July 15, 2016

Navigating the Staircase of Text Complexity: What We Can Learn from Serial Series Readers

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Over the weekend, Kim’s family went to Barnes and Noble.  Her fifth grade son, obsessed with the music from Les Miserables, has many questions about the story and wondered if there was a version of the story written for kids.  He quickly discovered that if a children’s abridged version exists, Barnes and Noble didn’t carry it, so he began to browse the other books in the children’s section. As he walked past the Diary of a Wimpy Kid kiosk he paused, picked up Hard Luck, the recently-released, eighth book of Jeff Kinney’s beloved series, and said, “I used to love these books. I don’t anymore.  They got boring.”

If you look back over Nathan’s reading history, you will see that he is a serial series reader.  His reading life can be charted according to the series that he’s read: first grade–Frog and Toad, Henry and Mudge, and Nate the Great; second grade–Junie B. Jones and The Magic Tree House; third grade–Diary of a Wimpy Kid, anything by Roald Dahl,  and Harry Potter (not surprisingly, he only made it through the first two books before stopping); fourth grade–Percy Jackson and Hunger Games; fifth grade–Heroes of Olympus.  

When you look at this progression of books, it is not surprising that Diary of a Wimpy Kid doesn’t hold the thrill that it once did.  The progression from singular, one-dimensional characters with simple problems to multiple multi-dimensional characters with intricately woven plots is evident in this list of books.  Diary of a Wimpy Kid sits somewhere in the middle of this continuum, which explains why these books now strike Nathan as boring. When books lack the complexity to which he has grown accustomed, he feels it. His reading palate has matured. He craves richer books.

As teachers, we often worry about serial series readers.  On the one hand, we are happy that they have found something that ignites their passion for reading. On the other, we worry that reading the same type of books will limit their vocabulary development and exposure to structure, not to mention fail to meet requirements that fifty percent of their diet be literary and the other informational. However, we must step back and consider the bigger picture.

Serial series reading is not unique to Kim’s son, many readers’ histories can be charted according to the series they passed through. And these readers share an important commonality. While some series may may linger longer than others, they are all eventually overshadowed by other series and titles.  The series that students move on to generally tend to become more sophisticated. Without any intervention from us, serial series reading prompts children to build and climb their own staircase of text complexity. These readers aren’t still reading Magic Tree House in fifth grade because those books now bore them. This natural progression reminds us that, as we continue our discussions about text complexity and ponder how we are going to up the ante for younger readers, we cannot neglect that independent reading of serial texts can fill an important piece of this puzzle.



  1. When students report that they are bored with serial books, it signals to me that it is time to expose them to good
    non-fiction/informational materials. I, too, read the books of Dumas at my father’s urging (as H.S. sophomore).
    In the case of Les MIserables, I would look for books about revolutionary times, the leaders of revolutions, and
    the unrest or injustices that led to such radical action. I recommend the blog of nonfiction writers
    inkrethink.blogspot.com for listings and excellent commentary.

  2. Kim,
    I have vivid memories of reading Les Miserables in the 7th grade. I do not know if it was abridged but imagine maybe. It could have been in a 7th grade text, but I adored it. That and the Count of Monte Cristo. Those two books really changed me as a reader. I had been hooked earlier on Nancy Drews, biographies of famous Americans and other wonderful books I ordered from the book clubs or at the book fairs which really had lots of quality literature for that era. I still remember Dot for Short, horse books and Little Women (abridged). But, those other books in 7th grade were really important. I was also one of the youngest in the grade, so close to the ave. 6th grader. I wish that I had the option to understand more about the history of the time with paired learning at the time or booklists that would have given me ideas of other great reads. So your post speaks to me. Having taught gr. 5 for 24 years I will recommend the Sword of Shanara series that hooked many many kids, boys and girls. They were very detailed and involved. Also the Redwall books. Even start with Martin the Warrior. But matching kids with the “right” kinds of books is both and art and a science.

    • Sounds like this post struck a chord, Janet! Thanks for the recommendations, I will share them with Nathan (although I must say, he’s got his reading planned for months to come!)

  3. I agree that serial series reading is very important for young readers in particular. I regularly have students come to me and say, What series do you think I’d like to try next? We think together and I often send them on to talk with others in the classroom who have similar interests. In fact, for those struggling readers who later begin to soar, the most important qualitative factor I’ve found is whether they are able to “lose themselves” in a book on a regular basis. Series books help overcome the barriers to that experience.

    Was your son able (or interested??) in exploring the idea of what “boring” meant to him? It seems to me that exploring the criteria for this judgment might be an interesting thinking/reflecting activity for kids, one that could (potentially) help to build a growth mindset and the ability to explore an abstract idea (boredom, disinterest) in greater depth. It could also help describe some of the qualities of more complex writing that entice readers to read further. Hmmm…

    • Hi Steve! We talked about why these book bore him a little bit a dinner last night when I announced that he “made the blog” and true to typical fifth grade boy form, he shrugged his shoulders and quickly changed the subject. He didn’t seem to want to talk about it but I’m curious, too and I’m going to keep probing him. Being that the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books have so much reference to middle school angst, I think it might be interesting for him to reread one through a more mature lens and see if he sees stuff that he didn’t notice when he was reading them in third grade. I suspect it’d be quite a different experience this time around…

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