Saturday, April 7, 2012

Chapter Books: A Dilemma?

What About Chapter Books?
This post was inspired by Laura Komos.  You see, this morning I was catching up on blogs.  Wait, who am I kidding, I'll never get caught up with blogs. Anyway I came across a post at Laura's, Our Camp Read-a-Lot blog titled:  Rights of Passage:  Chapter Books.  First of all, I have to say that I really enjoyed this post.  It was so honestly written and generated such thoughtful responses.  I too began to comment, but soon realized I was practically leaving a post in Laura's comments.  So I decided instead to come here to participate in Laura's conversation.

The Challenge
Typically there comes a point in first grade where chapter books start rolling in from the library.  Everyone soon is carrying one around the classroom or leaving them near her/his mat so others can see the new books that they "are reading."  The concern most teachers have is that students often aren't ready for books that are so much longer, have much more difficult vocabulary, have more complicated structures and require a developed set of reading strategies to read for understanding.  Typically even my higher readers, though they can read all the words, may have difficulty comprehending the richness of these books.

While I share these concerns I don't stress too much when this happens as I expect it each year.  I am, however, saddened by this move to chapter books because if we are not careful young readers are all too soon leaving picture books behind.  Sometimes it seems we rush children through childhood, and that to me is a little discouraging.  There are so many beautiful pictures books that cause us to pause, to rethink our worlds, and fill us with joy.  There are picture books that keep intermediate readers thinking at the end of the day.  Of course, there is a point where young readers need to learn to develop strategies for reading books with chapters.  There is a point where young readers need to build stamina for reading for longer periods of time and following more developed plots in their reading.

The Developing Reader
Truthfully, if we watch carefully, students may be carrying these books around, but they don't really spend much time with them.  I rarely see a book that is too challenging last more than three days.  Even more importantly, when a book is too challenging, I rarely see students spend their entire reading time with it in reader's workshop.  The concern is always the emergent reader who is reading a book meant more for a transitional reader.  (Beyond Leveled Books by Franki Sibberson and Karen Szymusiak is perfect for thinking about this transition.  It's a must-read.)  For me, I just can't say to a child they cannot read a book.  Often these are the children struggling to find their place in the reading community.

Struggling readers (and I'm never a fan of that term as we're all in a different place in everything so for the rest of this post I will be calling them what I believe they are - developing readers) know reading is harder for them than their peers.  They see the difference in the books, and they just want to be a part of it all.  These developing readers are always our concern.  I always ask myself these questions for developing readers carrying Harry Potter around the room:

  • How long have they had this book?
  • Is it the only book they're reading during reader's workshop?
  • Are they still spending time with books at an appropriate level during their day?  (perhaps in small group instruction, in shared reading, in other parts of the day)
  • Is the reader taking home a books that will be of the appropriate challenge?

As a reader myself, I am constantly reading books that are a bit too challenging.  If I could only read books by level I'd be in trouble.  (If you are an NCTE member you might want to read Brenda Power's article,  Leveled: Fiction That Could One Day Be True.)  As readers we take what we can from the books we read.  I try to respect these young readers the way I would respect a friend who decides to take on War and Peace.  If I am more concerned I make intentional adjustments in my instruction by bringing a different book over to read/confer, include the child in small group instruction, or a few other book enticing tricks I've learned over the years.  In other words, I give it time, and almost always that is enough.

Balancing Reading
Of course, there are a few other things I do to keep children focused on picture books and books that are a good match for them as readers.  I keep parents informed.  I try to remind parents of the importance of picture books and all it can teach young readers.  I talk a lot about the joy of the story and the time they spend together.  I know parents are excited about chapter books like they were about their children learning to walk so I remind them how wonderful it is to read chapter books to their young children so they can talk together about the story.

In our classroom we talk a lot about a balanced reading diet.  As readers, it is good to read a variety of types of books and a variety of types of challenge.  We talk about books that help us to learn and grow as readers.  These conversations develop across the year in first grade because at the beginning of the year students can almost tell by looking at a book how hard it will be (font size, number of words, etc. are key characteristics early in the year).  However, as we move toward the end of the year we can be surprised by the ease and challenge of a book.

In our classroom library I try to keep mostly picture books though you'll find appropriate chapter books in some of our baskets and in the character section of our library right now.  They do not hold a special place in our library.  We don't talk about them any differently than we talk about the other books in our classroom.  A reader who is reading chapter books during reader's workshop is no more amazing than the reader with a stack of good stories sitting beside them.  I try to be very careful with my words about chapter books and to any reader I talk to about any book in our classroom.

Perhaps the best tip for chapter books came from my friend and colleague, Deb Frazier, a few years ago.  As we talked about this very concern, she suggested we choose books to read to the class that were books we thought would fit many of the readers in our community.  Since first graders (and other young readers) typically like to choose what we've read, it makes sense to be sure the chapter books we are reading aloud are the ones we want them to check out at the library.  I like to begin with books like Henry and Mudge, Poppleton, Nate the Great, and other books in which there are many books in the series for young readers to check out after we have read one or two together.

My Final Question
This actually brings me to my final question.  Recently I came across Penny's Song by Kevin Henkes.  I was delighted to see a new beginning chapter book with a series possibility written by an author we already love.  I know there have to be many more great beginning chapter books out there.  What new beginning chapter books have you discovered?  I feel like I've fallen behind on many of these new titles and would love suggestions.

Please comment to share your thoughts about beginning chapter books.  


  1. Thank you for sharing. Students being eager to read chapter books is a problem in 2nd grade too. I always share early in the year the "Sam" (Sam's First Halloween) series by Mary Labatt as being one of my favorite series of dog books. I talk about how much I love the dog and how the author shares his thinking. The kids line up to read them. Another series I read out loud a few books from is the early chapter book series Katie Woo.

    1. I forgot about Katie Woo. Thanks for the reminder, Barbara.

  2. Always keep in mind that there are kids who really, eagerly, and genuinely need this challenge. There are students who need to have books that "last longer" because they are hooked on the characters.

    I think you are right, the key is "balance". As the teacher of gifted students (most of which are "advanced" readers), I want them to read widely. I want them to try a variety of genres, styles, and book lengths. I want them to sometimes choose books that are "too hard" - as it builds their stamina. I want them to sometimes return to books they loved when they were littler, or to read easy graphic novels.

    While I don't want them to "miss" anything either - it is the longer, harder books (picture books included) that will begin to challenge them with more sophisticated ideas and themes. It's a delicate balance, so I'm happy to read so many teachers thinking and pondering this issue instead of just decreeing "No chapter books until X time in the year".

    1. Maria,
      You make a good point, "there are kids who really, eagerly, and genuinely need this challenge." I did not properly address that in this post. That is the tricky part isn't it; so many readers with so many different needs. Of course, that is the wonderful part as well. I will go into my classroom Monday morning thinking about this conversation.


  3. I know very little about beginning chapter books except those I've shared & used with my grandchildren, yet there is a similar conversation going on maybe all ages, but I'm mostly concerned with middle & YA students who read beyond their age peers, & who want to read the more sophisticated books, high adventure, mostly fantasy, etc. It's a tough decision to figure out that 10 year olds may be able to read The Hunger Games series, but should they? Or should the teacher (Or parent) persuade them to wait, but also give them an alternative that can challenge. Really interesting topic, Cathy.

    1. You are right, this dilemma carries across grade levels. I suppose the true secret is knowing our readers well enough to guide and support them on their journey. What a wonderful opportunity!

  4. Here is a comment from Betsy. Unfortunately, I was trying to approve it from my phone and my big thumb hit the wrong button. Sorry, Betsy.

    Betsy said, "What struck me: I really appreciated your explanation of the "developing reader." At the moment, like you earlier, I feel like I might write a whole post about it here so maybe I will save a few of my thoughts. But, it is reassuring to hear others say that we are all on our own journey, thank you."

  5. This is always such a hard thing! I find it even harder in the library when I don't know children as well as I did as a classroom teacher--I don't know them well enough to suggest alternatives, etc. I just picked up NANCY CLANCY--the new chapter book of Fancy Nancy. I think kids will like it but it looks more difficult than I was expecting it to be. I love books like Ling and Ting too. There just aren't many of them. I know my daughter read a few paragraphs of Junie B. Jones for a year at bedtime--to herself. It was way to hard for her but she spent months getting through it. She was quite determined. It was an important piece of her developing as a reader. No easy answers! Lots to think about:-)