Supporting Middle School Readers Tackling More Complex Texts
Steps teachers and librarians can take to help students assess their reading skills and grow to enjoy increasingly complex texts.
Many young people, when asked when the last time was that they enjoyed a book, will recall circle or read-aloud time in elementary school, bedtime stories read by parents when they were young, or falling in love with a favorite series, such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Captain Underpants. Elementary-aged readers often take great pride in moving from reading picture books to reading chapter books and series.
If there’s one goal that our school systems should have, it is to support students in feeling a sense of innate curiosity and pride in the skills and content they’re learning. Unfortunately, many students graduate from high school having lost their love for reading. They understand what scholarship looks like but have little to no sense for what it means to continually stoke the fire of curiosity and to learn for the sake of continuing to feed that fire.
Defining a Reading Identity
One of the first ways that many students in the middle grades come to define their reading identities is through scores given on reading assessments, which are designed to help educators find out what students need in order to grow as readers. However, it isn’t uncommon for students to fail to understand the purpose of these assessments and respond to questions in ways that do not reveal their true reading strengths and abilities.
What if we normalized talking with students about reading ability or skill level using more than Accelerated Reader or Lexile levels? What if they created their own levels for reading achievement using a combination of self-identified indicators of text complexity? For example, educators and students can work together using Google rubrics to create a rubric for reading complexity that includes qualitative (layers of meaning, language conventions), quantitative (word and sentence length), and reader-specific (prior knowledge required) indicators.
It is possible for students to use different tools to measure growth, such as reading journals or shared note-taking during fishbowl discussions. Teachers can modify standards and learning objectives into student-friendly language and add them to Google Forms, which students can then use to learn how to determine a connection between skills and activities, and set measurable goals. Then, teachers can use tools like collaborative annotation or shared note-taking during in-class discussions in order to empower students to learn independently and collectively. Reflection journals and portfolios that collect writing about reading are ways for students to self-assess in order to measure growth.
Fostering Reading Skills With Choice Books
Veteran reading specialists Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell advise that “when children select books from a classroom library, they should be guided by interest and enjoyment, not by level.” In order to support students in developing a sense of themselves as readers beyond systems for classification and measurement, it’s imperative that educators work with students to develop ways to track their grasp of and exposure to increasingly complex texts. However, it’s also necessary to protect student privacy with respect to reading goals and achievement. Teachers can use Google Forms to create graphs automatically that show aggregated data (for setting class goals) and use Google Sheets to collect individual students’ data (for conferring with students and setting individual goals).
Many middle-grade students fall in love with authors or book series, which works to increase reading fluency beyond the chapter books they fell in love with in elementary school. Educators can work with students to identify book series that match their interests by looking at popular chapter books from elementary school and teaching about theme and genre. For example, if a student likes the The Origami Yoda Files, they might work with their teacher to identify books that match the genre classification for those books but are longer, or have a higher Lexile level.
Educators can familiarize students with school and classroom library designations and characteristics for books that match categories such as picture book, early reader, chapter book, young adult, and adult. Once students identify characteristics of books in each of those categories, they can find titles of interest from genres they like, which will make it easier for them to understand what it means to progress along the levels of text complexity organically. Teachers can support them in determining complexity indicators using tools like Google rubrics to evaluate them.
Though categorizing books is useful for book buyers and librarians, it’s important to communicate to students that all books are for all readers, so that any unnecessary harmful stigma around leveling and age-appropriateness is lifted. There are typically a variety of reasons why readers gravitate toward and have enjoyable experiences with books. All too often, students internalize the harmful language that if they like to read books that are beneath their computer-generated or state-test-determined Lexile level, they should stay away from them, which isn’t necessarily the case. The idea is to continually encourage growth in a way that is empowering, not oppressive.
Promoting Enjoyment of Increasingly Complex Texts
We know that growing as a reader requires developing a mix of skills. As students become more aware of what it means to develop reading fluency and improve vocabulary through using context clues to read and identify words they do not know, they can also use tools such as Reading Ladders to better see for themselves which books feel comfortable for them and maximize the intrinsic motivation felt when reading books they’re naturally curious about and cannot put down.
When parents stop being the gatekeepers of whether students are reading at home or not, educators need something more than grades to keep students reading and seeking more complexity, in order to help them grow. Tools that many elementary educators use, such as leveling, reading assessments, and reading logs, can be phased out for middle-grade readers as they cultivate independent reading habits and tastes.
However, it is important to replace these tools with collaboration with students to develop methods for determining reading fluency and tracking text complexity. In doing so, students can participate in the process of evaluating reading in authentic ways and develop a lifelong love for reading a wide variety of genres and formats.
Student book clubs and reading groups may be helpful as students become more familiar with their own interests, and the variety of books available to them expands with the boundaries of their world as they move from what is familiar at home to what may be unfamiliar at first in the wider world of their neighborhood, community, state, and country.
Every reader knows the joy that comes from reading a book they truly love. It’s an indescribable mix of curiosity, excitement, and fascination at how a writer is able to both educate and entertain. Educators who teach writing aim to support students as they work to communicate universal truths and use language to reveal the most intimate and personal experiences or emotions.
One of the best ways to do this is through having students read books they love, unpack the reasons why they love them so much, and independently learn to seek out the next book that will challenge them to grow as readers and as humans, not just in elementary school but through the middle grades and beyond.