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“There is no such thing as a child who hates to read; there are only children who have not found the right book.” – Frank Serafini

One of my favorite things about teaching has always been helping kids find the right books. I can’t begin to explain the feeling of watching a student get lost in a story. I brought in books I had read at that age, purchased books from the book clubs, shared favorite authors, and asked the other students to recommend books.

I discovered that one of my reluctant readers loved reading the manuals that came with his dad’s power tools, so I introduced him to the work of David Macaulay, starting with Castle I had another student who loved fairy tales but had read all the traditional ones, so I introduced her to Robin McKinley’s books, starting with Spindle’s End. I had a student who was fascinated with history but really hated reading novels, so I shared a book from my home collection – What If?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. He could pick and choose from topics that spanned thousands of years of world history.

My matches weren’t always successful.  I tried connecting a Harry Potter reader to Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, thinking the whole magic/good vs. evil theme would interest her. She was gracious enough to read the first three or four chapters before giving the book back to me with a shake of her head.

I read a variety of books aloud, picking genres and authors my students weren’t normally drawn to. I picked books for whole class novels that were written in dialects my kids had never heard, and we had great discussions on idioms, word choice, registers of language, and colloquial speech.

The one thing I never thought about was reading level. Oh, in the back of my head, I was searching for books that matched what I knew about each student, but I didn’t look at lexile scores or grade level equivalencies. I looked for books that would grab their attention and pull them in.

In the last few years, one of my greatest concerns has been the obsession with reading levels, readability, and just right books. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important to assess where a child is as a reader, but it seems to me that we obsess about it way more than we should.

We label kids with guided reading levels, Accelerated Reader levels, and lexile scores, and, too often, we only let them read within those levels.

We spend time talking about just right books, good fit books, readability, fluency based on how fast one reads, and the Five Finger Rule, but we forget about interest levels, peer influence, and raw desire to read something outside the comfort zone.

Somewhere along the line we have forgotten how important it is to just leave kids alone with books.

This hit me earlier tonight as C started reading You’re a Bad Man Mr. Gum by Andy Stanton. He’s excited about the book because it was a gift from his friend in Ireland, but he asked way more questions than normal.

  • Duvet? Is that like a comforter?
  • What does he mean by ‘absolute lazer’?
  • Wait a minute; you can spell color c-o-l-o-u-r?
  • Friendly as toast…that’s funny. Who would call toast friendly?
  • Hey rumor is spelled r-u-m-o-u-r in here. Do they do that with all o-r words?

None of these questions kept him from understanding the story, but he did slow down on a few parts – rereading sentences, even reading them out loud so he could hear the words.

By some readability standards, this would not be a just right book for him. On some scales it would be too hard (the rereading would kill his fluency score). By others it would be too easy (he cruised through 40 pages in less than half an hour).  He would be on the border using the Five Finger Test because there were words that he had to think about more carefully than normal.

The only test I need? Watching him read, hearing him giggle, and listening to him self-talk his way through the questions.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t give kids guidelines for picking out books. I’m just saying the focus should be on the reader not the rules.