Looking Beyond Levels: Fostering Motivation and Love for ReadingBy Bethany Hill
That little moment when a child realizes he can read is pure magic. He feels empowered, accomplished, and ready to tackle any book. This realization normally happens when a child is in first grade, or around age 6. Learning to read is a developmental process, and is different for all children. Over the years we have seen the shift in education from exposing all students to a grade level basal type text, to grouping students according to their reading ability level. Small group reading instruction is necessary in order to gently nudge students forward in their reading development, but have we gone too far with the leveling systems? Are we becoming so focused on the number attached to a book that we are missing other factors involved in a child’s reading development? There are implications we must consider when using leveling systems to match books with readers.
Keep in mind the thoughts written here are purely my own; the research I have is what I have witnessed through my own experiences as a teacher of third grade students, and as an administrator of kindergarten through fourth grade students. Small group reading instruction must happen daily with our young readers, and we can keep the magic by broadening our lens to view the big picture of reading development. Let us consider more than reading level, and look at the children to guide us in choosing the appropriate text for instruction that will not only support their development, but motivate them to read for enjoyment. After all…isn’t that the ultimate goal? We want our students to become readers, not just in the classroom, but in life. Let’s look at ideas to support you when matching books to transitional readers. Here we go!
Small group reading instruction is a nonnegotiable. Kids need this time to be supported by the teacher with the right scaffolds in place. They need discussion time with their peers about their thoughts regarding a text. They need challenges in order for them to practice reading strategies. This can only happen in small groups. We must be cautious when small groups become stagnant, meaning the same students make up each group for long periods of time.
Reading groups can become a label for students, which will ultimately destroy motivation and confidence in some children. Groups need to be flexible, changing from time to time depending on the needs of the students and focus of the teacher. Grouping kids according to ability, genre, interest, targeted skill, fluency, and level of motivation are just a few ways we can form reading groups throughout the school year. Grouping for various reasons will help the teacher foster a love and confidence of reading within all students. We send a message to our transitional readers that they are “stuck” if we keep them in the same groups all semester or all year. Flexible grouping allows kids to see that we have confidence in them to meet our expectations. It sends an appropriate message to kids about how reading works in life. Bookstores are not organized by numbers. We have the ability to teach kids about proper book selection by allowing them to have voice and choice. Let’s take a look at three things to consider along with reading levels in order to support our effort in getting kids hooked on reading.
One of the most challenging aspects of teaching is that all of our students come from different backgrounds. Each student has schema that varies beyond our understanding–unless we dig deeper and investigate. Kids (and adults) are motivated by what interests them. Conduct interest surveys to discover more about your students. Hold “interest” reading conferences the beginning of the year and take detailed notes! Not only will this give you insight into their lives outside of the school walls, it will support your ability to connect with them on a personal level. Discovering their interests makes learning personal. Choosing books based on interest level will have a direct impact on students’ motivation to read. Matching the right content to a reader will increase a child’s ability to comprehend at a higher level, and avoid getting stuck in the Bluebirds reading group all year!
During individual reading conferences, we need to take into consideration what types of books a reader is choosing for independent reading. Young readers often get stuck in their favorite genre and avoid choosing a variety of literature. These students need support from the teacher on selecting texts from various genres. Holding genre studies in small group reading instruction is a perfect way to expose students to new types of literature, and give them the confidence to choose books more wisely for their independent reading. Selecting the appropriate text becomes more about the genre and not the level. The level of the text must be considered, but the genre is the main reason for choosing the text. It may need to be an easier text in order for students to focus on the format of the genre.
Learning is a social act. We learn by observing, discussing, and interacting with content and people. As adults, when we see a great movie or read a fabulous book, what do we do? We tell someone about it! We recommend it to others! Kids need opportunities to to just that. Flexibly grouping kids with peers they feel comfortable around is a great way to break the ice.
We need to encourage kids to talk about their own learning, and take ownership of new connections. Let’s give students opportunities to express opinions about who they would like to read and study with during small group reading instruction. When students have voice and choice, they are more motivated. Is it more challenging for the teacher when grouping by peer choice? Absolutely. We are charged with leveling the playing field for students who may struggle. We must be prepared to have more scaffolds in place for particular students, but it is an attainable act. The end result is the payoff: kids don’t see themselves “stuck” with other struggling readers. They have exposure to the thinking of other students. The extra work is worth its weight in gold when we begin to see the fire within struggling and apathetic readers.
Reading is a lifelong habit that will increase the chances of success within our students. It is our charge to create and maintain a culture of reading for enjoyment within our classrooms that will expand outside of the school walls and into the homes of our students. Reading levels ARE important! They are not the only determining factor in how we teach students how to be readers. We owe it to every student to teach them how to be readers. Teaching them a book will not grow a habit within; teaching them to be readers will sustain a lifelong habit.
Now, I encourage you to go forth, teach, and create lifelong readers in the process. As Debbie Miller says, “Happy Reading!”
About the author
Bethany Hill is an elementary principal at Central Elementary in Cabot, Arkansas.
She has served in education for seventeen years as a classroom teacher, curriculum coach, and assistant principal/instructional facilitator.
Bethany has a passion for motivating and inspiring children to discover the joy of reading and make it a lifelong habit.