That Book is Too Hard for You

I can tell you all of the reasons why teaching students how to select their own books is important.  I have taught great whole class lessons on that from The Daily 5.  I can tell you the books that say that, the reasons why it is helpful to readers, and lots of other blah, blah, blah stuff about it.

The reality is when I was juggling 44 kids, I would just try to quickly and kindly redirect a student to a new book when I could tell they were way in over their heads.  But let me tell you about the time I finally didn't do that.

Why I finally quit saying, "That book is too hard for you." How to stop telling students they don't understand a book and start showing them instead.
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I was working on character traits with a small group of third graders, and their teacher mentioned that one of the students was reading a book that was too hard.  As I listened to each student read and asked a few questions about characters to connect to the strategy we were discussing, it quickly became clear to me that "Emma" was way in over her head.  I went into teacher freakout mode.  It sounded like this in my head:

•She's not sure if the character is an animal or a person?
•How has she gotten 100 pages into this book?
•This child needs a new book stat.

But, I was trying to channel my inner Jennifer Seravallo.  I knew I could redirect Emma to a new book, but that would not address the fact that she didn't know she wasn't making meaning as she read.  If the most basic concept of reading is making meaning, then that was the most important lesson I could teach her.  So I didn't send Emma to choose a new book.

Over the next few meetings, we continued to discuss strategies for understanding characters.  Students shared actions or dialogue or descriptions that helped them understand their characters.  Emma had little to contribute.

I was hoping she would catch on that if she didn't have anything to say that maybe she didn't understand the book.  That didn't happen.

The next time we met, I started our group by talking about what it sounds like in your head when you are making meaning, and the types of things our thinking voice says to us as we read.  We talked about if we're not making meaning, we're not really reading.  I asked them to notice those things and jot a few down as they read.

When I checked in with Emma, her thinking voice hadn't said any of those things.  I asked her what she thought that meant, and she told me it probably meant that she wasn't making meaning from the book.  I held my breath and asked what she thought that might mean.  Emma told me she thought she didn't really understand what was happening in the book and that she was going to choose a new one.

And a rainbow appeared in the sky and happy instrumental music started playing in the background.  Not really, but it was a moment of realization for me.  It is really scary to think that a child can choose a book and not realize that they don't understand it.  We need to do something about that other than snatch it out of their hand.

So this year, take the time.  Make the time.  Throw out whatever else you need to to create time to support students.  If we are limiting students to guided reading level or AR level selections, it is saving time at the moment but not teaching them a thing.

If you're not sure where to start, The Comprehension Toolkit is an AMAZING resource to give students a common language to talk about meaning.  The Reading Strategies Book is a perfect year long resource to help you support students one on one, in small groups, or whole class as you teach about reading strategies.

And finally, it's easy to look at students and see what's "wrong" with their reading.  But there were so many things that were right with Emma's reading.

•She was reading multi syllable words accurately and reading fluently.

•She showed dedication in continuing to read a book even when she wasn't making meaning.  That girl got 100 pages in.  What would happen when she learned to select a text that matched her decoding ability with comprehension?  Nothing would hold her back.

•She was coachable.  Emma was trying to do the work and able to speak honestly about what was and was not happening as she read.

This year students will come to you with a complete inability to choose a text they can read accurately and comprehend.  If you do nothing else, send them on to the next grade able to do this.   I'm sure your principal will expect more from you, but y'all can work that out.