Reading at “grade level”

A question I get asked often is “Do you have any books for my (insert grade)-er’s level?” I know this is a well-intentioned query from parents and caregivers looking for the right material for their charges, but the question still makes me chuckle just a little.

Schools work hard to ensure that students are up to “grade level” and the education powers that be have many safeguards in place to catch those kids who need a little extra help. While this is designed to make sure no one gets left behind in their education, it’s a situation where one size does not fit all. I like to think that every person – every person – is just one magical book away from being a super-reader. All it takes is one transformative book to completely change the outlook towards reading. We can use this same benchmark for just about anything – for instance, I am probably one delicious entrée composed entirely of Brussel sprouts away from being a fan of Brussel sprouts. Unfortunately, I haven’t met that entrée yet, though I’m still open to finding it.

I like to frame reading in the same context. Emerging and reluctant readers can be hard to connect with their right-size books. Many times parents will steer kids away from a book the kids want to read, in favor of a book the kids should read. Unfortunately this can lead to reluctance to read; the opposite of what we want to see.

Think of it this way: as an adult, how many times have you said to yourself “I really want to read this hot new bestseller, but it is below my reading level so I’m going to read War and Peace instead.” I’m going to hazard a guess that exactly no adult has ever thought this (I know I haven’t). What we are telling kids when we deny a book choice over something more “appropriate,” is roughly the same message, but it comes with a bigger cost: to our kids, it sounds discouraging. Likewise, we are sending the message that reading has to be painful in order to count.

I prefer to encourage, and allow, kids to read what they like. Even if it isn’t at grade level, even if I can’t stand the series, and even if they’ve already read it. My thought is that by encouraging reading for enjoyment, we will build confidence where there once was reluctance. Once the enjoyment of reading has been established, it’s easier to convince kids to read what they “should” be reading. It’s a matter of confidence, something adults can relate to as well. When we feel confident in our skill set, we are more likely to step outside of that comfort zone to try new things. Emerging readers need that same freedom to become super-readers.

The next time you are faced with a child’s reluctance to read what they are supposed to be reading, give them an opportunity to read something they want to read. It might take a little while to create the intended effect, but you will eventually find that your children will be more excited about reading, and your task as parent-educator will be just a little easier.


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