Rethinking What Makes a ‘Just Right’ Book Just Right

Too often when I pull up a chair with teachers to confer with students during independent reading, we come to the same conclusion: With some stellar exceptions, the students aren’t doing a whole lot with the books they’re reading. Many, in fact, are downright lost or unable to say more about their book than what the blurb on the back cover says. And those who do manage to retell in a way that suggests they’re comprehending do little more than tick off a sequence of events as if everything that happened was of equal importance—despite the fact that most are reading books at their assessed reading level, a.k.a. a ‘just right’ book.

I think this happens for a number of reasons, the first of which has to do with what we should expect from a ‘just right’ book. According to Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, leveled texts provide students with “the problem solving opportunities that build the reading process.” But they don’t guarantee that a student will take advantage of those opportunities and solve whatever problems—of decoding, inferring or holding a story line in your head over dozens of pages, to name just a few—the text might present.

There’s also the matter of our expectations, as seen in the tools we give students for determining if a book is just right. Often I see charts in classrooms that offer students guidelines for assessing a ‘just right’ book. I like this one in particular because it acknowledges enjoyment as a key factor. But the second bullet point about understanding can be problematic, as Ellin Keene demonstrated in the opening anecdote of her book To Understand, which recounts a conference she had with a student named Jamika. As she often does, Keene began the conference by asking Jamika if her book made sense, at which point Jamika exploded in a tirade that began with “‘Y’all always say that—does this book make sense?’” and ended with the sobering indictment, “‘But, none a ya’ll ever says what make sense mean.’”

To both assess a ‘just right’ book and help ensure that it makes sense, we also give students the 5 Finger Rule,  which asks them to read the first page of a book and count the number of words they can’t figure out by either decoding or using context clues. If they struggle with less than four or five words, the books is deemed to be just right. But that seems to assume that the only problem to solve in a text—and all that making sense hinges on—is figuring out individual words.

But let’s look at the first page of the Level R book The Sword Thief, by Peter Lerangis, one of the books in The 39 Clues series, which is popular in grade 4 on up. And let’s see how many problems a reader must solve, beyond decoding or vocabulary, for it to make sense:

Students who’ve read other books in the series have a better chance of solving the problems this page presents than those who jump into the story here. But even they might have trouble making sense of this, beginning with the very first line, which will throw most literal thinkers for a loop. To make sense of what follows, readers also must infer everything that’s happening, since nothing but the characters’ name and their relationship is stated directly. They must infer, for instance, that Amy and Dan are at an airport from the detail about the conveyor belt, that the airport is in a place called Venice from a sign, and from the siblings’ exchange of dialogue, that the battered black duffle bag belongs to them and is bulging with samurai swords that they fear will be found in `a random luggage search.

We could say, thus, that in order for this text to make sense readers must problem solve what’s happening and where—and perhaps even who’s in the scene, since readers could also come away thinking that Jackie Chan and a ninja warrior are in the airport, too. Unfortunately my experience leads me to believe that many readers won’t engage in trying to solve these problems but will just keep reading, picking up what they can and glossing over the rest, until they’re either lost or they reach the point where the story aligns with the back cover blurb, which they’ll use to ground themselves instead of using the actual details the author has provided.

So to raise the bar for what makes a ‘just right’ book right and encourage students to engage more in the kind of problem solving needed for a book to make sense, some of the teachers I work with and I have been experimenting with introducing another bullet point to classroom ‘Just Right’ charts:

  • You can figure out who’s in each scene, where and when it takes place, and what’s going on

This doesn’t mean students have to understand everything; few readers actually do. They skip over unfamiliar idioms and foreign language phrases. They don’t always catch every reference or allusion, or infer every detail’s significance. But they try to get the basics.

It also doesn’t mean that understanding consists of just getting the who, what, when and where. But it is a starting place—and a reasonable expectation for an active reader in a book that’s supposedly ‘just right.’ And so far, the results have been good, with many students reading more attentively and others more aware of when they’re confused because they now have a more concrete tool and strategy for monitoring and assessing their comprehension.

Of course, to hold students accountable for this, we need to give them some instruction and plenty of time to practice. But I’ll save that for a future post that explores what that can look like.