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Jen Robinson: June 2009 Archives


Continuing Discussions on Social Reading and Reading Levels

Posted by Jen Robinson on June 29, 2009 at 6:00 AM in Literacy News
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herson.JPGIn recent posts at Booklights, I've written about the power of social reading (kids sparking enthusiasm for books amongst themselves) and the joy of light, self-selected summer reading (as opposed to heavy required reading lists). The latter was in the context of a larger discussion about letting kids read what they enjoy, instead of pushing them to read at ever more advanced reading levels. We've had some wonderful discussions here at Booklights, in the comments on both posts. Parents, teachers, librarians - quite a few people have taken the time to share their experiences. These comments are well worth a read, and I will certainly be revisiting them for insight. [Image credit: photo by Taliesin, shared via MorgueFile.]

I've also run across a number of posts on these topics around the Kidlitosphere. I'd like to share some of those links with you here at Booklights. These posts are all from blogs that I read regularly - people whose opinions I value - and they are pretty much universal in their encouragement of letting kids read what they enjoy, regardless of reading levels. This week, I'll share some posts about social reading and reading ahead of grade level. Next week, we'll focus on the defense of self-selected summer reading.

Sarah Mulhern has a follow-up post about social reading at The Reading Zone that is not to be missed. She describes a specific example of a series of books that spread like wildfire through her class, sparked by one boy's enthusiasm. She also shares some concrete recommendations for getting kids to talk together about books. One point that I particularly enjoyed from the post was when she said, about a previously dormant reader, that "He talked (a book) up way better than I could have, because he genuinely loved the book." No adult is going to be crazy about every book. Recommendations from their peers have the ability to reach more kids, simply because each person is going to love a different set of books. But do go and read Sarah's entire post.

Here at Booklights, children's literature professor Ann said: "research done in the early 1970s on how children make their choices of what books to read. And while these findings were taken from studying children who likely now have little readers of their own, it may still be relevant to our discussion. It turns out that when making the decision of what book to choose, children rely on the recommendations of others, the availability of books, and returning to the same author or illustrator whose work they have enjoyed in the past. Sounds a lot like adult readers, doesn't it?"

JGS_mF_CurrentEvents(2).jpgSee also this two-part post in which former teacher Kristine from Best Book I Have Not Read addresses the question of kids reading above grade level. She says: "I am embracing the idea put forth by Lucy Calkins in The Art of Teaching Reading regarding independent reading... Calkins recommends that "every teacher of reading starts the year by steadfastly directing children toward reading a lot of easy book, and reading these books fluently and smoothly, with clear comprehension, and at a good pace" (p. 339)... so clearly puts in words what I have known about students, but had a hard time explaining to parents who fret about their fourth grader loving Babymouse or insisting that they are ready to reading Twilight at the beginning of fourth grade." [Image credit: photo by Gracey, shared via MorgueFile]

Librarian Bibliovore at Kid Tested, Librarian Approved chimes in with her "greatest objection to pushing kids to read farther and farther above their grade level. Not that kids will encounter sex and violence, but that they may be in the presence of genius that they're not ready for, and in missing it, dismiss it for the rest of their lives."

Middle school librarian Paige Y. from Reading and Breathing shares her thoughts on reading above grade level and re-reading, lamenting the fact that "books on grade level (or above grade level) is the answer, according to many. I can preach until my lips fall off that reading below grade level improves fluency and comprehension, but to no avail." Paige also makes a neat point in defense of kids re-reading books, sharing her own personal experience: "I also go back to books whose characters show me the person I want be. I have learned much from Atticus Finch and Marmee and Elizabeth Bennett, among hundreds of other characters." It's certainly been like that for me, too.

And finally, Daphne Lee at The Places You Will Go writes a defense of picture book reading for people of all ages. She adds: "Author/illustrator Anthony Browne feels that way too. Browne has just been chosen as Britain's new Children's Laureate. He takes over from poet and picture book author Michael Rosen, and will hold the post for two years. Browne is looking forward to championing picture books which he said, in an interview with The Times, "are being marginalised and forgotten about"." It's great stuff!

I hope that you found some food for thought in these excellent blog posts. Next week, I'll share a smorgasbord of posts dedicated to keeping summer reading fun.


The Power of Social Reading

Posted by Jen Robinson on June 22, 2009 at 6:00 AM in Literacy News
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A post that I read recently at The Reading Zone inspired me to write about "social reading" for kids. Blogger Sarah Mulhern is "a 6th grade Language Arts teacher who strives to instill a love of reading and writing in her students". Recently, Sarah wrote about a book club that she observed in her classroom between two best friends. The two girls decided, on their own initiative, to read the same book (Gone by Michael Grant). Sarah observed:

"They talk about the book with each other and with me, coming to me to share their responses and exclamations. I LOVE IT! ... It's amazing the power that social reading has. Why don't we harness this in more classrooms and use it? Students reading, recommending, and talking about books is more powerful than any literacy kit, basal reader, or literature set."

I certainly agree with that. I don't remember much about what I was reading in the classroom in 5th or 6th grade, beyond a vague memory of workbooks and reading comprehension questions. But I DO remember talking about books with my friend Holly. We especially enjoyed a book about Gnomes, Fairies, and Elves, and we were thrilled to discover a hidden path to an island of sticks in the swamp behind my house. Surely there was magic there! Holly moved out of the country after fifth grade, and for quite a while we took turns writing a shared story, sending chapters back and forth by airmail. I think that our shared experience with books worked a dual magic - it strengthened my friendship with Holly, while at the same time reinforcing my love of books. And I've been fortunate to have that dynamic with friends in my adult life, too. We benefit from the recommendations that we share with each other, and our friendships grow while we discuss the books.

In The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, Donalyn Miller talks about the importance of her own shared reading experiences with her husband, her children, and her best friend. Talking about her classroom, she says:

"By setting the expectation that reading is what we do, always, everywhere, it becomes the heart of a class' culture. Even the most resistant readers can't fight if all of their friends comply." (Chapter 3)

I know parents who have had good success with parent-child bookgroups (see, for example, or read Heather Vogel Frederick's book The Mother-Daughter Book Club). I think that bookclubs are a great idea. There's no doubt that by talking about books with their kids, parents can have a tremendous influence. Last summer, our own MotherReader hosted a wonderful summer book club for her rising seventh-grader's Girl Scout Troop. (You can find all of the posts here.)

I also think that when kids talk about books on their own, and make recommendations to one another, great things can happen. I'm not sure what can be done to encourage this social reading, exactly. I'm sure that the best response comes from the spontaneous bubbling over of genuine enthusiasm, and you can't orchestrate that. But I would be willing to bet that kids whose close friends are avid readers are more likely to be readers themselves (and vice versa).

Surely social reading has been a big part of the Twilight phenomenon, with girls reading the books because their friends rave about them. It was clear when I attended the signing for The Last Olympian this spring that part of the reason that kids were so excited about the Percy Jackson books was because OTHER kids were so excited about them. And that's great. J. K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and Rick Riordan deserve every iota of success, as far as I'm concerned, because their books have turned kids into readers. But what I'd also love to see more of is kids recommending books back and forth that aren't necessarily huge bestsellers. A kid recommending The Magic Thief or Alabama Moon to his best friend because he loves it, and he wants his friend to read it so that they can compare notes, and discuss it. I'd like to peek into Sarah's classroom, just for a moment, to see those two girls, heads bent together over their matching books. I think that social reading is a beautiful thing, something worth cultivating.

What do you all think? Have you observed social reading between your kids and their friends? In their classrooms? Teachers, is this something that you've been able to harness? Do you have any suggestions for how to do it? I would love to hear your feedback.


Reading and Grade Levels: Keeping it FUN

Posted by Jen Robinson on June 15, 2009 at 6:00 AM in Fun and GamesLiteracy News
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I posted on my blog on Friday about the question of whether or not it's a good idea to encourage kids to read above their grade level. I was inspired by an excellent post on this subject by Dashka Slater at Babble. I discovered very quickly that quite a few people have opinions on this, as you can see in the extensive comments of both of the previous two posts, and the cropping up of other posts like this one at A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy, this one at Here in the Bonny Glen, and this one at Best Book I Have Not Read. I decided, based on this response, that it was a worthwhile topic to bring up here at Booklights. This is also, I think, a logical follow-up to Pam's post from last week about encouraging summer reading. Pam talked about the importance of bringing home a variety of books from the library. She said: "Don't overrule a book your child picks as being too young for him, but also reserve the right make some selections yourself." Like Pam, I'm not a reading specialist, but I do have something to say about this topic.

RES_AnInterestInArt.jpgAs all of the above discussions make clear, there is, in some circles, a bit of competitive pressure going on regarding kids' reading levels. I've heard about the five year old who likes the unabridged version of the Iliad, and the six-year-old reading at a sixth grade level. Melissa Wiley writes about a woman who discouraged her four-year-old from reading picture books, in favor of "something more challenging". An elementary school librarian commented on my earlier post: "I have some students who are "weightlifting" in second grade, carrying Eragon and Inkspell around rather than reading it." The Babble article says: "I hear parents dropping the names of children's books as if they were designer labels. "Junie B. Jones?" one might say witheringly. "My daughter loved that in preschool, but now she's reading the sixth Harry Potter." [Image credit: photo by ToymanRon, shared at MorgueFile. And no, I don't know exactly what this girl is actually reading.]

I can see how it would be easy to caught up in all of this. The parent who reads aloud to her child from the womb, provides lots of books, and is a role model for the importance of reading might be understandably thrilled when said child becomes an advanced reader. Particularly if teachers are encouraging the child to read ever more "challenging" books, and other parents are all talking about what tremendously advanced material their children are reading. A recent Sydney Morning Herald article says (in the context of homework, but I think there's a clear parallel), "Parents who cannot remember homework when they were in kindergarten now help their five-year-olds with up to 45 minutes a day of sheets filled with literacy and numeracy problems. Even those who doubt the wisdom of homework at such an early age reluctantly go along with it, driven by fear of their child falling behind." I know that the "fear of their child falling behind", in our competitive society, is significant.

BUT, there are problems with the relentless progression towards ever-more-advanced reading material for kids. The short-term problem is that children can miss books that they would enjoy reading. Books about kids their own age, having relatable experiences. Fun books. Books with pictures! Instead, they can end up reading books before they are ready for them, which often leads to not appreciating the books, and never going back. The long-term problem is that if you turn reading into a competition, you run the risk of turning it into a chore. You run the risk of having that bright-eyed five-year-old advanced reader grow, in the blink of an eye, into a fourth-grader who won't read anything beyond what's strictly necessary for homework. And that is a tragedy.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't ever let your kids read books that are above their grade level. If they want to do that, and if you deem that books aren't too mature for them thematically, then by all means let them read ahead. Kids usually have a pretty good notion of what they can manage. If they find a book too difficult, they are likely to get bored with that book, and move on to something else. (As Stacy Dillon commented on my post, "I'm bored" is often code for "I don't understand"). So, I'm not saying that the occasional first grader reading the first Harry Potter book is a problem.

JGS_Reading.jpgWhat I am saying is that it's not a good idea to pressure kids to read above their age level. Reading, especially in the summer, should be fun. It isn't meant to be a race. It's a pastime, a journey, a way to teach kids to love books. You don't instill a life-long love of reading by belittling the eight-year-old who wants to flip through picture books on a rainy afternoon. You don't encourage reading by turning down your nose at Goosebumps or comic books or (for teens) the Twilight books. Just because your seven year old CAN read at a sixth grade level, you don't have to deny her the joy of reading about Clementine, Ramona, Pippi Longstocking or Ivy and Bean. Just as we adults sometimes want to read recreationally, it's ok for kids, too. More than OK, in fact, it's something that can help them to maintain the joy of reading. That's what I think, anyway. And it's what many of the authors of and commenters on the posts above think, too, though I've only been able to capture a small amount of that discussion here. [Image credit: photo by Gracey, shared at MorgueFile]

What do you all think? Have you felt pressure, from teachers or other parents, to keep your children reading above grade level? How do you handle this? Or have you found it to be more of a problem the other way, with your library not letting kids read above grade level?


Jen's Recommendations from the 48 Hour Book Challenge

Posted by Jen Robinson on June 8, 2009 at 6:00 AM in Middle Grade BooksRecommendations
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48hbc.pngThis weekend, in a 48-hour period, I spent 29 hours reading and blogging about books. I was participating in the 4th Annual 48 Hour Book Challenge, hosted by our own Pam Coughlan, MotherReader. This is a wonderful event held in celebration of reading. More than 100 people participated, and scores of others followed along, and commented to show support. You can find links to wrap-up posts by all of the participants here. My own detailed wrap-up post is on my blog. Here, I'd like to highlight a few of the books that I read, the ones that I think will be of particular interest to the Booklights audience.

wall.jpgLaurel Snyder's Any Which Wall (illustrated by LeUyen Pham) is an homage to classic children's books about magic, especially to Edward Eager's books. It's also a celebration of childhood, and a reminder not to turn away from the joys of everyday life. It's about four children who discover a magic wall, one that can wish them away to other places (including Camelot). I concluded: "I highly recommend Any Which Wall to anyone who would like a return to reading about magic, a return to old-fashioned stories in which children ride their bikes around unsupervised and eat cake with new acquaintances. It's Laurel's gift to readers, and to the ghost of Edward Eager. I think that he'd be pleased." My full review is here.

masterpiece.jpgMasterpiece by Elise Broach (illustrated by Kelly Murphy) just won the E.B. White Read-Aloud Award for older readers. It's the story of an unlikely friendship between a beetle named Marvin and a quiet eleven-year-old boy named James. It strikes a perfect balance between mystery, world-building, and learning, with fascinating details about art theft and forgery. I think that it's a must-read title for children and adults, and an excellent choice for families reading aloud together. My full review is here. Also, don't miss this year's picture book winner for the E.B. White award: A Visitor for Bear by Bonny Becker (illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton). This is a wonderful read-aloud for toddlers.

jemma.jpgJemma Hartman, Camper Extraordinaire, by Brenda Ferber, is the perfect book for tween girls about to head off to camp for the first time. It's about eleven year old Jemma, who is excited to spend the summer at camp with her best friend, Tammy (who moved away at the start of the school year). Everything changes, however, when Tammy brings a cousin to camp, and Jemma is left fighting with the other girl for her friend's attention. This classic tween drama is set against a backdrop that shows all of the best attributes of summer camp. ("... the camaraderie, the friendships, the personal responsibility and teamwork. The songs and campfires and 'smores and swimming.") My full review is here.

calpurnia.jpgThe Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly is a coming of age novel about a girl living in Central Texas in 1899. Calpurnia is a tomboy and a scientist by nature, taught by her grandfather. She struggles to balance the expectations that society has for girls against her own desires. This is the best kind of historical fiction, a novel that conveys plenty of important information about the time period, while keeping everything organic to the story. And Calpurnia is a great character, a girl that readers will root for whole-heartedly. Although this is billed as a novel for young adults, I think it would work for strong readers a bit younger, too. My full review is here.

I also reviewed The Ghosts of Rathburn Park by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Ghost Huntress Book 2: The Guidance by Marley Gibson, Shift by Jennifer Bradbury (an excellent summer read for teen boys), If the Witness Lied by Caroline Cooney, and Revenge of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz (adult mystery). But if you're looking for other book recommendations, do take a stroll through some of the other wrap-up posts from the 48 hour book challenge. It is a treasure trove of books selected by avid and discerning readers.

Here are a couple of other articles that caught my eye this week that I thought would be of particular interest to you all:

I mentioned Susan Stephenson, The Book Chook, in last week's post. This week, she had a post that simply cried out to me to be shared here. Susan is responding to a letter from a Mom who is worried because she knows about the importance of fathers as reading role models, but her husband has refused to read bedtime stories to their son. Susan shares a number of suggestions of other ways that the father could be a reading role model. She responds to possible objections that the Dad might have (timing, discomfort with fiction, etc.), and suggests alternatives. It's a nice positive, constructive post, with nuts and bolts suggestions, well worth checking out.

I also thought that you all might be interested in a recent post by Dawn Morris at Moms Inspire Learning, about using games to enhance literacy. She suggests options for kids of different age ranges, from packaged games to simple ideas for playing word games in the car. This post is just in time for summer vacation. Dawn has lots of other great posts, too, including a three-part (so far) series about Ways to Raise an Avid Reader. This one started as a top 10 list, but has grown.

For more news like these last couple of items, check out this week's Children's Literacy Round-Up, which will be available at Scrub-a-Dub-Tub, the Reading Tub's blog, sometime today (Updated to add: here is the direct link). Happy reading!


Literacy 'Lights from the Kidlitosphere

Posted by Jen Robinson on June 1, 2009 at 6:00 AM in KidlitsosphereLiteracy News
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jpg_book008.jpgSomething that I do quite a bit on my own blog is collect news from around the literary and literacy blogospheres. I work with Terry Doherty from The Reading Tub in providing weekly children's literacy round-ups (this week's roundup is available on my blog today - the next roundup will be at Scrub-a-Dub-Tub on June 8th). I also publish regular (usually once or twice a week) round-ups of other news and interesting posts from the Kidlitosphere.

What I've decided to do on an occasional basis is publish some of the more parent-focused of that Kidlitosphere and literacy-related news here to Booklights instead. I'm calling these items Literacy 'Lights from the Kidlitosphere (encompassing highlights, spotlights, etc.). I welcome your feedback.

LitLava poster.jpgAt The Book Chook, Susan Stephenson recently announced a new endeavor. She says: "It's called Literacy Lava, and it's a digital magazine (in pdf format) that you'll be able to download and use, share with others, or print and keep. The contributors are bloggers and parents who are passionate about children's literacy. This first issue is erupting with great tips for parents and suggestions for literacy activities to share with kids." I will certainly be staying tuned for this one. Susan was one of the tireless organizers of the 2009 Share a Story - Shape a Future literacy blog tour, which I've mentioned previously.

Jill T. over at The Well-Read Child also recently launched a new feature -- a weekly What My Children are Reading Meme. She explains: "Thanks to Sandy at Stories Are Light for giving me the idea to create this weekly feature. Want to share what your kids are reading or get ideas from other bloggers for other books to read with your children? Create your own post on your blog, and then come to The Well-Read Child every Thursday to submit your link". The first week's post already includes 18 links to summaries from other blogs, a smorgasbord of children's reading updates. Even if you don't have a blog, these weekly posts will make a great starting point for book ideas. And (though I haven't actually asked Jill this) I'm sure that your own family's recommendations would be welcome in the comments.

books-125x125-1.pngFive Minutes for Books, edited by Jennifer Donovan, has a similar feature, that one hosted once per month (and representing a different set of bloggers). You can find an archive of past Kids' Picks carnivals. See also an interesting discussion on Five Minutes for Books about the difficulty for parents of (and techniques for) holding back kids from reading books for which they might not be emotionally ready. Be sure to read the comments. There's definitely anecdotal evidence to support one of my personal recommendations: that parents try to read the books that their children are reading, when possible. (See a longer post that I wrote about that here).

Reading the books your children read also crops up in Tim Shanahan's suggestions at Literacy Learning for Encouraging Summer Reading. Tim is Professor of Urban Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he is Director of the Center for Literacy. He says: "Encourage your children (teens, too) to read over the summer. It's one of the most loving things you can do for them!". His suggestions include: "read the same book they are reading for class over the summer so you can discuss it. The point is to share the reading experience... Even if you are not reading the same books they are, talk to your children about what they are reading." But do click through for lots of additional ideas.

In Missouri Passages (the Missouri Humanities Council e-Newsletter), Julie Douglas calls upon parents to: "Be extraordinary. Read to a child." She also discusses the Dean's speech at her daughter's graduation ceremony: "He reminded them (the graduates) that we, the parents, had most likely gotten the students started on this educational journey by doing the one thing that was so vital to their learning....we read to them when they were very young." Reading aloud makes a life-long difference.

Speaking of reading aloud, Trevor Cairney has a post up at Literacy, families and learning about how to listen to children reading. He warns: "There have been many young readers demoralised by the comments of a listener while they are reading, and the stress of performing in front of others", and then offers a host of positive suggestions. For example: "After the reader makes a mistake you pause for about 3 seconds and say nothing, this allows time for self-correction."

48hbc.pngAnd last, but not least, if you're looking for children's book recommendations, next weekend will be a prime time to find them in the Kidlitosphere. Our own Pam Coughlan is hosting the fourth annual 48 Hour Book Challenge at MotherReader. The idea is to choose a 48-hour period over the course of the weekend, and spend as much time as possible reading books (and blogging about them) during that window. This will be my third time participating in the 48HBC. I've found these challenges an amazing excuse to prioritize reading for a few days. I'll report back next week, and let you know which books I read. Even if you don't have a blog of your own, you could certainly participate in spirit by making reading a priority between June 5th and 7th.

That's all for this week. But I'll be keeping an eye out for other parent-friendly news items from around the blogs to share with you in the future. Happy June!

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