So then imagine my inner turmoil after this recent visit to a second grade classroom. The teacher is conferring with a student at the back table while all the other students are spread out around the room. I bypass the kid closest to the door and sit next to, let’s call her Kayla, who has her feet comfortably propped up on her desk as she reads a graphic novel version of Captain Underpants. “How’s it going?” I ask. “Can you read me a little bit of your book?”
Kayla glances at the book. “Well, I can’t really read the words. I just tell what’s happening from the pictures.”
“Let’s give it a try,” I tell her enthusiastically. “Maybe I can help you with the hard words.” Kayla proceeds to labor through three frames of the text, needing help with many of the words.
“Hmmmm,” I mention after having helped her with supposed and joke. “I’m thinking this book might not be a just right book for you yet. That doesn’t mean it won’t be later, but we probably need to find some books that are a better fit for you.”
Kayla begins to cry. “But I want to read chapter books like the other kids are doing!” she says. “That’s my best friend over there,” she gestures towards a girl reading a Magic Treehouse book, “and she’s reading a chapter book and I want to read one too!” Her voice is starting to get louder.
“Not everyone reads the same kinds of books at the same time, and that’s ok,” I tell her, but she buries her head in her arms and begins to cry loudly. “Let’s try reading one of these other books you have in your bag,” I say as I pull out two books labeled as level 10 texts and then Ralph S. Mouse, which I quickly set to the side.
“Those are baby books! They’re too easy! My auntie says I have to read chapter books to get to be a better reader,” Kayla cries.
“Why don’t you show me how easy they are?” I ask, and I pull out Cookie’s Week and open to the first page. Sure enough, she reads smoothly and accurately, though she substitutes “windshield” for “windowsill” and doesn’t want to hear about that error.
“I want to read chapter books like the others! I don’t want everyone to know I can’t read!” she wails loudly enough for everyone in the class to hear. At this point a blonde girl nearby brings her another leveled reader that apparently Kayla had been reading yesterday. Not helpful. It’s not a chapter book.
“How about this?” I whisper, “What if I can find some books for you that are chapter books that you CAN read? Will you come to the media center with me to find those books?” I’m wracking my brain trying to think of a low-level chapter book – maybe Nate the Great? Ivy and Bean? Did we buy some Hi-Lo books for 3rd and 4th grade last year?
It doesn’t matter, because Kayla has completely fallen apart, wailing loudly, bottom lip quivering, hiccupping and gasping for air. Her teacher mouths, “I’m sorry!” to me, shaking her head. Apparently I’m fighting an old battle and have opened up old wounds.
“Why did you come in here?” Kayla wails loudly, “Everything was fine until you got here!”
I feel for Kayla. She was not at all shy about her dilemma – she’s very aware that she’s reading at a level lower than the others, and it’s breaking her heart. She has a vested interest in keeping up appearances, and that involves holding thicker books during reading time and being able to tell her friends that she reads chapter books. If I want to ensure she makes progress this year, this is a critical moment in her reading life. I need to find her books that look hard but are easy to decode.
I quickly walk down the hall and burst into the media center. Fortunately, it’s empty. “I have a reading emergency!” I announce to the media clerk. “Where are your Nate the Great or similar books?” She quickly directs me to the early chapter books and we find a few – Owl Diaries, which might be a bit on the high side, but is a graphic book with heavy picture support; Unicorn and Yeti, an even easier graphic book with three chapters; and two more books with heavy picture support, fairly simple sentence structure, and most importantly - chapters.
I run back to Kayla’s class, where she is still crumpled on her desk, crying quietly while everyone else sits on the rug for writing time. After some coaxing, I convince her to come to a back corner of the room to look at the books I’ve brought. “Are they chapter books?” is the first thing she asks, so we flip through each, looking at the tables of contents and chapter headings. Instantly, her tears dry up.
“Let’s read a few pages of one of these – which one would you like to try?” I ask. Quietly, she chooses Unicorn and Yeti and then she literally crawls into my lap, dries her tears, and begins to read. She still needs some help, and we study the pictures a good deal to understand the context, but after reading four pages, she is beaming. “Thank you!” she whispers.
Later that day as I see her class on their way to lunch she breaks out of line and runs up to me. “I read more of those books you got me! I’m taking them home to my auntie to show her I can read chapter books!”
At the time, I didn’t realize quite what had happened for Kayla. Honestly, for a while there, I thought I’d broken her. There’s nothing quite like a wailing, blubbering reader to make you feel like a conference failure.
But all Kayla wanted is what we all want – to be loved by our friends, which to her meant fitting in by reading the same types of books they had. As a teacher, our jobs are to meet kids where they are while simultaneously helping them with the emotional baggage that comes with being a struggling reader. Thankfully, there are texts that can help with this. But it’s also important to realize that without Kayla’s buy-in and emotional confidence, nothing I said to her about reading strategies would stick. She needs first to feel like she belongs, that she’s in a safe zone with her peers. Once she has that comfort, we’ll be able to work on cracking the nut of finding the skills and strategies she needs as a reader.