My son, who is in first grade, came home the other day with his Scholastic book order. He was so excited to show me all of the books he really wanted. As we went through each page, he asked “Mom, what books do you think look good?” (Obviously he has learned his teacher mom can’t pass up a new book!). As I looked through the choices my eyes were delighted to see so many new series books. I thought of my reluctant readers, and immediately knew some of these books would spark their interest in reading. I was excited about the prospect of new titles in my library, but also nervous about finding the time to read all of these new books. I think that for most teachers the prospect of having to get to know new titles can be overwhelming.
I was recently working with a group of second grade teachers who said one of their challenges is not being familiar with the book their readers may be retelling during a conference. I started to think more about how we can decide the best thing to teach a reader in a conference if we are not familiar with the text they are reading.
I initially thought about a retell strategy that we teach our readers to use:
Somebody Wanted…… (the main character and what they want)
But…… (the problem of the story)
So Then…… (how the problem was solved)
I was in a workshop this summer with Shanna Schwartz. She talked about using this strategy before you read the book so that readers will have a better understanding of how the story will go. She said for most books we should be able to figure out the main character, what they want, and the problem they will face from the title, cover picture, blurb, and table of contents. I wondered, “could I use this strategy for unfamiliar books during my conferences?”
In my next Reading Workshop I made sure to pull up next to a reader who was reading one of my new series books. After I asked him how it was going, I asked if I could quickly look at the cover picture and read the blurb. I wanted to test out if my retell strategy would give me enough information about the story to then be able to assess his retell of what he had read so far.
He was reading The Infamous Ratsons Are Not Afraid by Kara LaReau.
In my quick scan I was able to determine the Somebody was Louie and Ralphie Ratso who Wanted to turn a vacant lot into an Arcade But Louie is afraid of the haunted house that is next door and Ralphie is afraid that everyone at school thinks he likes a girl. Wow! It worked. I had enough information to give me an idea of how this story would go. I now felt more confident asking this reader to tell me what was happening in his book.
However, as time went on, I found that this strategy did not always work. Some books did not give enough information to allow me to feel confident in assessing a retell. This led me to think more about text levels. I began to think that if I knew more about what readers needed to do in the level they were reading at, as well as text features of that level, I could have a general understanding of “the way books at the level go.” This would give me another way to help assess a retell. In my search to deepen my understanding of text levels I found Leveled Books, K-8: Matching Texts to Readers for Effective Teaching by Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. I also consulted The Fountas and Pinnell Literacy Continuum, Expanded Edition: A Tool for Assessment, Planning, and Teaching, PreK-8 by Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell as well as Reading with Meaning, 2nd edition: Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades by Debbie Miller. These texts allowed me to create my own text level “cheat sheets.” I found having these cheat sheets next to me in a conference was extremely helpful whether I was familiar with the text or not.
This is my Level M cheat sheet:
I think the most important thing we can do as reading teachers is to be familiar with the books that are in our library. This not only helps when we are listening to our readers talk about the book, but it also helps when we are making suggestions to kids, book shopping with kids, and listening in to clubs or partnerships. But if we are lucky enough to have libraries that are constantly growing and changing we need to find ways that will help to support our readers even if the text may be unfamiliar to us. Strategies and knowledge of text level characteristics make it possible.