When Too Easy Is Just Right
A few days ago, while shopping at a local bookstore, I ran into a delightful young man who was looking for the second book in Brian Jacques's Redwall series, having just finished the first. This series consists of wonderful long fantasy novels written at a fifth or sixth grade reading level. This boyI'll call him Henrywill be entering the fourth grade this fall, so he's obviously a good reader for his age. I had a lot of fun talking with this well-mannered and well-read young man.
Yet I left the store feeling a bit upset. As Henry and I walked through the store talking and pulling out favorite books, looking for another book or two for him to take home, his mother kept saying, "No, that book is far too easy for him. That book doesn't have enough pages." She said something like this about almost every book Henry picked up. Now, this mother clearly wanted only the best for her son, and she truly wanted to encourage him to read. Unfortunately, she was having the opposite effect. This wonderful young reader left the store discouraged, taking with him only his Redwall sequel.
Do you read only books that are good for you? Sure, just like you watch only the news and documentaries on TV. Children need the same privilege of sometimes reading just for fun. Yes, Henry should stretch his reading abilities, but he shouldn't have to tackle a 350-page book, two levels above his own grade, each and every time he wants to read. Not every book a child reads has to be a challenge.
Matching the Book to the Reader
Afterschool practitioners, like parents, should be aware that length and reading level are not everything when it comes to good children's and adolescent literature. Guide young readers toward books and stories that fit their level of emotional maturityand their interestsrather than always going by reading level or length.
Many picture books are appropriate for high school students and even adults, while others are written at middle-school reading levels. Patricia Polacco, for example, offers a wide array of multicultural themes, while Chris Van Allsburg provides captivating and thought-provoking illustrations. The fact that the stories are shorter or that the book uses illustrations does not make the writing any less powerful. Many picture books feature sophisticated vocabularies and themes appropriate for older readers. One of Patricia Polacco's picture books, Pink and Say, is probably not appropriate for a child younger than eight, but it's one of the most powerful picture books I have ever read. It's a poignant tribute to an interracial friendship during the Civil War. Understanding why this war is being fought and why Pink and Say are on the same side but are treated differently takes background knowledge that only an older reader can bring.
Talented children's authors speak to the issues children face today in developmentally appropriate ways. While children should have access to the classics of children's literature, they should also read these more modern books whose themes connect to their experience. Theodore Taylor's The Cay and Jerry Spinelli's Maniac Magee, for instance, both tell tales of loss and separation, homelessness and what it means to have or find a home. Both feature young people learning to survive in extreme circumstances. Many of the children in afterschool programs deal with similar issues, so they will be able to relate to the characters in these books and enjoy reading about them. Yet the power of these themes, and the fact that these novels include many of the literary and psychological elements found in adult novels, suggest that these books are appropriate for children in the sixth grade and above. Fourth graders who are strong independent readers will understand all the words, but most don't have the maturity to deal with the issues these novels raise.
When it comes to the classics, if we force children to read, say, Huckleberry Finnwhose storyline and themes are beyond the grasp of most readers who are Huck's age (about 13) or youngerbefore they are ready for it, they may lose forever the joy of reading that book. They'll hate the experience, so that they'll never pick the book up again when they are better able to handle its themes and language.
The Value of "Too Easy"
Many educators and parents look down on easier books, such those in many popular children's series, as "garbage" that provides no enrichment. Yet series like The Baby-Sitters Club and Captain Underpants can be useful not only for developing readers but even for gifted ones. True, gifted readers may be able to read such books in an hour or so, but the value is that they're reading fluently without having to work on comprehension. Reading fluency is a necessary part of reading development; fluency means that reading has become so automatic that the young reader can concentrate on the meaning of the text rather than on having to decode the meaning of each word. Comprehension can't develop until fluency is achievedand fluency achieved by reading texts at or below one's reading level. Besides, series keep children reading, as they gobble up one book after another like my young friend Henry. After all, I found him in a bookstore rather than in a game arcade.
So please allow the children in your program to choose the books they read for fun. Concentrate as much on whether the treatment of the subject matter fits the age and emotional maturity of the child as on the reading level. (For descriptions of the stages of reading development, see The Wire for September 2003, From Learning to Read to Reading to Learn.
As long as children are reading, they're making progress. Growing readers will not be stuck on the Boxcar Children in college if they get their fill of them now. On the other hand, if teachers, afterschool practitioners, and parents refuse to allow children to read books of their own choosing along with more challenging books, those children may never develop the fluency and comprehension they need to understand college-level texts.
Quick Tests for Reading Levels
Try to provide the children your program with a wide variety of reading material from easy to challenging. Have children use the Five Finger Test and the Goldilocks Test to see if a book is too easy, too hard, or just right.