Choosing Just Right Books

As parents and educators how do we help our children and students learn to choose “just right” books? Children need a variety of books in their reading diet. Children should be exposed to and be reading a variety of genres although they may have a favorite genre or topic they tend to veer towards. I know one of my sons enjoys dinosaurs and fantasy books, but recently had to read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Bloom for school. Even though realistic fiction is not a genre I often see him choosing, it was nice to see him laughing and making connections with the story. In particular the ending when Peter is surprised with a dog and we recently surprised the boys with a puppy. My eldest step-son is a struggling reader (although I prefer to use the term “developing” and will from this point on.) He often chooses books to read at home that are above his reading level, yet are at his interest level. Currently in fifth grade he has never been taught how to choose “just right” books. The youngest, in first grade, has recently developed a love of reading and he wants to read books in the Geronimo Stilton series, but although he may be able to read and sound out some of the words he can’t comprehend it. So I steer him to the Henry and Mudge books, a beginner series which has short chapters. Now every time I ask him to choose a book he is picking Henry and Mudge and gaining confidence and reading stamina. He is learning how to choose books that are at his reading level and on his reading log needs to color in a sad face, happy face or frustrated face. As Stephanie Harvey and Ann Goudvis write on page 70 of Strategies That Work, “Kids must be reading texts they can and want to read if they are going to successfully read, think and get something meaningful from the text.” (2007)

As a classroom teacher I remember witnessing the same phenomena with my first graders. I would read Magic Tree House and Junie B. Jones books to them and then they would go to the school library or classroom library and take them out to read. The first graders were at various stages in their reading development and I knew which ones could read and understand the chapter books independently. I hoped that those who checked them out of the school library and couldn’t read them on their own had someone to read to them at home.

Parents and educators should differentiate which books students can read and understand on their own versus the books that have high interest but are too difficult so should be read aloud. I wasn’t sure my son could read Harry Potter when we began the series on his own so started reading it to him. Now, perhaps he could read them, but we enjoy that special time of my reading aloud to him together.

Choosing “just right” books is something that students need to be taught by their teachers or parents or both. Teachers often use two methods to teach children how to choose books – the “Five Finger Rule” and “The Goldilocks Method.” I believe that neither of these one their own are sufficient. The five finger rule is that students put up five fingers and read any page from the book. They put up a finger for each word they miss. If they only miss one of two words the book is just right and if it is five or more it is too hard. The five finger rule is useful in conjunction with other methods, but students might be able to pass the five finger rule, but not comprehend what they are reading. My first grader might pass the five finger rule with the latest Geronimo Stilton book, but still not be able to tell me what he read about.

The Goldilocks method is helping children determine if a book is “too easy” or “too hard” or “just right.” For more information on this method see

Neither of these methods in and of themselves are enough. There are many factors that go into choosing appropriate books students can read independently. Researchers have found that these methods and/or a combination of them don’t always work well with young children. They need explicit teaching about how to choose books. Linda Giordano introduced the reading CLICKS method in “Making Sure Our Reading ‘CLICKS’” Reading Teacher, 2011, 64 (8) pages 612-619 She tells her students that reading needs to “click” like a seatbelt. She says, “…a seat belt clicks when fastened. It should not be too tight or loose – it should be a good fit. We want to find books that click and are a good fit right now. Challenging books are ones that you will grow into.” Then through a series of mini-lessons she introduces a letter each day until CLICKS is spelled out. The letters of CLICK are as follows:

C – Connection to anyone and anything

L – Length of page or book

I – Interest in topic

C – Count five unknown words

K – Knowledge about topic, author, illustrator

S – Sense and Understanding

Students need to have a connection to book. When teaching connection Giordano has students fill out interest inventories. Then they need to examine the length. Giordano has students decide which books they are capable of reading at the time and which ones they are going to save for later in the year, as in the case of a chapter book or picture book with many unfamiliar words. Students learn that as they become better readers they can read chapter books and longer books.. When she models interest she reads from manuals and medical journals and talks about how she would be less likely to read those because of limited background knowledge and interest in those topics. Students than choose books and magazines based on the interest inventory they filled out during the first mini lesson. She incorporates the five-finger rule, but it is important to note that this isn’t the only deciding factor. Students are also incorporating interest, length and the other criteria into making their book choices. Some students choose books based on knowledge about a topic or whether they have a favorite author or illustrator. Students practice CLICK with baskets at their desk which include books at a variety of reading levels. On the final day she links the previous mini lessons stressing the importance of understanding what we read. She tells students that they need to keep “’what makes sense’ first and foremost in their minds as they read.” (Giordano, 2011, p. 616) On the final day students “shop” for books and discuss their choice with their partner and why they chose it. Students use CLICKS in the library and outside of the classroom. She has students track on their reading log whether the book was too hard, too easy or “clicked.”

In conclusion, it is important that students are taught how to choose books, that they have more than the five-finger rule or Goldilocks method to rely on. They need to learn that book choice is based on connection, interest, length, and other factors. They need to learn that it is okay to say that they are not ready to read a book now and save it for when they are better readers. How to choose books should be taught by educators and parents together so that children can make appropriate choices as their reading ability grows. It is a continuing process and as Linda Giordano revisits it, so should we as parents make sure that our kids are making meaning and sense from what they are reading independently.

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