Some Ways to Outgrow Yourself as a Reader

“The sky has never been the limit.  We are our own limits.  Its’ then about breaking our personal limits and outgrowing ourselves to live our best lives.”  – author unknown

Recently I have decided to take on a new challenge– I have decided to read the biography of Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson.  Now, this is indeed a challenge for me because I tend to shy away from books that are, say, 600 or more pages.  It’s not that I don’t think I can read them, it’s…well, they’re just so long.  And the challenges of work, school, parenting two young daughters can sometimes make finding the time difficult.  But other than reading more books, there is one central goal I continue to pursue: and that goal is outgrowing myself as a reader– over, and over.  It means working to develop a sense of when I have, once again, let a cocoon envelop who I am as a reader, and then acting to do something about it– figuring out a way to burst forth in a way that is new, different, and (hopefully) better.

But how does one do such a thing as a reader?  Let’s come back to Steve Jobs for a moment…

Many don’t know that early in his career as a computer designer, Steve Jobs worked for a company called Atari.  As many of us remember, Atari was the company that created some of the most successful video games of all time.  Take for instance, Ms. PacMan (okay, yes, I have dated myself officially).  Ms. PacMan was a game in which a yellow protagonist zipped around a colorful maze eating light pellets while being chased by nefarious ghosts.  Ms. PacMan was a game that progressed by levels.  And as one became more experienced and proficient in each of the various levels (denoted by types of fruit, such as cherries, strawberries, peaches, etc.), one was able to advance to different levels of the game.  Each level became increasingly challenging, with the ghosts moving a trifle faster, “power pellets” lasting shorter lengths of time, mazes taking on ever-more complex configurations, etc.  It is true that several games, both before and after Ms. PacMan, challenge players to “master” certain levels of play before they were/are allowed to move on.  In each game, whether it be Ms. PacMan or Halo, Lumosity or World of Warcraft, users are presented a certain set of challenges that, in order for a complete experience to be gained, must be met.

Enter text levels.

Several years ago, researchers began devising a way to make sense of different “levels” of books.  Now, working to establish what are called “readability levels” is nothing new.  Different researchers for decades have been working to find ways to define how to measure text complexity (take Fry, for example).  One such research group in more recent years is a company called MetaMetrics.  A few years back, they invented something called “Lexiles”.  Lexiles measure text complexity by running a text through a computer program, which then generates a number.  The program principally measures two factors:  sentence length and vocabulary.  Although this can be helpful at times, one pitfall (among many) of looking at texts through only the lenses of Lexiles is that the following “sentences” would be assigned the same Lexile:

  • I went to the store to get bread.
  • Went I bread store to the.

Clearly, in this example, we can see the shortcomings of such a measure used in isolation.  To be fair, there are surely many positive arguments to be made on behalf of the Lexile system; however, the measure is what it is: a measure of sentence length and vocabulary.  Actual complexity of content of text is not measurable by Lexiles.  Take for example, John Steinbeck’s acclaimed novel, The Grapes of Wrath.  This book is assigned a Lexile of 680, which appears in the second and third grade band according to the expectations of the Common Core State Standards.  Most of us would likely agree that we would not want our second or third graders reading (or trying to read) The Grapes of Wrath!

So who is working to measure content complexity?

One such group of researchers looking into this question was the staff at the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project at Columbia University.  These researchers wanted to look at levels of text as defined by the complexity of their content.  These levels are sometimes known as “Guided Reading Levels”, and some of the most respected researchers that have contributed to this work are Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell.  If you are not familiar with these levels, they are essentially designed to assess and match readers to texts using an alphabetic system, A=kindergarten, Z=end of 8th grade.

The researchers from Columbia University wanted to know if different levels of books might present similar challenges– almost like a “level” of a video game might present certain levels of challenge.  In other words, how different is level W from level X?  Are there similarities?  How similar is level R to level S? And so on…

It turns out that after reading a hundred or so books at each level, researchers found that certain levels of books do, indeed, present similar challenges.  However, there are points at which challenges change, become more complex.  What follows here is a brief (far from comprehensive) synopsis of some of the findings of the Columbia research group. Each group of levels shown below, or “band of text” (band means a group of levels) as they are sometimes called, present a specific set of challenges to a reader.  These “bands” might also be referred to as “lenses for reading”, as they provide ways of comprehending text at a higher level than just reading for plot.  One thing we know about young adult literature (YA Lit) is that the stories are about so much more than the plot!  And if we want our young readers to outgrow themselves, one way we might do this is to focus their attention on these characteristics of their books.  The following information is geared toward typical 3rd through 8th graders:

N-O-P-Q level books

In these levels of books, readers MUST be active readers!  They must lean forward and do stuff mentally as they read.  They have to make much more of the book—it’s not all given to them.  Much more inference is required because the book is not going to do the work here.  Readers can’t sit back and “TV-watch” these books.  

In terms of plot structure, it is more complex than previously (say, in books below level N)– I wanted a bike, but I got a friend instead (which is what I needed/wanted anyway).  Plot structures follow a problem-resolution format, versus a problem-solution.  And there are multiple problems in these books.  There will be one main problem, but wrapped around the structure are larger, more worldly issues—like loss of dad who’s moved away.  Readers must become aware of this in this level.

Also, more figurative language appears in these books than previous levels.  Kids can decode the words, but might not get what it means (think about, “I guess we better head back to the drawing board”).  Just because readers can read the words, doesn’t mean it isn’t tricky!  So making sense out of the text now includes these phrases.

Characters in these books are not described directly; rather, readers must infer by creating and revising theories as they read.  Readers may get some information given to them, but they must be active to get more.  Oh, and characters will change in the book, although perhaps not dramatically.

Books at these levels include the Amber Brown series by Paula Danziger, The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, Stone Fox by John Gardiner, and the Bunnicula series, by James Howe.

R-S-T level books

Part of what readers must put together in these books will need to be inferred.  Thus, since the inference load is much higher, readers must stop and wonder, “What might putting all this together add up to?”  The role of setting plays a big, big role in these books.  The story generally doesn’t take place in familiar places like schools, neighborhoods, etc. like they did in the last band.  So readers must work to figure out stuff about the setting. Is the setting is symbolic? Is it perhaps “mirroring” character (meaning the setting and a character are alike in some way)?  Is the setting actually creating the problem?  Readers must become “setting detectives” because this work will pay off.  The setting will bear significance on the depth of understanding in the text.

In these levels, also, sometimes readers encounter full parts and passages that will mean something later; so the strategy is not to just ignore these parts and keep reading, but rather read on holding on to these parts so that they will make sense later.

Important, too, at this level is the introduction of symbolism.   I sometimes call it “baby symbolism” because the author continues to refer back to the same thing over and over (like the suitcase in Tiger Rising).  At this level, it is possible to get the symbolism “right”, as the interpretation of the symbols are meant to be somewhat obvious to readers as a vehicle for delivering a deeper theme or message.  

In terms of the characters, the role of minor characters (characters that are not the main character) becomes much more important at these levels. Readers cannot discount minor characters in these books because they probably will have some important bearing on the story.  They need to be attended to across the book as they come in and out of the plot.

Plot structures in these levels are layered, generally following problem-resolution; but now, the story could be told with two different perspectives or two different plot lines.  The way the book is organized around the plot is different now than previously, and more complicated.

Books at these levels include Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, The Twits, by Roald Dahl, and The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo.

U-V-W level books
Readers need to be prepared for really studying setting to be ready for this level!  Again, the setting is purposeful and meant to bear on the significance of the meaning built into these books.  Also, it is typical that something big has happened before the story has even begun.  Think for example of the classic book Number the Stars about two young girls, one Jewish, one not, living in Denmark during World War II amidst a Nazi invasion.  If readers have no knowledge of the Holocaust, their understanding is severely impacted.

The reader’s stance at this level must be, “I am figuring it out, and I know I don’t know.”   Readers must recognize that they do not know this (main) character, and that that character is unreliable (which means readers will know things that the character  does not know).  In fact, readers should never feel they get this character with certainty!  Thus, readers must be constantly revising their theories about the people in the book.

Symbolism is going to be huge in these books.  Anything and everything could be (and probably is) symbolic (the setting, the characters, names, the weather, objects, etc.).

In terms of plot structure, it is hard to figure out what the main problem is!  Conflicts in these books manifest more like representations of big issues rather than big problems.  Readers must read interpretively, thinking about what issues are being addressed by the author and how the author is positioning readers to feel about those issues.  Think of Auggie in the book Wonder by R.J. Palacio and how issues of society’s treatment of those with physical deformities is portrayed.

Books at these levels include Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare, Becoming Naomi Leon, by Pam Munoz Ryan, and Tangerine by Edward Bloor.

X-Y-Z level books
To be successful at these levels, readers need to have both a curious and knowledgeable reader stance.  Readers need to be willing to engage in the “figuring-things-out” work while they are reading, because, at these levels, readers are the kinds of kids who like challenging books and do not want things spelled out for them so simply.

In X-Y-Z books, readers are expected to draw upon a wealth of knowledge about the world and other books.  In fantasy books, for example, readers need to bring with them a wealth of knowledge from mythology, fables, and/or other fantasy texts, as well as archetypes and classic story arcs.

Oftentimes, multiple genres and points of view are also characteristic of these types of books.  Multiple voices are heard across the story, and so, logically, perspectives overlap and, many times,  conflict with one another.  

Another notable characteristic of these upper level books is the passage of time becoming especially complex.  For example, sometimes entire chapters (not just passages) jump back in time, challenging the reader to construct a mental timeline for the story by configuring events and episodes in a puzzle-solving fashion.

Similar to the former band of text, the narrators of books at this level are oftentimes unreliable.  She or he will proclaim things that the reader is expected to realize are not as the character thinks or has stated.

Finally, there is the sometimes added challenge of how the dialogue in the story is written.  Some stories might contain regional vernacular, for example.  Characters will speak in this vernacular and use vocabulary from another time and place.

Books at these levels include The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper, The Giver, by Lois Lowry, and Hunger Games, by Suzanne Cooper.


Perhaps the Ms. PacMan metaphor fell short.  The point is that it is sometimes helpful to be aware of the different demands texts can place upon readers as they navigate their books.    As parents, mentors, relatives, and caregivers of our middle school students, I recommend we try on these “lenses” ourselves, seeing what opens up for us as we read a few books in the Young Adult genre.  It’s truly amazing how reading in these ways can pay off!  A few recent titles I have read and can recommend would be Home of the Brave by K.A. Applegate (level W) or Wonder by R.J. Palacio (level U) or One Crazy Summer (level T) by Rita Williams-Garcia.  You might also try a new writer, Tania Unsworth, whose first YA novel The One Safe Place I am finding to be riveting!

“Outgrowing ourselves” is a noble goal.  And outgrowing ourselves as readers, whatever our age, can be both challenging and exhilarating.  Many have written about the connection between learning something new and the release of the chemical “dopamine” in the brain.  The brain loves novelty!  And personally, I have found “new ways of reading” to have an exciting and worthwhile payoff.  Try it!  And let these new lenses spark new conversations with your young readers.

“The sky has never been the limit.  We are our own limits.  Its’ then about breaking our personal limits and outgrowing ourselves to live our best lives.”  – author unknown

6 Ways to Nurture a Growth Mindset in Our Young Readers and Writers

It’s that time of year again…a time when we’ve turned the page of our calendars. Oftentimes, this time has all of us thinking about such things as “resolutions”– how will I make this year different? Better? Different and better? In this post, I humbly attempt to offer some organic food for thought when it comes to helping our students outgrow themselves as readers and writers. To perhaps make this year different and better. Let’s start with the human brain.

The brain is amazing! One of the features of our brain that is now well-researched but little known is its plasticity. The human brain is capable of changing– actually physically changing!– as a result of the quality and types of thoughts being generated. I know, it sounds very chicken-or-egg, right?! But stay with me…  

In her bestselling book Mindset: the New Psychology of Success, Stanford Professor Dr. Carol Dweck outlines a cognitive model for thinking about growth and improvement. In a nutshell, Dr. Dweck teaches us that there are two mindsets: fixed mindset and growth mindset. In relation to our young readers and writers, the basic distinction lies in a misconception that some middle school students carry within themselves in regards to reading and/or writing: that is, a belief that because reading and/or writing is difficult right now, it will always be difficult. Somewhere along the way, due to either feedback they have received or a belief they have grown attached to, they have learned that intelligence and/or ability is a general character trait, and therefore permanent, unalterable in any way.

This is simply not true.  

Peter Johnston in his important book entitled, Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives, calls this type of thinking”fixed theorizing” because of the permanent nature it represents. He writes, “A fixed theorist thinks, ‘I’m not a good writer.’ A dynamic theorist [someone with a growth mindset] thinks, ‘I’m not very good at writing poetry yet,’ or, ‘I’m not very good at writing in very noisy situations yet.'” (Johnston, 2012) Notice the subtle difference– yet. The implication being– “Okay, maybe I’m not good now. But I will be.”

Many of us remember the story of basketball great Michael Jordan who was not chosen for his high school varsity basketball team one year. Did Michael say to himself, “I’m just not very good at basketball”? No. Instead, he likely said something like, “I’m not there yet.” And he began to double down on his practicing. Forging onto a successful high school career, to a National Championship with the University of North Carolina, to six national championships with the Chicago Bulls, to two gold medals in the Olympics…many of us are familiar with this narrative of a famous dynamic theorist.

With a growth mindset, kids can (and will, with some help) outgrow who they are as readers and writers. But how can we, as persons of influence, help to nurture a growth mindset in our young readers and writers? Here, I offer six possible ways (thank you to my colleagues at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project for the inspiration):

(1) Invite them to find a reading or writing mentor, maybe you– “Mentor” was a mythological character from Homer’s Odyssey and has come to be defined as “a person who shares knowledge with a less experienced person.” In today’s culture, we think of a mentor as someone with whom we share a valued relationship of trust. All of us can likely reflect upon those persons who made a lasting difference in our lives, who we trusted to show us the way down a path we wished to pursue. For me, one of those persons was my father who taught me, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” My father was also always reading (and still is to this day)! So for me, he was my reading mentor. Probably without even realizing it, he showed me (notice I am not saying “told me”) a few important things:

 (a) Reading is worth doing— When kids see adults reading, that matters. You are showing how you have chosen reading over all the other things you could be doing (not an easy task as a parent!). Studies have shown that one possible reason girls come to see themselves as readers more often than boys is the fact that it is women who are more likely to belong to a book club or be found reading independently. The fact that I often found my father reading likely played an important role in how I began to view myself in relation to reading.  

(b) Reading furthers your life’s pursuits— I can remember, in particular, when my father decided to become a soccer coach. Not growing up with the game, he knew very little of it when I was young. So he purchased, checked out, borrowed, studied, and annotated any book he could get his hands on about coaching the game of soccer. He even went on to write his own! When we as adults are able to be the kind of mentor who shows kids how much reading and writing matters when it comes to pursuing an interest, we are being a growth mindset. We become the iteration of Michael Jordan-type determination that proudly and boldly states, “I’m not good enough at this yet.”

(c) It’s not about telling, it’s about showing— Honestly, I don’t remember my father nagging me to read. I don’t remember him expounding on the virtues of reading or writing. It was partly a function of who he was being that mattered. When we take on being, versus telling, we show kids that it is living and breathing something that actually matters. Don’t get me wrong…we probably still need to do some telling, too! But you see my point.

So think of the mentor(s) in your life…you’ll likely remember that it was who they were being, not just what they said, that made all the difference.

(2) “Getting better involves hard work”- be that message– It was famous educator Booker T. Washington who once said, “Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.” When working to nurture a growth mindset in our kids (or ourselves), it is imperative that hard work be welcomed as a key ingredient. New Yorker writer and author Malcolm Gladwell identifies one common element shared by those who have experienced great success (think The Beatles, Bill Gates) was the opportunity to work hard. In other words, if we set out to grow or get better at something, we should actually seek out opportunities to work hard– not avoid them! And as adults of influence, providing such opportunities is part of the formula. We essentially want to be coaching into work ethic, fostering what Paul Tough calls “grit”.

One of my mentors, Dr. Lucy Calkins, Director of the Reading and Writing Project at the Columbia University Teachers College, once told me that as she reflected back on her life, specifically on her seminal accomplishments, she noticed that it was never the times when she was sitting back on the couch, kicking back, and eating chips that things were moving forward; rather, great accomplishment took place during times of “press and stress”– that is, when she was working really hard.

Obviously, we don’t wish our students to be “pressed and stressed” all the time. But we do want to reinforce with them that a growth mindset welcomes hard work. Share with them a time when you were learning to get better at something– whether it was trying to forward a social cause, becoming a better skier, learning a new job, remodeling a room or a house, or learning to play an instrument– and talk about the hard work it took to get where you wanted to be. Because this matters, and we know that.

(3) Practice matters– This one may seem obvious, but it’s shocking how befuddled students look when you tell them that they can become stronger readers and writers– no, really!- by practicing. I don’t know if it is because they only associate the concept with such things as sports and music? One student once told me, “Well, of course I practice Lacrosse– how else would I get better?”  

Whatever the reason, one part of developing a growth mindset is recognition that practice is essential. Reading and writing are skills learned in use; therefore, the more we do it, the more we get better. This may seem oversimplified (and it clearly is, as we want to be practicing in a meaningful way at a just-right level. I wrote about that in my last post), but it is true. Think of Michael Jordan. And think of great educator and writer William Zinsser who teaches us,
“We learn to write by writing.”

(4) Build a vision for what is possible- You can’t achieve it if you can’t imagine it. When we as adults, mentors, teachers, parents, and grandparents want to nurture a growth mindset in our youngsters, we want to be mindful of how we help them construct a vision of what it is they are trying to achieve. And what is the possibility for that vision?

Besides being an educator, I am also a professional musician (piano and keyboards). I can remember being ten years old when I heard my mother playing Beethoven’s famous, “Fur Elise”. In that moment, I built a vision for what was possible. Well, part of one, anyway. I consider this crucial to my success as a musician, as I went on to study piano throughout my entire academic career, eventually coming to enter the professional world. How would that have been possible without a vision for what success looked and sounded like?

But how can we do this for reading and writing? A few suggestions might be:

(1) Help to build a course of study for your young reader(s). Perhaps you might show them how to “work up” to a harder book by reading easier books in that same genre. (2) Maybe you help them to set goals with their volume of reading (pages, minutes, both). Sometimes it helps to teach young readers that building stamina with reading and writing is like training for a marathon. We don’t train for marathons by running marathons! Rather, we run one mile on day one. Maybe we run a little farther the next day. Then we run a little longer the next. Then we run a little farther. In other words, we build up to where we want to be. “Today, you wrote seven lines! Great job. How many do you think you’ll write tomorrow?”

(5) Celebrate small steps- You can tell a lot about a person by what they celebrate. Recall that mentor you were thinking about earlier…likely, there was some celebration along the way that s/he sponsored for you.

Whatever way we celebrate with our young readers and writers, the important thing is this:  we do it.

Sometimes those small steps might look like this:

Credit: Imagur

(6) Chart progress- Finally, when nurturing a growth mindset, it helps to make small steps visible on a chart or in a notebook. There are also many online or digital platforms available for smartphones or computers, such as Goodreads allows kids to create an online reading record that enables him/her to see the title of the book s/he is currently reading, books s/he has finished, and books s/he plans to read next. Another social media site focused on books is Here members can, according to the website, “build virtual bookshelves, discover, rate and discuss books, and participate in online groups.” Also, there is Biblionasium– “100% kid-tested and approved!” they tout.  

Remember that our middle school kids are very social; so the more we can leverage the medium of a social learning, the better.

“Get here when you can” – Oleta Adams

The bottom line in developing a growth mindset is that the focus is not on where you are currently, but rather, where you’re going and how you plan to get there. Even if your student(s) don’t believe, remind them of something the Heath brothers teach us: that it’s much easier to behave your way into a new way of thinking than believe your way into a new way of behaving. That is to say, behave your way to a growth mindset. Don’t over-think it.

See where it takes you.

For more on growth mindset, click here.

It’s a Matter of Choice

Fall is an exciting time!  For those of us who spend a great deal of our existence in and around the field of education, this is the turning of the new year.  It’s a time for new resolutions, higher expectations, and hopes that this year will be… well, better than last year.

For our middle school students, this is also a time of settling into new routines with new teachers.  Students have new schedules, new classrooms, new expectations being placed upon them.  It’s a lot of ‘new’.

One routine we hope is not new–and is finding its place this year– is independent reading.

With the vast array of activities and distractions that can encompass today’s fast-paced lives (texting, competitive sports, social media, clubs, activities, etc.) it can be easy to lose sight of (or de-emphasize) the importance of reading.  But this cannot be!

A great thinker once said, “Reading creates a wider inner dimension.”  Those of us who identify ourselves as “readers” know this to be true.  We know that reading helps us widen our repertoire of imagined experiences, expand our knowledge of the human condition, and increase our awareness of the world at-large.

The great American novelist, George RR Martin once said, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies…The [person] who never reads lives only one.”

But how do we– those of us fortunate enough to be in a position of influence for young adults– encourage, support, and foster a love of reading in our students?

One tried-and-true method is allowing for choice.  Choice in reading is key.  In fact, in Brian Cambourne’s (1988) research on literacy development, (click here to learn a little more) choice is identified as a condition of promoting self-direction and agency– desirable qualities all adults likely wish for their future adults.

Agency can be defined as “the state of being in action or of exerting power.”  Allowing students choice in their reading material is fostering agency and independence.

In reading workshops and classrooms across the country (and probably around the world), a common time cited by middle school students as a time when “reading was the pits” was when “someone chose what I had to read for me.”  Sometimes they phrase it as, “When I didn’t get to pick my book”, or “When I had to read _________ (insert adult-selected title).”  I’ll never forget the time when, while leading a training in Portland, Oregon, a teacher shared about the time he was made to read The Hobbit.  “I didn’t read another book for five years,” he reported.  “Up until that time I felt like I was a good reader.  But after I had to read that book, I didn’t feel that way anymore.  So I stopped reading.”

Choice matters.

Sometimes as adults, however, we are not always comfortable with the choices our students make as readers.  We think to ourselves, “Really? That’s what you want to read?” (okay, maybe some of us might have said that aloud once).  When we find ourselves in this situation, we might want to consider the following options:

1.  Inquire as to what it is about the text that has interested the student.  This might sound like, “Hmm…what had you pick that [book/magazine/blog/article]?”

2.  If the student offers little information, follow up with: “Can you say more about that?”

3.  If you are unfamiliar and/or uncomfortable with the choice, you may consider reading it first. Or you might offer to read the text “together”.  Avoid creating a ‘forbidden fruit’ situation, but rather aim to foster a reading mentorship in which you are clear about your role.

4.  If you are unable to approve the material selected by your student, be as clear as possible about your reasons.  You may also want to have some alternate suggestions up your sleeve, or offer to search for other texts that contain similar themes, ideas, characters, etc. (stay tuned for ways to search for books).

Remember that the goal of any reader ought to be to outgrow him/herself.  We strive to be the caterpillar over and over again, letting each book, text, article, post, or tweet help us cast off a new cocoon, leaving us anew.  Thinking differently.  Thinking more. In a wider dimension.

Today a reader, tomorrow a leader. (Margaret Fuller)