I commonly hear parents ask “How do I know what books my children should read?” Many are concerned about getting books on the appropriate “reading level.” While the idea of reading levels should not be entirely dismissed, we also want to make sure that we are not overly concerned about choosing a book for a child based on an arbitrary grade level reference assigned to that book.
I grew up loving to read. Baby Sitter’s Little Sister, Sweet Valley Twins, and Boxcar Children were as close to me as a sibling, and played almost as significant a role in my upbringing. My parents did an incredible job of reading to me, modeling the love of reading, providing for my reading needs by taking me to the library once a week and entering me in summer reading contests. If you would have asked me as a child what my hobbies were, I would have told you reading was number 1, right along with baking in the kitchen with my mom.
This was true until eighth grade when our school introduced a program which involved an assessment to determine each child’s reading level and required that we only get books with the colored dot that corresponded to our reading level. Suddenly, the world of literacy shrunk down significantly to just a few shelves which may or may not have held books that interested me. I quickly went from loving to hating reading. It wasn’t until I became a first grade teacher that I discovered my love for literacy again. Those colored dots extinguished something beautiful in my mind, and I am passionate about preventing that from happening to our children.
Children should choose books based on their interests.
Does your child love bugs? Let her or him check out a non-fiction text with pictures and diagrams and facts! How about solving mysteries? Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys are still great series to share with children, as well as Cam Jansen and other more modern series. The bottom line is, find something they love and give them a book about it. They will naturally transfer their love to that book as well, which begins to instill a love of reading.
What if the book is too difficult for my child to read?
Even if a book is too difficult, children are more likely to work to decode words if the subject holds their interest. If it’s a subject they are already familiar with, they already have a framework of understanding which aids in comprehension, even if the text is on a higher level than they would be able to comprehend on a different subject.
This is also an opportunity to create a reading memory with your child. Read the book along with them, be ready to explain concepts that are confusing and help them decode words that they are unfamiliar with.
What if the book is too easy for my child to read?
The summer that I was pregnant, my friend Teress recommended that I read a series called The Selection, which seems to have been written for a teen girl audience. Far older than their target age group, I found myself finishing one book in the series every day or two, staying up late reading by the light of my cell phone, and ordering each book successively on amazon until I ran out of the entire series. I would tell my husband stories of the people in the books as if they were real, and receive supportive, but confused faces from him in return. Were those books below my “reading level?” Absolutely. But did they grow my love of reading and improve my reading ability because of the time I spent in them? Most definitely.
Let your child read the book they choose, even if it is too easy for him or her, because it will grow a love of reading, and there are intangible benefits that should not be underestimated.
A final note. In the reading world, we call it a “self-selected text” when a child is able to choose their own book to read. This is powerful, regardless of your child’s age. I spent five years working with adult struggling readers, and the most important element in my intervention was allowing them to choose a book that was interesting to them. Everything I taught them about reading started within the confines of the book they chose. Not only did they all make significant reading progress, they also grew to love reading and see the value of it. Many times the books would have been too difficult for them to read alone, but they had me to play the parent role and walk them through the text to help them to be successful with it. Had I assigned them a book on their “reading level,” it would have likely been a subject far too immature for their age, and I doubt they would have been motivated to continue working towards improving reading.
In conclusion, don’t be afraid to let your kids pick their own books! Your challenge for today is to take your children to a local library and let them pick what they want! Then snuggle down and create a reading memory.