10 Reasons to Let Readers Reach

What middle schooler still wants to still be reading primary leveled books? When 5th grade students are reading at a primary level or a 7th grader is still at a 3rd or 4th grade level, it can be hard to make sure they’re engaged in what they’re reading and don’t feel embarrassed by the books they hold in class. Hi-Lo texts can be a struggle to find; we want books to be developmentally AND academically appropriate. In this other post, I share some of my go to books for readers who are below grade level. Below, I’m sharing why I believe you should let students reach for texts that are out of their instructional level.

Book Recommendations (link to my blog post)

Let them reach!

Maybe you’re looking at my list of recommendations or you see other Hi-Lo texts and think, “There’s no way [Danny] can read that! That’s not what I need.” I hear you. Maybe there is a kid in your class who is severely impacted by reading difficulties. First, I hope that you are doing what you can to get them through a screening process at your school to test for any reading disabilities or processing disorders. Second, maybe they can do more than you think. Let them try.

If a kid just wanted to read a book that I had book talked, 100% I let them try for independent reading. If the book they want to read is difficult and it’s for a class assignment/book club pick, I was honest with kids if the book they chose was a reach for them. I’d say something like: “This book is probably going to be harder for you. It’s going to take you longer to read than others because you will need to reread and think a lot more about the vocabulary. Do you want to try it or do you want to pick something else? You can try it for a few days and let me know then, too.” It’s good for them to know this if they’re going into a book club because the time they’ll have to put in may not be equitable or feel fair. Others may set the pace too fast for them. Often, kids would want to try it still and then they’d tell me later they needed to swap out. That’s okay! I believe this is a more positive experience than if I were to say, “This book is too hard for you. How about I pick out something else for you?” It’s damaging to even innocuously state, “I don’t think you’ll like that one. Here’s this one,” when you swap it out for something 1/3 of the length with pictures. They know. Taking the book away from a kid and removing it as an option for them sets the expectation that I have the answers and I know what they can do and what they can’t. Honestly, I don’t. I have an idea, and I work really hard to make sure that my assessments are valid, but I do not want to create limiting beliefs about my students.

What is great about letting a struggling reader reach?

  1. They figure out their own strengths and weaknesses as a reader.
  2. They learn what they like and use what they like as a motivation to get better at reading.
  3. They get to experience what their peers are reading and hold the same book as other kids.
  4. They can read the same book with a different group of peers and hear even more perspectives that will further support their comprehension.
  5. They work really hard towards something they want, and they see you, their teacher, as a cheerleader.
  6. They become more self aware of their own abilities and rely on their own strengths as a reader to compensate for the difficulties. (While we don’t want a kid to only use compensatory strategies like pictures in a graphic novel or a reading partner, these are good strategies and will likely serve them long into the future.)
  7. They have to listen to the audio as they read along. This helps them realize they actually DO know some of the vocabulary that they think they didn’t know because they weren’t sure how to pronounce it.
  8. They get to talk to peers about the “popular” book. It may be that it’s being turned into a movie or tv show, and they get to be in the know. They’ll hear what other people are saying which may also help fill in gaps of pieces they may have missed while reading.
  9. They can read after watching a movie and pick up on bits and pieces they saw on screen, using that as a scaffold for themselves.
  10. They can feel proud of themselves for working through a challenge and persevering despite the struggle.

And honestly, what’s the worst that’s going to happen?

  1. They realize they’re reading below grade level. Often, we as teachers want to protect students from the knowledge that they are not on grade level. I don’t think kids need to know scores of standardized tests or compare themselves to levels of classmates, but they should have an awareness of their own abilities and strengths as a reader and be able to set goals for their growth. If you’re saying, “Oh, you’re doing fine reading!” and they know they sure as hell are not doing fine, that makes them believe you don’t even think they can do it. You are lying to them. If they are a 6th grader reading at a 3rd grade level, then they have some gaps in their comprehension, and they know they are struggling with grade level texts all day long. They need honesty, support, and encouragement from teachers, not false positivity.
  2. They’re disheartened. I know it may be really heartbreaking to kids to try a book that they want to read and realize they can’t. Yes, that happens. I want a kid to realize that for themselves, though, because then you can bet they’re going to work harder to see if they can actually understand that book they really do want to read. It also gives them a clearer picture of where they are and where they are headed. I have had kids revisit books later in the year that they abandoned in September. It may seem harsh, but disappointment is a part of life. We need to care about students and support them in coping with disappointment, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid all disappointment.
  3. They give up on the book. Okay, they give up. That’s fine. They realized it wasn’t just right for them, and you can have a conversation about what might be a better fit. Adults abandon books. Kids should be allowed to abandon books. They can add it to a “future” list and read it in a few years if they like. No problem! They may abandon several books until they get to one they like.
  4. They reread it. I have let kids reread book club books that they really wanted to read (a few times I’ve had kids reread Kwame Alexander’s Booked) but just didn’t quite comprehend fully the first time. Rereading is a great skill. Kids can absolutely learn from this experience how rereading a book helps them immensely.

What else can you do?

Let them work in a separate space

If you have some flexibility on the space where kids can work, I have found that giving some phonics activities in the hallway allows kids some time to focus on what they need to do without glances from peers. I had many puzzles and short activities for students that definitely were intended for primary students. My older, struggling readers didn’t really mind doing them most of the time. I didn’t get push back on these because the skills were at a level they needed. The only push back I had was when I made them do it in the room and talk to me about it when everyone else was working silently so they felt singled out. If they could be in a corner by themselves or outside and just away from eyes, they were happy to work on the skills they knew they needed. I also didn’t only make them do these sorts of activities; they had variety in their day.

Buddy Readers

If you have the ability to pair up with a younger grade level, I highly encourage that. I loved when my 6th graders had a buddy class of 2nd graders. It was absolutely the best. The other classroom teacher and I paired mostly based on personality but also took into consideration reading levels. Often, those struggling readers in the upper grades would parrot back all sorts of lessons to a struggling 2nd grader. It was amazing to see them as a more confident teacher supporting a younger student. Buddy reading benefits both parties. Younger kids get a mentor and role model of a reader. Older kids get the benefit of a purpose for reading and often reteach lessons that they’ve heard further cementing their own understanding.

Use online resources, but…also don’t

Please do not sign up your student to do an accelerated reader program or something similar. Please do not set up your struggling reader to work on programs for an hour a day. This will likely kill whatever small sliver of hope and love of reading they have left after struggling for years. If you’re saying that you don’t have any power over the decision behind this, I challenge you to a) quietly subvert the system and allow for independent choice reading anyway b) provide research to your administration on better reading practices or c) change your own teaching position so you are not a part of this. Still, technology can be really helpful!

Audiobooks are a fantastic resources. Usually (not always) listening comprehension is higher than reading comprehension so students can really reach for those texts they want to read along with their peers via audio.

My English Learners tend to really like Imagine Learning as a program. What I found cool about it was that it would give directions in Spanish and English which supported their literacy in both languages. I had them use it for 20 minutes a few times a week as a station when other students were listening to books online.

Some of my primary students liked programs such as RAZ Kids. I love Reading A to Z resources. I never force RAZ kids on kids, but we do have licenses at my school, so if some kids liked it, I let them use it. It depended on the kid.

I found forcing an online program is the biggest issue. If they feel like one is working for them and they’re actually logging the reading time on it, cool. Am I also going to give them physical books and teach lessons at their level and conference with them? YES! I will never let a computer become the primary source of reading instruction. Let tech work for you but don’t let it work instead of you.

Some of my most favorite teaching moments are when a struggling reader gets through a book they were dying to read and can’t wait to talk to me and their book club about it. Do they catch every detail? No. Could they pass a 10 question comprehension quiz about it? Maybe not. They might not be able to pass a “test”. Do they feel awesome and smart and capable? YES! And THAT is what I want for every reader in my classroom. That matters to me, so let them reach!

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