind of connection. If we are to acknowledge Johnston’s insight that meaning is generated by making connections with experience, then it needed to be content with which every child had had experience. This was no easy task, because even though I had countless great pieces of nonfiction on a range of topics, I knew many of my children had little experience with the subject matter in these texts and would therefore become silent when discussions were initiated. I often hear teachers complain of children having limited background knowledge and wonder if this is accurate. I think selective background knowledge is a more accurate term.

All children come with a range of background experiences in life; it’s just that some are more selective than others. Although children who have spent extensive time sitting in front of a television or computer screen may not have the worldly experiences of those who spend time reading and going on excursions with their parents, they still have a wealth of background knowledge; it’s just highly specific to television and games.

The topic of winter also seemed a wise choice because not only were we in the midst of the season, but it was also part of a unit of study on seasons being explored in Silvia’s classroom. In this way I could marry the language process of making connections with the science content of seasons. In effect I was integrating the curriculum. That is not to say that all texts selected for making connections need to be directly linked to content studies. See Chapter 11 for information on integrating content studies with language processes.

When selecting the text, I also ensured that the vocabulary was simple. I didn’t want to spend time discussing complex vocabulary, because that was not the focus of my lesson. I made sure all the children could see the book because the illustrations were important, especially for making connections. I knew these visual sources of literacy would act as a trigger for many children when it came to discussions.

In addition to these considerations, I take other factors into account when selecting nonfiction texts for the purpose of making connections:
■ Select texts that enable all children to connect with the content.
■ Make sure the text is not loaded with complex vocabulary that will compromise comprehension.
■ Include texts that deal with the content being explored in science and social units.
■ Include texts that raise questions. This will act as a springboard for conversations.
■ Incorporate texts that have illustrations and use them to fuel discussions.
■ Select texts that allow for one or more of the following connections: text-to-self, text-to-text, text-to-world.

Apart from selecting a suitable text, I had also set up a structure for questioning. Many times when we engage our learners with making connections with nonfiction, there is no real framework for discussion. We rely on generic questions such as: What does this piece make you think about? or What does this book remind you of? These questions are often too broad, especially for beginning readers, to be starting points for discussion.

I wanted the children to explore three major types of connections: text to self, text to text, and text to world. My questioning would be critical in encouraging them to think specifically about each type. Trying to achieve all three in one session was pointless, so I broke the mini-lessons into four parts so that the children could have concentrated encounters with each connection, then finally put them together. Although it is true that good readers naturally interweave the three types of connections with a set text, it would take specific discussions with each to realize this goal. Having selected the text and the focus, I brought the children together and began exploring making text-to-self connections. Although the learning experiences documented below were with Silvia’s grade 1/2 split class, they are applicable to children in kindergarten as well.

Add comment June 9th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Bringing tweens back to books

In Naked Reading author Teri Lesesne draws on her extensive experience as a teacher and consultant to examine ways that educators can help stoke kids’ — especially tweens’ — interest in books. In the first three chapters of her book she discusses the reasons some tweens are turned off from reading. In Chapter 4 she moves on to offer some remedies. She uses the acronym TARGET to describe the six elements that are essential in helping kids become excited about books: Trust, Access, Response, Guidance, Enthusiasm, and Tween-appeal. In this week’s Quick Tip, Teri talks about Trust.

First and foremost, our students need to know that they can trust us when it comes to books. They can trust that we know them well enough and we know where they are developmentally. Only then can we successfully recommend books that will excite and motivate them to read. I discuss the development of students in Chapter 1. At the beginning of the school year, it might be a good idea to give students a brief survey to get to know them and their reading habits better. While surveying instruments are available from a variety of sources, I prefer to construct my own— something short that will not fatigue the students or increase the time it will take me to go through them all quickly (and, as a bonus, students will not resent having to fill out one more form for me). Consider giving students a checklist of different genres and formats to see if your classroom (and, for that matter, the school) library meets their expressed interests.

I suggest beginning with this quick and easy checklist and then moving on to more elaborate questionnaires and surveys as the year progresses. A second step in this process, then, could be to give students a checklist to assess their attitudes toward books and reading. There are already-published instruments, such as the Estes Scale, that can be used for this step; however, it is also a simple matter to construct one for your classroom’s use. Begin with a series of statements about books and reading that are both positive and negative. Sample statements might include:
In my spare time I enjoy reading.
I spend my own money on books.
Reading when I don’t have to is a waste of time.
I don’t see the need to read outside of school.

Students respond to these statements using a Likert scale, with responses ranging from Strongly Agree to Agree to No Opinion to Disagree to Strongly Disagree. How students respond to each item nets a score from 1 to 5. For example, students who strongly agree to the first two statements that are positive in nature would receive a score of 5 points for each one. Likewise, if they respond with strongly disagree to the second two negatively worded statements; they would also receive 5 points each.

On the other hand, students who disagreed with the first two statements and agreed with the second set would receive one point for each of the four statements. Thus, the score of someone with a positive attitude would score a total of 20 points on the four statements; students with less positive attitudes would score lower. Again, you can easily construct such a scale and use it with your students or select from other, already established attitudinal scales.

Once you know more about reading habits, interests, and attitudes, you can begin to plan which books will become part of the classroom library. Note that this kind of evaluation needs to be done for all classes and each year, since students and their interests change over time. When I first began asking my students about the books they preferred to read, romance was the number one response from girls while boys preferred fantasy as their top choice. While fantasy and romance still appear on the final tallies, many girls now read fantasy (though boys have not picked up the romance novel as a favorite), and the popularity of graphic novels, manga, and anime has increased dramatically. A few years ago, I would not have included these categories on the checklist, nor would novels in verse (as distinguished from poetry) have appeared a decade ago. Fads come and go in terms of books. For years, I could not keep enough copies of Sweet Valley High on the shelves for my female readers. Ditto Goosebumps and Choose Your Own Adventure some years later. Now those have been replaced by other series such as the Lemony Snicket books.

Our students also have to trust that we do not have ulterior motives in recommending books that we are not attempting to “teach” them something as a result of their reading. One of my favorite children’s books is Everybody Needs a Rock by Byrd Baylor, with illustrations by Peter Parnall. The narrator talks about the importance of finding your own special rock and the rules you must follow if the rock is to be truly special. I love this book for its simple yet elegant rhythms, for the incredibly awe-inspiring artwork done in earth tones, and for the beautiful allegory it presents me, as a lover of books. Each semester I open classes in children’s literature with a read-aloud of this remarkable book and then proceed to explain the allegory I develop from Baylor’s rules. The rock is the foundation if you will, of a literacy-rich classroom. The rules for finding the perfect rock, for finding the right book, still apply. One of the rules is “always sniff your rock.” Kids have a better sense of smell and can tell a rock’s origin from sniffing. This rule I liken to those kids who can smell a lesson coming a mile away.

I still remember his name after more than twenty years: Lionel. He handed back a book I had suggested with an expression that only a twelve-year-old can carry off successfully. “Oh,” he sneered, “this is one of those books that’s supposed to teach me something, huh? No thanks.” The book was one that talked about becoming a better student. Lionel was struggling in my class, and I innocently thought a book about how to study more effectively might kill two birds with one stone. Not so.

I learned two important lessons. First, do not try to find books that address problems students might be having in class. This process, called bibliotherapy, can have disastrous consequences. After my daughter died a few years ago, well-meaning teachers encouraged my grandchildren, Natalie, Cali, and Corrie, to read books where a main character died. What those kids did not want was to be reminded of their loss. Instead, what they needed was to find some relief from their sadness. We read books with gentle good humor, happy to find a reason to laugh. It has only been recently, some four years after their mother’s death, that the girls are reading books like The Afterlife by Gary Soto and The Sledding Hill by Chris Crutcher.

The second lesson is just as important: as teachers we have to be careful about how much we use books for instructional purposes. It is perfectly fine to study a few short stories, poems, a play, and even a novel as a group in order to learn about the critical attributes of genres, the elements of fiction, or the author’s voice and style. If every single book a student reads has to become part of a lesson, however, students will soon learn to dislike books, even those written specifically for them and for pleasure reading. Too many worksheets can also kill. Too many questions turn reading into just another lesson. Donald Graves once remarked that if we grade all the writing our kids are producing we are not doing enough writing with our classes. I think the same is true for books and reading. If we have a follow-up to every book, every read-aloud, every booktalk, we are not doing much to motivate readers. Think about it this way: after you read a book, what do you want to do? Do you sometimes just want to move on to the next book? Certainly you do not rush out to make a diorama to take to your colleagues at school. You probably do not write an official book report. Instead, sometimes it is sufficient to simply move on.

Let’s think about allowing the same freedom to our students. It will go a long way in developing the trust. Chapter 5 offers some suggestions for assessing the reading of your students. Finally, students must trust that we will not shy away from tough subjects and challenging books but, rather, provide books that present as much of the truth as possible. For instance, as I am writing this, a novel entitled Rainbow Party by Paul Ruditis is making headlines due to its content. Basically, this novel centers on a party given by a group of teens where oral sex will be performed. It is an intense book that is frank in its presentation of sexual scenarios, so frank that most bookstore chains are refusing to carry the book. Now if I were a middle school teacher, I may not have this controversial book as part of my classroom collection. But I would know of the book, would have read it, and would be able to offer an assessment of it to students and parents.

Rainbow Party is an extreme case. It might not be the classic that Forever has proven to be. But it does I think indicate how we need to approach books of a controversial nature. As a teacher, Go Ask Alice was always a part of my classroom collection. I do not think most of my students were experimenting with drugs, but I do think that most of them were curious about the subject. Go Ask Alice afforded them the chance to examine the subject safely within the confines of a book.

Add comment April 21st, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Independent reading with ELLs

This week’s Quick Tip about working with English Language Learners comes from Emelie Parker and Tess Pardini, authors of “The Words Came Down!” English Language Learners Read, Write, and Talk Across the Curriculum, K-2 (2006). Throughout the book, Emelie and Tess discuss ways to use daily routines, visual cues, and physical action to build a classroom community where primary ELL students thrive. In Chapter 5 on reading workshop, for example, they provide this example of using a “bubble space” metaphor to introduce independent reading time:

After the whole-group read-aloud and mini-lesson, it is time to break up for independent reading. At this time, the students read from their own reading boxes. The boxes contain familiar books that they reread for practice. Each time they reread a book, their understanding deepens and their control of phrasing, fluency, and expression increases, so this is an essential element of our reading time. Their reading boxes also contain books that are at their instructional level, requiring them to do some reading work that is appropriate for them. We have introduced all these books during guided reading lessons. Even the students who are preemergent readers have their own reading work to do independently. If they do not have appropriate-leveled text to hold their attention, they will become bored, reluctant to engage with the text, and possibly resort to distracting behavior.

A favorite lesson for some primary teachers at Bailey’s [Elementary School in Fairfax County, Virginia] to introduce children to the expectations of independent reading is a reading response to a Big Book called Bubble Gum by Gail Jorgensen. The children in the book learn to blow a bubble bigger and bigger and bigger. The last page has a great illustration of a popped bubble all over the children. The class enjoys acting out an innovation on the text of Bubble Gun. Without speaking, they pretend to unwrap gum, stick it in their mouth, and blow and blow. As they blow, they spread their arm outs wider and wider. They carefully walk with their arms spread out to a place in the room where no one can pop their bubble. If a child steps into or sits too close to someone’s “bubble space” then the balloon pops. Loud words can also pop a bubble.

After the children can do this without fuss, the teacher explains that they will now take books inside their bubble to read alone. Later, after children learn to read independently in a bubble space, we show them how to let a friend come in and sit shoulder to shoulder in their bubble for buddy reading.

Add comment December 16th, 2008

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