We’ve started talking in this series about the habits of good readers. Once we know what good readers do, we can start to practice them, have our little ones practice them, and help all of us become even better readers. Last post, I talked about how I teach kids how to find “just right” books.
The habit we’re discussing today is one that I didn’t really think much about before I reevaluated my approach toward teaching reading. But now that I have explicitly taught it, and have more freely practiced it in my own reading life, I am convinced it is an essential part of helping readers become independent and confident in their book choices.
There seems to be a fog of misconceptions and disagreement surrounding whether or not you’re a “good” reader if you don’t finish books.
But let me be clear: good readers don’t finish books.
Well, more accurately:
Good readers do not always finish every book that they start.
The misunderstanding surrounding this topic seems to stem from the idea that quitting – anything – is a character flaw. That being a quitter is bad.
But does not finishing a book or books make a person a quitter? Not at all!
Let’s be honest: who wants to finish a book they don’t like or is too hard for them? And how many adults actually do finish books they don’t enjoy or don’t understand? Not many!
So why is abandoning books something that good readers do?
Not every book is “just right” for every reader. We’re not all interested in the same things. See the previous post in this series for more about that. Not only that, though, sometimes even when a book is on a topic you’re interested in, it can turn out to be one of the most yawn-inducing texts you’ve ever read.
Put that thing down, and don’t bother picking it back up!
Unless, of course, like me, you need a book that will help you stick to a reasonable bedtime instead of one that keeps you up till ridiculously late (or should I say early?).
But otherwise, don’t spend your time forcing yourself to finish something that you don’t enjoy. We have to do that with some things in life, like laundry and dishes, but why would we do that with a hobby?
Another reason abandoning books can be good is that not every book is right at that particular time for a reader. (I’d like to cite author and career reader Anne Bogel on this idea. Also it’s another great post about abandoning books in your own reading life.)
Just because a reader chooses to abandon a book at any particular point doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll never take a crack at it again.
Case in point: a couple of years ago, I started reading a book recommended by a friend and decided it wasn’t for me right then. I remembered it last Sunday and read 66% of the book in one sitting right then. It’s right for me now, but it wasn’t then.
A third reason that abandoning books can be good is that it helps you notice get to know yourself (or your students/child[ren]) as a reader. If you’re tracking your reading, as we’ll talk about in the next post, you’ll be able to answer questions like, “What genres do I consistently dislike?” or “What do all of these abandoned books have in common?”. There aren’t always patterns to find, but it can help you get to know yourself more as a reader so you can be choosing more and more “just right” books.
As a teacher or grownup at home, looking for patterns in the books that the children in your care abandon can help you guide them in choosing books they do want to finish. Especially if a young reader abandons the majority of books that they start, it tells me that they’re struggling to find just right books for themselves and probably need some guidance. Read on for more.
Why teach this habit?
The idea that young readers need to be taught that they can “abandon” books is found in various education literature, but one place I particularly know it is found is in Fountas and Pinnell’s Guiding Readers and Writers: Teaching Comprehension, Genre, and Content Literacy.
Sidenote: It’s a big, honkin’ tome chock full of good ideas for how to teach independent readin and guided reading in third – sixth grades. Clocking in at over 500 pages (not including appendices), it’s definitely a book to use as a resource and not one you’d read straight through.
I bought it a few summers ago after it was recommended in The Book Whisperer, which is another place I’ve gotten a lot of my ideas for teaching reading. Though I do sometimes use it for reference, this year, it has served quite faithfully as a footrest for me at my desk while I teach every day on Zoom. #shortpeopleproblems
Fountas and Pinnell don’t really explain why we should teach this habit to kids. They simply state how to do it in a mini-lesson, off of which I base my lesson. However, I like to explain why something is worth learning – or, in this case teaching.
So here is why young readers need to know that they can abandon books:
- It helps them know that they have the freedom and choice to read books they like. Just because you start reading a book doesn’t mean you’re bound by oath to finish it.
- It helps them know that just because someone else liked a book doesn’t mean they have to like it too.
- It helps them explicitly think about good reasons for choosing to abandon a book. Kids aren’t always naturally reflective people and this is an important opportunity to help them practice metacognition in a concrete way.
How do I teach this reader habit?
In a very similar way to when I teach how to choose just right books: I use an anchor chart and class discussion.
The thing I like about using anchor charts is it serves as a record and summary of our class conversation. It isn’t a transcript, so you can’t, just by looking at it, know all of the thoughtful conversation that went into putting ideas on the chart. However, I let it hang up all year to remind students of some valid reasons why good readers don’t finish books.
While Fountas and Pinnell list even more reasons why readers might abandon books, here’s the anchor chart I created with my class last year (#preCovid), basing several ideas off F&P’s sample charts on page 149.
This lesson is one of my favorites to teach, because students tend to be surprised when I bring up the idea of good readers not finishing books. They have sadly been steeped in the tradition that good readers finish books, and if, for some reason, they don’t feel like finishing a book, then they must not be a good reader.
So when I say something like, “Today, we’re going to talk about another thing good readers do: abandon books,” I often get looks of confusion.
Of course, for my English learners, the confusion can stem from not knowing the definition of the word “abandon.” So at that point, I stop and define it – just to be sure we’re all on the same page, so to speak.
Then, I talk about what “giving a book a good chance” means. We talk about how abandoning a book after the first few pages or first chapter isn’t always giving a book a good chance. Some books get really good further in. I tell them that there’s no particular “rule” about how long to give a book a chance. Sometimes I’ve abandoned books at the 90% mark (though not often). Other times, after just 3 or 4 chapters.
I usually tell my students a rule of thumb of trying at least 4 chapters before deciding to abandon the book. (They like concrete suggestions. I don’t blame them.)
But then I ask them to volunteer reasons why they, as readers, have stopped reading a book.
Often, there’s an awkward silence.
I think, unfortunately, students aren’t used to their experiences being validated by a teacher or in class – especially not their seemingly negative ones. Again, that’s why I love this lesson. It normalizes their reading experience and gives them more confidence as readers.
If the silence goes on for too long, I usually volunteer one of my own book-abandoning experiences. As you can see from this month’s book review post, I have plenty of options to choose from.
Once I, or another student, get them started, their hands start flying up and they’re eager to share why they abandon books.
I LOVE when I see my struggling/reluctant readers raising their hands. They have this look of confidence and eagerness on their faces that I don’t normally see, because all of a sudden, they know the “right” answer. Or at least, a right answer.
It kinda flips the classroom around for a few moments, because the kids who usually raise their hands all the time are sometimes at a loss for how to contribute. They either know themselves better as readers, so they don’t have to abandon books as often, or they have never really thought about this idea, so it can take them a hot minute to catch up.
I relish the moments when I can instill confidence in the ones who lack it. This conversation about books is one way I can do that. It shows them that they might actually be better readers than they thought.
You can see from the image above, that the anchor chart truly is a record of our conversation. I’ve inserted, after the initial bullet point, clarifying words, or added another idea to a bullet point even when there’s not quite enough room for even spacing.
While I wouldn’t deem it Pinterest-worthy, it’s definitely hang-it-in-the-classroom-worthy because it reflects the thought process of the class. Brainstorming and discussing things aren’t necessarily linear or orderly. And that’s perfectly okay.
Here are some of the important points I make sure either I or someone else talks about. I can never really predict which points kids will have more to say about than others, so we can sometimes be rushed at the end. The point is to have a quality conversation, though, and those can’t be pre-programmed.
Good readers abandon books when:
- the book is “too” anything: easy, hard, or too long (it goes back to “just right” books being about difficulty and interest level)
- it is just plain boring or nothing ever seems to happen (or the pacing in general is off)
- the content or theme is “too” anything: scary, violent, inappropriate, sad, uncomfortable (I use this opportunity to talk about my own choice in books and what content I don’t read, and we talk about how to make good choices according to our values. Since I currently teach at a Christian school, we talk about how we want our choices to fill our minds with good things and honor ourselves and Jesus, which is why I generally shy away from books with cussing, sex scenes, or books where there’s a “dark” feeling to them with little-to-no redemptive/hopeful aspect.)
- we don’t like a literary aspect of the book (too many descriptions, we don’t like the characters, setting, or genre)
- we find a book that interests us more (this is one that kids love to talk about! Because interesting books are exciting and it feels great to know others ditch books when a better one comes along, too)
- it’s not a a just right book for now: “Maybe someday, not today” – it’s important to mention that even after abandoning a book, we also have the freedom to come back to it someday if we so choose.
Another reason I love this conversation, though, is that, even though I have a list of points I want to make sure we talk about, sometimes they come up with things I haven’t thought of. For instance, the child who said, “Sometimes I find a better book, and I take a long break from the book, and then I can’t even remember what I read, so I don’t want to finish it.”
I exclaimed over that because I love when kids think of something I haven’t thought of. It means they’re thinking for themselves and not just trying to think of what they think I want them to say.
I also exclaimed about it because I get excited when my students help me with my own metacognition: while that doesn’t often happen to me, it does sometimes. But I’d never thought about it before. So we talked about how, when it does happen, we have to either abandon the book or to start over from page 1. Somehow starting over isn’t always the more appealing option.
As we wrap up the book talk, I do make one clarification about abandoning books:
If you’re abandoning every – or nearly every – book that you start, that’s not awesome either. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad reader, but it means you haven’t yet found a genre you love or a just right book.
Giving up isn’t an option, so that’s where I come in as their guide: I make sure they know that I want to help them find just right books, so I’m available to make book recommendations if they ask. And I probably will offer, even if they don’t ask. I want this to be clear so they understand my motivation when I meet with them one-on-one.
After we have this mini-lesson/discussion, I make sure to move the chart to a spot on the wall where we can refer back to it. That’s why educationese calls them “anchor charts” – they’re charts that act as “anchors,” or reminders, of the learning we’ve done that year.
Even after finishing the conversation, though, we come back to the idea again and again throughout the year when I’m talking with individual readers, or the class as a whole. This type of learning isn’t a one-and-done type thing. It takes practice and cumulated experiences to help kids become confident in their book choices.
Especially when I meet in conferences with individual children, I track, along with them, what they’re reading. If I see that they’ve only finished 2 out of 10 books, that’s a signal to me that they might need some help finding just right books.
While knowing when to abandon books is part of being a good reader, I want them to have more success in finding books that they want to finish, because it can get tiring and discouraging to abandon book after book. So we talk through their interests, and I consider their reading level, and make suggestions.
Sometimes, they latch onto a book I give them right away; other times, it takes a few tries. Or maybe all year. But I don’t give up – ever – because I’m convinced to the tips of my toes that there’s a book out there for every kind of reader.
Tips for Grownups At Home
I don’t recommend that grownups sit down and make an anchor chart with the kids in their home – though, I suppose, of course, you could. I do it in the classroom, because every year I have to start over with creating the culture and environment that I want for learning, reading, discussing, and growing to happen.
You, in the home, however, are constantly making and remaking your family culture and environment. Aside from adopting and fostering (which are unique and important), you don’t have a clear start and finish. It’s ongoing. You have the opportunity to overhaul when necessary, like teachers sometimes do midway through the year, but other times, small shifts in trajectory are all that you need to help move your child and home in the right direction.
Therefore, my recommendation is to make this practice of abandoning books an as-you-go kind of teaching. Like the verse in Deuteronomy 6:7 – “Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” That verse is talking about biblical commandments, values, and God’s promises. But, from what I’ve seen, a lot of teaching and learning needs to happen over time, repeatedly – whether at home or at school.
So you talk about it in the car, or at the dinner table, or at bedtime, or on vacation. Whenever the opportunity to talk about books pops up, you use it.
The main tips I have for you grownups is this: talk to your budding reader(s) about their book choices – and yours!
- If your child hasn’t picked up a particular book they started reading, ask how they feel about it. If they say it’s “too” anything, affirm that they can stop reading it. This helps reinforce the truth that they have autonomy and choice over what they read.
- If/when you abandon a book, and you’re talking about books with your child (which you should), explain why you made the choice to abandon it. That’s an example of modeling good reading practices for your child. Remember, more is caught than taught.
- When you’re reading a book together, and you start to notice that you or your little one are losing interest, talk about why there’s not much interest. Is it the characters? Are the descriptions too, well, descriptive? Is there not enough action? Have you given the book a fair chance, reading at least a few chapters of it? Okay, then, abandon the book and find something that’s a better fit for your read-alouds.
- Use the opportunity to teach your faith values to your child. Not every book has what is noble, right, pure, loving, and admirable. Not every book is a helpful or worthwhile read. It’s important that kids know that.
Just like I use discussion to teach about it, you will too, but you will likely do more of the teaching in little bits, over time. You can keep the ideas from the anchor chart above in mind, so that when a new reason for abandoning books comes up in conversation, you can validate their desire and reason to abandon that particular book.
As you do, you will start to see them be able to articulate their thoughts and decisions about books with more confidence and ease, which is an enormous part of growing lifelong readers.