October 24, 2014

Guiding Reading with Great Books

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We are constantly on the look out for beginning reading material that gives young readers substantial work with meaning. Unfortunately, too many of the beginning reading texts available offer minimal opportunities to think deeply. As finding texts worth rereading is essential to teaching students to read closely and carefully, the quality of beginning reading texts is a real dilemma.


We’ve engaged in a number of efforts to promote conversations about quality, beginning reading texts. For example, we developed this Text Complexity Rubric for evaluating guided reading books on levels A-E (because after level E, quality material is much easier to find.) Also, we worked with the wonderful illustrator, Steve Jenkins, to develop “Think Books,” which are leveled A-E, are companions to Steve Jenkins’s other titles, and available as free PDFs and free digital flipbooks. We are fond of the guided reading books by Okapi (reviewed here), as they have higher than average numbers of books that rate a level 4 (highest score) on our rubric, which means they give young readers a lot to think about.


Recently, we have revisited the “Brand New Reader” collection from Candlewick Press. Kim’s sons both learned to read with these texts, while Jan is relatively new to them. We are excited to add them to our collection of texts that offer both appropriate word work and thought-provoking comprehension opportunities. The authors/illustrators accomplish this feat by letting the images carry some of the meaning in the text.


They are also super affordable. You can purchase four books about a set of characters, such as Fish and Frog (below) in a slipcase for $5.99, or $1.50/book. They also come in boxed sets of 10 titles and an incentive chart with stickers for $12.99, which would work well for summer reading programs.*


Here are a few of our favorite titles:


Fish and Frog

Fish Makes Faces (Level C) and Hide-and-Seek (Level D) are both part of the “Fish and Frog” collection. In Fish Makes Faces, fish makes different faces–sad, silly, happy– in a mirror stuck in the sand on the ocean floor. When he makes a scary face, he scares himself. In Hide-and-Seek, Frog and Fish take turns hiding, but when Fish hides behind Fish, Fish can’t find him. Both texts have illustrations that give readers something to think about.

Mouse has fun

In the “Mouse Has Fun” collection, you will find It’s Super Mouse (Level B). Super Mouse–Mouse in a red cape–jumps off various, increasingly-tall objects to “fly.” At the end of the story, when he jumps off a hill, he flies and “lands.” The picture tells the story, of course, as the landing is a little bumpy.

Termite Trouble

Finally, we particularly love Termite Bites, which is in the “Termite Trouble” collection. This Level A text begins with Termite facing a log and thinking about where to bite it. It ends with Termite facing a wooden sculpture of himself.


For more information about the Brand New Readers from Candlewick Press.
*We receive a lot of materials for review and we only write reviews for the few we like best. We don’t usually list prices, but it seemed relevant in this case, since these are SOOO affordable and schools are both desperate for quality guiding materials and short on funds. We don’t work for Candlewick and don’t receive any kick-backs for reviewing their books. We do, however, like just about everything they do.

Evaluating and Vetting Common Core “Aligned” Close Reading Materials

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As publishers continue to flood the market with “Common Core” aligned materials, the task of sifting through and weeding out the good from the bad becomes increasingly more difficult. Educators are particularly concerned about which materials to purchase to support students’ ability to read “closely and carefully.” In response to this growing concern, we offer you the following three questions to ask as you evaluate and vet the materials you are considering for your school.

1. How interested will your students be in reading the texts in this resource?

In developing their materials, many publishers have ignored the three defining characteristics of complex text (quantitative, qualitative, reader and task) and unfortunately include text that meet only the quantitative measure. Furthermore, in many cases, publishers are repurposing text that is decades old, offering students the dryest of reading selections. Because reading is a transactional relationship between reader and text, it is important that text be compelling. We cannot expect students to invest in close and careful reading if they lack the motivation, purpose, knowledge, or experience to be able to interact with the articles and/or stories in the resource. We recommend that educators read at least three to five different samples of text in a close reading resource to determine whether the content feels appropriate for the intended audience.


2. Who’s doing the work?

As we have perused many resources aimed at helping students read “closely and carefully,” we have noticed a trend toward the publisher determining when and where children should stop and think.  Generally, these points are delineated by the insertion of a text-based question or task that asks students to reread to notice something deemed important about the text. While there is some value in supporting students’ ability to read closely and carefully in this way, we are skeptical that repeating this process over and over will yield the desired result–an independent and proficient reader. We believe that the decision making process about how to read closely and carefully is more important than answering a series of questions about a text.  We recommend that educators consider how a resource releases thinking responsibility to the student. If there are no opportunities for students to make decisions about where to stop and think and what to think about, it is unlikely that they will transfer this skill to their own independent reading.


3. Are the questions worth answering? 

In looking at several materials by several different publishers, it appears that “close reading” has been generalized to mean “exhaustive reading.” We find that more times than not, close reading resources leave no stone unturned. Text is chunked into equal portions and students are asked to notice and note details about every aspect of the text, regardless of its significance to the larger themes and messages of the text. We are concerned that this practice implies that all text is created equally, which it is not.  Some text , even portions of classic literature, just isn’t worthy of close, careful rereading.  We worry that time spent rereading to answer questions about inane sections of text will perpetuate what Kelly Gallagher calls “readicide,” or, the systematic killing of the love of reading.” As you evaluate resources for reading closely and carefully, we recommend that you consider how much rereading students do in each text and consider whether the questions in the text have students striving toward significant or superficial understandings.

Participating in the National Conversation

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One of our first efforts to write about the Common Core State Standards involved looking closely at the research behind the author’s suggestion that students should spend their time in frustration-level texts. From analyzing the research a couple of years ago to speculating on the use of the term “frustration” more recently, the ongoing national conversation about the role (or lack thereof) of instructional level text in elementary instruction is of keen interest to us. There are a number of writers and/or bloggers we respect who offer us insight and perspective as we try to make sense of the array of challenges to sound literacy instruction. Among those is Russ Walsh, who offers thoughtful and balanced perspectives based on a keen understanding of the historical perspectives of both literacy instruction and the Common Core. Yesterday, in his guest post on Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post blog, “The Answer Sheet,” Russ wrote of recent and heated debates about the role of frustration level texts in classroom instruction. In his post, he refers to our analysis of the related research cited by Timothy Shanahan in support of eliminating instructional reading level texts. We are confident you will find the article of interest for its attention to both the nuts and bolts of the issue and the broader educational and political implications.  We are interested in learning more about what this national conversation has people thinking about and invite you to share your experiences, insights, concerns, and questions in the comment section of today’s post.

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