Children Need to Read Lots of Easy Stuff (page 2)
Before setting out for a weeklong vacation, few adults go to the local university bookstore or library and look for a really difficult book to read. Fewer look for a book on a topic they are uninterested in. Though adults know about the joys of learning, many more select an easy book on an interesting topic than select hard books on topics they care little about. Why is this so? Why do adults ignore the many books available on arcane topics? Why do so many adults read easy, trashy novels? Why do even well-educated adults lean toward such books?
Children who find learning to read difficult are unlikely to find books in their classroom libraries that they can read comfortably (Johnston, Allington, Guice, & Brooks, 1998). Classroom libraries are more often stocked with books too difficult for these children to handle. The content-area texts (e.g., science, social studies, math) are too difficult for them. Even the basal reader material is often beyond their reach. Yet enormous amounts of easy and interesting reading are absolutely essential to developing effective reading strategies, to say nothing of appropriate attitudes and responses. When children struggle with the material they are reading, they cannot apply the strategies that good readers use, and they do not develop the habits and attitudes that good readers do (Allington, 2004).
A variety of features influence the difficulty children experience in reading any given text. Most obvious, perhaps, is the complexity of the language and the familiarity (or unfamiliarity) of the topic. Traditionally, structural readability formulas were used to estimate a text's difficulty. These formulas typically used some mea-sure of average sentence length and vocabulary familiarity to arrive at a designation of difficulty (usually provided in grade-level terms). But such formulas were never very accurate, even at estimating by grade level, much less predicting whether a text would be easy or difficult for a particular child. Although these formulas could provide rough distinctions between texts, most teachers could estimate text difficulty at least as well. More recent readability measures (e.g., Lexile) still provide only a ballpark estimate of the likelihood of a good fit between a child and a book.
If these formulas are of little value in matching children and books, what techniques can replace them? How can difficulty best be determined? One obvious technique is to try the book out on a child. In many instances, simply asking the child to read a few pages silently and then asking his or her opinion will suffice. Some teachers use a five-finger rule, asking children to count the number of unknown words they encounter. If a child cannot read five words on each page, the book is terribly difficult. We prefer a two- or three-finger rule for beginning readers. Of course, the problem with this approach is that it provides little leeway for texts that have 20 words per page compared with those that have 200 words per page.
A third method is also available. Several schemes for "leveling" books have been recently developed. The one we see most commonly used in schools is drawn from the work of Fountas and Pinnell. Their website (www.fountasandpinnellleveledbooks.com) provides a system and a bibliography of 15,000 children's books rated by difficulty.
Regardless of how book difficulty is determined, it is critical that all children in a classroom, including the least able readers, have easy "fingertip" access to books that they can read accurately, fluently, and with good comprehension. Ideally, all children would have books of an appropriate level of difficulty in their hands all day long and in their backpacks when they go home.
Easy reading material develops fluency and provides practice in using good reading strategies. Most reading, in fact, should be high-success reading. In developing classroom collections of books for children's self-selected reading, we recommend that about half the books be those that seem easy to read on engaging topics. These easy books should include a variety of genres and formats with our society's diversity well represented. There is no reason that classroom collections at different grade levels cannot have overlapping titles since not everyone will necessarily read all the titles each year. Besides, rereading a good book should be encouraged. Nevertheless, so many wonderful children's books are now available that collections can be created without overlapping titles.
Finally, it is important to remember that teachers can make books easier or more difficult (McGill-Franzen, 1993). Introducing books to children can involve developing specific knowledge that will ease reading demands. Encouraging children to read the popular series books (e.g., Clifford, Junie B. Jones, Amber Brown, Hank the Cow Dog) is another underutilized approach. Allowing children to discuss with each other the books they are reading is another potential strategy for easing reading demands. Similarly, working to develop background knowledge, perhaps by linking a historical novel to a current studies unit, eases the reading demands made by books and stories. Reading part or all of the book to children eases the demands the book places on readers when they reread the material. Reading books to children often stimulates their interest in reading the book themselves (much like movies and TV miniseries stimulate adults to read the book version), while also reducing the difficulty for children.
© ______ 2007, Allyn & Bacon, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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