Friday, June 19, 2009

Reading Above Grade Level and Rereading

This is primarily a blog containing book reviews of children’s and young adult titles. It’s been pretty sporadic over the years – that just reflects my life with two children, an amazing husband, and a job that I love but tries to drown me occasionally. When I have time, I am a heavy ready of other blogs written around the Kidlitosphere. Two different sets of articles have interested me recently and rather than reply to everyone’s blog, I thought I’d just jot down some notes here.

I’ve been a school librarian for twenty years. All but one of those years has been in the same middle school. When I meet parents, I am assured that it’s all-important for their children to be readers, but many freely admit that their kids don’t like reading. So I get these children at the beginning of puberty when school, and especially books are the least important things in their minds and am expected to magically instill in them a love fore reading – something they didn’t acquire during the preschool or elementary school years, the best time for children to fall in love with books. (Don’t get me wrong – I also get a fair amount of children who love to read and I just have to point them to the shelves).

So there are a number of things I do to try and get my non-readers to pick up a book and at least give it a try. Over the past few years, I’ve built up my graphic novel collection to a reasonable level (it would be higher but my graphic novels are by far my most stolen items). When I booktalk I try to include nonfiction titles that will appeal to my students – especially the boys (if it’s gross, I want to read it and talk about it). I try to read a variety of books so I can find something, anything that might appeal to that reluctant reader. This year I’m going to try book speed-dating and see how that works. I’m also thinking of getting at least one eighth grade class to participate in a Good Reads group online.

So what are the barriers to this (besides the kid’s saying “I hate to read” and rolling their eyes at everything you suggest)? One huge barrier is teachers saying that a child must read a book on their reading level. In public schools the almighty test score takes president over everything else, and if we are not challenging our students, exposing them to enough rigorous work, we are not doing our jobs. To hell with actually teaching them – we must raise their test scores. So books on grade level (or above grade level) is the answer, according to many. I can preach until my lips fall off that reading below grade level improves fluency and comprehension, but to no avail.

As has been pointed out, many parents want “age-appropriate, higher-level” books. In other words they want books written several grade levels above their children that don’t have strong language, sex, or extreme violence. It’s hard to convince parents that most books written for teenagers are actually about things that teenagers are interested in (and, believe it or not, teens use strong language when they are around each other, and they think about sex a lot). I actually had a parent of a higher-level reader who was horrified by one of the books in my library and she said that she didn’t want her daughter to read any books where boys dated girls. There went two-thirds of my fiction collection. My media center has books appropriate for 6th – 8th graders. I have The Penderwicks and I have Speak. Some of my books are more appropriate for immature sixth graders, and some are most appropriate for very mature eighth graders. In my twenty years of experience, I have discovered that children have an innate ability to pick out what’s appropriate for them. I also discuss during their first library check-out each year that if they don’t feel comfortable with a book, they can always return the book and check out something else. I stress that I have books for many different types of readers and they have to find what they are most comfortable with.

I also get complaints from teachers and parents about children rereading the same books over and over again. Again, I tell them that rereading improves fluency and comprehension, but many times I cannot convince parents of this. I am an avid re-reader. Rereading brings me comfort when I’m having a bad day and need a book I can count on. I also go back to books whose characters show me the person I want be. I have learned much from Atticus Finch and Marmee and Elizabeth Bennett, among hundreds of other characters. While I couldn’t be perfectly happy only rereading the books in my personal library, I could go for quite some time doing so. Many kids find a book that they want to reread again and again and somehow we think this is bad. It’s funny – we start this when they are toddlers by agreeing to reread the same book night after night (I cannot begin to count how many times I read The Foot Book) but now that they are reading on their own, it’s a bad thing. We have to respect our children’s choices in what they read, whether it’s a book that’s below their level, or one they have read before.


Jen Robinson said...

Great post, Paige. I especially liked your point about rereading: "I also go back to books whose characters show me the person I want be." I never thought about it that way, but that's absolutely something that I do, and did even as a kid.

I do think that what you're doing, trying to find the right books for middle school kids, trying to convince people to let them read below age level, etc., all makes a difference. Hard to see on a day to day basis, but it absolutely makes a difference.

Anonymous said...


My daughter is in fifth grade and I'm so tired of material being pushed upon her that is so above HER level that it is of no benefit. It is quite difficult to follow something you can't understand. I keep insisting on my gut feeling that she is taking in so much more, when she reads with fascination, something that is at her level. She steadily improves and enjoys it.

It's bad enough that her peers disapprove of her choices and to add to that to have her instructors constantly doing the same. It only ends up destroying her self esteem and killing her chance at life long love of reading. Your writings reassured my feelings and I will from now on make sure that she gets to read what she loves, without questioning myself! I wish for all children to have this one simple choice! When it gets too easy, it gets boring and they move themselves up the ladder!

Best, a grateful mom

Anonymous said...

I read with my first grader on a nightly basis. We split the time. He reads first, and it is usually a book that is right at his reading level, though sometimes a little above or below it. Then I read to him, and pick a book that is normally well above his reading level. Books like the Narnia series, Harry Potter, Charlotte's Web, or Willie Wonka. While I read them at a normal pace, I allow him to interrupt at any point and ask questions about the content or vocabulary. It seems to work out well, but I will certainly pay more attention to my responses in the future when he wants to cover a book we've already done - thanks for that perspective.