By Christina Nosek
Like many of you, in my fifth grade multiple subject, self contained classroom, reading is our number one priority. In addition to our afternoon reading workshop, we focus on reading in multiple ways throughout our day and week. Since August, we have engaged in daily independent, choice reading as students start arriving each morning. Ever since I learned of this practice, soft starts, from Sara Ahmed and Smokey Daniels in Upstanders, I’ve never looked back. Along with our reading soft starts, we also engage in daily book talks, keep track of our reading with book stack photos, have discussion around books, write book recommendations, and offer picture book & novel read alouds in which we often draw connections to our independent reading. Every single day, we are living a reading lifestyle in the classroom.
However, even though we are prioritizing reading, trouble still arises. This past week, after a couple days of observation, conferring with students during independent reading time, and analyzing book stack photos for trends, I realized a few of my students have actually fallen into a reading rut. Whether a student was hopping from book to book without commitment, rereading the same exact book over and over, or simply not picking up a book to read at all, I knew something had to be done.
I immediately recognized these different ruts because as an adult reader, I have experienced all of them myself at one time or another…
Hopping from One Book to Another
After a couple days of observation from a distance, I noticed that Minh held a different novel in his hands while his eyes often roamed the room during every independent reading time. I’ve always been one to read multiple books at a time, but flipping through five different fantasy novels in a two day period without settling in to one equates to a rut of sorts. At first, I wanted to see if Minh would find his own way out of the rut, but eventually I knew he needed support.
Reading the Same Book Over and Over
During a conference later that day, Elsa wearily told me that she was rereading a certain book for the third time because she just didn’t think she would love a new book in the same way. She was just not willing to give a new book a chance. I completely understand that thought. When I finished Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind a few months ago, I found that I had the same feeling. I was overcome with sadness when I realized I was no longer able to look forward to immersing myself info Ruiz Zafon’s 1945 Barcelona. My deep love for one book prevented me from seeking out another. Finding a new book that I would equally love was just an unthinkable thought. So, when Elsa professed her love of this one particular book and hesitation to read anything else, I knew she had fallen into a rut and needed help to find her way out.
Having a Hard Time Picking a Book
Once I ended my conference with Elsa, I noticed Alex was spending quite a bit of time in the classroom library pulling a book off the shelf, flipping through a few pages, gently placing it back on the shelf, and then repeating the process over and over. Watching him go through this process reminded me of myself as a young reader. For years, I was a student who would just not pick up a book. Similar to my current student, I knew how to read, always scored well on every single measure of reading at the time, and loved hearing stories read aloud. However, I was just not interested in independently reading on my own. Teachers would give me books and tell me to “just read this one,” but that never worked. Each time the teacher wandered off, so did my mind, away from the book forced on me. Back then, I needed a special kind of support to fall in love with a book, and I knew Alex needed that same kind of special care.
Falling into a rut is actually not uncommon for many readers. Rather than telling students what to read, calling for an outside intervention, or throwing my hands in the air in frustration, I knew the most effective way to address these reading ruts was to problem solve- and, not to problem solve for my students, but to do so with them. So, I set off to tackle the reading rut alongside my students.
While I firmly believe that sitting down side by side with a student to confer is the most effective way to problem solve, because a few students in my class had fallen into a rut while many others had found consistent success in sustaining reading during our independent reading time, I thought it might be helpful to start with a mini lesson enlisting the support of my readers who were happily settling in with a good book each day. As we sat down for the mini lesson that day, students’ eyes and minds fell on the chart seen here. A few started whispering to each other, heads began nodding, and one even stated, “Oh good! I really need this today!” before we started.
After my readers read the phrases on the chart, I asked them to raise their hands if they either can relate or have ever experienced anything like this before. Slowly, one reader raised a hand. Then another. And another. Since I am a part of our reading community, I raised my hand as well. Eventually, all hands in class ended up in the air. I continued the session.
“Fifth graders, as you can see, falling into a reading rut is a normal part of being a reader.” I went on to explain that when we find ourselves in a rut, one way to help ourselves come out of it is to problem solve. Sometimes we can problem solve on our own, while other times, we need to turn to a fellow reader to help us get through it. And, what works for one reader, might not work for another. Sometimes, we have to try multiple strategies to help work our way out of a reading rut.
I then turned the lesson over to my class. I asked students to share what they had done in the past to overcome a reading rut. So many great suggestions were offered.
“I came out of a rut once by thinking about a book I read and really liked, and then decided to read another one from the same author.”
“I did the opposite! I decided to shake it up and try something completely new! I actually found a new series I loved when I did that.”
“When I’m not sure what to read, I look at our class recommendation board. That is always so helpful. I actually found my current book that way”
Idea after idea from students just kept coming in. Once the lesson ended, and students were invited to go off to try some of these new ideas to overcome their ruts, even more notes with ideas from students were added to the chart.
Before I settled in to confer for the period, I stood back and just observed. I was interested to see what students would do on their own without my intervention. As students started slowly settling in to read on the bean bags or cozy up with a book at their tables, I noticed that Minh started conferring on his own with another reader. As I listened in, I heard the two students problem solving together to help Minh find his way out of a rut. So, I decided to move on to confer with another student.
I sat down on the floor next to Elsa, my reader who had a hard time letting go of her recent beloved book. Her beloved book was sitting next to her on top of her reader’s notebook while she was reading the preview blurb on the back of another book. “May I join you?” I asked.
“Sure. I’m thinking I might try out this book. Lenny recommended it, and she and I usually like the same books, so I’m going to give it a try. The back sounds really interesting”
I smiled, gave her a nod, and affirmed her decision to seek out advice from a friend to try to move herself forward as a reader. Then, I turned my attention to Alex.
Alex still found himself in the classroom library going through the ineffective process of pulling a book off the shelf, flipping through a few pages, gently placing the book back on the shelf, and then repeating the process.
“Hey Alex, how’s it going?” Alex looked up at me, slowly shook his head, and said, “I think I’ve tried everything. I still can’t find a book.”
What Alex didn’t yet know, and what I hadn’t yet offered was that earlier that day, I spent a few minutes gathering a preview stack for Alex to peruse. I first learned about this idea in Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild. Offering a student a preview stack of books that reflects their interests is a strategy that I have called upon many times in the past. I offer the stack based on a student’s interest, and the student now has a more curated selection of books from which to choose.
So, I invited Alex to walk over to the back counter where the stack was sitting. Directly taking a line I once heard Donalyn Miller say at a conference, I picked up the stack, looked at Alex, and said, “These books made me think of you.”
Alex took the book stack, and after a little more conversation about each book, he found a comfortable spot, picked up the first book in the stack, and started his preview.
Like adult readers, student readers find themselves in ruts from time to time for different reasons. To find a way out of the rut, what works for one reader may not work for another.
The important thing to keep in mind is that working out of a rut is usually not a one-time fix it kind of situation. It’s an ongoing process. Sometimes, all it takes is a problem solving conversation. Other times, it takes much more. Did my readers work their way out of their ruts? I’ll find out next week when we’re back in class and go from there.
Ahmed, Sara K. and Harvey Daniels. 2015. Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Miller, Donalyn. 2013. Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
With a little over 20 years in education, Christina Nosek has worked as a special education instructional aide, classroom teacher, K-5 literacy coach, K-5 reading specialist, and staff developer. Along with Kari Yates, she is the coauthor of To Know and Nurture a Reader: Conferring with Confidence and Joy from Stenhouse Publishers and the Conferring with Readers Quick Reference Guide from NCTE. Christina currently spends her days as a fifth grade teacher and staff development provider in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can follow her education Tweets at @ChristinaNosek, classroom literacy stories on Instagram at @ChristinaBayArea, and longer thoughts on her blog at cnosekliteracy.com