As a reading teacher, one of my biggest challenges is finding books that are interesting and relevant to my seventh and eighth grade students; this challenge is compounded by the fact my students are reading at least three years below grade level. For example, I have eighth graders who struggle with young adult books because the vocabulary and sentence difficulty are too challenging for them. If I want my students to build their comprehension and improve their reading level, then I need to encourage them to read as much as possible; however, it’s quite a task to get struggling adolescent readers to read books that are “kiddie” stories. Imagine persuading a thirteen-year-old boy to read a book that’s on his second grade reading level, but is about a elementary school bully. It is not an easy task, by any means.
I felt the desire to write about the challenge of matching students with texts this week after a conversation I had with an 8th grade male student, Nick. To give you a little background on this student, Nick is an avid reader and enjoys reading science fiction and fantasies. I built a good relationship with him last year because I had the first three books of the Artemis Fowl series and I allowed him to borrow each book for as long as he wanted. This particular series of books is popular among boy readers because it offers a suspenseful plot that incorporates a devious young boy, Artemis, whose sole occupation is plotting extravagant criminal activities. Anyway, Nick came to me during passing period to see if I had any extra copies of the first Artemis Fowl book. He told me that he had two other friends who were interested in reading the book with him during the school day. When I first heard Nick’s idea, I was obviously thrilled. Here I had an 8th grade boy who wanted to start a book club of sorts with his peers!
It is a well-known fact, among teachers and researchers, that adolescent boys are most at-risk of falling behind academically. I have seen this occur in my own classroom, as I have an entire class of boys who are at least three years behind in reading levels. I immediately told Nick that I had an extra copy of Artemis Fowl and that I would talk to his advisory teacher to see if we could have the boys meet in my room once a week. Nick was so excited about our plan that he brought his two friends–with the Artemis Fowl book in tow–to my room at the end of the day. Within a few minutes, I had a group of boys reading aloud to each other and giving different voices to each character. What was unique about this set-up is that Nick, the avid reader, was actively supporting and encouraging his friends who are lower level readers.
While it is not always possible to bring a group of self-motivated boys together to read a story, I do think that my conversation with Nick reveals a few important points. First, it is important for us teachers to offer an array of books; kids need to feel empowered to choose a book that is interesting to them. Next, it is essential that these kids feel successful while reading the book on their own. For instance, when Nick read Artemis Fowl aloud with his friends, he used his skills as a fluent reader to help his peers sound out difficult words and add expression to their voices. Even though Nick’s friends are considered to be struggling readers, they felt successful because a peer was showing them “the ropes” of reading, so to say. I hope to continue to facilitate Nick and his friends reading of Artemis Fowl this quarter, and plan to post updates on how this group of boys progresses. If all goes well, I would like to implement a similar peer reading group among my own struggling readers!