Chapter book Challenges: Slice of Life #21

This year, teaching a Grade 4 and 5 class for the first time ever has allowed me to observe readers at a new stage. In September, I had some children already comfortably reading chapter books but I had many who had never read a novel independently. There were many reasons for this.

A big one? They didn’t believe that they could.

Another? There had been little support to try.

Other things I noticed?

  • Many students didn’t know many authors or series and so they didn’t know where to begin with chapter books. The choices were overwhelming.
  • They didn’t know that they wanted to begin. Either they defined themselves as non-readers or they didn’t know that chapter books were now a possibility for them at their reading and interest level.
  • Students often made poor choices and then not surprisingly, didn’t like the books they chose. I began to get suspicious when the sixth child in a row told me that they loved adventure novels and then looked quite bored when I showed them some adventure titles. Turns out that we needed immediate instruction on genre. As soon as we spent some time learning about various genres, students could describe their reading interests with more accuracy. I have a class of mystery lovers, students who love suspense and many who are big into fantasy. As the year has progressed, many students have also realized they love historical and realistic fiction. Adventure fans? Not many.

There were also some very specific skills that many students needed to develop and practice. These included:

  • Developing reading stamina. We needed to work up to reading for 20 to 30 minutes at a time so that we could read at least a chapter in one independent reading session.
  • Enhancing visualization skills. Many students still relied heavily on visual clues as they had a healthy diet of graphic novels and early illustrated chapter books. They were strong readers that now had to be able to create their own images from descriptions provided by the author.
  • Making it through the first chapter. First chapters are hard. There can be multiple characters, confusing narration, elaborate setting details and hints at plot points that will later be developed. This is a lot to keep track of and often requires support.

What strategies do I need to support and teach?

  •  Most importantly of course, I needed to provide a wide selection of titles to choose from. Knowing many books across various genres is the way I have supported my students most of all.
  • I had to let students abandon books because they were learning so much about what kinds of books most appealed to them and many of their choices were not a  fit. But, I would first try to rescue the relationship between book and reader. Was this a true “not a match” or was this a comprehension issue that I might be able to support? Asking students to read at least 20 pages made a difference. So did ensuring that the story line and vocabulary were not too complex. Readers do need to know when a book is not for them whatever the reason so that their early experiences with reading chapter books is pleasurable.
  • When possible, I spent time going back through the first chapter with a reader. This wasn’t a word for word reread but a skim and scan for key plot points and to discuss characters, setting and narrator. I always reminded students that I reread the most during the first chapter as I get myself ready for the whole book.
  • Through whole class and small group book talks and mini-lessons, I teach students about different narrators, how the author sets the scene and story techniques like flash-backs. Students need a lot of support here.
  • Some of my students made character book marks. Quite simply this was a sticky note attached to their book mark where they kept a running list of characters with a key word or two like Kate’s brother or next door neighbour. This helped focus attention on characters as they began the story.
  • I encouraged reading breaks. Students benefitted from breaking up the independent reading period into chunks and taking a break from their novel to read a picture book or a section from a nonfiction text. At the same time, I encouraged students to have some longer periods of time to really develop flow and read a large chunk from their novel. Some books are easy to pick up and put down. With others, it is more difficult. This is also part of the learning.

I am still learning as my students are learning. I would love to hear from more experienced teachers at the Grade 4 and 5 level. What are the ways you support your students with chapter book reading?

Bad Irony: Slice of Life

I am participating in the Slice of Life challenge to write and publish a post every day in March.

Slice of Life is hosted by Two Writing Teachers. I thank them for the community they provide. Read more slices here.

20 thoughts on “Chapter book Challenges: Slice of Life #21

  1. Carrie. there is so much wisdom here. Your students sound very much like mine. Your knowledge and belief in them as readers is profound. I especially love this: “I would first try to rescue the relationship between book and reader.” You are right this is the number one thing Before anything else. You have been these readers permission to try and fail and try again. Your thoughts about the need for visualization are spot on. And as much as I love graphic novels for their ability to engage, they also mean that we have to extra special attention to the skills we need to help readers develop. Great post!

    • Many thanks Julieanne. I have wondered with some children if they would ever read novels in addition to graphic titles. One child even told me – if it doesn’t have pictures, I am not interested. We went back to younger illustrated novels and then she came to me “Do you have something like this but where the characters are my age?” That allowed us to move to a non-illustrated novel and she was absolutely fine. I need to trust that the motivation will come. It’s never graphics then chapters but graphics and chapters. I try to be very careful of my word choices here.

  2. Start where they are – you have done just that, getting to know your students and teaching from there. I appreciate every time when you share your practice and thinking is such detail.

  3. What a great post! I love your thoughts and reflections on working with your readers. I’ve just moved from teaching first grade to teaching fourth this year and I still have so much to learn about how to support older readers. I’m going to print this one out to read again–there’s so much here! Your students are fortunate to have a teacher who is so invested and reflective.

  4. Your classroom sounds like a wonderful place to grow into being a reader of chapter books. “They were strong readers that now had to be able to create their own images from descriptions provided by the author.” I especially noticed how you believed in your readers from the start. What someone else may have viewed as a deficit, you didn’t.

  5. Your skill of student watching from the early grades comes in handy as you notice what these older students are doing or not doing. That is the start of all great teaching.

  6. Whenever I did a lesson for other teachers as a coach, one of the questions I asked them was what their students were reading. Sometimes they knew the answer in detail, others less so. It’s a critical thing to know about students so teachers can help them take the next steps in reading. You’ve shown such knowledge here about response to your “new” readers. Lovely to hear all about them, and what you’re doing, Carrie.

  7. Fantastic post. Many things I know, but need to be reminded of, and many new insights too. I particularly like your thoughts on exploring genre. It seems you are bringing a lot to intermediate. I have gone the other way, and am familiar with genre for higher level readers. I am not always sure how to make the bridge to a love of chapter books in a variety of genres, for more reluctant readers and beginning chapter book readers, that go beyond Magic Treehouse and Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

  8. Such an important post. One of the hardest things to break through is an “I can’t” mentality. I was always a voracious reader, so for me the mental roadblock was math, but whatever the subject, sometimes the biggest challenge is helping build that self-confidence by providing concrete strategies and solutions. And sometimes by a bit of tough love! I am so thankful for the teachers in my youth who pushed me to keep trying, even when I wanted to give up. Not only did they help me develop learning strategies, they showed me that I was actually worth the effort, that I was worth spending the time on, and that someone really did believe I could do something, even if I didn’t believe it myself.

  9. Really great post and I love all if the strategies you are using to build the confidence and stamina if your developing readers. So many things here that I can take to my room, or make sure I do more often. I see many of these traits in grade 5/6 too. I think read alouds are really important early in the year for modelling strategies and I have had more success when explicitly telling students that I am modelling this so they can do it too. I try to follow up and ask them about specific strategies we used in our read aloud and connect them to what they’re reading, when possible (much easier if I have read the book). Sometimes, pairing up students who are reading the same book has worked too, especially when it is more of a challenge than what they’re used too.

    Such a great post, thanks for sharing!

    • I agree that reading novels aloud and being transparent when you are trying to make sense of text makes a difference! We are finishing up Book Club books and my students have enjoyed reading a title along with a few other readers in the room.

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