Regarding "Just Right" Books

By Victoria Jasztal on September 22, 2009

This photo is of a student writing a journal entry.

I am ready to be upfront with my audience. One of my biggest woes I have encountered so far this school year has been motivating students to choose "Just Right" books. I have watched many students make tremendous choices with the "five finger test" and by "interviewing" their books (looking at the front cover, back cover, and the contents inside), yet not all students have been making the greatest of choices.


I have observed students for about a month now to see how they are making progress in this area. One of the boys in my class has done the "right thing" in this respect. A voracious reader of Harry Potter and fantasy books, he discovered the Nightmare Academy series by Dean Lorey. He read the first book, Monster Hunters, in the first few weeks of school and read another book this past week that challenged his thinking. He is now on the second book in Dean Lorey's series and is enjoying it. Another voracious reader who sits near him has read five or six books this year at school and home from a variety of genres from a 4th-6th grade level. She has read more difficult books before and knows that she wants to seek a book from our classroom library that will provide the appropriate challenge. They have written appropriate journal entries at home. On the other hand, I have looked at the three weeks of journal entries all my students have written and have seen where a few have changed books several times, writing basic summaries every time (despite what I have introduced in class). Perhaps that is what they have done in the past- or they have not journaled at all- so it is a great challenge to get them to make the correct choice without my guidance. I hope for my students to not just look at a cover and tell me that they chose the book because of the pictures or they chose Kingdom Keepers- Disney After Dark, for example, simply because they enjoy going to Disney World. It is also difficult to go to the school library, see students make good choices about their books, and never delve into them, returning them the following week. Unread.

In the midst of stressing about this last night, I located a great article that encouraged me to think positively about this situation - http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/658. This article included a wonderful letter I am going to distribute to parents at Open House tomorrow evening as well as a series of questions parents can reflect on with their children after they have read. I have also reflected on writings I have read from Scholastic contributor Franki Sibberson, who through her professional books and weblog entries encouraged me to work hard with my students this year to locate "Just Right" books in our classroom library. However, I wish I had as much patience as her!

This year has been challenging because I have never implemented the idea of choosing "Just Right" books and journaling about it before. Sometimes one may look at the title of "Scholastic Teacher Advisor" and believe the advisor is somewhat of a sage on all playing fields, yet I am still a rookie in this respect. I am in my sixth year of teaching, and reflecting on the past five years, I was close to where I wanted to be in the second half of last year. However, I advised my students to choose all Newbery award winning books for a particular project and did not focus on choosing "Just Right" books earlier in the year like I should have. Those students were not required to read at home, which I wish I would have required because there is an extensive amount of research connecting independent reading time to achievement.

Thank goodness I am focusing on improving this just after the first month of school rather than in the seventh or eighth month. To finish, I have a few questions for you-

  • Have you encouraged students to read "Just Right" books in your classroom? Have you experienced similar woes, and how did you work with your students to remedy them? If you conference with your students, how did you approach the conversation?
  • Is there a woe that you currently have where you would like to receive advice?

I am positive all of us have been in a situation where we have been between "a rock and a hard place". I am also certain that at some point and time we have read extensively about a topic and have felt like we were prepared to implement the new ideas in our classrooms, yet it turned out the implementation was not like we originally intended. It may have turned out to be somewhat of a tedious or daunting task, causing us to "stress out".

The greatest thing, though, is that we are in a profession where we are encouraged to voice our concerns and receive the greatest help we can from our colleagues to become more effective teachers.

Comments

Any suggestions for students who choose books that do not lend themselves to the reading strategies we teach? For example, many boys in my 3rd grade class cannot get their hands off the Diary of a Wimpy Kid Series. In the past, many boys (especially lower level readers) have gravitated towards Captain Underpants. I try to not keep many of these books in my classroom library, but they order them from Scholastic, buy them at the bookstore, or check them out at the school library.

I like that series like these motivate the students, but they are not the best books for asking thick questions or making inferences, for example.

Any feedback would be much appreciated!

... Diary of a Wimpy Kid is an EXTREMELY popular choice among my boys, too. It is the graphic novel element that attracts them- and I am okay with that choice because it does not have as much "bathroom humor" as Captain Underpants. Luckily, my kids don't really gravitate towards the other choice. I am positive right now because there are books they can eventually read like Dork in Disguise or the Hank Zipzer series, which is still humorous and light like they prefer. Additionally, I am positive about book choice because they will soon be exposed to historical fiction and they may like it more than they think.

As for the thick questions, it can be done, but I'll have to think of how, exactly. My kids are working on writing thick questions right now, but they have never written them in the past. A few understood it well from the beginning, but a few haven't- or they aren't trying as hard as they could be. I believe this Friday for our reading centers, I am going to see how they can write thick questions from the chapter books and non-fiction selections they are currently reading. I need to model the writing of questions A LOT more than I have.

We've made a lot of progress since this post about book choice- they are a lot better than they were at the beginning of the year.

I'll try to think of more to advise you. Any other thoughts are appreciated! - Victoria

Hi Victoria,

Thanks so much for sharing this challenge as well as multiple strategies we can use to improve in this area.

If your students receive lexile scores on any of their assessments, we've discovered that they love to use the Book Wizard to find "just right challenge books" to improve their skills.

Keep us posted on what motivates your students most in this area so we can all continue to improve our practice.

Linda

... Thank you, Linda! I am definitely going to be updating this topic every once in a while because it is a learning experience for me. Sometimes it is difficult to share a struggle, but other teachers provide absolutely incredible advice. My students CAN use the Book Wizard right from our website, which I can show them. I don't think teachers have discussed Lexile scores with them before, yet they received one this year from FAIR. My highest few were at 1,200+, so I know they can accept great challenges. Those few students already do! - Victoria

Hi, Victoria...

I also struggle with my kids over the 'Just Right' reading requirement! We use a leveling system called 100 Book Challenge at my school, which levels in grade-wide swaths by the upper elementary levels. I usually find that my kids want to read books that are too challenging for them because their friends are reading harder books, and they are embarrassed. We do a lot of community building surrounding book choices, and I am trying to get kids to recommend to each other more so it doesn't just come from me. I definitely feel your struggle, though... I look forward to more of your great ideas!

... I think it is most challenging for the kids who love math/science and not reading so much- and they delve into non-fiction even a little begrudgingly. A few, I can tell, are reluctant about fiction, though they are gifted students. Yet sometimes gifted means that students are immensely strong in a specific area and are reluctant about other areas. How do you use community building in helping the students to make book choices? - Victoria

We participate in the Accelerated Reader program in our school and students take a test at the beginning of the year which yields a reading level. Students are encouraged to read at their assigned reading level, and individual reading conferences are held weekly.

... Accelerated Reader is what our pen pals have in St. Augustine- I think it is a good idea to have a "margin of error" (I believe that is what it is called) to help students to choose appropriate books. We have Reading Counts, and through the FAIR assessment (a Florida assessment), I know my students' lexile levels. Several have a level of around 1000.

How do you hold individual reading conferences? Do you utilize both individual conferences and centers? - Victoria

Hi Victoria! Thanks for being so honest about your experiences with “Just Right” books in the classroom. I always thought of the students’ “Just Right” books as the books they could read independently, based on my running record assessments after reading with the students one-on-one. After I was done assessing all of the children and found their independent reading levels, I would read aloud a simple version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. This gave students a mental picture of how a book could be described as “too hard”, “too easy” or “just right” . Then, I would model how to choose a book from the leveled basket, illustrating how my prior knowledge and the content of the book also influenced my ability to read and understand the book. I’m not sure if any of this fits into where “Just Right” reading works into your classroom, but I hope it helps! =)

... You have WONDERFUL thoughts. Now I do not use leveled baskets- my students do the five-finger test so they can choose from any basket and know it is a book that challenges them. You may enjoy my upcoming post about writing book recommendations that is a follow-up to this post. - Victoria

Hello, Eve! Which grade do you teach, and what is the overall level of the students in your room? Try the Five Finger Test with them and promote books the best you can through short book talks. I am trying to think of how a few of my students are going to use the journaling with Post-Its (I have never done it before), but I believe individual and small group conferences will certainly provide a great foundation for them.

Hi Victoria, I have the same problem in my classroom. The students in my school have been taught about just right books for years but there are always some students who are not able to choose correctly. It can be difficult for 4th graders who are not on grade level because often they don't want to be seen with the kind of books they need. I'm always searching for low level but high interest books.

You have a brought up a very interesting topic. At this point of the year, I do struggle with making sure all of my students are reading "just right" books.

I find that if students don't have their just right books, it can certainly interfere with how I planned my day. The other day I sat down for a strategy group lesson in my reading workshop and the students I was working with were good at naming character traits but I wanted to teach them that when you decide on a trait, we're not done and we need to keep reading to see if our character changes. As I listened to one student read, she stumbled on so many words that I knew right away this book was too difficult. When she finally came over with a just right book, this wasn't something I could teach to her in the beginning of a book. It was frustrating to me because she couldn't benefit from the strategy group as the other students did and I need to now pull her at another time when I could have been moving on to other students.

In my class, I have the students fill out an index card if they want to abandon a book. I have found it helpful because I can see when they are abandoning for reasons such as the text being too difficult. In some cases, it can prioritize the kids who I know I need to get to for a conference. If a student has filled out 3 abandoned book cards because its too hard that tells me something isn't right and I need to conference with the student immediately to see whats going on.

I don't think there is one answer on how to make sure our students are picking just right books. For me, I just hope that I can catch it right away if they are not reading books that are just right for them.

... Thanks for your reflections. I know it will get better- and it has since this post... a little. The vast majority of my students did not have a workshop model in their classroom in past years, so it is new to them. - Victoria

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