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:


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.”


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.

19 thoughts on “Just What Exactly Are Students Doing with Their Just Right Books?

  1. Thanks for your practical and thoughtful post Vicki. As I begin my (Aussie) school year in a new Grade Three class, your post will be helpful in reminding me to think about what’s going on in their reading process.
    I am always in such a hurry when I take a Running Record for assessment. The recording form tells me a lot, but I just realised it never gives me the whole picture of the child as a reader. The whole picture in not visible. When a reader brings their own ‘just right’ book to discuss at a conference, they bring something that they have been thinking about, usually over time. It’s unlikely a reader will reveal their thinking on an unseen short passage in the reading assessment.
    Do you think it’s at all possible to enable careful teacher listening, research and probing during the reading level assessment?
    I will be taking your question into my reading conferences:
    “What are you working on as a reader?” and will ask them to read from where they left off in order to get a feel for the demands put on them by their own book. Sounds useful to both the teacher and reader!
    Of course I will still conduct my reading assessments this year, but maybe not so many of them. You have reminded me to fill my room with conversations about reading where teacher and reader are thinking together.

    • So glad this hit a chord halfway round the world! One of teachers’ main struggles with conferring is talking to students about books they haven’t read, and many years ago I started seeing how much we could figure out both at the level of comprehension and deeper understanding when, as proficient readers, we just opened a book we didn’t know and read a random page, which is, in effect, what happens in a conference. What we were able to figure out was amazing and it seemed like we could use our own understanding as a guide to assess students were or weren’t doing, making that ‘but I don’t know the book’ worry mute.

      As for researching during a level assessment, I always tell the teachers I work with to try to see the assessment as both a summative and a formative tool by paying attention to a students’ behavior in addition to their miscues and answers. But I think there’s a huge difference between navigating a, say, 200-word passage and a 200 page book, which has so much more simply to keep track of, let alone to think about more deeply. And if text complexity has landed on your shores, too, it’s even harder to do high order thinking work in a text that requires more inferring and is structured in more complicated ways. All of which, I think, makes spending more time with students critical.

  2. The most difficult part of reading conferences (for me) is the sheer amount of books students discuss with me that I haven’t read. Good work catching those issues.

    One of the hardest reading skills to teach was the close reading (or active, attentive reading). Since students are able to read all the words and they are enjoying the characters, they often resist the instruction to slow down – especially at the beginning of the book. Any suggestions for teaching that more effectively?

    • I just responded to a fellow Australian (I think from Victoria as well) about how I’ve worked around not knowing the books over the years, as it’s simply impossible for virtually any teacher to know every book in their library. So if you have time, take a look at that. As for the slowing down piece, I like to do that in small groups by giving students the first page or so of a text that requires a lot of inferring and let them see how much they can figure out. And I try to end by having students reflect on what they think they were able to do by slowing down and more deliberately trying to fit pieces of the text together. Most kids like being able to see more—and, at least in the group setting, see the value of slowing down–though some need more time to practice that than others before they do it automatically. But I think it’s about raising their awareness of how texts are put together and the role that details play, which, over time, most kids will get.

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  4. I love posts like this! To me they are like good ethnography. I get a window into your teaching world, and the mind of this Katie Kazoo reader. I can’t help but start thinking about my little third grade world.

    Your post so very clearly describes one of the central conundrums I have with some of the transitional readers in my classroom. These are often the ones who appear to be doing better reading because they are decoding better, and can keep track of their reading in more simple IRI reading situations, who can sometimes do pretty sophisticated thinking in read aloud discussions. As a result, I relax a bit. But when I go back and talk to them about their independent reading, they can seem quite “off-base” with what should be fairly obvious. And they won’t notice that this should be obvious, like getting 3/4 of the way through a book about Katie Kazoo, perhaps even “know” that she’s a shape shifter, but not apply that effectively at the moment of reading.

    To further complicate things, some of these readers can actually provide some good interpretation during my read aloud! Why so good in one situation, but not so good in another? I’ve come to realize that my read aloud voice provides an important scaffold. I must read important things differently; linger on them, change intonation, emphasize certain words, or parts of a sentence. This helps the listener assign meaning and think. Some kids can’t do that independently yet. As a result, they might read right over details, they even might note them, but there is something about the way they process them and file them that doesn’t “stick”; they can’t use them later in the story. I’m wondering if this describes your reader, too?

    I’ve recently formed some groups based on observations like the one you made about the Katie Kazoo reader. For example, the kids I’ve gathered in one group tend to notice lots of details as they are reading, but have a harder time grounding their thinking in these details, especially creating a “chain” of thought from evidence scattered throughout the story.

    Why? Here’s my working theory. Kahneman (THINKING, FAST AND SLOW) talks about the fast, intuitive mind as operating under the principle of WYSIATI (What you see is all there is.). From conversations with students, I suspect that the children whose meaning falls apart at this stage are operating strongly on that level. They haven’t figured out how to sort noticed details, assign provisional meaning to them, and carry them through an evolving interpretation of a story. They haven’t learned how to create a meta-story that helps them remember, to contextualize or contain the information they gather. As a result, once out of sight, details, even really important ones, are out of mind.

    Perhaps part of the instructional answer is to notice and name that aspect of reading (that readers create interpretations out of details that seem especially important) and to provide lots of experience forming these kinds of interpretations, checking them against what we know and don’t know? I’m not sure how to scaffold that kind of independent thinking, but I’m excited to try.

    Sorry for such a long response. As always, thanks for your clear thinking and for getting me thinking.


    • We seem to be on similar journeys here, Steve, as your most recent post raises explores so many of the questions I was looking at here. I think what you’re calling a ‘meta-story’ is what Dorothy and I call a draft, and making that ongoing process of drafting and revising as you read forward, think backward and accumulate more text seems critical for students like my Katie Kazoo reader and the ones you talk about in your post. I tend to use small groups to do that, using shorter texts like picture books, which the kids can read themselves, and letting them talk their way through the text, with me transcribing their thoughts and ideas and reminding them occasionally to keep thinking about how to fit what they just read to what they already know in a way that makes that drafting and revising process really visible. And then I can remind them of that work when I talk with them on their independent reading books. I do believe that over time this works, but some students need much more practice than others. And while I don’t like to burden independent reading with writing any more than I have to, I do sometimes ask students to keep a know/wonder and/or pattern chart in their notebooks to help them do the work deliberately until they’ve internalized it a bit more. I’ve also had some luck with kids developing what I call a line of inquiry, a question borne of their wonderings that they’re exploring across a text. If, for instance, Meera could have articulated and held on to a question about who Katie might turn into in this book–or will she turn into someone here–when she first read about the magic wind, it would have given her a different relationship with the text and shifted her stance as a reader into someone who was more actively reading—just as us articulating our questions and conundrums has driven us to notice more, which I hope we can keep on sharing.

      • Thank you for such a thoughtful response, Vicki! Your work has been wonderful for my head and heart.

        I’ve been working with the kids in small groups, too. There’s something going on with them not figuring out what to remember, what is important; it doesn’t seem to be happening all the time quite yet. Two things to say about that, though. First, your suggestion to listen to them think more than to myself talk has really helped me hear how their minds are working through the text, which has helped me to try different things. I know them much better as thinkers. That’s very good! Second, as they get better at picking out more important stuff (still not there yet!), their ideas are becoming somewhat more grounded, less arbitrary, and therefore more fruitful. All that begins to create a positive cycle of discovery, that builds competence (and confidence.)

      • Just wanted to belatedly say how much I loved your post on the small group of kids reading “The Blue Ghost” (http://insidethedog.wordpress.com/2013/02/02/sorting-through-details-notes-on-a-couple-transitional-readers/). Beyond the great choice of text, I particularly appreciated the distinction you made between a ‘logical’ and a ‘textual’ argument, which I encountered just a few days ago reading a fabulous short story by Avi called “What Do Fish Have To Do with Anything?” (from the collection by the same name). The mother in the story, whose husband has abandoned her and her son, acts very odd, and there’s a whole passage that describes how she measures the slice of pound cake she gives her son after school because the nutritional label says that a serving should be half an inch thick. The students all recognized the oddness of the passage but reached for those ‘logical’ arguments—i.e., that maybe her son needed to be on a diet or maybe she was a doctor. Like your students wrestling with the ghost, they couldn’t imagine other reasons, and it was only as they read on and realized there was a pattern to her behavior that allowed them to reach for other words like “controlling” and “obsessive” that might explain her actions, which was the point at which the ‘logical’ merged with the ‘textual’. It was also the point at which a book allowed them to expand their understanding of human behavior as they encountered something they had never experienced themselves.

        While I was only there for the first half of the story, the teacher decided that once they finished it, she wanted to return to the beginning to invite the kids to think about whether there were more details that they now realized were significant that they hadn’t noticed before. Using Burkins & Yaris’s recent definition of close reading, one could call this a rereading that allows students to “recognize details and nuances of text that may go unnoticed during a cursory first read so that new understandings and insights may reveal themselves.” Or we could say that going back helps students be more aware of the intentionality of the author’s choices of details. It made me wonder whether before the students in your small group are able to ‘see more’, they might need to reach the end, at which point I’m sure they’ll have answered many of the questions the text raised for them, then go back and look more closely about how the writer set that up. In that way they might be able to see more in the next text they read as their understanding of the function of detail grows and develops, especially if you notice and name for them what they did.

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  6. Vicki,
    What a wonderful idea from you and your colleagues (and the inimitable, Burkins and Yaris!) to have the kids go back and re-read that earlier part of the story AFTER finishing the text! I’m going to do that when we are done. Also, thinking about what Brette said while responding to another post, I’m going to ask them to think back to remember places in the text that “bugged them.” Maybe a revisit to those will help us discover something new and be able to recognize that “bugged-ness feeling” as important.

    BTW, I love the way you tie the necessity for this “close reading” to reasons that are more important than simply to conduct a close reading. Re-reading is important because

    1) it helps us be “more aware of the intentionality of the author’s choices of details” and, (I especially love this one!);
    2) reading allows them (us) “to expand their understanding of human behavior as they encountered something they had never experienced themselves.”

    What wonderful reasons to re-read. Thanks!

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  9. Thank you for this post, Ms. Vickie!
    I am currently pulling 50+ students for a reading intervention everyday. I cannot imagine what would happen if I asked them “what are you working on in your reading”. I know some of them would be able to respond properly but I would guess that 30% or more would not know what their specific reading goals were. They could probably tell you what their “end of the year” reading goal is but not what they are specifically working on to improve upon their reading.
    Your post also makes me think that I need to re-think about my reading conferences. The majority of my time spent with students is in small intervention groups. I would love to find time to get into their classrooms and see them in action. I think I could work some time into my schedule so that I could have individual conferences with each student, in their classroom, once a week.
    Thanks again for pushing my thinking!

    • I have a terrible feeling, Lauren, that I never responded to this! But having been in a school last week where many students either didn’t remember their ‘goals’ or couldn’t explain why their goal was important, it seemed so clear they they didn’t own the goal. It was our goal for them, not their goal for themselves. I think that if we want students to really own their goal they have to have had multiple opportunties to really feel and experience what that goal can do for them as a reader in order to have the motivation–versus the compliance–to take it on. I think that can happen in a small group as well as in a conference, but it probably means asking a question tht invites them honestly to talk about whether they felt any benefit from doing what we’d asked them to do.

      • Hmm, so I am thinking, a good goal would be one which the students have some success with already? As a teacher, I feel crouched like a vulture, ready to swoop down on the moment when a student demonstrates a strategy. I can them help them identify that this is their reading goal. I guess I can only get them to think about – and practise – what is known, rather than what is unknown.

      • For the record, Brette, I believe in never saying never–as in I’m sure there might be an instance in which it made sense to set a goal for a student who hasn’t already experience it. In fact, just the other day I conferred with a student who demonstrated an increasing ability to slow herself down in order to make sure she was comprehending what she was reading–which was her identified goal–and I put something new on the table for her: asking her to try to think about the relationship between characters, not just keep track of what was happening. She did, though, practice that in the passage that she read with me so she had an inkling of what I was talking about. And she saw how a detail could reveal something about what was going on between two characters that pointed to some tension that she could keep looking for to see how it played out. Of course, I’m not sure she’ll be able to do both things simultaneously in a book that is a bit challenging for her. (It was one of the American Girl historical fiction books, which had a lot of unknown vocabulary and historical references.) And if she can’t, I suggested to the teacher that she let her try something that doesn’t have those additional demands so she had a chance not just to comprehend what was happening on the literal/plot level but to actually dig deeper.

        If we think, though, of the release of responsiblity model–i.e., to, with by (which I think comes from your part of the world)–it makes sense to not ask kids to do something by themselves that they haven’t done with us in some capacity. But the thing I’ve come to recognize is that not only do they need to have done it before, they need to have actually felt the value or pay off of doing it. Otherwise they’re doing it for us, not for themselves, which I think is why we don’t always see the transfer that we’re hoping to see.

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