A Practical Guide to Selecting “Just Right” Books for Independent Reading

Students choose books for independent reading for many different reasons: “I just saw the movie,” “I like the pictures,” “My friend just finished it.” Students usually choose books that appeal to them visually. The front covers are designed to capture their interest and emotions. However, many students do not choose a book that they can actually read independently and with success (Parks, 2004).

A carefully designed program that includes teaching how to choose a book, monitoring the process, and evaluating can impact reading achievement (Routman, 2003). The teacher can provide feedback by matching the book to the reader. This can be done by having the student read aloud while the teacher listens and records the miscues. At this time the teacher may also pay attention to the phrasing and fluency of the reading. After calculating the percent of miscues for accuracy, the teacher calculates an error rate. An error rate of 1 in 20 words suggests an easy text, an error rate of 1 in 10 suggests an instructional level text and an error rate of greater than 1 in 10 suggests a hard text (Fountas & Pinnell, 1999).

If the book is too difficult, it will lead to frustration; too little of a challenge will lead to boredom (Routman, 2003). So the book needs to be “just right.” A just right book is one that provides a little bit of a challenge for the student. It should be a book that the student finds interesting and can be read with a small amount of assistance with the text. Spending time reading just right books during independent reading time will help students become stronger.

It would be acceptable, occasionally, for a student to choose a slightly difficult book if he or she is interested in a specific subject and finds a difficult book that centers on this subject. However, providing a steady diet of books that are too difficult for the student will cause more harm. The student needs to understand and enjoy the book for reading success. Many students who choose hard books give up on the book out of frustration. Research shows that learning best occurs with many lessons presenting no more than 10% new material and providing many opportunities for practice (Fountas & Pinnell, 1996).

Reading lots of easy books will build confidence and fluency. Pattern books, predictable stories, and familiar books will provide the student with the opportunity to work on building a level of comfort and self-reliance. Reading fluency and comprehension are linked (Armbruster, Lehr, & Osborn, 2001). Students who spend a great deal of energy on decoding lose all meaning of the story. A student who has difficulty with fluency may have been reading at a frustration level for quite some time. Finding the right level of books for this student is essential. Matching the book to the reader will provide an opportunity for the student to read with comprehension and relative ease. Reading is about gaining meaning, so students should be reading manageable texts and understanding what they read.

Easy books allow students to focus on the meaning and think deeper about characters and plot. However, too much easy reading will not promote growth in reading. This is when teacher input is vital. Observing the students closely and monitoring their progress will give the teacher the information to move the student gently to more difficult books. As the student moves to just right books, he or she will continue to develop reading skills. The text should be challenging enough to allow the student to work out problems or learn a new strategy.

Tools for Students to Use When Choosing Books

Children need to learn how to choose a book. Giving them the opportunity to choose from a small group of books is a beginning. Modeling how to look through a book--looking at the cover, flipping through the pages, and scanning the illustrations--will provide students with an excellent example. Many teachers explain the five-finger rule to their students. This rule reminds students to count on their fingers every time they miss a word in a particular book. If they miss five words, the book may be too hard. If they miss three words or fewer, it might be “just right” (Readinglady.com, n.d.).

A just right book is a book the student finds interesting and can confidently read and understand with a small amount of support. These books also make the student stretch a little bit so that they have opportunities to apply the strategies they have been learning and to experience new vocabulary and different genres (Routman, 2003).

Another way to help students choose an appropriate book is to teach them about the “Goldilocks” strategy (Routman, 2003). This strategy has three categories: Too Hard, Just Right, and Too Easy. The students answer several questions for each category. If the answers are “yes,” the book probably fits into that category. Modeling this strategy for students will help them understand before they have to apply it independently. This strategy has been modified from its original to meet the needs of primary students.

  • Too Easy
    • Have you read it lots of times before?
    • Do you understand the story very well?
    • Do you know almost every word?
    • Can you read it smoothly?
  • Just Right
    • Is the book new to you?
    • Do you understand a lot of the book?
    • Are there just a few words on a page you don’t know?
    • When you read, are some places smooth and some choppy?
  • Too Hard
    • Are there more than five words on a page you don’t know?
    • Are you confused about what is happening in most of this book?
    • When you read, does it sound choppy?
    • Is everyone else busy and unable to help you?

Developing criteria with your students for choosing a just right book is an additional effective activity. Students develop the guidelines along with the teacher. This can be accomplished during a shared writing activity. Students naturally include enjoyment and understanding as items on their list. The criteria can be listed on a chart and kept in a prominent spot as a reminder.

“Primary and elementary school ages are critical periods in the development of reading skill and the formation of lifelong reading habits” (Cullinan, 2000). Choosing books that are just right for students and teaching them how to choose for themselves is an essential piece of a successful reading program. Struggling readers as well as successful readers need to have the opportunity to practice what they have learned. Teachers have the opportunity to make this happen in their classrooms. Choosing books that are appropriate for students involves many various considerations. Student interest, reading purpose, and reading level are just a few of those considerations. Independent reading combined with read-alouds, shared reading, and guided reading can provide students with a variety of experiences. Students benefit from daily opportunities to read books they choose for themselves for their own purposes and pleasures (Calkins, 2001).

The strategy above can be applied directly to your classroom. This is just a small sample what you will learn at The National Institute for Professional Practice.

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