Summer Reading Strategy - Series Books Grow Readers!

By Dr. Anne McGill-Franzen, professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN

For at least 100 years, series books have enthralled young and older readers alike, hooking them on storylines and quirky characters that speak to them in a way they understand. A great way to keep kids on track with their reading goals over the summer is to introduce them to a popular series of books that will last throughout the summer break.

As one parent so eloquently noted, her child at 6 years old needed Junie B. Jones to laugh with her peers; at 12 years old she needed Gossip Girl to help her make sense of her world; now at 19 she needs Tender is the Night and everything else F. Scott Fitzgerald ever wrote. This parent realized what researcher Catherine Ross discovered in her interviews of adult avid readers: Avid readers started reading with series books!

What is the power of series books?

Series books provide pleasure to young readers. They fill a need within them to know the kinds of things that series characters do and say, and what happens to them. Not only do young readers need to possess a deep knowledge of the characters – say Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen – for themselves, but they need to know them to talk about them with their friends, to be the sort of person who has an opinion about the Hunger Games trilogy, who thinks she knows what will happen, and who can pass judgment on the way things turn out. Reading series books helps young people develop an identity as a reader — a person who collects the new books in the series, who eagerly awaits the next book or movie, and most important, who chooses to read.

Reading series books makes kids smarter!

Besides the sheer pleasure of reading series books and the sense of belonging that expertise in a particular series confers on the reader, series books develop competence in reading. Reading series books improves students’ fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Simply put, reading series books makes kids smarter.

Fluency—rapid and automatic word recognition—is an important component of reading development. For readers who are able to decode or sound out words but unable to do so quickly, experience with series books provides critical practice. Early on, researcher Melanie Kuhn and her colleagues believed that repeated readings of the same book or passage was essential to the development of fluency. More recently, these same researchers have discovered that wide reading – the term researchers use to describe reading a variety of books at a particular level – of different books within the reader’s instructional level is more efficient in developing fluency than rereading the same old passage. This is so because a relatively limited core of words is actually repeated over and over within, say, books at the first- or second-grade level. These words are often called sight words, or high-frequency words. Wide reading provides many more contexts for encountering words (often the same words), and hence develops fluency. Readers who read multiple books in a series encounter the same characters and settings, so these names are familiar; high-frequency words are repeated often as in wide reading; and other less frequent but important content words are also repeated. To illustrate, let’s take the word “bully.” Every school child today knows what “bully” means but may not recognize it in print, at least not at the first- or second-grade level. In Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot, one of a series of books about a robot written by beloved children’s author Dave Pilkey, there is a chapter titled “The Bullies.” From a total of 85 words, every 12th word or so is “bullies,” providing ample opportunity for young readers to make the printed word their own.

“…Ricky was very small and the bullies picked on him. ‘Where do you think you are going?’ asked one of the bullies. Ricky did not answer. He turned and started to run. The bullies chased him….” (pp. 9-12).

Vocabulary is another component of reading development — one that influences comprehension of text at every level. In conversation, most of us use only a fraction of the words in our reading lexicon. We seldom use what researchers have called “rare words” — challenging words that appear in reading materials but rarely in our speech. In fact, rare words appear as often in books for preschoolers as in conversations among college-educated adults!

Taking a look at one of the Scooby-Doo! books, based on the TV series of the same name, the story opens on a cruise ship headed to Australia, and Scooby and Shaggy — true to form — are eating. Beautiful Daphne, again true to form, is showing off by the pool.

“…Daphne climbed up to the diving board, bounced a few times, and did a cannonball into the pool. The splash was so huge, it drenched the shuffleboard court, where Velma and Fred were playing. ‘Great form, Daphne!’ Velma said sarcastically….”

Rather than meeting new words like “drenched” or “sarcastically” in a lesson isolated from a story, readers of series books experience challenging words in the context of familiar characters and plots, a virtual scaffold for making new words their own.

The same holds true for reading comprehension. Written language — text — is much more complex than spoken language. Books hold not only rare words but more complex ideas that are embedded in different sentence patterns and organizational frameworks. Linguist and educator Carol Chomsky discovered several decades ago that exposure to literature was the most potent correlate of advanced language development for children between the ages of 5 and 10 years old — more powerful than age, IQ, or family background!

Captain Underpants and The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby, other series by Dave Pilkey, are notable not only for outrageous but engaging potty humor but also for language play. Danger Dog, for example, plays with the words on several signs, rearranging the following sign:

    Saint Wendys
    H O S P I T A L
    Trust in our Great
    Doctors, Food, and Care.

to one that reads:

    S P I T
    in our

Typography in series books also offers support. Readers of the Babysitters Club series cannot help but notice when the point of view changes even though the text is not annotated for different speakers because the font indicates a different person is speaking. Likewise, readers of Junie B. Jones are treated not only to full-blown language play (“beautifulest”) but also typographic cues to understanding characters through their dialogue: All caps suggests loud, insensitive bellowing; italics suggests exasperated or threatening words; and the words of toys who speak to Junie are always in italics.

The very redundancy of the characters, settings, and plots in series books provides support to readers at every stage of development, including those who are dealing with understanding and interpretation of long stretches of text in different genres—realistic fiction, fantasy, historical narratives, and so on. The new core standards make explicit the requirement that students make “full use of text” to develop an understanding of its meaning.

Series books grow readers in a host of ways by building a hunger for reading that provides a foundation for a lifetime of literacy. And literacy translates to success in and beyond the classroom – into the corridors of life itself. Stock popular series in your classroom and school libraries, and promote series through booktalks. Then watch the books fly off the shelves as you watch learning soar!

Dr. Anne McGill-Franzen is a professor and director at the University of Tennessee Reading Center and is a former classroom teacher. She is the author of Kindergarten Literacy, published in 2005. She and fellow UT colleague Dr. Richard Allington will give the keynote presentation at the July 12 Scholastic Book Fairs Reading Summit for Educational Professionals in Northeast Park Ridge, N.J. Their recent article "Addressing Summer Reading Setback Among Economically Disadvantaged Elementary Students,” published in Reading Psychology, was recently selected as the winner for the 2012 International Reading Association Albert J. Harris Research Award. For more information on how to register for the July 12 summit or any of the other six summits, click here.
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