Rigor and Talk Checklist for Nonfiction Texts

In a school last week, a teacher asked if we could share with her what it is Bob Probst and I listen for when we’re assessing student conversations. “How do you know if they are talking at a surface level or really digging deeper?”

We thought it was a good question. In fact, a couple of years ago as we left a classroom, congratulating one another on the small group conversations students had conducted, we found ourselves wondering much the same thing as Bob asked the critical question, “What made their talk rigorous and what should we do next time we are with them to encourage even deeper thinking?”

He was responding to the number of times we had said (to one another) “Wow, the kids did a really good job” and “They were really super today” and “That was a great class.” Those general statements couldn’t help us actually plan what we needed to do next. They captured our excitement of the moment, but those comments couldn’t really help us think about what we should do next to encourage even deeper thinking.

So, we set about doing something that occasionally seemed silly to us – we created a checklist of behaviors we could watch for to help us identify the rigor of the conversation.  We say it sometimes seemed a silly endeavor, because, of course, rigor can’t be reduced to a checklist! At the same time, though, we wanted a list of behaviors that we could watch for (listen for) as we observed student conversations. Such a list would help us move from “That was a really great conversation” to “The students were using the vocabulary of the topic and turning to the text for evidence, but are not yet (for instance) showing the patience we want as students share ideas.” Eventually we settled on a list of behaviors that became the Rigor and Talk Checklist for Literary Texts that we included in Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading (and that list has been published on this blog in a previous post).

When we began working on Reading Nonfiction (and we’re counting DAYS until it is released!), we decided to rethink our checklist focusing now on what we wanted to hear in conversations about nonfiction.

Reading Nonfiction correct title jpeg

Though this checklist (see below) appears in the forthcoming book, we wanted to share it here, now, so it is perhaps helpful as soon as possible. Again, we use this as we’re listening to students, noticing what it is they do well and identifying areas we need to encourage.

Rigor and Talk for Nonfiction

Texas Workshops Fall 2015

I’m always happy to spend more time in my home state of Texas and that’s happening this fall as I run three workshops in Texas. These workshops will all focus on the close, attentive reading of nonfiction. They are most appropriate for teachers 4 -12, though primary teachers often attend my workshops and they tell me they easily adapt strategies to work for their students.

Here’s a list of when and where. Sure hope to see online friends at one of them!

Saturday, September 12. Keynote workshop speaker for the West Houston Area Council Teachers of English. Though sponsored by an ELA organization, all teachers are welcome. Location: Sugar Land, Texas. Registration info: http://whacte.org. (Workshop is from 8:00 – 11:00 a.m.)

Wednesday, September 30. Keynote workshop speaker for Region 13 in Austin, TX. This is part of the STAAR Distinguished Speaker Series. Registration is at Region 13’s website. (Workshop is from 8:00 – 3:00.)

Monday, October 19. Keynote workshop speaker at the Texas Association for Improvement of Reading fall conference at Baylor University, Waco, Texas. Registration is found at the TAIR/Baylor site. (Workshop is from 8:00 – 3:30.)

All of these workshops will share the information my coauthor (Bob Probst) and I present in the forthcoming Reading Nonfiction: Stances, Strategies, and Signposts (Heinemann, 2015). All content area, resource, and ESL teachers are encouraged to attend as well as literacy coaches, supervisors, and administrators. Math teachers – please know that while I include some information that will be helpful in math class, this is most appropriate for ELA, reading, social studies, and science content.

Hook-em Horns!

Reading Nonfiction correct title jpeg

Reading Changes Lives. Period

If children need to learn vocabulary, they should read.


If they need to develop fluency, they should read.

If they need to learn about a topic, they should read.

If they need to be a person they are not, they should read.

If they need to write, they should read.

If they need to grow, to stretch, to dream, to laugh, to cry, to find a friend, to vanquish a foe, they should read.

One Sure Way to Create Reluctant Readers

When I finish reading a book, I want to think about it and talk about it, and then I want to start reading my next book. Never have I closed the covers, sighed, and said to myself, “Now, now I want to make a Venn Diagram.”

Yes, I know the value of scaffolds such as Venn Diagrams. They do help us think about how particular information is like (or not like) other information. And at some point, showing students how to make one, as a way to think more deeply about two characters or two books or two issues, is probably a good idea. If I had to write a review of a book and I knew that review was going to be published, I might sketch out a Venn Diagram to make sure I wasn’t missing details regarding how Atticus in Mockingbird varies from Atticus in Watchman. Maybe I’d do that . . .

But honestly, when I finish reading, I don’t rush to draw those overlapping circles. I mull over what I’ve read; I find a friend who has read the same book; we talk about it; we turn in the text to favorite passages; we find where we agree and disagree; we reread sections that meant a lot to us or were confusing; we talk about how this book helps us understand something about ourselves, others around us, or the world. We talk about the questions it has raised. And when that’s all said and done, then I hunt for another book. I don’t finish one book and rush to make a diorama, complete a dialectical journal, or make that Venn Diagram. I didn’t do any of those things one time this summer. Not once. Actually, I didn’t even think about doing those things. I just read more books.

Already, barely hours into this new school year, I’ve seen the assignment that requires all students in one sixth grade class to complete a journal entry each night after reading for thirty minutes. This journal entry must include a short summary, a rating (with a reason) of what was read that night, and a Venn Diagram. All students. Each book. Each night. A summary. A rating. A Venn Diagram. As someone who loves to read, I can’t think of a worse assignment. And if I were someone who had not yet discovered the joy of reading, this would convince me I never wanted to give this thing called reading a try.

For folks who want to read more about what we do to discourage reading and encourage aliteracy, you might want to read and discuss a chapter I wrote for a book titled Into Focus: Understanding and Creating Middle School Readers. The title of the chapter is “Choosing Not to Read: Understanding Why Some Middle Schoolers Just Say No.” It’s a summary of several years of research I did on the topic, and it also references several other studies on aliteracy. You can find a similar chapter in When Kids Can’t Read/What Teachers Can Do.

And to the parent who asked me what my response would be to her sixth-grader’s reading assignment, my response remains: “Just say no.”

Who is Taught What?

Recently, on my Facebook page and Twitter page, I posted some results to a national survey Bob Probst and I conducted last year. The comments came flooding in immediately and they all said the same thing: “We can’t read this!”

Ah! You actually want to read the results. What a grand idea! I’m reposting here so that perhaps tiny font is now readable. These results are a part of the findings of our national survey of teachers grades 4-12. Other results will be shared in our forthcoming book titled Reading Nonfiction which will be published by our publisher, Heinemann, later this fall.

The results posted here reveal how about 1,000 teachers answered two questions: “What reading skills do you most often teach to skilled readers?” and “What reading skills do you most often teach to less skilled readers?” The slides showing results are below. Basically, teachers reported that they teach higher level skills to higher performing students and lower level skills to lower performing students.

At first glance, one could say that this seems to be expected – kids with problems in reading need help with the basics. But the reality is, if kids never have the chance to question the text, then they never learn to question the text. If their teacher doesn’t give them time to learn to question the author or make inferences, they don’t learn to do those things. More worrisome, they perhaps begin to assume that they should not question the text, not question the author, not look for biases, not make inferences.

Even more worrisome is when we take a look at who our highly skilled and less skilled readers are, we too often see that highly skilled readers are kids from higher-income families and less skilled readers are from lower-income families. And, in this country, this all too often means that the kids who sit in our classrooms designed for lower-skilled kids are often our kids of color.

As a consequence of that, what I see is a segregation of intellectual rigor that is every bit as shameful – and harmful – as segregation of color.

And that is worrisome, indeed.

what we teach struggling jpeg

what we teach skilled jpeg

Standing In the Middle, Shoulder to Shoulder

By Kylene Beers

Recently, one of my professional heroes won a huge award: The Global Teacher Prize. It was won by the extremely deserving Nancie Atwell. She then, in perfect Nancie style, announced that the full $1 million award would go to her school. I say, “perfect Nancie style” because she has always been the person to put kids first, to put fellow-teachers first, to put teaching and learning first.

Perhaps that’s why her comment during a live interview with CNN stunned many. When asked what advice she’d give to young people thinking about entering the profession, she said she couldn’t encourage young people to become public school teachers. She explained that in this climate, the restrictions on public school teachers are just too much and so she couldn’t honestly encourage folks to go there.

Her comment stunned me, too. At first. And then when I thought about it, I realized that, once again, Nancie was doing what we’ve always looked to her to do: speak the truth. This is an incredibly difficult time to be a teacher—and that’s for the seasoned teacher who has years of experience. That’s for the teacher who knows research that can be used to try to counteract bad practices if not in her district, then at least in her school. That’s for the teacher who understands that many educational policies will change if you can just wait it out. That’s for the teacher who has found his or her voice and knows how to respectfully, but assuredly, stand up for kids and best practices.

I wonder if once again Nancie didn’t do what she does best:

Say what’s hardest to hear

But for the novice teacher—that person still figuring out how to take roll while listening to three students explain why homework wasn’t done, while answering another student’s request to run back to the locker, while signing something that a runner from the office just thrust into his or her hands, while wondering how to get the class started when too many kids are still turned around talking to buddies—that teacher can feel overwhelmed when district- or building-adopted policies seem to stand in complete opposition to all that he or she has learned is a best practice.

And when I think of that teacher, that novice teacher, I wonder if once again Nancie didn’t do what she does best: say what’s hardest to hear.

Nancie started me on a journey of rethinking practices when I first read In the Middle. At first, I stood on the edges of being in the middle—I bought bean-bag chairs and lamps and a lot of books and plants (which I promptly forgot to water) and said to the kids, “Now you read and then write me letters and I’ll write back.” Let’s just say that didn’t work out so well. It seems that Nancie was saying a lot more about reading and writing workshop than what I first grasped. Workshop is first and most importantly about, well, work! Little by little, over years, I’ve come closer to understanding many of the guiding principles Nancie offered us all in that groundbreaking book. Never once did Nancie budge from her principles: kids need choice in what they read; kids need opportunity to write about what they’ve read; kids need time to read widely and read deeply; kids need teachers who are readers and writers; curriculum built to a test has no place in a school; schools focused on test-prep have placed the value of the test above the value of a child. And when our system is so focused on standards and tests and racing to the top that we fail to see the child before us, perhaps we can no longer in good faith encourage people to head into this profession.

And, yet, of course we must. Of course we want our brightest and our smartest, our most empathetic and our most energetic entering this profession. We want them to enter demanding to know why teaching to a test would ever be more important than teaching to a child. We want them right in the middle of all that needs to change. We want them becoming the next generation of people who will lead all the changes we’ll continue to need in this wonderful thing call education. I have no doubt that this year Nancie will be one of those leaders who calls us all to action; who says what must be said; who stands there with us, in the middle, showing us the work that must be done.

Always the teacher, Nancie remains one of my heroes.



I often discover what’s popular long after everyone else. I found West Wing during season four. I just discovered The Good Wife. And, a couple of weeks ago, I came across the Meghan Trainor music video hit “All About That Bass.”

To be honest, I found that song because of the brilliant riff by some high school kids titled “All About Those Books.”  That song sent me in search of the original.  Now, with both lyrics in mind, I find myself humming “It’s all about the bass/books” all the time. And those lyrics set my mind in motion: what is _____________ all about?

No surprise, I fill in that blank with the word “education.” What is education all about? I answer that with it’s “all about the kids.” That’s it. It’s not about a test. Not a blue ribbon. Not racing to the top.  It is all about the kids. When we lose sight of that, well, we simply lose.

And when I think about kids, about helping kids discover all they can be, all they are meant to be, then I find myself thinking one word: motivation.  My colleague BobProbst and I have been researching this concept a lot, first when we wrote Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading and now as we finish our forthcoming book, one about helping kids read nonfiction.

We’ve been sharing bits and pieces of that new book about nonfiction on my Facebook page and Twitter site for a while and teachers have asked for a couple of those posts to be shared in another format since a lot of schools still block Facebook. (Yes, in 2015 some places are still blocking sites teachers have access to at schools. I think we might need “It’s all about some trust” tunes. But that’s another post.)  So, here are the posts previously found on Facebook that are shared together because they are both about motivation and that’s important because school is, after all else is said and done, “all about the kids.”

 “All About the Talk”

If we want to get kids thinking, we need to get them talking. Research shows that all too often the talk we encourage in classrooms is a result of the questions we ask and all too often those questions are monologic in nature rather than dialogic.  Monologic questions are those questions in which we already know the answer:  “Who is the main character in The Giver?” Kids say this isn’t a real question because we aren’t seriously searching for an answer. We’re just checking to see if kids know the answer. By contrast, when we ask, “What most surprised you in this section?” kids know we don’t know that answer; consequently, that question is viewed as authentic.

Does this mean we shouldn’t ask monologic questions? Absolutely not.  Monologic questions are great for reviewing facts. They aren’t great for encouraging conversation, speculation, or critical thinking. I use them all the time in workshops and classes at the end of the lesson/workshop to make sure vocabulary and concepts have stuck (or at least been remembered for 15 minutes!).

This chart that Bob and I developed summarizes a lot of research and is meant to just help us see some differences between talk that is to check understanding (monologic talk) and talk that is to create understanding (dialogic). You can read more about the research in Notice and Note in the section on talk.

Talk Chart revised jpeg









As a PS to this section on talk, if you haven’t read Ellin Keene’s brilliant book Talk About Understanding, add it to your must-read list.

“All about the Reader”

A few weeks ago, on Twitter I posted the typology (below) that comes from some of the earliest work I did on motivating reluctant readers.  This research showed up in my dissertation, and then in articles I published and later in When Kids Can’t Read/What Teachers Can Do.  I think the term “dormant reader” was critical to my developing understanding of kids who appear to not like to read.  This typology was an important reason, I’m sure, that I received an AERA award years ago and it continues to influence much of my thinking today.

If you want to read more about this typology of readers, check out the articles listed at the bottom of the chart or see the chapter on motivation in When Kids Can’t Read.

Aliteracy Motivation chart jpeg









But it’s really ALL ABOUT THE KIDS

I have often posted on Twitter and Facebook that want-ability is probably a more important concept when it comes to matching kids to books than readability.  After recently reading a great article in The Atlantic that connects interest to difficulty (the more interested you are in reading a topic the more willing you’ll be to struggle through difficult prose), I had to both nod and laugh. I nodded because I agreed. I laughed because The Atlantic thought this a new enough concept to publish it. But brilliant colleagues Penny Kittle, Teri Lesesne, Jeff Wilhelm, Donalyn Miller, Alfred Tatum, Ernest MorrellNancie Atwell, and a host of others have written about this for a long time.

If we want to create lifetime readers, we have to think more about connect-ability than readability. When we do that, we’re putting kids first. And that make sense to me because I’m all about the kids, ‘bout the kids, bout the kids. No kidding…



What Teachers Say about Books They Teach

In July 2013, Bob Probst and I posted a survey on SurveyMonkey.com asking teachers in grades 4-8 to tell us about their teaching of novels and chapter books.  This survey was a slightly modified version of a survey we had first conducted in 2008.  We hoped that the current survey would tell us something about the novels finding their way into classrooms, about the approaches teachers were taking to the instruction, and about the influence of the Common Core State Standards.  What follows is a look at some of the data.

 How many books are we teaching?

We received 435 responses, mostly from teachers with 6 to 20 years of experience.  Of those 435 teachers, 426 responded to the question that asked how many novels or chapter books were taught during the school year.  Of that number, about 90% reported that they teach at least one novel a year.  About 20% reported teaching four a year.  We were surprised that 10% — 41 teachers – did not teach any novels or chapter books at all and just as surprised that a little over 10% reported teaching more than seven books in one year.

Who chooses the books?

 Most of the teachers responding choose the books they will teach, with 60% apparently having great autonomy and another 28% required to choose from a list established by the district or at the school level.  Only 2.2% reported that they had no choice whatsoever.

What’s the criteria for choosing books?

We were especially interested in the criteria teachers employed in choosing books for their classes.  To over 50% of respondents, the potential for student enjoyment was the single most important criterion.  Of somewhat lesser significance were the elements or standards the novel would enable them to teach, the literary quality of the books, and the theme.   Only a few—4%—choose a book for the genre it would enable them to study, and only one solitary teacher chooses the novel for author study.

How are books being taught?

We were also interested in how novels/chapter books were being taught.  We offered respondents a variety of scenarios from which to choose.  We found that about 34% of the respondents said that they introduced the book, gave some structure over how much should be read, and then had large or small group discussions about each section.   We found that the same number responded that they introduced the book and then read the book with the class either through read-alouds or listening to portions on tape.

What books are being taught?

Many of the books we inquired about in our 2008 survey are still being taught.  The Giver is still the most commonly taught of all the young adult novels we listed, and none of the other titles had vanished from the list.  Teachers still teach the titles that appeared in the list resulting from our earlier survey.  Here is that 2008 list as it appears in Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading:

What new titles have you added?

There were some new titles, however, to add to our list.  Some are new books teachers reported they are now teaching, and some are books they’d like to teach.  Among the most popular of the new books now being taught are, listed in order of frequency mentioned:

Wonder                                                                                                                            The Hunger Games                                                                                                        The One and Only Ivan                                                                                                    The Lightning Thief                                                                                                         The Westing Game

Wonder, The Hunger Games, and The One and Only Ivan were also the three most commonly mentioned books teacher would like to teach if given the opportunity.  Other titles that appeared in that list with noticeable frequency were:

Divergent                                                                                                                         Out of My Mind                                                                                                                The Book Thief

 What changes when we look at data by grade?

When we look at data by grade level, we found that “Potential Enjoyment” continued to be the decisive factor in choosing a book.  While we’re still culling data by grade level, here are some first results:

Most commonly taught books from the list provided

4th Grade:  Because of Winn Dixie                                                                                         5th Grade: Bud, Not Buddy and Number the Stars                                                                 6th Grade: The Giver and The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963                                             7th Grade: The Giver and The Outsiders                                                                                8th Grade: The Diary of Anne Frank, The Giver, and The Outsiders

Mostly commonly taught book that was not on the list provided

4th Grade:  Wonder                                                                                                                5th Grade: Wonder                                                                                                                  6th Grade: Wonder                                                                                                                   7th Grade: Wonder and Hunger Games                                                                                8th Grade: Hunger Games

Most common length of time spent teaching one book

4th Grade:  3 weeks                                                                                                                 5th Grade:  3 weeks                                                                                                                6th Grade:  4 weeks                                                                                                              7th Grade:  4 weeks                                                                                                              8th Grade:  4-6 weeks

How has or will the Common Core State Standards affect your teaching of novels/chapter books?

When we looked at information about the effects of the CCSS, as many teachers reported that it would not affect their teaching of novels/chapter books as reported that it would.  Those who reported teaching 1-3 novels a year thought they would continue teaching that number.  Those who taught more, feared that they would be unable to continue teaching as many.  An overwhelming majority of respondents reported that the focus on nonfiction, more than anything else, would change their teaching.

Final comments

Many teachers offered comments, but one resonated with us and we want to share it here: “I teach novels not because the CCSS says students need to learn to read texts closely or learn to find details or learn something about the author’s craft.  I teach novels because I teach kids and I want kids to love to read.  And if they are going to love to read, they need to read novels.  They need to read some they’ve chosen; some I’ve chosen; some that are hard; some that are easy; some that make them laugh; some that make them cry.  We’ll read some together, and they’ll read some on their own.  We read novels because novels take us places we’ve never been and let us be people we are not.  That’s why I teach novels.”

We agree.


Ten Tips for a Successful PD Convention

School dollars are precious and getting administrators to release some of them to support travel to state and national conventions can be difficult.  It’s not that administrators don’t want teachers to go forth and learn.  It’s that travel is expensive and, let’s face it, sometimes when we return we head right back into the classroom and keep teaching.  Sharing what we’ve learned while away gets pushed to the back burner.

So, how do we make the best of our travel to conferences?  How do we prove to administrators that those dollars spent on just you will benefit many?  Below you’ll find my list of ways to turn any conference that one teacher attends into a positive learning experience for those who didn’t get to travel with you.  The best list, though, is the one you’ll make with your colleagues.  Talk with each other about how you can best share what you will learn while away.

So whether you’re packing up for the IRA convention in New Orleans that begins in just a few days or simply need to keep this list to pull out the next time you ask your principal for travel funds, I hope it offers you some tips for turning any convention into a collaborative experience.

My IRA questions1) Know thyself.  Before you get to the conference, make your own list of questions you hope will be answered.  As you choose sessions, keep this list in mind and that will help you choose where to go.  Here’s my list that will go with me to IRA.

2)   Be open to new ideas.  And though you have that pre-made list, be willing to explore new ideas.

3)   Carry the questions of your colleagues with you.  Before you leave, ask your colleagues who aren’t attending what information they most want you to bring back. When you return, follow-up with “Sam, you really wanted information on helping kids summarize.  Here’s a link to a website on summarizing that I think you’ll find helpful.”

4)   Keep folks in the loop.  Provide daily updates to your school colleagues via your homepage, email, Twitter, or Facebook so you share your learning.  Explain what you’ve learned, mention a link you’ve discovered, discuss a title you hope all will read.  (Maybe don’t mention the fab meal you and friends had in the Quarters.) Start your own hashtag so teachers in your district can follow you at the conference: #KBeersIRA14 for instance!



5) Remember that a picture is worth a thousand words.  Take photos, lots of photos.  Take pictures of handouts, of a PowerPoint screen, of you with a presenter, of the cover of a new book you hope all will read.  Upload often.  Here I’ve grabbed two of my favorite writers–Alfred Tatum and Jackie Woodson–and asked them for photos with me.








6)   Do two-minute interviews.  Use the video camera on your smart phone and ask your favorite literacy leader to share two minutes of his or her time to answer one specific question.  Remember two minutes means that you can’t ask “What do we do with kids who struggle to read” but you can ask “What’s one tip that helps struggling readers tackle hard vocabulary?”  I find most folks will happily share two minutes.  It’s the 10-minute answer that gets hard when everyone is trying to make it to the next session.

7)   Send your principal a daily update.  That’s right—daily.  That doesn’t mean a summary of sessions you attended.  It does mean, “Today I learned three new strategies that we can all use to help students with close reading.  Please think of a time I can share this information with the language arts and social studies teachers before school begins next year.”  In other words, you’re showing the principal that his investment in your PD is really an investment for many teachers. Along with this is tip #7.5:  When you get back, write thank-you letters to your principal, superintendent, and perhaps school board.  Thank them for supporting your professional development and share a little of what you’ve learned and a lot of how this will change your teaching and students’ learning. Make sure they know how you will share with others what you have learned.

8)   Get to sessions early.  Plan your days and know where you’re going.  Session fill up early so get to rooms as early as possible.  Did I mention that early is important?


9)   Go to the general sessions.  These sessions are almost always great, so don’t miss them—even if they are first thing in the morning!




10) Be inclusiveLook for the teacher who is sitting alone and sit by that person.


Conferences are in part about meeting new folks.  But they can be lonely places if you’ve traveled there on your own.  So extend that hand of friendship we hope our students extend to one another.  A shared conversation while waiting for a session to begin or asking someone to join you and others for lunch makes the day better for all.   This is a photo of teachers taken during the Boothbay Literacy Conference Bob Probst and I run each June.  These teachers traveled to this conference each knowing no one. By the end of the week, they were fast friends.


Four Guidelines for Summer Reading

In my previous post, I wrote about the research that links enjoyment of reading to reading achievement.  Perhaps one of the most enjoyable times to read is over the summer.  No reports. No tests. No vocabulary lists.  Just getting lost in a book.  Sadly, most kids don’t turn to summer reading–even when it’s a school requirement.  What happens when kids don’t–or do–read over the summer?

1)   Kids who don’t read during summer vacation lose two to three months of reading achievement. (“The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores”)

2)   Elementary students who read 10-15 books at home over the summer gain as much in reading achievement as students who attend summer school. (“Addressing Summer Reading Setback Among Economically Disadvantaged Elementary Students“)

3)   Middle school students who read only five to six books over the summer don’t suffer from that summer reading loss. (“Summer Reading and the Ethnic Achievement Gap“)

Those three important studies are enough for me to wonder how we get kids reading during summer months.  I’m hopeful that you and your colleagues will spend some time over the next couple of weeks talking about this important issue.

In the meantime, here are my four guidelines for summer reading.  These are my thoughts, my parameters, created with my biases, my hopes, my ideas. All of us want to do far more than boost reading achievement with summer reading. We want to boost reading enjoyment.  I hope this short list acts as a springboard for discussion in your own school as you and your colleagues think about how to encourage summer reading that’s mostly about developing a love of reading.

 Read Whichever Books Look Good to You

Summer reading isn’t about reading a certain number of titles from a list someone else has compiled.  It’s not about finishing A Tale of Two Cities before the first day of tenth grade.  It’s not about reading books at a certain Lexile level or AR level.   It’s not about preparing for a test, keeping a dialectical journal to be submitted, or logging a certain number of hours or titles in a journal that will eventually be graded.

Summer reading is about holding a book in your hands.  I suppose that also means an e-reader, but e-readers just don’t come with that great book smell; they don’t have the heft of a paper book or the worn cover you see each time you open it again.  E-readers certainly don’t have the grainy feel of paper against your fingers, so I’ll stick with a book.  Summer reading is about kicking off shoes, staying up much too late, reading all day with no one caring that’s what you’re doing.  It’s about rushing through one to get to the next or lingering as long as you want.  It’s about vicarious experiences that let us become a girl in an attic, a boy in the wilderness, a kite runner in a far-away land.  And that type of reading begins with personal choice.


Personal choice, though, doesn’t mean we teachers shouldn’t make suggestions.  For your students who do not see themselves as readers, personal choice could become overwhelming.  How do you make a choice when you don’t know genre, don’t know authors, don’t know how to decide what you want? Students want that independence of making their own choice, but our least skilled readers are also the least skilled at making a choice.  Respecting students’ need for independence while simultaneously helping them make a choice is key.

In August 2013, Dick Allington wrote a smart article that reminds us of the problems with recommended- and required-reading book lists.  I agree with his comments.  But suggestions titled “My Favorite Authors” or “The Books I Think My Fifth-Graders Will Love” or “The Titles Last Year’s Ninth Graders Said They Loved the Most” or “OMGosh I Can’t Wait to Read These Books” are quite different from a list of fifty titles with the directions to “Read 10.”

A final word about lists that help students make a choice:  add a short description of each book.  Don’t put Hatchet by Gary Paulsen on your sixth-grade list without adding,  “This book is about a boy near your age who is lost in the wilderness.  It is exciting and will make you wonder if you, too, could survive a plane crash and being alone with only a hatchet to help you survive.”  Such short descriptions become invaluable when late in July one of your students finds the list in the bottom of his backpack.

 Nudge Students Throughout the Summer

Encouraging students to read over the summer is good, but encouraging them throughout the summer is even better.  You can keep interest going in several ways.

1) Do you have a webpage at your school?  Keep it updated throughout the summer with your “I Just Finished and LOVED!” list and make sure your students know you’ll post updates weekly or every other Tuesday.

2) Do you have a Facebook page set up for communicating with parents/students? Some of you will gasp in horror, while others are nodding, “Yep, I do.”  Update that page often with books you’re reading that your students would enjoy and ask students to respond with what they are reading, too.  That specific tag, “Amanda, I can’t wait to read what you have to say about Wonder!” encourages that two-way conversation.  You’ll be surprised at the number of students who aren’t Amanda but still offer their comments as well.

3) Some teachers mail postcards to their students over the summer telling them about the next YA or children’s book they just read.   Some give stamped and addressed postcards to their students so their students can write back to them with books they’ve read.  If you’re reluctant to give out your home address, use the school address and then just stop by there occasionally to check on mail.

Whether you use Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook, your school webpage, or handwritten postcards you mail to students, these gentle nudges about what you’re reading and thoughts for what they might enjoy next help keep them reading all summer.

 Give Kids Permission to Read Easy

In this time of the Common Core State Standards, with the push for rigor, with new Lexile bands that suggest our students should be reading more and more complex texts, with the rush to make sure kindergarteners are college and career ready, let’s remember that rigor resides in our interaction with a text and not in the text itself.  A student lost in a book, measuring himself against the main character, arguing with a decision made, laughing at antics, and holding his breath in the harrowing escapades of the hero, is reading with far more rigor than the student trudging through a book that makes little sense or the book that is filled with unknown vocabulary and syntax that leaves him convinced he does not like to read.  Summer reading – when the teacher is not around – is not the time to assign the difficult texts you want to help students learn to understand next year.


     Celebrate Reading Series Books

            Nod your head if you like to read.  I suspect all of you did that.  Now think back to your childhood reading and nod your head again if, at some point, you read a series book.  Perhaps you are of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew generation.  Or maybe you’re part of the Babysitter Club decade.  Maybe you grew up with a boy named Harry Potter or you ventured into a land called Narnia.  Whether your series was The Little House on the Prairie, Encyclopedia Brown, Animorphs, Goosebumps, Dear America, Twilight, Hunger Games, Boxcar Children, or The Bobbsey Twins, there is a great chance that if you’re a reader today, then as a child you read a series book.

In fact, the research on this is clear: a critical step in becoming a lifetime reader is, at some point, being a series book reader.  This correlation between series books and lifetime reading was examined as long ago as 1926 in a study of over 36,000 readers.  The conclusion reached, in 1926, when there were few series books, was that these books are an important part of establishing lifetime reading habits.

The benchmark work on this relationship, though, is found in a book titled Voices of Readers: How We Come to Love Books by G. Robert Carlsen and Anne Sherrill.  In their study, Carlsen and Sherrill also found a strong positive correlation between avid reading as an adult and series-book reading as a child or teen. Perhaps it’s the comfort of knowing the characters that makes them so enjoyable.  Perhaps it’s the cliffhangers at the end of each chapter that lure us to read one more page that makes them so enticing.  Perhaps it’s because as we move from one book to the next, we learn more and more about this author’s style and begin to feel as if that next new book is an old friend.  Whatever the reason, we love them.  And because we love them, we get lost in them; we turn page after page; we wonder if Nancy will escape from the hidden attic even though the fact that the next five Nancy Drew books sit beside the bed is a clue she does.  But because we love them, we read page after page after page.  We develop stamina.  We become readers.

And This All Leads to my Hopes for Summer Reading

I hope your students will enjoy summer reading. I hope they will have the experience of losing themselves in a book and at the same time, I hope they will find themselves in a book.  I hope they finish a book they loved with more understanding of themselves, the people around them, and their world.  I hope they discover that in opening up a book, they are opening themselves up to more:  more experiences, more knowledge, more empathy, more what ifs and more could be’s.