Seven more thoughts about silent reading

reading on floor cropped#1   I’m beginning this post the way I wanted to end the previous one, with photos of kids reading, in the various positions and conditions my students adopted for silent reading time. (I finally found photographs, and got permissions.)

Some sat on the floor leaning against the wall. Some sat on the big rug in the meeting area, often snuggled up next to each other like puppies.

reading line-up cropped

Some sat at their table places, books on the table, heads benreading at tables croppedt over, sometimes inside a curtain of long hair.

(The girl in the background is going through a book stack, as in A Stack of Five.)

Some liked to hide in what kids called “the cave”, a little passage formed by the non-fiction bookshelves, with a rug on the floor, and with less visual or sound distraction than anywhere else in the room–which made another reason, besides privacy, to choose it.

One year I learned that I had to check that corner carefully if the fire alarm went off during reading time. A particular child remained cave-bound, reading straight through the horrific racket of the alarm. To my other overlapping mental categories of readers, I added, “children who could probably keep reading through an earthquake.”

#2   Intense mental adventures are happening in almost complete silence. I move around the room taking notes, but rarely interrupting. Conferences, one-on-one chats with an assessment often included, I try to do in the cubby area, outside the room.

The intensity of that quiet, a kind of sacredness, comes back to me as a I watch my grandson sleep, sense when he is dreaming, wonder what is happening in his dream.

#3   Reading is not sleeping, not dreaming, but reading fiction can be like dreaming someone else’s dream, so in a class of 15 there could be 30 minds dreaming, either creating or recreating stories: 15 students and 15 authors.

Often, though, there were local rages for particular authors. Several kids, recommending books for each other, might all be reading various titles by Nancy Farmer or Gary Paulsen, say. That could throw off my math.

Sometimes I imagined thought balloons above kids’ heads, full of the words they were reading, jostling with each other in the air space of the room; words perhaps moving from bubble to bubble, the way people can move from painting to painting in Harry Potter. The way enthusiasms can move through a reading community.

#4   When I first started teaching this age level, watching whole rooms full of kids reading, I was startled by how much I could tell about them as readers, just by watching their reading behavior, without even hearing them read.

Kids with strong reading skills, who nevertheless had to struggle to maintain focus / kids who were thrillingly a little drunk with the glory of new-found reading fluency / kids who were just too tired to read without falling asleep / kids for whom reading offered a sanctuary they might kill to protect / kids who began book after book but could never manage to finish one / kids who strongly preferred certain kinds of books / kids who could not read funny books without at least shaking slightly, or more likely poking a neighbor. All of that showed, with no need for assessments.

#5   I also discovered that assessments could be very useful. I used the Burns & Roe Informal Reading Inventory, a fairly standard assessment tool to which I had been introduced in graduate school. It gave me lists of words to hand a child, in order to check for ability to decode words without context clues. Then the child would read a passage, and answer the comprehension questions provided.

On my own, I requested a free retelling, which teased out slightly different aspects of a student’s comprehension. Finally, if we had time, I often asked for kids’ reactions, things the passage made them think about or wonder.

Depending on the child, I sometimes shared the results, and we talked over whatever they seemed to show. I wanted to get the kids’ own insights into their experience and history as readers.

An assessment of this sort is often used primarily to get a sense of the grade level at which a child is reading. More than that, I valued the way this series of activities gave me a sense of a child’s approach to reading.

Does the reader seem confident and engaged?  Will she stop and deconstruct and parse out unfamiliar multisyllabic words, and use other clues besides the word itself, when those are available? Is he self-monitoring, or is he willing to tolerate and ignore meaningless readings? Is she finding a balance between inferring things the author never intended, and failing to make any inferences at all? Does he start out strong but wear out, or start out faltering and warm up?  Does she read aloud flawlessly but then have no memory of what she read? Is he one of those slow and patient readers with lots of miscues, who nonetheless gives an inspired free retelling, and then answers every comprehension question perfectly?

Above all, is she comfortable enough to laugh out loud at my all-time favorite reading assessment line, about the ratio of sheep to humans in New Zealand? (18 to 1.)

Jokes aside, it’s how a child is reading, the kinds of energy a student brings to reading, that can tell us how to help that child move forward. We need to know what strengths can be the seeds for new growth, and we need that especially if there are also weaknesses. The same assessment tool I was taught to use in graduate school, with its capacity for pigeonholing, nonetheless turned out to be a great way to find out what I wanted to know: how a child’s intelligence was meeting the world of print, and what I could do to cheer and help.

#6   There are some important lessons to learn about reading, it’s true, and some of them can be taught in a whole class setting. For a while we received a classroom set of Boston Globes every Monday. (We were sad when their distribution arrangements no longer worked for us.) One day, we would read the bridge column–easily decoded words, all of them, that conveyed almost exactly nothing to a person without the right background knowledge.

This was a great way to encourage students to think about the difference between decoding and comprehending, and then go beyond that and think about the dimension of remembering. It’s hard to remember something that is gobbledygook in the first place–even if all the words are words you know. Remembering requires understanding, and understanding requires not just decoding–turning symbols into sounds–but thinking.

Definitely there’s a place for teaching reading skills. But…

It’s even more important to talk about the meanings in a piece of reading, and what the author has done to let them bloom. It’s important to write about reading, to use the discovery process of writing as a way of opening out the experience of reading, and sharing it with others. But…

None of those other peripheral activities should ever be allowed to displace actual time for reading, because actual time for reading is what most builds readers.

All that other stuff is what you do whenever you have enough time in the schedule. Reading itself has to happen no matter what.

Lecteur_-_statuette_pierre#7    It’s part of your religion,” a kid once said. She felt the same way, and probably had some truth on her side.

I imagine the same feeling in whoever made this little statuette, which I found on wikimedia commons, with no other attribution besides the name Pierre. Thank you, whoever offered this for us to find and remember!

A Stack of Five

Last year, one of my students told me about ‟open reading” at her previous school. ‟It’s called that,” she said, ‟but there isn’t really any open.” The students all read different books, but the teacher chose the book for each child.

I didn’t know whether to cry or throw things. On the whole, people who love reading have had a chance to choose what they read.

On the other hand, it can be difficult for kids to choose books for themselves.

  • Some kids don’t yet know what it feels like to read comfortably at their actual reading level. For these kids, reading is laborious—possibly a labor of love, but inherently so challenging that they choose books for content alone, and often wind up reading, very slowly, books that are too hard. Reading that slowly, a student has trouble carrying the plot, or feeling any momentum in the story–or looking forward to reading.
  • Sometimes kids have been caught in a strange trap in which their reading choices have to prove things to adults, or to other kids, or even to themselves: how brilliant they are; how sophisticated they are; how cute or tough they are.
  • Sometimes kids become genre addicts, overly dependent on what works for them about a particular genre or author: low memory demand, or a relatively predictable plot pattern, or constant nail-biting suspense.

How could I give kids the opportunity and responsibility to choose, and at the same time help them choose from what was likely to work? How could I help them expand the world of what could work for them? Enter the book stack.

The procedure was very simple. If a student asked me for it, I would choose not one book, but a stack of five books. (Yes, this is another routine involving choosing from five possibilities. I wrote about one for writing in the post Think of Five.)

I liked to have the student stand with me in front of the shelves of the type of book we were after, most typically novelssometimes picture books or non-fiction. Especially at the beginning of the year, as I was getting to know a student, I’d ask, ‟What have you been reading lately?” Or, ‟Can you point to some books that have worked for you?” Or just ‟Have you already read this?” as I began to pull books from the shelf and hand them to the student.

Affirming the value of a range of reading levels, I tended to include one or two lower-level classics that the student had not yet read and was in danger of never reading. ‟Ah,” I would say, as I handed over Dear Mr. Henshaw or Number the Stars. “One of those books that nobody should grow up without reading.” (‟Oh,” the student might say, if he or she knew me well enough, ‟you say that about everything.”)


Usually, the stack included at least one book that might have special meaning for that student. In the stack above, I’m offering some books in which characters discover new possibilities of self-reliance and courage. For an Asian-American student, for example, I might include at least one book with Asian or Asian-American characters. For a student struggling through a parent divorce or a friend’s parents’ divorce, I might include a book or two in which the hero or heroine faces a similar challenge. So long as the stack included other books, I could be led by my own agenda for the child, usually unspoken, gently offered–but often pursued. Most kids do tend to reach for the books that can help them grow, if the reach is voluntary.

Sometimes a student would ask for a particular category. ‟I want books about World War II and the Holocaust.” ‟I want books about time travel.” Or a student might ask for an exclusion: no talking animals; no books told in the first person; no books with anyone dying.

Sometimes I was very open about a theme for a stack. ‟This stack is all realistic fiction, because we’re doing research to figure out what sorts of realistic fiction will appeal to you as much as fantasy.” ‟These are books that I’m pretty sure you can read easily and quickly, any of them, to help you build fluency.” ‟This is a whole stack of funny books, because we both agree that you’ve been reading really serious stuff lately, and could use a change.”

When we had five (or sometimes six—enough and not too much), the student would go back to his or her table place and examine the books.

selecting books bIn a mini-lesson early in the year we would have helped each other list ways to select a book.

Of course, kids went beyond these strategies, finding their own. In fact, as I watched out of the corner of my eye from across the room, I saw and savored tremendous variation, child to child, that reminded me of watching adult friends play poker.

spread out bStudent A spread the books out on the table, face down, and then turned them over one by one as she spent time with each book. Student B used a numerical rating system. Student C would start with a pile on the left, and sort into three piles on the right: yes, no, and maybe–and then go back and reconsider. (Frequently, Student C hadn’t made a choice by the end of reading time, and kept the whole stack in his crate overnight.)

Student D knew all along which one he really wanted, and came back 20 seconds after I sent him away. For him, I’d say, ‟Please spend a little more time and really look at all of them, for the sake of next time.”

Student E, after agonizing cheerfully, would copy all the unchosen titles and authors into her reading journal for future reference.

The only way to do it wrong was not to do it at all.

Now and then, a student who hated choosing would propose a variation: the student would make the book stack, and I would choose. That was hard for me.

Some kids asked for book stacks every time they finished books, collaborating with me on almost every choice. Others asked for a book stack less often. Once in a while, if a student seemed stuck in a rut, I’d be the one to initiate the process, saying, ‟When you’ve finished this book, ask me to help you make a stack.”

Once in a very great while, the chosen book turned out not to work, after a fair trial, and I encouraged the student to figure out why, but then start over with another book. There’s no better way to dull the love of reading than to finish books dutifully, no matter who chose them.

All this took time, of course. It helped that I knew the very substantial collection in the room fairly well; that as the year went by I knew students increasingly well; that in my mixed-age classroom I was almost always working with some students for a second year. (To watch and nurture two years of reading growth! Incredibly delicious.) Often I recruited more experienced or faster readers to suggest new titles, or help me assess books I had ordered but not yet read.

In any case, this was time I enjoyed spending, for so many reasons. It satisfied my inner librarian. More importantly, though, it gave me a way to facilitate rather than dictate. I didn’t want, ever, to say, “Here–read this.” No matter how long it took, I’d rather hand over five books, and let the reader take it from there.

Love and fluency

By the time José came to me, his reading challenges had been identified long since, and he’d had years of tutoring, and could decode word by word with some skill. He could translate letters into sounds, following the rules he’d learned, and then translate those sounds into ideas in his head—very slowly, with deserved pride in persistence.

Nobody could mistake that for love of reading.

José did love listening to stories read aloud. If he didn’t have to decode, if he only needed to make sense of the story he heard, his face was like a field full of the weather of the meanings, as they shifted. Every feeling in a story, he felt in his own body. If I asked the group, in discussion, to connect the events in the story to events in their own lives, what he said enlarged the story for us all.

MooseyMeanwhile, he adopted one of the stuffed animals in the room, and dressed it in his sash from a presentation costume. He gave Moosey a back story, and kept adding pieces of story as we moved through the year. He knew how to do this with big kid cool, from a place of high status in the group. He excelled at the collaborative, mutual storytelling we call friendship.

What did José need most from his year with me? He needed fluency with print, with these tiny symbols, hard to distinguish visually, with which stories get told in the academic world for which he was headed. A child with extraordinary fluency as a social being, he needed fluency as a reader and as a writer. Various kinds of group instruction could be helpful, but more than anything, José needed time to practice those things he could do by rule; time to let these awkward constructions of skill become something more intuitive.

He also needed help finding the books that would claim him and keep him reading. Because he was so sociable, I thought José would want books full of characters interacting. The book that clicked for him, though, was Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen.

I just started to type a sentence about the loneliness of the challenged learner, then thought better of it. One way or another, we’re all challenged. Each of us has some way in which we are alone in the Canadian wilderness, when the pilot has had a heart attack and we’ve somehow survived the crash. Each of us knows some aspect of life in which we feel our way forward awkwardly, and only very gradually make sense.

In the late spring of José’s year with me, when he’d read all four Hatchet series books in our own classroom library, we discovered that the school library had a fifth. José received it with his trademark enormous grin. He didn’t stay long to chat; he was off into a corner.

When I come to José’s folder in one of my boxes, and find his list of books for the year, I grin pretty widely myself. There’s no guarantee that love of reading, once found, will last; but if it goes into eclipse, somewhere on a hard road to the end of school life, it can still bloom again. Skill is very good, but for the distance, if you have to last through the winter, love matters more.

I want you to know that José and his mom gave me permission to use his name. (Moosey, too.) Today’s question, for anyone, but especially for you if you’ve faced reading challenges: is there a book, or series, that you fell in love with? How? When? Why? And then what happened?