March 31, 2016

How to Help Students Find Books That Match Their Level and Interests

finding-the-right-bookThere is a proclivity among middle schoolers to do what their friends are doing. Shocking, I know. But I didn’t realize how this proclivity also shows up in their choices of books to read. I could see the trends: Greek mythology, vampire novels, NFL biographies. What I didn’t see, at first, was the lack of enjoyment they experienced by following the trends.

My initial impression was that the students seemed to be enjoying themselves. They would check in with each other, see who had read what. They wanted to know who had the book before them and after them, and when it was due back. They created elaborate systems of trading and sharing and renewing as almost a competition among their friends. They seemed to be delighting in the literature, but I was fooled. They were delighting more in the social networking of this activity than in actually reading. This realization hit home for me during the beginning of one particular school year.

At my school, September was the month of Greek myths. We couldn’t keep books on myths on the shelves. Everything from the most juvenile picture book to multi-volume tomes was back out the door before it could be reshelved. There was such a buzz, such excitement about the myths. But when I started chatting with students about what they were reading, I found that most students were not truly enjoying this “autumn of myths.” They were enjoying just socializing about the myths. Many of the students I talked to about the stories were obviously skimming and looking at the pictures. Most were reading above or below their independent reading levels and not actually engaged in reading the text. I had to get to the bottom of why my students were neither enjoying nor actually reading the books they chose.

In my quest to understand what was going on in the library, I enlisted some student allies. Let’s call them Maya and Erika. I started with these young ladies because they seemed to be tightly connected to the network of book swappers but the least engaged with what they were reading.  After I had posed a few questions to Maya, it was obvious that she did not like mythology at all. She told me that she did not enjoy “all the monsters and battles” and the “weird stuff they do.” It was clear she was choosing the wrong books. Erika admitted to just reading what everyone else was reading. 

So I asked my young friends if they knew how to search for interesting books by using OPAC, the digital library catalog that many schools use instead of the traditional card catalog. Neither of them had ever used the library catalog! They knew about it, sure. They were probably even taught how to use it in a previous grade, but using it was certainly not a regular habit for them. 

So, Maya, Erika, and I grabbed iPads and hit the library’s digital catalog. We started with a few exploratory questions, such as, “What’s the most interesting book you have ever read?” and “What are topics you like to read about?” We found that, through a little basic use of the catalog and an exploration of authors and genres, we could start a new trend: reading what you like and getting more out of the experience.

Looking for ways to help your students find the right books or create a summer reading list? Resources to help students find their reading zone: 

Sylvan Book Adventure 

Students can search for books by author or title, or by fiction/non-fiction, grade level, and level of difficulty.

Book Adventure Teacher’s Lounge

This resource provides teachers with a list of Caldecott Award and Newbery Medal winners as well as links to book labels and other booklists.

Scholastic Book Wizard 

The Book Wizard helps students search for the right book by title, author, or keyword, and provides options for searching by grade level equivalent or Lexile measure. 

American Library Association - Booklist of Children’s Books  

Coretta Scott King Book Awards 

Lexile Framework for Reading - Find a Book

Over 230,000 books measured by Lexile level. 

Picking a Book That’s Just Right for Me  

This document offers an informal way to help students determine when they are reading in their “zone.”

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