Choosing books that are just right
This teacher research study examines how students select books for independent reading and how teachers can help them make choices more appropriate to their reading levels.
“Can I go to the library to get a book?” is a question I hear daily as a fourth grade teacher at a year-round elementary school in suburban Wake County, North Carolina. Every student in my class of twenty seven, including five identified as academically gifted, two identified as learning disabled, nine receiving free lunch, and two labeled as ESL, wants to go the library. As a teacher whose role it is to encourage and foster a love of reading in and out of the classroom, I surprised even myself when I began to dread that question.
Over the last five years, I have learned that each of my students is able to read, but only very small number of them actually chooses books from the library that they can read by themselves successfully. Therefore, I began to feel that only one or two could go to the library and choose an appropriate book. My definition of an appropriate book, I quickly realized, differs from the students’ definitions. I view an appropriate book for them to read independently as one in which they miss no more than five words on any given page (called the five finger test) and one in which they can comprehend all that they read. The students can deem a book appropriate for many reasons, as seen by their comments when asked why they chose certain books:
- My friend just finished it. —Mary, about a Nancy Drew book much too hard
- The movie is already out. —Derrick, who reads at a beginning third grade level, about the Harry Potter series
- I like the cover. —Brady, said about a difficult nonfiction book
- I like the pictures. —Brent, about a book he quickly stopped reading after seeing what it was actually about
While taking a summer graduate course on Explorations in Literacy, I learned some specific direct instruction methods for teaching students to identify a “Just Right” (what I consider appropriate) book, a “Too Hard” book, and a “Too Easy” book. I combined that new knowledge with an intense assessment and accountability graduate class this summer that included the importance of self-assessment and provided some more self-assessment ideas. Consequently, I decided that one area of need in my classroom was for the students to do more self-assessment of their own independent reading levels in order for them to make better choices when they go the library to choose a book to read.
Luckily, this went right along with my research from last year. I had spent ten months researching a student in my class who did not understand the importance or purpose of reading. She often chose books too hard for her to read. That research, I found, fed easily into a new query into students’ ability to choose appropriate books at their level to read alone.
Data collection and analysis
Student response logs
My students kept a response log by recording the books they read by themselves on a chart pasted in the front cover of a composition book. After they finished reading a book, they recorded the date on their chart and conferenced with a parent. The parent used the suggested questions as well as some of their own to evaluate whether the student had been able to comprehend the book and discuss it. I used the student logs to see which books they listed that they read by themselves.
I was able to gather the book titles and use those titles to determine their level. For example, the book The Spy on Third Base by Matt Christopher is a Literary Collaborative Level “M” according to Fountas and Pinnell in their teacher reference Matching Books to Readers (1999). According to the Georgia State University (GSU) Literacy Collaborative, a level “M” is a corresponding Reading Recovery level 20. This corresponds to an end-of-second-grade level. I was able to use the student logs in combination with the Fountas and Pinnell book and the GSU conversion chart to determine whether students were consistently choosing books at the same level.
Keri, an ESL student, was recording that she had read books ranging in level from an “F” to an “R” by herself. This caught my attention, because one student should not have that much variance in her independent reading level. Luckily, I was able to triangulate this peculiar data by also asking her about her log and books. Further, I was able to observe her read two pages from some of the books she had on her list. When asked, she shyly responded that she didn’t really finish three of the five books. I asked her why she stopped reading them, and she said they were boring. I further asked her if they were too tough to read or if they required too much work to read, and she said she thought they would be easier than they were. When she tried to read two pages, she quickly missed more than five words in the first two paragraphs. Then I reviewed with her the five finger test and the “Just Right” chart in our classroom.
Small group book assessment
Another way I collected data was to conduct small group interviews. Their purpose was to give me insight into whether certain students were able to accurately self-assess books to determine if they were appropriate for them to read alone. To select a range of books, I used the Matching Books to Readers book as well as the “Connections for School Success” (2002) published by Wake County Public Schools, which listed several reading titles appropriate for fourth graders. Finally, I used my own knowledge and that of my colleagues to add any additional authors or titles to the sample I had put together.
I gathered six students at a time to a table in the media center. Since I chose the six students in each group based on ability, I already knew which books they should be able to read alone. I chose twenty different titles and pulled them out of my classroom library or off the shelf at the school library prior to meeting with the students. Once they were all seated around the table in the media center, we reviewed how to decide if a book is “too hard,” “too easy,” or “just right” from a direct instruction lesson in July. Once we had reviewed, I pulled the bin of books and placed them on the table. I told the students to preview each book based on the way they had learned to preview and determine if the book would be easy, hard, or “just right.” They wrote the title of the book and whether or not it was hard, easy, or “just right” on their paper. Their next step was to look at the “just right” books and decide whether or not they would want to read them. If so, they were to place a check beside the title, and if not, an “x.” (See the examples in Appendix E, F, and G.)
The students had five to eight minutes to preview and assess the books before receiving the next book. To make sure that they assessed a range of books, I rang a bell and the students passed the book to me in exchange for a new one. I was careful to give them some books that were too hard and some that were too easy in order to see if they could identify them. The students assessed anywhere from eight to ten books during this fifty minute session. From this exercise, repeated with three different groups from my class, I collected quite a bit of data.
I found that overall, my highest ability readers were the most accurate in their self-assessments, while my lowest ability readers were the most inaccurate. Not all students, however, fell into these categories. I had one student, Colby, who is an extremely high reader. He marked only two books “just right” out of eight. These were actually good self-assessments. Where he had trouble was in deciding between too hard or too easy. He marked two difficult books (mid-seventh grade level) as being too easy while marking the easier books as too hard. Since he had correctly judged his “just right” books and had shown evidence in his log that he was reading appropriate books, I did not take the time to dig further into his confusion — if only I had all the time in the world!
Although I always conference with parents, I typically do not hear them bring up questions and offer feedback on my efforts to get their children to read independently. This fall, however, the parents were more vocal, since I had asked them to hold the conferences with their children and record their assessment in the log charts (available here in PDF format). These parents have naturally taken a more prominent role in their children’s independent reading this year than in my previous classrooms. Six of my parents of students with varying ability levels shared the exact same concerns during their fall parent conference: How do I know if my child is choosing a book he can read successfully? How do I help my child choose a book that is right for him to read?
I spent part of my conferences explaining the five finger test and the “Just Right” chart, so the parents could reinforce it at home. I also realized that if these six parents were having concerns and questions, perhaps others were too. One parent of a high ability student asked if I could recommend any books that her daughter could read. She said her daughter was able to read some of the juvenile fiction, but she was discovering that many of the topics were more mature such as dating and physical body changes in girls. The mother felt that even though her daughter was a good enough reader, she wasn’t ready for these topics just yet (her daughter is still nine years old). I told the mother that I would research and put together a sample book list with some suggestions.
Again, I realized that other parents might like some possible titles they could recommend, so I decided to put together a newsletter including “Tips for Parents” and “Recommended Books.” After meeting with several more parents for conferences, I decided to put together two different lists, one high level and one lower level. The parents and students, however, would not know about the two lists. Again I used the Matching Books to Readers, the GSU levels, and the books I pulled for my small group interviews. I collected titles of books, common authors, and common series that could be found at either the school or public library. I sent the newsletter and attached list home with the students. I handed out the newsletter and gave the right list to the right student. Students who needed the more challenging books got that list, while students who needed easier books got that list. Since I handed it out at the end of the day and the front newsletter was the same, the students did not make a big deal or even notice two different lists were given out.
A few days after I sent home the newsletter, I received three notes from parents. One was from the parent who had requested the book list for her daughter. She thanked me for the list and said that she and her daughter would take it with them to the library. The other two, however, were from parents that I had not been able to conference with during the fall conferences. They both thanked me for the lists and said they had already taken their daughter and son, respectively, to the library and used the list and tips to help them find a book to read. I then followed up with the students and both were able to show me the books they had checked out. I asked each of them to read me a page from the book and discovered after listening to them read and talking to them about the book that they had each checked out “just right” books. These two students are both struggling readers and had previously chosen books like Harry Potter, Goosebumps, and other difficult books. I was thrilled that they now had books they could read on their own. They seemed excited to share them with me as well. Three weeks later the girl came back up to me to show me that she had finished the first book and was now reading a new book she got from the library using her book list.
Outside research and research studies
While researching in my classroom this semester, I also used professional articles that informed my study. By far the most helpful was a study that examined what type of independent reading books first graders chose to read. In this study, the teacher and professors found that the lower ability students were choosing books above their reading level seventy-seven percent of the time (Donovan, Smolkin, & Lomax 2000). This study helped me examine my own classroom to look for either supporting evidence or evidence to dispute the findings in the first grade class. Later in this article, I will discuss how my own findings actually support this first grade study.
In addition to the professional article, I found a study similar to mine that was conducted at Deer Park Elementary in Virginia. Two fourth grade teachers researched the question, “What motivates children to read independently?” (Poole & Smith 2001). Their study correlated quite well with all I’ve done this semester. The five finger test I use is the same one these teachers use in their fourth grade classroom. This was encouraging because it helped me feel I was on the right track with my research and my questions. This study looked more at incentive programs, but it included some great surveys about independent reading. Overall, this study validated my own research and helped me see that my own results and implications for teaching were found in another study as well. The validity and reliability offered by this study gave me confidence to continue my own research.
Few fourth graders choose books at their level to read alone.
My first finding supported the entire research itself. I found that few fourth graders choose books to read alone that are at their level. Out of my twenty-seven students, I examined eighteen closely through their response logs and the small group interviews in which they had to assess the books I selected. Of these eighteen students, four recorded “just right” books in their logs and accurately assessed the books. The rest had many inaccuracies. Colby, mentioned earlier, was able to say when the book was “just right” but could not decide when it was too hard or too easy. This caused me to believe he did not entirely understand. In his log, he had abandoned (stopped reading) three different books he thought he could read. This showed me he could not self-assess the book until he got into reading it.
Colby did better than most, however. One girl could not accurately assess the books I gave her at all. She marked easy books as too hard. She marked difficult books as “just right.” She was inconsistent with all of her assessments. She also has a variety of books recorded in her log that she had not read. With more time, I would have liked to delve further into why she was having trouble assessing the books. For now, though, I can confidently say she was having trouble. (Maybe next year I can research the “why” part of my question.) From my parent conferences, I know that two students in particular were choosing books too difficult for them. Their parents told me they could not even read a page without stumbling over ten or more words. When I looked at their logs, I noticed the books they were choosing were much too difficult. This was also supported by the fact that they did not correctly self-assess the books they previewed in the small groups.
As with most findings, there were some exceptions. One of my strongest readers was choosing books at her level consistently. Her mother said she was doing well with her reading at home. Her log suggests she was choosing books she could read, and she was able to correctly self assess the books she previewed. The same results were true of two of my stronger boy readers. They seemed to be making smart reading choices without any further guidance or input from me.
The weaker the reader, the less likely she will choose “just right” books.
This was supported outside of my own study by the first grade research study over two years that examined the independent reading books students read. These researchers found that the readers who struggled more had a harder time selecting books that they could read alone (Donovan, Smolkin, & Lomax, 2000). In my own study, I found this to be true as well. Of all of the student logs that I examined, the logs of the lower readers had, at most, one “just right” book recorded. One of my girls who struggles with reading, Caitlin, had read and conferenced with her mother on ten books that were all too easy. They were all beginning reader books that she read in first grade. She was not choosing “just right” books.
Another student, Derrick, was consistently choosing difficult books. He was trying to read one of the Harry Potter books and could not even get through one paragraph without missing many words. Also, he could not tell me anything about what he was reading and what was happening. His mother was one of the ones who wanted some guidance in helping him choose a better book. Her comment, “Well, when I was coming through school, if I already knew most of the words on the page, my mama told me to find a harder book to read on my own” gave me insight into some of Derrick’s trouble in choosing a book. She confessed that she had encouraged him to select books in which he struggled with many words. She thought that would help him learn more. Even though I explained to her that the books he was choosing were at his frustration level and that over time he would come to hate reading, she had trouble wanting him to read “just right” books. She did admit, however, that as an adult she hated to read because of how difficult it was for her coming through school.
Another student, Brent, had abandoned ten of the last eleven books he had checked out from the library. His log had many books listed, but only one of those was a book he had finished and conferenced on with his parent. I interviewed him in the small group, and he was able to tell me how to select a book that was “just right,” but then he did not put that into practice in the media center. When he selects a book to read, he still chooses it for the illustrations or the title only. He is already a struggling reader, and his lack of ability to select books he can read from start to finish concerns me. Again, for this study, I know he is not making smart book choices, but exactly why he is not making them will be a good thing to examine next semester.
Fourth graders need direct instruction on how to choose a “just right” book.
The most obvious finding from this study is that fourth graders need guidance on how to select a book for them to read. After looking at the student logs, listening to the parents during conferences, looking at the small group book assessments, and listening to the students read to me during DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) time, I am convinced that most of my class are trying to read books that are too hard for them to read alone or that are too easy for them to read.
At the beginning of the year I spent three weeks listening and conferencing one on one with my students about what they were reading during DEAR time. I asked them simple questions like, “Who is your favorite character in the book and why?” “Why did you choose this book?” “Are you enjoying this book? Why?” The answers amazed me. One student, Rose, answered the questions purely by looking at the picture on the cover. She said, “That is my favorite character because he has on a blue shirt.” It was obvious she had not read the book even though her bookmark was already on page thirty-four. I got more responses similar to hers before I realized exactly how important my research was going to be this semester.
As I mentioned earlier, there are a handful of my high readers this year who do not need any guidance on selecting books at their level. My next step will be to examine why those students do not need guidance while so many of my other students do.
Implications for teaching
Teachers need to spend time with students talking about “just right” books.
Since I have spent the entire first half of my school year focusing with students and parents on “just right” books, I have seen a little bit of improvement. I have seen students with more interest in reading alone. I have seen some students making smarter choices for their independent reading. I have seen parents get more involved in helping their child make smarter choices.
I have not seen, however, all of my students now reading books at their level. I am hopeful that by the end of the year, I will see a marked change from those first few weeks of school when nearly all of my students were reading inappropriate books. So far, the results and improvement I have seen cause me to firmly believe that the time I have spent talking with students and parents about “just right” books has been time well spent. This is a topic teachers at every grade level need to work on and reinforce so that students can read books alone with success. Even though I get frustrated with the fact that I have some students who seem to have made no improvement since the beginning of the year, I know that others have.
Parent education on independent reading is important.
After talking with Derrick’s mom and other parents at the fall conferences this year, I realize how important it is to educate them about the reading in my classroom. This year I asked parents to conference with their children about their independent reading, so parents naturally had more questions than in the past. Realizing that parents had so many concerns about the books their children were reading was important. I have gotten good feedback from some of the parents about the “Tips for Parents” and the book lists I sent home. I have not received any negative feedback yet. From the students, I have had a few show me the books they got from the library based on the book lists I compiled. Next year, I will include the parent education piece of the independent reading sooner in the year and even in more detail so that the parents can start off reinforcing good reading behaviors.
Similarly, I have learned that parents want to be involved, but that they do not always know how to help their child. Also, I have learned that parents are much more inclined to ask questions when they are meeting face to face with me than through a note. Many parents stated that they had a question for weeks and were glad we finally had our conference so they could ask. I was somewhat shocked that the parents felt that they needed to wait until our formal fall conference to express any concerns or questions. I am still not sure why they felt they needed to wait until our formal conference.
Finding out what books kids select is the first step.
I have spent my semester researching and collecting data on what happens when students choose books to read independently. This is the first step in a long journey as a teacher for me to help them select appropriate books.
The next step is finding out exactly why students choose the books they do. Then I need to focus more on how I can help them make better independent reading choices. This entire process can be frustrating. I have found it hard to be patient and watch some students try to read books that are frustrating for them. I realize, however, that in order to make a lasting impact with each student I must be patient and take small steps in researching and making choices in the right direction. This does not mean, though, that I have not made many strides in helping my students select “just right” books this semester. Even though this has not been my focus, I have certainly stepped in to help students find books they can read successfully.
Through this project, I have learned many things about myself as a teacher. First, I have learned that I have many assumptions about fourth graders that are incorrect. Until this semester I assumed that most fourth graders could go to the library and check out a book that was appropriate for them to read alone. I based this assumption on the fact that all of my fourth graders were readers and that all of them came back from the library with a book. Also, I noticed that all of them would hold a book and look like they were reading during DEAR time. My assumption, however, has been challenged and proven to be incorrect from this study. I now realize that my own assumptions often prevent me from helping my students, because I cannot see where they need help.
Another assumption I had about fourth graders was that the lower, struggling readers did not care whether or not they were reading a book they could read alone successfully. Admittedly, this was an unfair assumption to begin with, but now I disagree with this assumption completely. I now believe that many of the readers, whether struggling or not, simply do not know how to find a book at their level or think they are reading a book that is at their level. This assumption was an important one to disprove in order for me to realize that I need to help my students understand how to select a book. Replacing my original assumption that the students didn’t care with the more accurate finding that they simply need help has caused me to think about other dangerous assumptions I hold. For all aspects of my teaching, I need to identify my assumptions and realize that these preconceived notions might be hindering me from doing my job.
Another valuable lesson I have learned about my own teaching is that trying to “solve” or research too many things at once is less effective. I was finally able in this study to narrow my focus to simply researching what happens when students choose books to read alone, rather than trying at the same time to find out why they choose certain books and what happens when I take certain steps to teach them how to choose appropriate books. I have found that my research has also informed the question of why they choose certain books and what happens when I step in to try and help them select books. These questions were answered in part even though they were not the focus. I need to further research and delve into these questions, however, in order to get some meaningful insight. Had I tried to answer all three of these questions in depth at the same time, I do not believe I would have gotten as much from my research. As teachers, we all want to have the answers to each of the problems or questions right away. This study has helped me see the value in concentrating on one area to work on at a time.
Finally, I have learned not to “reinvent the wheel” with my classroom research. At first I felt compelled to try to answer a question in an original or unique way. As I began to look through professional articles and other research studies, though, I realized that many other teachers share my own questions and concerns. These other teachers have tried things that are helpful to me. Rather than trying to be the one who finds the most unique question or the most original research, I’d rather be the one who finds the research helpful to herself and her students.
Of course, conducting teacher research while taking an action research graduate class makes keeping up with your data and reflecting for your final paper easy. Without the class as my support, though, I know all of my motivation will be internal. After spending the last two years immersed in teacher action research, I cannot imagine ignoring the questions that inevitably come to the forefront of my teaching each year such as “Can I go to the library to get a book?” I think that internal motivation will be easier for me to follow and even harder for me to ignore.
Ideally, I would love to have a built-in research support group at my school much like the one in place at Deer Park Elementary in Virginia. Each year the teachers choose a topic to explore and form support discussion groups in order to share and examine their findings and progress. Right now, nothing like this exists at my school. I do not think it would be out of the question for me to work at starting such a group on a small scale.
As I stated earlier, I do realize that trying to do too much at once would be less effective, so trying to start a huge group across many grade levels might be too much at first. I can, however, see myself initiating a fourth grade yearlong study based around a central question. I can then use and pass along the researcher skills I have gained over the past few years such as collecting data, narrowing my question, analyzing data, and even reflecting on my findings through a final paper or presentation. Through my own required study I have grown to see the immeasurable value in teacher research and feel that it plays a key role in helping my students and myself grow.
Connections for School Success. (2002). Wake County Public Schools. (Available from Wake County Public School System, Curriculum and Instruction Division, Raleigh, N.C.)
Donovan, C.A., Smolkin, L.B., & Lomax, R.G. (2000). “Beyond the Independent-Level Text: Considering the Reader-text Match in First Graders’ Self-Selections During Recreational Reading.” Reading Psychology, 21, 309–333.
Fountas, I. & Pinnell, G. (1999). Matching Books to Readers. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.
Poole, B. & Smith, K. (2001). “Finding the Links to Independent Reading.” Teacher research at Deer Park Elementary School, Centreville, Virginia.
- Reading response log (in PDF format)
- Reading list assignment: suggested questions (also available in PDF format)
- Five finger test
- “Just Right” books chart
- Student evaluation of books (scanned image of student work)
- Student evaluation of books (scanned image of student work)
- Student evaluation of books (scanned image of student work)
- Tips for Parents
- Recommended books list (high)
- Recommended books list (low)