Are your intermediate students choosing challenging texts for pleasure reading?
It may seem like our job leads us to push students to read more and more difficult texts, as they can handle them. Yes, we should present increasingly challenging reading experiences during whole class reading activities. However, if we want students to get the most out of our pleasure reading program we should aim to increase their reading fluency– the speed at which they can read comfortably.
A bountiful supply of very easy texts, well below a student’s reading level, is the best tool for improving reading speed. Most students naturally gravitate towards easy to read texts. Feel good when your level four students choose a ‘level 2 novel’ for pleasure reading, knowing that you will expose them to passages from more complicated texts in whole class activities. They may even be intrigued and pick up the more complex novel once you have read aloud a great scene, but let them choose their own pleasure reading texts.
By intermediate level most students are passing over class-created texts (i.e the illustrated Write & Discuss texts that we create for students reading at the lowest levels) in favor of simple novels with longer plot lines and more developed characters. Students still seek a variety of text types, but they have developed increased stamina and tend to spend less time with texts such as children’s encyclopedias.
Rather than worrying about students reading below their level, be concerned about the student who gravitates towards authentic texts that are far above their reading level.
My student Maddie came into my class every day and would make a beeline towards a hardcover, illustrated version of a Harry Potter novel that I kept behind my desk. She would fret over small rips in the paper jacket cover and spend our 10-minute pleasure reading session repairing the jacket with tape and lovingly glancing at the illustrations.
She was such a nice, cooperative student that I did not recognize at the time that Maddie was failing to develop the skills that my other intermediate students were developing during free reading: they were reading easy texts fluidly so that the rate at which they could read was quite fast. On the other hand, whenever Maddie took note of the text, she immersed herself in a difficult paragraph that prompted her to covertly check her iPhone and look up unknown vocabulary.
Maddie was learning to read slower, not faster. Rather than rushing down the current of the river of reading with the rest of the class, she was learning to get caught up in every eddy and distracted by irrelevant details on the riverbank.
The principal characteristic of a pleasure reading library for intermediate levels continues to be a supply of highly comprehensible, easy-to-read texts. Avoid the temptation of supplying increasingly difficult texts beyond novels designed specifically for language learning. Increasingly complex texts should be presented during whole class reading contexts, such as when presenting a maravilla.
The upper level language learning novels do expose students to complex language, within manageable bounds. Most of all, however, they provide good stories that students can get swept up in so that the language can be acquired as theory predicts: unconsciously.
If I could go back in time and get Maddie back in my classroom, I would find a way of honoring her identity as a reader in her first language (which she so clearly wanted me to notice) and then start exploring the themes that interest her. I would try to find her a home run, easy-to-read book among my library in Spanish.
One book that comes to mind is El brazalete mágico by Margarita Pérez García, the first book in a projected series of easy-to-read novels that takes place in a magical world in the lush tropical forests of Venezuela. In addition to being a novelist, Margarita is also a Spanish teacher in New Zealand. She wrote the following lovely description of how she introduces her classroom library to her intermediate-level students:
“When I introduce my library and the reading program with intermediate+ students, we all read first El Capibara con Botas . I invite them to discover the genre, check the glossary and we discuss slow reading versus easy reading. How do they feel “inside.” How close easy reading is to reading in their mother tongue. We discuss the flow and the lack of pain and the lack of distraction from unknown words pulling us out of the story. And then I “set them free” to explore with one mission: read as much as you can, but read EASY and as you move up in the levels of the library try to preserve that feeling. Easy and loads.”