Who’s ready to learn about the habits that good readers develop? If you haven’t read the series introduction, check it out so you know where we’re going in this blog post and future ones.
In Part 1, we’re going to be focusing on the habits that good readers practice and in Part 2, we’ll take a look at reading comprehension strategies that good readers develop.
Finding Just Right Books
One of the reader habits that I teach at the very beginning of the school year is how to find “just right” books.
What are “Just Right” books?
These are books that are both interesting and comprehend-able for a reader.
While the phrase “just right” books is not mine, I learned about this concept in my college courses. I love starting off the school year talking about finding and choosing “just right” books because it gives kids the freedom and assurance that they can choose books that they will both enjoy and understand.
Why is this habit important to teach?
First, it helps foster a love for reading in your young charges.
I’m sure you, as a reader, can remember having to read books in school that didn’t really interest you, or that you didn’t enjoy. (Sorry, Mrs. Helton, but that includes some classics from AP English!)
It’s a sad fact to me that since kids are required to read certain books in school, they often don’t learn how to find books for themselves that are enjoyable. And then, as adults, they also feel guilty for not reading more classics or nonfiction books.
Don’t get me wrong: classics are classics for a reason, and nonfiction is great for learning, but they are not the only books worth reading in the world!
Why do we limit ourselves to shoulds and oughts in reading? Do you do that with your shows on Netflix or the games you play when you’re relaxing? Why, then, do we think we need to do that with books?
The only “should” about reading, for kids or adults, is that it should be a joy.
And it can be a joy for you or your child, even if it hasn’t been a joy before this moment.
While I do assign books at various points throughout the year, as much as possible, I try to give kids choices in what they read. When books are not sufficiently interesting or fun, it does not foster a love of reading in their little souls. Instead, it fosters dread toward reading. Not what we’re going for!
Another reason it’s important to teach this habit is that kids need to realize that they should be able to understand what they read. Books aren’t meant to be confusing and tiring. But if they haven’t been taught how to find the ones that are just the right amount of challenging, they wind up getting frustrated trying to slog through books that seem like they’re good, but really aren’t working for them.
If they pick books that are too easy, they’re not growing as readers. If they pick books that are too hard, they can’t understand half of what’s in there, and then they miss out on the richness and wonder of beautiful prose and breathtaking stories.
Being able to find books that are “just right” for their reading ability is essential.
So when I teach about finding just right books, I explain that we’re discussing this so that they have the tools they need to find books that they’ll like reading and will be able to understand what they read.
After all, two of my main goals for the school year is that they’ll learn to love to read and will get better at understanding what they read.
How do I teach finding just right books?
I create an anchor chart and have a discussion around the idea of a just right book. Again, I can’t take credit for the idea. I found other teachers’ anchor chart examples on Pinterest, like this:
and combined it into my own chart to fill as I discussed it with my class:
Clearly, I am not as interested in making my anchor charts as awesome-looking as the ones on Pinterest. What I’m more concerned about is the conversation I have with my students and helping them understand how to choose books that work for them.
I decided to combine the “5 Finger Rule” with the 3-column chart because I think it’s important to help kids develop the nebulous idea of metacognition (how their brains feel as they’re reading), while also giving them a concrete check to use (the 5 Finger Rule) to help them decide if the book is just right.
My anchor chart never looks exactly the same from year to year, because the way that students verbalize their ideas is slightly different each year. The important thing is guiding students to think through the different components that contribute to a book being too easy, too hard, or just right.
Too Easy Books
I usually start with the “Too Easy” column, and ask kids what books feel like and look like when they’re too easy.
Keep in mind that I teach upper elementary, so the descriptions are going to look a bit different if you’re teaching lower elementary grades.
But some of those ideas still apply. When a book is too easy, readers:
- don’t really learn anything new
- can speed read and still understand the book perfectly well
- know all or nearly all of the words and those words are usually “easy” or “simple” words
- feel bored when reading, or not interested in it
and the book:
- seems super short and simple
- has few words per page
- has lots of pictures/images per page
- contains short sentences
When helping students think of what too easy books are like, I ask them to think of books that they have read to their younger siblings or cousins – or any small child in their lives. I usually get responses of “Ohhhh yeahhhhh like baby books! The words are so big and there’s only like three words on a page!” “And the books are so short too!” “And boring!”
Once their pumps are primed, the ideas generally flow easily. But if/when they get stuck, and I still have a few more points I want to add to the anchor chart, I ask them questions such as:
- When you’re reading a too easy book, how does your brain feel? [responses might be: bored, uninterested, not challenged]
- When you’re reading a too easy book, what do the pages look like? [not many words on a page, short sentences, mostly pictures]
- How long are books that are too easy? [This one is more nebulous, but often they’ll say things like, “super short!” or “less than (x number) of pages.” It’s good to remind kids here that just because a book is short doesn’t automatically make it too easy, but if we’re talking about, say board books, then it’s a pretty safe guess that it’s too easy]
- How many of the words do you know when you’re looking at a too easy book? (this is where we begin to talk about the 5 Finger Rule idea)
Too Hard Books
After discussing books that are too easy, we then discuss the “Too Hard” category of books. Like Goldilocks, it’s easier to figure out what is too easy and too hard before we can pinpoint what is “just right” for readers.
When books are too hard, readers:
- have to read really slowly -and reread
- struggle to understand
- don’t have much background knowledge about the topic
- feel confused or uninterested or they get tired easily
and the books:
- might be really, really long
- have lots of unknown words that are hard to figure out
- have tiny font with lots and lots of lines of print on the page
- very few, if any, pictures/images
I especially like to point out here that even for me, as an adult/teacher, there are books that are too hard for me.
I give the example of reading medical texts: I don’t know a lot of the medical vocabulary, so those books tire me out, and I have a hard time staying interested or understanding what I’m reading.
And what is the point of reading? Understanding!
I find that sharing my experience of too hard books brings a sense of relief to my students. It’s a “What? You too?” moment that helps normalize the feeling of encountering a book that’s too hard.
Another two points I like to make:
- The length doesn’t automatically make it too hard. Inevitably, some students will declare that they love reading books that are 500+ pages. And I tell them, “That’s awesome! Sometimes I love to read long books too! But reading isn’t the same for everyone, so for some people, really long books are too hard.”
- If a student says that tiny sized font on a page makes a book too hard, I love to point out that yes, the way words are on a page makes a difference for readers, too. I’ve had at least one students with dyslexia in my class every year, and this is especially true for them. Again, I like to normalize the experience and help point out the variety of readers in our community.
Usually, kids don’t have a hard time thinking of what makes a book too hard, because they’ve all encountered too hard books in their brief reading lives. However, if they’re struggling to think of things, I use the same four questions that I used for the Too Easy column so that we can compare and contrast a bit.
Just Right Books
Then, finally, we get to the “Just Right” column.
For the kids, the tricky part is still putting into words what makes a book feel good for their brains, but it’s easier once we’ve thought about what they’re not.
For the adult/teacher, the tricky part is writing things down in a way that allows for the range of reading abilities that we have in the group.
I like to focus more on how reading a just right reader feels to the reader, rather than what the pages look like, since I usually have some kids ready to read tiny-font books, while others still prefer lots of pictures.
For just right books, readers:
- are interested and enjoy the book
- can read at a steady pace and understand what they’re reading
- their brain doesn’t get tired easily, but the book is just challenging enough to be interesting
- know some about the book’s topic, but learns new things while reading
- might encounter some unknown words, but not very many (between 1 and 5 per page)
and the book:
- may or may not have pictures
- has font that is comfortable to read
- is a length where we can stay interested til the end – and probably, by this age (upper elementary), has chapters
At this point, I like to explicitly explain the “5 Word Rule.” It’s called the “5 Finger Rules” in the first anchor chart example above, but I’ve been calling it the 5 Word Rules. Whatever you call it, if we haven’t already talked about specific numbers of unknown/unfamiliar words, I add the specific numbers to the chart in each column.
Then, it’s time to practice!
When I’m initially teaching this reader habit, I grab a bunch of books from my classroom library and ask them to read the first full page of the book. While they’re reading, they are supposed to be counting how many unknown words they have, while also paying attention to how their brains feel: does the book make their brains tired? Do they understand what’s going on in the book? And does the book interest them?
Then, on a scrap of paper, I ask them to write:
- The title of the book
- Rate it as too easy, too hard, or just right
- Tell why they chose that rating
Then I have each kid pass their book to the student next to them and do it again.
I often have kids complain that the book isn’t right for them, and I smile and say, “Great! You’re using this reader habit!” But I often have a kid who is surprised that the random book I hand them, which they never would have picked out for themselves, is actually a just right book and has caught their attention.
After the initial lesson, we keep talking about just right books in a few different contexts throughout the year.
One is when I have one-on-one reading conferences and am checking in with them. I’ll often ask, if I think a book is too easy or too hard for the child, if they’ve checked if it’s just right. Sometimes, they’ll admit that it’s a little hard, but they’re interested enough that they want to keep reading it. Other times, they’ll admit with relief that it’s too hard, and they’d rather stop reading it. That allows me the opportunity to suggest some books that I think might be just right for them, based on what I know about them as a reader.
Another time that we talk about just right books is when I allow students to preview the books they’ll be reading in literature circles/guided reading. I ask them to rank their top three choices and tell me whether it’s just right, too easy, or too hard. That helps me put everyone in groups based on their reading preferences (and only somewhat based on their “level.”)
It’s important, after teaching about this, to keep referring back to the idea of just right books as the students spread their wings in choosing appropriate books for themselves.
This is a new habit, which takes time to develop and cement in their reader lives.
Tips for Grownups at Home
Much of what I described above is specific to a traditional classroom context. However, if you homeschool, you can apply these ideas to the teaching that you do with your children – especially if they’re not naturally voracious readers.
But this idea can also be used at home by regular, non-teacher grownups!
Here are some ways to help the child in your life develop the habit of finding just right books:
- Talk about what makes a book “just right” – referring not just to difficulty level, but also to the content of the book and how interested they are in the topic.
- Reassure your young reader that they should be choosing books not that they think they should read, but that they enjoy reading.
- Listen to your little one as they talk. They often reveal topics and subjects they like that will translate to books: planets, horses, sports, science and technology…You name the topic, there’s been a book that’s been written about it.
- You have the privileged position of being able to help your kiddo discover books about what they love. While you might know that there’s a whole section in the library about planets, the child in your care might not. You can introduce them to that book shelf and watch their eyes light up in wonder as they see the riches in front of their eyes!
- Introduce them to all types of books and reading materials. This, too, helps them learn what books interest them, so they can practice finding books they love independently.
- Help them practice the 5 word rule described above. When they pull out a book that looks interesting to them, celebrate that and be excited! Then invite them to read the first few pages and ask, “How did your brain feel when you read it? Do you feel like you understand what it’s saying?” Then ask, “How many words were unfamiliar to you on the first page?”
- If a book is too easy or too hard, this is a great opportunity to help them practice choosing just right books. Remember that they’re still learning about themselves as readers and probably need the guidance from a trusted grownup in their life. If the book is too hard, and they’re really sad they can’t understand it yet, reassure them that they will be able to someday, especially if they keep reading lots of just right books now. Sometimes, that tantalizing book gives them a goal to aim for.
- While more than just classics are worth reading, not every book is created equal. Try finding quality books to put in their hands, which will help them see the possibilities of the world of books. If you want to check the content of a book that you haven’t read, and don’t have time to read it yourself, take a look at Common Sense Media or reviews on Amazon and Goodreads before putting the book in your child’s hands.
As you and your child practice finding just right books, their love for reading will grow because they’re reading books that are fascinating and that they understand. This little reader habit makes a world of difference in growing lifelong readers.
Previous post in this series:
Things Good Readers Do: Series Introduction