One Simple Question

by Tricia Ebner

pablo-26One of the ongoing challenges we language arts teachers face is getting kids connected with the right books. Although we all dream of having a class filled with avid readers, the reality is we’ll always have students who struggle with reading, along with those students who are capable of reading but would rather do anything else. Sometimes these uninterested readers are my biggest challenge.

At the November 17-20 NCTE Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, I had the opportunity to attend a couple of panel discussions about middle school learners. Kylene Beers was part of these discussions. She used a very simple question as both an ice breaker and an example of an informal way we can get a glimpse into our students’ reading lives. She asked us to consider, and then share, the answer to this question:  “What is the title of the book that hooked you into reading?”

Posing this question to a roomful of English teachers is going to generate instant results; the conversations began immediately. Beers quieted us after a couple of minutes and then asked how many of us had named a book that was part of a series. A significant number of hands went up, and she began listing a number of popular series ranging from Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys to Harry Potter. Then she reminded us what research says about lifelong readers: at some point, lifelong readers got hooked into a series or two.

Hearing what fellow educators named was interesting, but it’s even more interesting to ask students. The answers to this question give us insight into our students and their reading. First, we can easily tell who has enjoyed a series. It also brings up happy memories, smiles, and warm feelings. After all, those who can answer this question usually have pretty distinctive memories of the experiences with that book; I distinctly remember sitting next to my mom on the couch while we read Little House in the Big Woods together. Asking, “Why did this book hook you into reading?” can also provide us with some insight into what the student looks for in a strong, memorable book. This can help us customize recommendations to those students.

We also learn quite a bit about our students who don’t have an answer to the question. First, of all, we need to recognize that the lack of an answer isn’t a “no, never.” It is a “not yet.” That child hasn’t been hooked into reading with a book–yet. As we begin to consider titles we might recommend to these students, we need to remember the power of the series books. If the right book for a student is a part of a series, we now have a few titles ready to go for the student. A resource like NoveList K-8 Plus (a database available through EBSCOhost) can also help us and our students as they consider titles they may want to read. It suggestions titles by using a system of “If you like this, then you might like . . .” Using tools like databases can help us more efficiently find the right book for those students who are still looking for their “hook me into reading” books.

In either case, knowing our students’ answers to the question “What book hooked you into reading?” provides us with important anecdotal information that can help us develop a more complete understanding of our students’ preferences, strengths, and needs as readers.

While asking “What book hooked you into reading?” is a perfect beginning-of-the-year question, there is no reason we can’t ask this question now. Consider asking your students to think about this and write about it as a warm-up activity for class. Sharing the responses with the library media specialist can also help him or her select books for book talks and recommendations. Gathering this information now can help us support our readers through the second half of the school year.  

Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms. 

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