Wednesday, December 10, 2014

It's All About the Book

I read this article this morning about how students are lagging behind in what they should be reading. Apparently students still favor fiction over non-fiction, and they are not reading as many challenging books as they could be -- many students still choose books below their reading levels. To be honest, I read this and thought it was no surprise whatsoever.

My experience teaching English language arts to gifted students in grades 7 and 8 absolutely reflected this. And I encouraged it. Here's why:

The books.

Since I was teaching gifted students, it was not uncommon for them to have Lexile reading ranges starting in the 900's and 1000's. Finding books with Lexile levels that high is tough to do in a school library! I encouraged my students to use the Lexile website to find books within their Lexile range, especially non-fiction texts. The most common experience doing this included finding books on the suggested list that were quite frankly boring, and not having those books available in the junior high school library.

The dilemma: do I have the kids and their parents search high and low for a book that is in their Lexile range? Do I "force" the kids into reading a book in the range that is going to be a miserable experience for them?

My answer to both questions is no. Making kids work that hard to find a book that ultimately ends up being a snoozer is counterproductive. It's a terrific way to make kids resent reading and ultimately quit doing it for pleasure.

So I allowed kids to choose books they WANTED to read. I encouraged them to find books as close to their Lexile ranges as possible, but even that can be an exercise in frustration. Take these three examples -- I got these Lexile scores directly from the Lexile website:

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury -- 890
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen -- 1020
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie -- 570

If you haven't read these books, let me "rank order" them in terms of difficulty from my personal perspective and from anecdotal information from the students I've taught these books to:

Easiest: Hatchet
Next hardest: Fahrenheit 451
Most difficult: And Then There Were None

I know that Lexile scores are determined by all sorts of fancy statistical measures, but I challenge you to read those three books yourself and tell me that Hatchet is the most challenging of the three. If I asked my gifted 8th graders to read Hatchet, every one of them would plow through that book in a matter of hours. It would be an insult to their intelligence.

Maybe I don't know how Lexile scores really work, and if I don't, then I hope someone will teach me about how to effectively use them. But the bottom line is I can't in good conscience engender a love of reading in my students by forcing them into a genre that is still lacking in engaging reading or making them stay within a particular reading range with drab material.

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