This blog post was originally written for my Instructional Methods in Language Arts and Social Studies graduate level class. It drew on my experience as a library aide in Denton ISD as well as my independent readings of books like Donalyn Miller’s “The Book Whisperer” and Gail Boushey and Joan Moser’s “The CAFE Book.”
As a library aide at a K-5 school in Denton, I get to observe every class in the school march in their single-file line to visit our collection. Some of these students are eager, ready to read, and excited to pick out their own book…and some of the students come armed with a file folder and a mopey face, totally unsure how to find a book they’ll love.
The language arts block system encourages a time for students to read independently, and the number one place they’ll find books to read is in your campus library. Finding a perfect book in the campus library, then, completely supports your goal of having a strong language arts block.
How can you as a classroom teacher develop a class that’s excited about the library? It’s all in your expectations.
Drop the arbitrary numbers
The number-one frustration of kids in the library is being unable to find a book on their reading level. “Ms. McPherson, where are the level K books? The 400 lexile books? The 3.1-3.3 books?” are questions I hear all day long. These kids have been told a level and are now completely fixated on finding a book that is on-level. A worthy goal, sure, especially considering all we’ve learned about guided reading in this class.
But if you want kids to love the library and to find books that spark joy, you have to drop the numbers.
Restrain a kid to a particular level, and they miss out on books that they’re genuinely interested in. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve helped a child find a series and watched their faces light up in genuine glee — they’ve found it! That elusive book that they WANT to read — only to see them open up the cover to check the written level and determine that it’s a tenth above their level. If you restrict a kid to only read 4.3-4.7 books, and they find a 4.8 book that they LOVE, they will put it back with the most pathetic look on their faces. They will put back that book that sparked joy, that could have been the book that taught them to love reading, because they are being restrained by a range.
As a librarian, this is frustrating for so many reasons. First, children will work hard to read a book they are excited about; they will languish forever in a book that they just don’t care about. Additionally, the leveling of books is often completely arbitrary. For example, the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series has the same lexile as Fahrenheit 451. Obviously, these two books are totally different in complexity and appropriateness for children!
A better way
How can you help students find books they’ll love that won’t leave them drowning? Certainly, I’m not advocating for letting emerging readers check out Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It’s absolutely important to encourage students to check out books that they are capable of reading, but, like I said above, you can’t take the easy way out and restrict students to a certain reading level.
One strategy for allowing student choice while maintaining readability is by asking students to complete the five-finger test. If a student finds a book that they are excited about, have them turn to a random page in the book and start reading. Each time they encounter a word they don’t know and cannot decipher, have them put up one finger. If a student breezes through the read and knows every word, the book might be too easy. If they are unfamiliar with one to four words, it’s a great book to check out. If five words or more on a page are too challenging, the student might consider a book they can read more fluently.
Again, it’s important to not be rigid with this test. Shutting a student down as soon as they hit five fingers is just as damaging as making them put a .1-level too-high book back on the shelf. Be flexible with the rule: can the student figure out the word with prompting? Is the student really, really excited about the book? Could they be scaffolded to be able to understand the book?
Teachers and students also can use I PICK to determine if a book is still a good fit. I PICK stands for purpose, interest, comprehension, and know, and can help students weigh whether the book they want is a good choice. These strategies give autonomy to the students and allow them to feel like they have a say in whether a book is right for them.
One teacher I know uses the five-finger test to help students figure out one of their two books. Students can check out two books a week: one free choice, and one “I promise book.” The free choice is completely up to them: any genre, any level of readability, any length. The other book, however, is a book that students promise to complete in the time period and to pass a Reading Counts test on. To determine if they’re going to be able to live up to that promise, students know to use the five-finger rule to figure out if they’ll be able to comprehend and read the book in the correct amount of time. If not, they can check that book out as their freebie and select a different book to be their promise book.
Giving the students this independence makes them excited to come to the library! They are far more self-sufficient when they pick out books because they know how to check for comprehension. No longer do they have to wait for me to be available to help them scan inside covers for that elusive number. Instead, they can work by themselves and in their interest areas to find books that they’ll love and understand for years to come.