Helping Struggling Readers Find the Perfect Book

Michele left a comment on one of my posts last week and I have been contemplating an answer ever since.  

 

I am in my second year of using Reader’s Workshop so it still feels very new to me. Would you mind speaking about how you help struggling readers in your class? I have found that a few of my students are selecting books that are much too challenging for them just to be reading what the other kids are reading. I try to direct them toward more appropriate material, but they usually abandon what I suggest and head straight back for whatever is hot at the moment.

I am almost at the point of telling a few students that they have to read a book that I select for them. Does that defeat the whole purpose of Reader’s Workshop and choice in their reading materials? Is there something that you have tried or have heard about that you could suggest?

 

Every year I have a handful of students who choose books that only frustrate them.  It’s a difficult situation to deal with, because I do not want to discourage them from reading and I don’t want to stop them from reading about a topic that they enjoy.  However, if they can’t comprehend the novel or fluently read it. they may just end up hating the act of reading.  So how do I help them?

The answer for me is time.  I spend a lot of time with these kids.  We talk about what they like, authors they have enjoyed, their favorite topics, etc.  I really get to know them as people and as readers.  Because I read so many books over the course of a given year, I have a wide variety of texts that I can draw from as recommendations.  This is one of the reasons I force myself to read and review books that I might not normally read on my own.  I can better serve my students when I have variety of genres and authors to draw on.  I also read reviews from blogs and industry magazines like School Library Journal for even more ideas.  My media center librarian is my ally in this, too!  

It can take weeks to find something that a reluctant and struggling readers can read and wants to read.  There will be a lot of abandoned books along the way.  In my classroom, the rule is that a student must give a book at least 50 pages before deciding to abandon it.  However, I waive that for some of my struggling readers.  Depending on the student, I will give them a 20-25 page limit for abandonment.  And my kids feel comfortable abandoning books.  I share my own experiences with abandoning books that were not “just right” for me, so they know that real readers don’t finish every single book they start.  All I ask is that they can give me a reason for abandoning their book.  I have heard everything from “I can’t connect to the characters” to “The vocabulary is just too hard”.  Because I know my students as readers, I can usually judge how truthful they are being. :)  

To put it simply, time is your friend.  Make sure you have a lot of books to choose from.  And make recommendations.  But let your students make the final choice.  And when they do find something they enjoy reading, let them!  Even if that means they read six books in a row about kids who play baseball.  Keep building their confidence- in their ability to read fluently, their ability to comprehend their reading, and the ability to choose their own reading  material.  Choice in reading material for independent reading is the most important factor in my reading workshop and I firmly believe it is what has made my workshop successful!

Diary of a Wimpy Kid Do-It-Yourself Book by Jeff Kinney

Jeff Kinney is a godsend for reluctant readers.  His Diary of a Wimpy Kid series is my go-to for students who hate reading.  Everytime, within only a few pages of Greg Heffley’s “diary” they are laughing and telling their friends what a great book it is.  I can’t tell you how many of my students over the past two years list Kinney’s books as their favorites.  Jeff Kinney has truly written “gateway books”.  My kids start with the middle school adventures of Greg Heffley and then move into other novels, exploring new genres and authors, thanks to Diary of a Wimpy Kid!  

Now, Jeff Kinney is looking to do the same for reluctant writers. His latest venture is Diary of a Wimpy Kid Do-It-Yourself Book. Designed just like the other Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, this hardcover (orange!) book includes original art, writing prompts, and do-it-yourself comics.  Greg leads the writer/reader through a variety of silly and funny writing ideas.  Some of my favorites include rules for your family, the baddest thing you ever did as a little kid, and a few questions from Rowley (Greg’s best friend).  The entire book is written in Greg’s authentic middle schooler voice, and the book reads like a conversation.  I found myself laughing out loud more than once!  

This language arts teacher was even more excited to discover that the second half of the book contains entirely blank pages- to be filled in by the author!  And Greg reminds you to keep the completed book in a safe place, because it will be worth a ton of money when you get famous someday!  :)

I really enjoyed this book.  It is available in the October Scholastic catalog and a few of my students already mentioned they can’t wait to order it.  If Jeff can hook kids into reading as well as he hooks them into writing, I will love him even more!  

 

 

Miscellaneous Thoughts-  I love the orange color of the cover! I also love that Amulet printed this as a hardback instead of a paperback.  Kids are going to love the idea that their book truly is a Wimpy Kid book and not just a lame knockoff, because it is a real hardcover, too.  Small details like that are so important when you are trying to get kids to enjoy writing.

Good Morning America Book Suggestions

This morning, Good Morning America did a segment on great reads for kids this summer.  Most of the time, these “suggested lists” are stale and boring.  They tend to be formulated by adults who rarely have contact with kids and thus have no idea what reluctant readers want- and to be honest, many kids are reluctant readers in the summer!

I LOVED the books the suggested.  They focused on middle school and young adult titles, all were new or newer, and they divided them into categories like sports, the dead, and oddball heroes/heroines.  Check out the list here, and pass it on!  To see my own list of great summer reads, click here!

My favorite part of the segment was that the hosts suggested that the young adult books also make great adult reading.  It’s nice to see the mainstream media admitting that YA books are great books all around!

Two Minute Drill (Comeback Kids) by Mike Lupica

This was a nice book to end the challenge on. I really enjoy Lupica’s books and was glad to have a chance to read some of the new Comeback Kids series.

Two-Minute Drill: Mike Lupica’s Comeback Kids is the story of the kid who tries and tries, but just is not a gifted athlete. Scott is smart, and his parents are proud of his academic and athletic accomplishments (ok, even if he mostly has academic accomplishments). He has just moved to a new town and is stunned when the most popular kid in sixth grade, Chris, befriends him. Chris convinces Scott to join the town football team, which he does. Even though he knows he will never get off the bench, Scott is happy to help the team and to just be a part of game day. However, even Rudy got a chance to prove himself, and Scott does, too.

I felt like this book really rang true. The boys were realistic, not just caricatures of 12 year old boys. Mike Lupica really knows preteen boys! I felt like I was reading about my own students. That’s one of the reasons I always enjoy Lupica’s book. They are timely and believable- both of which are very important to reluctant readers. I think this series is perfect for boys or girls in the middle grades, and even into middle school.

Why Don’t Our Students Read?

I read two fascinating articles today which really got me thinking. Reading has been my “thing” this school year. I don’t mean to brag, but it’s working. My students read, and read, and read, and read. They are sharing books, discussing them, making recommendations to friends and family. They constantly tell me that they have read more this year than they ever did before. Almost all of my students have read 20+ books since September, and many of them have read 35+.

I see the effects of their reading everyday. Their fluency has improved dramatically. Their own writing has improved, thanks to the abundance of great writers they are reading. Granted, not every book is an award winner (some even make me cringe!), but the point is they are reading for pleasure. And that they are equating reading with pleasure.

If only legislators and administrators could see this.

Jordan Sonnenblick, (author of Drums, Girls, And Dangerous Pie, one of my favorites) has a kick-butt editorial on SLJ.com right now. Entitled Killing Me Softly: No Child Left Behind, Sonnenblick laments the state of education across our nation right now. A former urban teacher in NJ, he visited his colleagues and was told more than once to stay home, keep writing, don’t come back. Why? Because of what has happened to Language Arts classes. Like myself, Sonnenblick loves sharing great literature with students. In this day and age of high-stakes testing, we are tossing out the books for workbooks. What has happened to us?!

No Child Left Behind has done to my school what it has done to untold thousands of urban schools. Our arts programs are gutted, our shop courses are gone, foreign languages are a distant memory. What’s left are double math classes; mandatory after-school drill sessions; the joyless, sweaty drudgery of summer school. Our kids come to us needing more of everything that is joyous about the life of the mind. They need nature walks, field trips, poetry, recess….What I loved most about teaching middle school English was the books, the stories, the poems. I loved putting great thoughts into the hands of my students, and watching what I really, truly saw as a holy communion between child and author, with me as the officiant. And it kills me to know that if I went back, I wouldn’t have much time to teach literature, which is increasingly seen as a frilly extra.

What???? What type of country do we live in now, where students no longer have time to read great books, learn about nature, or otherwise enjoy their learning experience? We have reverted back to the drill ‘em and kill ‘em rote memorization ideal of the 19th century. I fully believe that 50 years from now this will be looked upon as the worst time for education in American history.

A recent survey of 3 million kids in the U.S. revealed the number of books children read in 2007. Seventh-graders averaged 7.1 books in 2007, while 12th-graders averaged 4.5 books. This number is less than the amount of books I read in a given month. Yet I have seen the evidence in my own classroom. Students enter my room in September and fill our a reading survey. Most of them do not have a favorite book/author and it’s a rare student who has read more than 4 books in the last year. Why are our children not reading?

In my experience, our students are not reading because of NCLB. The joy of reading has been taken out of the classroom and the library. Students are no longer “allowed” to read for pleasure when they must attend mandatory test prep sessions, so that the school looks good on high-stakes testing. They are rarely introduced to the hundreds of new books that are published each year because library budgets have been slashed. Most schools have removed their classroom library budgets, too, so teachers are left to use their own money to stock their classroom library. Students crave new books. Instead, we force our idea of classics on them over and over again, never allowing them to find their own niche in the wide world of books. There are plenty of canon-worthy books that have been published in the last decade. Would it kill us to switch out a Hemingway or two for something like John Green’s Looking for Alaska or Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak?  Both are award-winners that are relevant to our students and their lives.  Both could also be used as a gateway to what adults deem “real literature”.  In other words, not YA literature.

To get back on topic, NCLB is destroying our classrooms and the education we should be giving our children.  Reading Jordan Sonnenblick’s editorial, coupled with the Washington Post’s recent survey, has lit a fire under me.  I hope it does the same for you.  Find a child or teen today.  Share a book with them.  Buy them a book or get them a library card.  Show them the blogs in the kidlitosphere and get them reading.  Help them find their niche and give them back what our schools are taking away.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules by Jeff Kinney is perhaps the most anticipated book of the year for my students. I added Kinney’s first book in the series to my library last year and it quietly made a few ripples. This year, my students became obsessed. My two copies flew from student to student, never returning to my shelf! When the book fair sold paperback copies at least half of my students purchased one. They begged our librarian to add a copy to the library. They recommended it to their siblings. They read parts aloud to their parents. It took over! Since November they have asked at least once a week if I was able to track down an ARC. Well, this weekend our librarian came home from ALA Midwinter with a copy of it. She immediately cataloged it and gave it to us.

You would have thought I was offering each student a million dollars when I asked who wanted to read it. We ended up pulling a name out of a hat and they developed strict rules- each student gets the book for one day and one night. Then it must be passed on. I have also ordered two more copies from Scholastic’s book clubs (which will be here on Monday and will go into circulation immediately!). Today, I watched as the student who currently has the book read it in the library, with three more students reading over his shoulders! It was a sight to see, and made me so very proud. Jeff Kinney has made these students love reading.

Before sharing the book, I did manage to read it myself. I have to say, this one is even funnier than the first! I caught myself laughing out loud at a few points. You see, Greg is getting ready to go back to school. But his wasn’t the typical summer vacation. Do not ask Greg how he spent his summer, because he is not about to tell anyone. Let’s just say, it’s even worse than the fact that his mom won’t buy him a real bathing suit and makes him wear his older brother’s hand-me-down speedo. Yes, even more humiliating than that! Unfortunately for Greg, his older brother, Rodrick, knows all about the incident Greg wants to keep under wraps. But as we all know, secrets never stay secret for long.

Kinney’s books really work wonders for reluctant readers. They build confidence, make the students laugh out loud, and are realistic. The sibling relationships between Greg and his brothers reminded me of my own house growing up. Brothers can be cruel, and it’s every man for himself!  The scenes in school are everyschool- they make my almost-middle schoolers laugh out loud.

Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of both of Kinney’s books. And next September we can look forward to “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw”! By the way, my bet is on a green cover for the next one.

Quote of the Day

While handing in a grammar quiz this afternoon, one of my students (a reluctant boy reader) was walking to me desk with his quiz in one hand and his head buried in “The Giver”.

”Wow! I have never done this before…..walked and read a book at the same time. I have never wanted to walk and read at the same time!”

I wore the biggest smile for the rest of the day. This boy is a very reluctant reader, and when he does read the books are fairly low-level. ”The Giver” is not an easy book by any means and he is loving it! It was a proud moment.

Speaking of reluctant readers, Jen over at Jen Robinson’s Book Page has a great post up today about helping kids learn to enjoy reading. She gathered advice from teachers, librarians, parents, and authors all over the kidlitosphere and compiled it into a wonderful article. I strongly encourage you to head over to her blog and check it out!

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