Recently a friend, Clara, who is a retired literacy coach, told us a story about a visit to her first-grade grandson Trevor’s classroom. With a long face, she explained that she had had the opportunity to go to the library with Trevor’s class and help him select a book to check out. Clara and Trevor were both very excited about visiting the library, as he had recently discovered the Graphic Mythical Creatures series by Gary Jeffery and was eager to check out another. While at the library, Clara and Trevor’s enthusiasm for this particular series proved contagious, and a little friend of Trevor’s, Marcus, wandered over to find out what was so interesting. Soon, the two, first-grade friends were enthusiastically discussing which of the Who Would Win? books each would check out and how they would explore them together. It was as if they were spontaneously forming their first book group, and it was the epitome of spontaneity and authentic reading. Of course, our literacy coach friend was delighted, even giddy.
When Trevor and Marcus walked up to the counter to check out their books, their teacher, Mrs. Kendrick, was there inspecting each student’s text choices. She looked at Trevor and Marcus’s books and then said to Marcus, “This isn’t a ‘just-right’ book for you; let’s go find you something else.” Both boys were crestfallen, and Clara was truly distressed. Eventually, Marcus ended up with a nonfiction text about frogs, which he showed Clara and Trevor, looking if he had just received a package of underwear for Christmas.
Such experiences have long vexed us, so much so that we have broadened our definition of “just right” to match what lifelong readers actually do. If you visit our houses, you will find that we are both reading many different texts at once. Jan’s coffee table sports copies of Veranda and Real Simple, and Kim reads People magazine every week religiously. None of these titles are “just right” for us in a traditional sense, as they aren’t likely to directly grow our reading skills. (What would Mrs. Kendrick say?!) Simultaneously, we are also reading professional books, which are challenging for us, and novels, which are sometimes “just right” and sometimes easy-breezy. We can only imagine what Mrs. Kendrick would say if she were editing our text choices. We would certainly read less, though, once she declared that we could read only scientific studies of reading research.
We know that reading magazines is just right for us, as are novels of varying sophistication and even complex research about literacy instruction. If we don’t define our reading lives by a single metric, why should we narrow children’s choices? Why can’t we just let children check out more than one book—one that is “just right” and a couple that aren’t, by traditional standards? Why can’t we broaden our definitions of “just right” so that students can broaden theirs? Why can’t we let the first graders who read on a third-grade level check out Dr. Seuss books and let the Marcuses in our classrooms read graphic novels that give them energy for all reading?
We know there are extremes to consider—second graders claiming to “read” War and Peace—but we find these incidents fewer and farther between as kids discover that they really want to read. As we implement broader definitions of “just right” in classrooms, we find that students are flexible, intuitive, and agentive—not to mention that they read more.
Here are some things we consider as we help students work with broader definitions of “just right.”
Students can read more than one book at once, and they don’t all have to be on their instructional reading level. Some can be a little harder. Others can be a little (or a lot) easier.
Students can switch titles during independent reading time. For example, they can read from a harder text for a little while, and then shift to something easier when they feel their energy for self-monitoring waning. Even young students can learn this kind of flexibility.
Reading level is not enough to determine whether a book is just right, and different books may be just right for different purposes.
Although some books are inappropriately difficult or easy, such titles are usually pretty obvious, both to teachers and students.
There is more than one way to read a book. Before saying no to a student, particularly when he or she is very excited about reading something, explore other options. Can they partner-read? Is there an audiobook available?
Giving students more choice gives them more energy for reading texts that will stretch them, and increases their agency around reading.
Our charge in helping students select books is an important one. In the same way that flexibility and choice increases our energy and enthusiasm for reading, the same is true for students. What’s more, this energy and enthusiasm is accompanied by fringe benefits: when children are excited about reading, they are more likely to read more pages and read for longer periods of time, both of which translate to increased proficiency as readers.