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?
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.