I went through a phase last January where I just couldn’t find a book that I loved. I started lots of books but didn’t finish any of them. I tried to continue my usual routine of reading at bedtime, but I’d fall asleep. This had never happened to me — I was in a reading rut and I couldn’t get out of it. It took a spring break vacation on the beach before I finally found some books that I loved, and was able to enjoy my bedtime reading again. Those few months of non-reading at night reminded me that these ruts happen for all readers, no matter how ingrained the routines are and how much they cherish reading time.
I have students who are in reading ruts throughout the year, and these lulls cut across abilities and interests. These readers are not easy to categorize. Some are readers who read well above grade level but who just can’t find books that interest them. Some are students who select books beyond their abilities. For students who have trouble staying engaged during independent reading time, I know that my immediate goal is to help them find books that will keep them reading.
I often use individual reading conferences with these students. I try to meet these children at a point where they can be successful. Often that means figuring out when they are engaged and building on that. I believe it is important for students to read text that is “just right” for them at some point every day. Yet I have also found that limiting their reading lives to books that are “just right” at all times during the day does not help them develop fully as readers. It is important for these students to choose books on their own — they may be dying to read Captain Underpants because a friend recommended it, or they might want to read a difficult book about hamsters because they have just received one as a pet. They may have discovered an author beyond their level they enjoy based on a book I’ve read aloud to the class. By limiting their choices of reading materials to a certain level or basket, we take purpose and joy out of reading.
The Reading Conference as Invitation
When my friends recommend books to me, they are not forcing me to read them. They are merely suggesting books that I might like with the understanding that the decision of what to read is ultimately mine to make. The friends who I tend to take recommendations from know me well as a reader. We have a history together.
As I work to support students who are struggling with engagement, I have to be careful because it is easy to take control — to decide which books are right for them, and to take the ownership and choice away from them. Yet I need to intervene in some way — I don’t want them to remain in a rut for long. We don’t have time for that.
In preparing for a conference with a student about book choice, I know I must begin with what I know about this child as a reader. I have to keep their reading level in mind — I want to recommend books that I know this child can read successfully. But I have to know more than a child’s level if I want to help the child grow as a reader. I have to remember that I have bigger goals for my students than to move up levels. I want more for them than to be able to “read at grade level.” I also want them to become lifelong readers, and that means finding authors and series they love, as well as helping them build strategies for finding books on their own. Adding these goals to my immediate goal of engagement helps me to plan the conference.
Much of my time in these conferences is spent with me sharing books that this child might like — an invitation of sorts. I am careful in my suggestions. I begin by thinking about the types of books that the student enjoys or has enjoyed in the past. I look back at my notes from previous conferences, and have conversations with the child hoping to remind them of those books that have hooked them in the past.
This template helps me in conferences:
You can download a copy of the template by clicking here.
I ask myself:
- Which books have kept this child engaged recently?
- Which books are reread by this child?
- What is it about each book that the child loves?
I then use the information as a starting point. I look at the list of books and then try to find other texts that are connected to these books in a variety of ways. I consider:
- Is there an author that would make sense for this reader?
- Is there a nonfiction topic that this child is interested in?
- Is there a different version of a favorite story that this child might enjoy?
- Is there a book format that the child likes?
When I am planning the conference, I also have to remember that ultimately, I want this child to be able to choose books on his/her own. I think about the ways in which we preview the books I am sharing by asking myself:
- What can I teach this student about book choice that s/he can use on his own later?
- What does s/he need me for? What can s/he do on his/her own or with peers?
- How can I preview this book in ways that support his/her reading?
- What are some ways to think about extending this child’s reading choices?
This process of beginning with the books a child has been successful with and building on that interest and success has helped me introduce books to children in ways that help them become more engaged during reading time.