Searching for the Gold and Why Gold Matters

Long, long ago- way before marriage, kids, mortgages-I played basketball in the mornings. Early mornings. “Basketball with the old guys”– well, that’s what I called it.  Every Monday, a group of us would convene at 6 a.m. in the circa 1968 gymnasium of the middle school in which I worked to play hoops for an hour before everyone headed off to work.  And although it was difficult to discipline myself to get up that early (after 21 years in education, I am still not a morning person), I typically ended up feeling pretty good about myself at the end of our session. After all, I was a spritely 27 years of age; whereas the rest of the crowd, aside from my roommate (also a teacher at the school), was probably in their mid-forties.  Forties! Wow, that’s old (was what my overconfident, naive brain told me).  So, I excelled!  I felt strong!  I felt confident!  And it was usually pretty fun.  Not having grown up playing basketball, I was well-matched with my fellow early-morning hoops enthusiasts.  I actually grew as a player.  You might say I was playing at my “just right” level.

But one day, it was suggested that instead of meeting at the middle school at 6 a.m. we meet at the high school.  Arriving at the high school, I quickly knew today would be different.  And, in fact, it was different.  These kids were actually good.  And not only were they good, they were stronger, faster, and better conditioned.  No longer did I feel so strong.  No longer did I feel so confident.  And, to be honest, it was not all that much fun.  I felt outmatched. 

So…what does all this have to do with reading? you ask.

What we want for our readers is a match to text.  We want them to feel strong.  We want them to feel confident.  And we want them to enjoy what they read!  One way to nurture such sentiment, aside from allowing for choice (I wrote about this in my last post), is to ensure students are well-matched (versus outmatched) to the texts they are holding. Dr. Richard Allington (from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville) cites studies in his excellent article, “Every Child, Every Day” that what matters in reading development is “reading and rereading of text that is engaging and comprehensible to students.” (Allington, 2012)   In other words, kids need to read stuff they like and can actually understand.

But how do we know if a text is actually comprehensible to our students?  Might I suggest a couple of ways to determine a child’s match to text:

(1)  “In-book assessment”– Ask your student to show you where s/he is currently reading..  Say, “Point to the place you are right now.”  After s/he shows you, simply count 100 words ahead (and read that short passage to yourself); then ask your child to read those words aloud.  As you listen, count mistakes s/he makes (if any)- there should not be any more than four.  Then ask him/her to summarize that little bit (did s/he get it?).  Although this type of assessment is not perfect, it will give you a sense of your child’s grasp of this particular text.

(2)  Ask and Listen – This one is simple: Ask your student to tell you about what they are reading.  Then listen for a few key things:

  • Is s/he talking in specifics about the characters?
  • Is s/he talking about the setting (either physical or emotional)?
  • Is there a sense for what’s important in the story?

If the talk you hear is primarily literal or plot-driven, ask, “What can you tell me about the thinking you’re doing?”  As you listen, again be on the look-out for a few key things:

  • S/he is talking about ideas— not just text-specific facts.
  • S/he is talking in specifics (if everything is murky and general, this could be a sign that the match is not right).

If a child reads a book that’s “too easy”, generally little harm can come to him or her.  However, if a child reads a book that is too far beyond their “zone of proximal development” (a term coined by psychologist Lev Vygotsky that refers to the difference between what a child can do with versus without assistance)– that is, a text that  is too challenging– a number of possible negative side effects can come into play:

1.  The child learns that reading means “sort of getting it”, versus deep comprehension.
While it is wonderful that so many students in middle school reading workshops across the country are becoming voracious readers, we have also seen many students becoming “plot junkies”; that is, they have grown to be readers that only read for the plot.  And in YA (Young Adult) lit, we know that these stories are about so much more than the plot! Think, Percy Jackson in the Lightning Thief or Katniss in Hunger Games.

2.  The child decides that they’re “not very good at reading.”
This can be one of the most devastating narratives a young reader can establish for him/herself.  Once a child “decides  s/he is not ‘good at’ reading,” it can take years to undo or disrupt this narrative (some parents are all too familiar with this).  Match to books can make all the difference!

3.  The child gives up, or labels him/herself as “not a reader”.
A version of the above narrative, this one can be even more long-lasting and detrimental to the reading health of a student.  Our young readers need a lot of support– lots of books, reading mentors, excellent instruction– but one of the most important supports is a strong message that reading means thinking; and in order to grow thinking, we must understand what we read.

4.  The child becomes a fake reader.
Author and Staff Developer Cris Tovani was one of the first to coin the term, ‘fake reading’ (check out this great chat with her and Education World here).  Often beginning in adolescence, students who have begun to feel marginalized in the world of reading begin to hone their craft of fake reading— that is, pretending to read.  Although Tovani elucidates the fact that many successful people in the world were “fake readers” when they were younger, this is not what we really want for our young readers.  Most of us would agree that our goals for our readers probably sound something like, “engaged”, “sophisticated”, and/or “deep”.  We are interested in supporting our readers in becoming stronger in their ability to comprehend, interpret, and apply what they read.  Not in supporting a habit of pretense!  Match to text, then, becomes extremely important.

So how can parents and persons of influence help when it comes to supporting our readers in finding books they can and want to read?  Here are just a few resources:

Scholastic Book Wizard–  If you know what level books your child has been matched with, simply set the leveling system to “Guided Reading (A-Z)”, and search for the gold!  Parameters can be set to help guide the search.  You can also use this site to look up levels of books!  Although the database is far from comprehensive, there are many books available for search.

Dr. Kimberly Tyson’s blog– Several go-to sources to find good books (assembled by Dr. Kimberly) are here on her blog, including one of my favorites, Nerdy Book Club.  Okay, the name is not a great match with teens, but the recommendations are voted on by teachers, librarians, authors, booksellers, parents, and young people.

Use the librarian.  A tried and true method!  As author Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book, Coraline) says,“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” 

Maybe the basketball metaphor (I wrote about at the beginning) didn’t work for you.  If not, think of a realm in which you have worked to become stronger– and you did, indeed, grow stronger! Or got better. Or gained proficiency.  There was likely a positive ratio of challenge to success that helped you succeed.

Now, some might argue that kids ought to be “challenged” by reading books that are “above their level”. Indeed, there are actual curriculum publishers out there advocating that kids be in “frustrational text” the majority of time.  Has this ever helped a reader to grow? Sure!  We can probably all think of a time when “playing above our level” benefitted us and helped us to grow.  But as a general rule, let’s be sure our kids spend a lot of time playing– I mean, reading– at a level that helps them to grow.  So they can experience what it is to feel strong.  To feel confident.  And to enjoy what they read.  For these are the keys to inspiring a life-long love of reading.

Author: Lanny Ball

For more than 29 years, Lanny has taught, coached, presented, staff developed, and consulted within the exciting and enigmatic world of literacy. With unyielding passion and belief in the possibility of workshop teaching, Lanny has worked to support students, teachers, and school administrators around the country in outgrowing themselves as both writers and readers. Working first as a classroom teacher, then as a coach and TCRWP Staff Developer, Lanny is now a literacy specialist, working and living in the great state of Connecticut. Outside of literacy, he enjoys raising his three ambitious young daughters with his wife, and playing the piano. Find him on this blog, as well as on Twitter @LannyBall. Lanny is also a former co-author of a blog dedicated to supporting writing teachers and coaches that maintain classroom writing workshops,

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