Just What Exactly Are Students Doing with Their Just Right Books?

Just Right Book StickerIt’s January, and in many schools around the country, teachers are assessing their students’ reading levels for the second or third time this year to monitor their students’ growth and determine their independent reading level. I’ve written before about what I see as the impact of over-emphasizing levels on a student’s identity as a reader. Yet here’s an additional problem. Administering these assessments is time-consuming, and many a teacher must put conferring and even instruction on hold for a while in order to complete them. But given how much time we devote to this, how much time do we actually spend seeing what students are doing with those books once we’ve determine their level?

That’s not to say that we don’t talk to students about their books when we confer. But usually we’re in teacher, not researcher, mode, talking to students just long enough to find an entry point for instruction—priding ourselves, in fact, on how quickly we can get in and out. Rarely do we take the time to thoroughly get a handle on a child’s thinking, especially on the kinds of thinking the Common Core is expecting students to engage in independently. Yet it seems to me just as important to know what students are doing when they’re reading that ‘just right’ book as it is to know what level basket to send them to in the library.

To this end, I’ve been recommending that we at least occasionally spend as much time researching what students are doing with their books as we do assessing their levels—and that we resist jumping into to teach until we’ve gotten a clearer picture of what’s going on in a student’s head. When I’ve done this with teachers, we often discover that for every student who’s doing some interesting thinking—paying attention to how characters are changing, for example, and developing hunches about why—another student is completely lost in a book that’s supposedly just right.

KatieKazooCoverTake the case of Meera, a fourth grade student I recently conferred with. Meera was reading Open Wide, a Level M book in the Katie Kazoo Switcheroo series by Nancy Krulik, which I hadn’t read. Rather than asking about the book—which often leads students to launch into a retelling I cannot possibly assess for accuracy—I began by asking her if there was anything in particular she was working on as a reader. This question sometimes perplexes students, but Meera immediately replied that she was trying to picture the story in her head, which made her teacher, who was observing me, smile. I acknowledged how important visualizing was then asked her to turn to the page she was currently on and read a bit from where she’d left off.

Meera turned to page 58, which was approximately three-quarters of the way through the book, and fluently read the following page out loud:

KatieKazooExcerpt

I followed along as Meera read, not to check for fluency or miscues, but to get a feel for the kinds of demands this page put on a reader in order to better assess how Meera was negotiating those. Here, for instance, the action is explained explicitly, with little inferring required, yet there seemed to be a disconnect between the words and the picture, with the dentist appearing in the illustration but not in the words. So explaining to Meera that I was a little confused because I hadn’t read the book, I asked her if she could tell me what was going on.

“They’re at the dentist,” Meera said, “and the dentist isn’t being very nice.”

“Can you tell me who’s at the dentist?” I asked.

KatieKazoo“Katie, Matthew and Emma,” she said. Then she turned to the picture. “That’s Emma,” she explained, pointing to the girl with the glasses. “And that’s the dentist, and that’s Matthew,” she added, pointing to the boy with the hose. Then she flipped back several pages to show me a picture of Katie.

Her reliance on the illustrations combined with my own uncertainty about what was really going on, made me suspect that something was not quite right here. And so I plunged on. “I definitely see the dentist in the picture, but I didn’t hear him mentioned as you read. Can you tell me how you know from the words that he’s there?”

Meera turned to the previous page to show me a line from the following passage, in which the dentist is mentioned. “Here,” she said, pointing to the line, “‘Dr. Sang! That’s not nice,’ she hissed.”

KatieKazooExcerpt2

My eyes quickly scanned the sentences around this, and by following the dialogue, I was now quite sure that Meera had missed something significant. What I didn’t know, though, is whether what she’d missed had been stated explicitly or had to be inferred, which would suggest different instructional paths. And so rather than jumping in to teach with perhaps a reminder about monitoring comprehension, I told her how nicely she’d read the passage and then asked if I could borrow the book in order to get a better handle on why her comprehension had broken down in the first place.

Flipping back to the beginning, I found what I suspected: that Katie Kazoo wasn’t called Switcheroo for nothing. As the author explained explicitly on page 14, whenever Katie wished something, a magic wind would suddenly appear, “so strong, it could blow her right out of her body. . . and into someone else’s!“—in this case, Dr. Sang’s. And while the scene where the magic wind reappears to transform Katie into the dentist required a bit of inferring, there were lots of other explicit clues that pointed to the change.

Meera’s teacher and I mulled over the instructional implications of this in order to come up with a course of action. While Meera was ostensibly trying to visualize, she was missing all kinds of textual clues that would allow the movie she was constructing in her head to actually reflect the words on the page. So before she could monitor her comprehension, she needed to better experience how to build it by reading more attentively and actively. That would entail keeping track of what she was learning and what she was confused or wondering about in order to read forward with more purpose and connect one page to the next. And to help her do this more deliberately, we decided to put her in a small group so that she could verbalize what she was learning from a common text and what she was wondering about.

enfant consultation pédiatreIt’s important to note here is that this problem hadn’t shown up in her reading assessment, perhaps because the passage she’d read was so much shorter or didn’t involve something as improbable as a magic wind. It also wouldn’t show up in the data provided by other kinds of formative assessments—though it could be the root cause of whatever inabilities the data did reveal. It could only be discerned by a teacher who was trying to make a student’s thinking work visible by carefully listening, researching and probing before deciding what to teach.

Beyond All About Books (Part 1)

We live in a golden age of children’s books, especially of engaging nonfiction picture books that manage to both inform and entertain children by borrowing techniques from poetry and fiction. Joanna Cole‘s Magic School Bus books, where the indomitable science teacher Miss Frizzle packs her students into a bus to explore everything from the human body to the earth’s substrata, are the classics of these genre-bending hybrids. But there are many others.

Bat Loves the Night by Nicola Davies is part of the Read and Wonder series, which uses various narrative techniques to reveal the behavior and life cycle of all sorts of animals.


Diary of a Worm is one of several hilarious and clever books by Doreen Cronin that offers readers all sorts of factual information in the guise of an insect- or bug-written diary.


Postcards from Pluto by Loreen Leedy teaches readers about the solar system through the postcards a group of space-traveling kids send back to their family and friends on Earth.

And Explorers News by Michael Johnstone is part of the History News series, which brings history alive and accessible through a newspaper format that even includes ads and gossip pages.

Students devour books like these, but oddly enough when we study nonfiction writing, we typically ask them to write All About books or the even more generic Report of Information, which can all too often lead to plagiarism, indiscriminate fact plucking and, in my pre-google-image-search days, the ransacking of National Geographics with scissors.

There’s much to be gained by writing All About books, especially in the way that using and manipulating nonfiction text features—e.g., tables of contents, headings and pictures with labels and/or captions—helps students understand how those features support your comprehension as a reader. But clearly that’s not the only way nonfiction writers convey information.

And so, with excitement and some trepidation, I embarked on a unit of creative nonfiction with the third grade teachers from a school in Brooklyn’s Chinatown that has a high percentage of English language learners in both ESL and bilingual classrooms. Many of the students had already written All About books before. And many had struggled with both the writing and the research component, with the teachers often having to spoon-feed information that the students couldn’t access on their own and sometimes pulling the writing out of them, word by painful word. We were curious to see if this kind of writing would allow the students to have a different relationship to both the material and writing, building their identity and sense of agency as more independent writers.

As our mentor text, we chose G. Brian Karas‘s book Atlantic, which uses poetic devices, including personification, to teach readers about the ocean. And we used the countries they were studying in their social studies curriculum for our content.

Karas’s book begins with a single un-nonfiction-like sentence:

I am the Atlantic Ocean.

But it goes on to convey nonfiction-like information in pages such as these:

Studying the text in depth allowed students to create whole class and individual creative nonfiction books on China, Egypt, Brazil and South Africa, with pages that looked like this:

They also studied the different layout of pages in the mentor text, such as these:

which inspired them to create pages like this:

 and this:

Who is the Sinai Mountain wearing orange dress when sun shines on it? I am the Sinai Mountain who looks so beautiful. And I have a important job from people who lives on me. My job is to help people to talk to gods. Also I am 7491 feet tall like a skyscraper.

Of course, the process wasn’t always as simple as looking at the mentor text then emulating what you noticed. Students needed lots of modeling and scaffolds to move past the kind of fact stringing they’d been used to from writing All About books. In Part 2, I’ll share some of the specific supports and scaffolds we offered students, especially those who struggled with English. Those supports ultimately allowed these third graders to more fully own both the content and the writing than their other nonfiction outings had. But we, as teachers, needed to be as creative as the text we were studying.