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Empowering Choice

November 11, 2019

Sorry for the gap in posts. I've been recovering from a sugar-coma courtesy of Halloween.

 

But let's get serious.

 

We're knee-deep in the middle of a series on secondary readers. Our goal is to inspire these kids to continue on in a lifetime of reading - to learn to love it and to be able to skillfully engage in the act.

 

But too often, the case is quite the opposite. Kids who have spent years struggling to read throw in the towel during middle and high school because the reading gets harder, the stakes get higher, and much of the fun of it is lost.

 

In my last post, I talked about the attitudes that kids bring to the table with regard to reading; how kids aren't necessarily "reluctant" readers in as much as they are "latent." Recognizing, acknowledging, and working through preconceptions about reading opens kids up to taking more risks and accepting more challenges when it comes to their own reading.

 

Today I want to look at the way kids choose text, and how a more supportive system - with a slight shift in focus - can help them be successful with the books they select.

What Are My Options?

 

I don't remember a single book I read in middle school. I can think of two reasons for this. The first is that I never read for fun. I didn't have time. (We'll tackle this problem in the next post). Most of what I read consisted of whatever my teacher assigned me in class, which meant the sacred "cannon." The second reason I can't remember a single book I read in middle school is because, for me, choosing a book went something like this:

 

     School librarian: Okay, now that we've covered how you 

     properly check out a book in the library, you have seven

     minutes to check out a book.

     

     Me: (sweating and panicking) There are so many

     shelves...

 

     Librarian: You have five minutes left.

 

     Me: I read some Nancy Drew in fifth grade. Maybe they

     have some here. Where would I find that book...?

 

     Librarian: You have three minutes left. Quit messing

     around.

 

     Me: Wait, where am I? Nonfiction? No thank you.

 

     Librarian: If you don't bring your book to the desk now,

     there won't be enough time to check it out. You must

     choose a book NOW!

 

     Me: (blindly grabs a book on the shelf in front of me

     because I don't want to get in trouble for not getting a

     book) Here, this looks good: Ten Strange, Endearing,

     and Alarming Animal Courtship Rituals. I wonder what

     "endearing" means?

 

That about sums it up. Every time. I never had the time or understanding to even begin selecting a book. The librarian, Mrs. Kelly, was great when it came to instructing us on the care of the reference books we were NEVER allowed to remove from the library, but not as helpful at teaching us what kinds of books we could or should be looking for.

 

The first step to helping kids choose an appropriate book is to give them some guidance. Provide several options - representing a variety of reading levels and interests -  to your kiddos. Book talk a couple of your favorites. Specifically set up a time in the library where the librarian intros a couple new titles and the kids have the rest of the class time to choose. I promise you, this is not a waste of time. And if a kid can't make a selection write them a pass to come back. Kids need examples of the types of books they could or should be selecting before they can make a choice on their own.

 

Waving Good-Bye to the Five-Finger Method

 

In my book Reading Workshop for the Secondary Classroom (I'm sorry that sounds so pretentious. I don't know how else to reference it. I'm starting to get sweaty because I think you think I sound like a snob.), I talk a little bit about choosing text. When kids were younger, they were taught to pick a book based on their understanding of the vocabulary in it. That's known as the five-finger method. If you came across five words you didn't know (tracked by the fingers on your hand) before you got to the second page, the books was (supposedly) too hard for you.

 

While I get the intent behind that method, I can't think of a worse message to send kids: don't try reading that book because you're not smart enough to do it. 

 

Ugh.

 

I encourage teachers and students alike to get rid of this kind of thinking and adopt what I call the M2 method (it's supposed to be squared, but I'm too lazy to figure out how to make the tiny number on my computer). The M2 method focuses on two things: interest (mesmerizing) and meaning.

 

My theory is that if a kid selects a text that captivates them and has some kind of personal connection to it, they'll be more motivated to read it, regardless of how hard it is. As students age, it is only normal for them to encounter vocabulary that is unfamiliar - this is part of the learning process and should not be a barrier to reading.

 

Already, I can hear some of you saying, "But what if Marco chooses a comic book that's super easy for him?" My answer? Good for Marco for finding something he likes. At least he'll be reading it instead of not reading anything. And guess what? If it's too below Marco's level, it's not going to be "mesmerizing" - it won't hold his interest, and he probably won't choose it again, but he WILL have the confidence to choose something a little harder because he was so successful with that dang comic book.

 

Making It Stick

 

My book (I'm sorry, I did it again) details the M2 method completely and provides resources to support it in the classroom, as well as a ton of other activities to help kids really create meaning with reading. BUT because I love you, I'm going to give you the quick and dirty version so you can start implementing right away.

 

As I noted before, mesmerizing means that a book grabs a kid's interest. But how can the student discern that? Here are are a couple questions she can think about when choosing:

  • Does the cover look exciting? (like it or not, kids choose books this way)

  • When I read the first page, do I want to keep going?

  • Can I follow what is going on or am I lost?

When it comes to being meaningful, we're gauging connection as well as skill. To be meaningful something has to be clearly understood and relatable. Here are a few things to think about when assessing a book:

  • Can I make sense of what is going on?

  • If I stopped reading right now, could I give a quick summary of what just happened?

  • Can I see myself in or understand the characters?

If a text passes these two simple tests - regardless of how hard or easy it is - a student gets the green light for choosing it...and will only grow from there.

 

Let's Recap

 

So how are we setting our kiddos up for success as they make text selections?

  1. Give them examples and options that inspire.

  2. Give them space and time to choose.

  3. Encourage and educate them to choose books based on engagement and connection.

That's it. Super simple. Incredibly powerful.

 

Choosing the right book based on interest and connection sets kids up for success, and success grows confidence. Confidence leads to being willing to take on more challenges, and the cycle continues. Allowing kids to self-select text that engages them is the first phase of this cycle of success.

 

Kids are in this reading thing for the long haul - way beyond the confines of our classrooms. Let's give them the best shot at it we can.

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