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Finding Your Reading Identity

May 18, 2020

By: Elizabeth Kelsey, Kendall Hunt RPD Intern

In the school library, students may wander the shelves aimlessly, pulling books at random, only to return them unread or unfinished because the difficulty, the subject matter, or the writing style simply wasn’t a good match. Not every book is for everyone, but it’s hard to know what you’ll like at first glance … especially if you don’t want to judge the book by its cover (which you shouldn’t, of course).

One way to improve students’ confidence in choosing books they’ll love is to help them discover their reading identity. By analyzing their reading habits and asking themselves the following two simple questions, they’ll better understand themselves as readers, leading to fewer book disappointments.

Question 1: What do you like? (or, why do you PICK books?)

Reading specialist and library consultant Amy Mascott offers a simple acronym to teach students the art of book selection: PICK, which stands for purpose, interest, comprehension, and know the words. This process helps students choose “just-right” books, which teacher Melissa Taylor describes as those that “[stretch] the child just a bit—not so much as to make him frustrated but enough to continue his growth as a reader.” Books selected using PICK will ideally engage children and challenge them without inducing frustration.

The final two criteria (comprehension and know the words) focus on assessing the book’s difficulty level, associated with the ever-popular five-finger test. Students hold up one finger for each word on the page they don’t know, with the sweet spot being 2–4 unknown words.

But the reading level of the book is only part of the reading identity. Although we divide students into reading groups and track whether they’re reading at grade level, when it comes time to choose their own books, they need more guidance than “I read at the fourth-grade level.” That’s why the first two letters in this acronym are so important. The students’ purpose for reading the book (pleasure, requirement, research, etc.) points them in the right direction in terms of writing style and length, whereas their interest can help narrow down the topic. With this kind of metacognition and thinking about their own reading preferences, students can begin forming their reading identity.

Question 2: What don’t you like? (or, what books do you abandon?)

What you really dislike is as important as what you really love. If students try a certain author, writing style, or topic, only to discover they honestly don’t like it, allow them to articulate that—and to abandon the book. Forcing students to complete every book, even the ones they despise, creates “anger and intense dislike,” according to author and teacher Laura Robb. By allowing students to abandon books, and even sharing stories of the times we’ve done the same, former elementary teacher Nicole Clevenger says we show them that “abandoning books is an authentic reading behavior.”

But beyond that, by allowing students to abandon books and encouraging them to keep a list of the ones that they have abandoned, students have a running record of what they don’t like. Certainly, this doesn’t mean that they should avoid that topic or that book forever or that they could never read at that level. It just offers them a way to see what’s challenged them or what failed to spark their interest at this point in their lives, and if they’re ready to return to it in the future, they can do so. Meanwhile, the more they know about what they didn’t want to finish, the less likely they are to start another book in the same mold … and the less likely they are to be disappointed and abandon it. Success!

Of course, this doesn’t give students license to abandon every book, nor does it mean that they should only pick books about topics they love. The purpose of knowing your reading identity isn’t to form a box of your “likes” from which you never stray. On the contrary, knowing your reading identity gives you the power to expand it and experience the satisfaction of trying—and liking—something new.

What is your reading identity, and how can you expand it?