Matching the Reader to the Book

8 May


four boys reading, from Google Images

four boys reading, from Google Images

My husband is an occasional, sometimes outright reluctant, reader.  If he doesn’t really love a book, he’d rather play on his iPhone or troll Reddit for random facts than read a longer text.  But recently, my dad recommended he read Brandon Sanderson’s epic fantasy, The Way of Kings, and he was hooked.  As he enthusiastically shared his thoughts about the novel, it occurred to me that he was doing exactly the kind of deep reading work I want my students to do.  Making connections between texts.  Noticing themes and symbols. And most importantly, reading every free moment he had.

My husband doesn’t need me to teach him phonics or comprehension strategies.  A basal reading program isn’t going to improve the quantity or quality of what he reads.  What he needs are thoughtful book recommendations from someone who knows him.  Those books are what make him a reader.

Reading teachers need to teach children how to read (phonics, word solving, fluency) and how to think as you read (comprehension strategies) but they also need to help children engage with texts.  Research tells us that one of the most important factors in making a child a better reader is the time they spend reading.  The difference in time spent reading between an expert reader and a struggling reader can be astonishing.  Guthrie (2004) has pointed out that the best readers spend about 500% more time engaged in reading than do the least proficient readers.*  And it makes sense.  Just like expert golf players and chess players spend thousands more hours reading than the average person, expert readers read far more.

However, you can’t make a child read.  You can make him sit in a desk, you can make him open a book, you can even make him turn the pages at set intervals so it looks like he’s reading, but at the end of the day, that’s not reading in any sort of sense that will increase achievement.  Children need to engage with a book purposefully, and for a lot of kids, it’s all about finding the right book.

The new Common Core State Standards have increased the emphasis on informational texts to 50% in elementary school and 70% in high school, which is probably good news for boys and engagement.  Reluctant readers (many of whom are male) are drawn in to informational books in a way they often are not with fiction.  It’s not uncommon to have a reluctant reader read one or two fiction books a month (a dismal amount when the books are only 69 pages each) but be able to recite an encyclopedic volume about dinosaurs, or WWII, or LeBron James.  With that knowledge comes high-level, domain specific vocabulary and fluency.

We can increase the amount that struggling readers read by providing series, like The Magic Treehouse and Harry Potter, whose familiar characters and set plot lines provide a wonderful support.    A wide variety of genres helps too.  Many a boy wouldn’t be caught dead with The Princess Fairy series, but he’ll dive into Goosebumps.

But most important is the careful recommendations by teachers and fellow students.  An enthusiastic book introduction, This book is so funny, I actually fell off my seat when I read it…and a careful link to the student, you’re the kind of reader who loves to learn about history, so I know you’ll love this one… encourages a reluctant reader to dive in with enthusiasm and engagement.  A short decodable text or excerpt from a scripted reading program won’t do that.


*  Guthrie, J.T. (2004). Teaching for literacy engagement. Journal of Literacy Research,

36(1), 1–28.


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