Helping Children Choose Books

by Dr. Wayne D. Lance1

Learning to make choices is an important life skill. By the time our children become teenagers, we hope they have learned to make wise ones because some will influence their entire lives. While choosing a book may seem a rather insignificant matter, it does provide children with the opportunity to practice a decision-making process and to understand the consequences of choices.

Many teachers who have adopted a literature-based reading program have found that there are definite advantages in guiding children in self-selection, instead of the teacher making the choices and reading assignments.

Children who choose the books they read usually read more books and spend more time reading, both at school and at home. And they are motivated to continue reading as they progress through the grades.

Research indicates that children improve their reading ability by reading a lot, both in school and outside (not surprising). Independent reading increases both vocabulary and reading fluency.

When a family has access to a library stocked with many children’s books, the need to teach a child to make appropriate choices is evident. The family living in an isolated area with access to a limited number of books may think choice is not an option.

Even so, it is important to give children strategies for comparing and contrasting books and to practice this skill as often as possible, even if available resources are limited.

The Goldilocks Strategy

We know we enhance learning when a good match is made between the ability level of the reader and the difficulty level of the book. But this match is not stagnant. There are times when the difficulty level should be slightly higher than the current level of functioning; at other times, an easier book may be appropriate.

Some teachers use a reading inventory to ascertain the “frustration,” “instructional,” and “independent” levels of reading. While this may seem like an objective way to select books for children, it can severely limit the selection, and it fails to consider other important factors in the decision-making process.

Just putting a pile of books before a child and saying, “Here, choose one you’d like to read,” is not the ideal strategy. Some children gravitate to those books with which they are familiar. Others are drawn to an intriguing cover illustration, while still others may select a book they know an older brother or sister has read but which may be beyond their ability.

Two experienced teachers have written an article describing a strategy for helping children choose books (Marilyn Ohlhausen and Mary Jepsen, “Lessons from Goldilocks: ‘Somebody’s Been Choosing My Books But I Can Make My Own Choices Now!’” 2 The New Advocate, Winter 1992, pp. 31-46). The authors explain the strategy this way:

In the fairy tale, Goldilocks sampled porridge that was “too hot,” “too cold,” and “just right,” and beds and chairs that were “too hard,” “too soft,” and “just right.” By engaging in this decision-making activity—comparing and contrasting three levels—she learned to make choices. As teachers, we can take advantage of this familiar story by using it as an analogy to help our students learn to make choices about books” (p. 34).

In teaching the strategy, discuss with your children how some books may be “too easy,” some “too hard,” and some “just right.” Show them books as examples of each category.

Explain that books which are “too hard” today will be “just right” sometime in the future. These “too hard” books may be ones a big brother or sister or parent likes to read, but for now they have too many words the child can’t read or understand. Suggest that he or she get these books out ocasionally and see if they are getting easier.

“Just right” books are ones where the child understands what the author is trying to communicate and has only one or two words per page that he does not know. “Too easy” books are old favorites that a child likes to read for fun and understands what is going to happen next.

In determining the category in which to place a book, have children read three or four pages, count (on their fingers if necessary) the words they don’t know, and ask themselves if they really understand what is happening in the story or text.

Applying the Strategy

You may wish to prepare a chart with a series of questions to remind children how to determine the level of a book. Or you may wish to use the questions at the end of this article as a starting point. YES answers to the questions below indicate that a book fits that particular category.

Children should understand that they need to spend some time with books in all three categories. “Just right” books are the ones with which most reading time will be spent. But “too easy” books instill confidence and improve fluency and reading rate—and it’s fun to return to old favorites. Limited time spent with “too hard” books provides opportunity to find information a child needs but that is not contained in their “just right” books. “Too hard” books also provide the challenge and stretching that
is good for all of us.

As a parent, be prepared to support your children’s choices. At times you may disagree with how a child has ranked a book. If he did make a mistake, help him think through the process.

One reason to respect your children’s choices is that at times they may be even more perceptive than you. Sometimes a child needs to spend more time with “too easy” books just to build confidence. There are times when a child struggles through a “too hard” book and as a result makes a leap forward in increasing vocabulary and developing comprehension skills.

Even if your home library is limited, you can guide your children in making appropriate choices from the printed materials you do have. As you interact with them in this process, you may observe some things about each child’s learning style and ability level that will help you make a better selection when you place an order for books.

Too-Easy Books

Ask yourself these questions. If you are answering YES, this book is probably a Too Easy Book for you. Have fun reading it.

Just-Right Books

Ask yourself these questions. If you are answering YES, this book is probably a Just Right Book for you. Have fun reading it.

Too-Hard Books

Ask yourself these questions. If you are answering YES, this book is probably a Too Hard Book for you. Have fun reading it.

Permission is granted to copy, but not for commercial purposes.