Saturday, December 11, 2010

Reader's advisory and reader's expectations

Supporting students as they choose books is a big part of my work as a school librarian. Although by necessity ruthlessly brief, the "reader's advisory conferences" that are initiated by the students are often the best part of my day. They give me a chance to talk about books and help students describe what it is they really want from a book, reflecting on what is working well and not so well in their current reading.These conferences often end with students choosing a book that they feel enthusiastic about reading.  Sometimes (but not always!) this is a book that I recommended.

The polar opposite of these student initiated reader's advisory conferences are conferences that are prompted by a student selecting books that they have no chance of actually reading.  These conferences usually take longer and I often end up delaying their book choice until later in the day, usually during my lunch break. They can also be frustrating because the student and I often have very different expectations about reading. 

Last week a second grader from an ESL class selected Biscuit by Alyssa Capucilli (a book for beginning readers with between two and eight words on a page) and The Amber Spy Glass by Phillip Pullman (Volume 1 from His Dark Materials a fantasy series directed at middle school and high school students). After reading a together for a little while (she read part of Biscuit to me and I read the first two paragraphs of The Amber Spy Glass to her) she was able to tell me that her teacher said she had to read longer books with chapters. She ended up leaving with a book about Amanda Pig by Jean Van Leeuwen.   We were able to agree that she wanted a book with chapters that had a story she could understand and not too many words she couldn't figure out. She also liked that the Amanda Pig book had stories about friends and family.

Not all conferences have such happy endings.  I remember a third grader who struggled with reading explaining in all earnestness, "but I don't want a book that is enjoyable.  I want a book that is hard!" Clearly my expectation for what happens when you read is very different from his. Eventually, after several months, he began to choose non-fiction information books on topics that interested him, but his definition of reading still seems to include struggling over each word.

So, what is necessary for successful book choice? Students are choosing books that will be read in front of both teachers and peers  The books can't look too easy, or too embarrassing or too hard to be read at all.  They have to be long enough to satisfy required reading logs for at least a week but not so long that they end up returning the book before coming to the end.  The book has to be interesting enough to make it possible to keep reading, but not so interesting that they attract too much attention.  What are students actually doing when  they visit the library for a quick 10 or 15 minutes and leave with a book they want to read?  Often they are looking for books that have been recently read by their peers so the returns cart is the most visited shelf. Sometimes they are either  looking for something that is familiar (Wimpy Kid, Amber Brown, Gary Paulson, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) other times  they are getting advice from peers. 

Book choice for reading in school may fill social needs just as much or even more than academic needs. Perhaps I can find a way to harness the social machine to support all the readers in my elementary school, not just the ones who are already getting the support they need from their peers.

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