Author: Laura Robb

The Reading Teacher – Choosing “Just Right” Books

Is there a perfect or best way for students to select an independent reading book? I don’t think so. Since I’ve been teaching, the five-finger method is a strategy that teachers pass on to students. This technique asks a student to read 100 words and if there are five the student can’t say and/or understand, they look for a different book. I am not a fan of the five-finger method. Having difficulty with five words per one hundred words can be problematic for students with fluency issues. For me, there’s no one method of selecting a book that students use. It’s all about relationships that enable you to offer guidance that resonates with each child and meets that child’s needs.

I wish I could offer you one or two methods that always work. I can’t. My teaching head believes that for students to enjoy an independent reading book, it should be close to 100% accuracy. However, my students have taught me that exceptions to this belief abound! Take Marta, a third grade student who was instructionally on grade level. She checked out The Wizard of Oz on a visit to the library. Definitely, far above her instructional level, so I asked Marta, “Tell me why you want to read it.”

“I’ve seen the movie three times. I really want to read the book.”

“You certainly have a lot of background knowledge, “ I said. “Try it. Know that you might have to reread parts.” A happy Marta skipped to the computer to check out her book. Marta read The Wizard of Oz three times. “The second to get it [the story] better. The third ‘cause I could really read it.” Marta shows us that choosing books is more complicated than we thought. Here are five suggestions to guide you.

  1.    Have students share what they want to read with you. Go to library period with your students and be there to suggest books, to hear why they “must” read a book. Invite students to run by you books they select from your classroom library.
  2.    Offer alternatives. Avoid taking a book away from a student. Instead, suggest two alternatives just in case they want to switch. Abandoning a book should be a student’s choice.
  3.    Listen to students’ reasons. Always ask “why” and listen. What the student says can support your suggestions. If you’re unsure, let the student try the book and explain that it’s okay to abandon it.
  4.    Adopt book talking. Each month, invite students to book talk a favorite independent reading book. Spread these over two days. Just imagine, a class of twenty-five students will hear 250 book talks in ten months. They’ll discover many books that interest them—books they choose to read based on peer recommendation.
  5.    Approve of abandoning a book. When I was in school, I had to finish a book, even if I disliked it. The idea was that I’d learn the discipline of completing what I had started. That doesn’t work. It creates anger and intense dislike—two emotions you don’t want student to associate with reading. When a student abandons a book, I like them to tell me why, only because I’m interested in what causes this decision.


Your advanced and proficient readers have learned, through experience, how to select a book to enjoy. However, English language learners and students reading below grade level benefit from your support. So say “good-bye” to strategies that don’t work for them, including the five-finger method. Instead, take the time to deepen your relationships with students by supporting their independent reading choices! With practice, they’ll figure out how to choose, but also know it’s okay if they recognize the book is not for them YET and find another.  One day, if the student still wants to read it, he or she will.

Learn more about Laura’s ideas on reading- check out- Teaching Reading in Middle School

The Reading Teacher – Is Choice Enough?

Recently I asked Laura to share some reading teacher wisdom on a question I often hear. When students choose books they want to read, is that enough to ensure they become lifetime readers?

Enjoy Laura’s response.

I view that as the first step in their journey. Choice means the book interests the student. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that students have selected a book they can actually read. Choice is a start—albeit an excellent start. But students need more than choice if they are going to want to read during free time at school and at home.  Transforming students who avoid reading, who fake read, has to do with head and heart!


When a book affects a student’s head and heart, a metamorphosis can occur. The book might change the reader’s thinking about a topic. The story might raise awareness of new feelings about a situation, a character, or person. A book has the power to transform the reader by heightening self-awareness.


During independent reading in an eighth-grade class, I heard a student sob.I looked up from the conference I was having.  Then Kira shouted, “You can’t do that! You just hurt Gilly so much.” Kira was reacting to Courtney, Gilly’s mother, returning to San Francisco and not staying with Gilly. That hit Kira in the gut. Her best friend’s mom had recently left. At that moment, I knew I couldn’t continue the conference. Kira needed me. I had to be there for her. Gently, I told Ben we would finish our conference later, and he could find a comfortable place to read. I bent down next to Kira and asked if she wanted to talk. She nodded and followed me out the door. Tears poured down her cheeks. “I felt so bad for Gilly,” she said. “I know why she never lasts at a foster home. She wants her mom.”


Like Kira, we want readers to feel the story, live life as if they are the character or person and leave the text changed.  So, the big question is, What can teachers do to make reading a transforming experience for students?  To help students experience the emotional and/or intellectual changeover that reading can bring about, teachers need to set aside time for students to read at school. Try reserving 20 to 30 minutes of independent reading time two to three times a week. When students read at school, they come to see how much their teacher values reading, and the habit can eventually become a treasured experience. In addition, include the experiences that follow–I can’t say enough how important each one is.


Put Books at the Center. Read aloud every day from books you love, you enjoy. Your passion for the book will spill over to your students. Cry. Laugh. Express your anger. This shows students the deep feelings books can arouse, and you give them the right to have similar feelings when they read. Encourage students to share books by book talking in class or through an online blog. Show students a book you’re currently reading and tell them why it’s compelling.

Provide time for students to sit back and reflect. Think about the time you closed a book and could hardly breathe. You needed time to relive some parts, to reread some pages, and just think about a character and what happened. This reflection is a key part of bonding students to books and reading. The text lingers, and the desire to keep what has happened in our minds stirs the enjoyment and pleasure readers feel. Reflection supports reading far more than answering ten questions or writing a summary.  

Make reading social. Students, like you and me, don’t want to answer ten questions about a book or write chapter summaries. They want to talk, to share parts that touched their hearts, to tell a classmate why he or she “must read the book.” The benefits of putting book talks online is that students can return to and reread posts that reveal what their classmates are reading. They can pose questions, write comments, and recommend other books about a similar topic, genre, or by a favorite author.  Encourage student-led discussions about books with a partner or small group.

Become a coach and a cheerleader. Coach reluctant readers by showing them how to find books they can read and want to read, who have difficulty decoding, or making meaning by connecting a text to their experiences. But, also make sure you’re their cheerleader, pointing out progress in a conversation, or even better, in a handwritten note that they can reread.

Suggest books to them, but always respect their choices.

Closing Reflection

When choice works in concert with the four elements, there’s a solid chance that the book will affect students’ minds and hearts. The hope is that students will want to revisit these thoughts and feelings and choose a new book.  We teachers need to find ways to help students experience reading as a transformational experience.

Enjoy this great book by Laura: Differentiating Reading Instruction: How to Teach Reading to Meet the Needs of Each Student

Laura’s August Letter to Teachers

Dear Teachers,

The weeks leading up to the opening of school are my favorite.  I’d spend hours in my classroom adding new books and magazines to the library. I’d stack readers’ notebooks on shelves and place students’ writing folders in plastic crates. I’d meet new teachers and chat with friends.

Each year, before students arrived, I’d reflect on the past year and challenge myself to make changes that supported students.  During the first two weeks of school, when I spent time getting to know students and establishing workshop routines, I would share my reflections with them. I wanted them to weigh in on these changes, suggest ways to improve them and offer new ideas.

One year I told eighth-grade students that I wanted to set up a quiet place where students could read and work undisturbed; a corner space for collaboration; a table for student-to-student conferences. When I shared my ideas, they liked them, but they suggested something I hadn’t thought of—an idea that showed me the importance of collecting feedback from students. They encouraged me to keep the quiet place, but to be open to changing the setup of the room based on what they were doing.  With their help, I shifted from a static classroom to one that changed based on what students were doing.

As you start the school year, I invite you to consider whether your classroom reflects how students learn. You might think about shifts in room arrangement, the kinds of feedback you offer students, and they, in turn, offer you. In addition, consider inviting students to create guidelines for independent and group work. Shifts are challenging, but with the support of your principal and students, you can initiate changes that positively impact students’ learning.  I encourage you to embrace change and develop a student-centered approach to learning.

Wishing you an exciting and productive school year!



The Reading Teacher –  Bid Farewell to “I Hate Reading”


“Why do you read?” is a question I’ve asked countless students. Responses run the gamut from a third grader writing, “Because I live in the country and books are fun,” to a fifth grader noting, “Because I love to meet people,” to an eighth grader’s honest reply, “Can’t say. I don’t read.”

These student responses represent the range of attitudes toward reading teachers find in a heterogeneous class. When students tell you “I don’t read” or ‘I hate reading” or “No one can make me read.” Ask them why. Even though many will shrug their shoulders and say nothing, keep asking, as they know. Here are some reasons that students have shared with me:

“It takes too long to finish a book.”

“I can’t read a lot of the words.”

“I can’t find a book I like.”


“I say the words. I don’t get anything.”

“ Never passed a reading test.”

“ Hate the assigned book.”

“No choice.”

“ Do more worksheets than reading.”

        When students are honest, they show us why they have negative feelings toward reading. They also show us what they need to turn negative outlooks into positive ones.  It won’t happen in few weeks. You might not see the change over the year you work with them. One eighth-grade girl, Katy, taught me that changeovers take time. In her junior year of high school, she wrote to me: ”Remember, me. You try to influence me to read, but I hate reading. Now, I read all the time.” Forget about quick payoffs for your work, but believe it will happen.

Help students understand that the jobs available to them in the future require outstanding reading and writing ability. But even more important, help them experience the joy and power of a personal reading life.

Suggestions for Turning Students Into Readers

        The list of tips that follow can draw students into the world of books. In addition, you want to have continual conversations with them to assess their outlook and listen to and make use their comments to plan positive interventions. Avoid lecturing; always praise students for their honesty. Celebrate progress with meaningful comments. Occasionally, write a note to the student pointing out growth and progress.

Seven Tips for Building Students’ Love of Reading

Choice. Let students choose their reading materials. Let them abandon a book if it doesn’t resonate with them. I have a quick conference with students who abandon a book to find out why. The “why” offers insights into what they do and don’t enjoy.

Read aloud every day and introduce students to a wide-range of literary genres. Read those texts you love, as your passion will rub off on students. Reading aloud also builds students’ listening capacity, vocabulary, and their experiences with literary language.

Differentiation. For instructional reading, make sure students are in texts at their instructional reading level.

Independent reading should happen at school for 20 to 30 minutes at least three times a week. Doing this shows how much you value reading, but it also offers you opportunities to support reluctant readers. Encourage students to read at home by inviting them to read for 30 minutes each night. They can log the titles and authors of completed books on a simple form.

Class libraries. Build class libraries as access to books is key for inspiring students to read and love it!  Organize books by genre—suspense, mystery, realistic fiction, biography, etc.—and include a range of reading levels.

Book talk. When new additions arrive, share them with students by showing them the cover, reading the description on the back cover, or the first page. Doing this shows how much you value books and reading and also provides students with many choices.

All subjects. Every teacher needs a classroom library because students should have access to books in all subjects—even physical education!  When students observe that reading matters, that reading is important in all subjects, they can begin to view reading as an important and meaningful part of their lives.


Be persistent. Find out why a student hates reading. What they reveal will enable you to plan interventions that can bring them to the reading life.

Check out Teaching Reading in Middle School By Laura Robb- It’s an amazing book!