Sliding in between student desks I glanced over small shoulders, peeking at the pages they were engrossed in. I wandered around, enjoying the quiet classroom and the busy, noisy brains hard at work during our Reading Workshop. Just as I was about to invite a student up to my desk for a reading conference, I spotted him. An earnest young man pouring over the pages of the massive book, How Things Work, by David Macaulay. My heart went out to him since I knew that 1) the book was far above his reading level and he most likely did not understand what he was reading, and 2) that he loved non-fiction books about machines and had probably been excited to choose the book.
During my years teaching 4th grade, I encountered this scenario many times. My students who struggled with reading often picked books far above their reading levels. As much as I disliked telling a student they couldn’t keep a book in their reading box, I knew it was important for them to practice reading on their own at an independent reading level, meaning a book they can read with 95% accuracy.
“Fluency (reading words smoothly and accurately) is important because it provides a bridge between word recognition and comprehension. Because fluent readers do not have to concentrate on decoding the words, they can focus their attention on what the text means.” – From “Reading Interventions: Fluency”.
As a teacher, I wanted to help my students to choose books for independent reading that they could read fluently on their own, but I did not want to squash their enthusiasm or make them feel embarrassed. Thus, I started a routine I called “desk books”.
Desk books were kept in the student’s desk and were separate from the books kept in student reading boxes. Everyone had a desk book. Reading boxes had rules (only books at a student’s reading level were allowed) but desk books were blessedly free from rules. Desk books could be any book the student was interested in, at any reading level and for any reason. This gave the students and I a lot more freedom in the way we talked about who could read what. Instead of, “You can’t read that, it’s not at your reading level.”, I could say, “Hmmm…this seems a bit tricky for you. How about you keep it as a desk book and we’ll choose another book for your reading box?”
This routine was empowering for all my readers. During Reader’s Workshop students read only from their reading boxes, ensuring that they spent the most time with independent level books, but at other quick reading times, desk books reigned supreme. Struggling readers had the opportunity to choose any book in the classroom library, quite a wonderful thing when usually confined to a narrow section. They could choose a book they found fascinating or could even try to read the popular series that half the class was buzzing about. Most importantly for some, their peers would see them reading bigger, harder books. Surprisingly, desk books also gave more choice to my more advanced readers who wanted an easier book because they loved the story or a break from more challenging work.
Desk books were also a wonderful management routine. Desk books, as aptly named, were in the desks, right at the students’ fingertips. We used desk books for quick quiet moments, like reading for a few minutes to settle down after lunch, as a quiet way to transition from one subject to another, or when a student was done with regular work and had a little extra time. If I misplaced my teacher manual or the stack of math practice papers I could say, “Desk books out” and continue my search in a relatively quiet classroom. We also packed in 10-20 extra reading minutes a day, slipping more learning into the often-unused moments of a school day.
There were a few guidelines for desk books to help things run smoothly. Students could have up to two desk books and could switch them out if something more interesting came along. New desk books could only be chosen first thing in the morning or at the end of the day in order to avoid having wanderers searching for the library for a new one instead of reading. Students who forgot to switch desk books during allotted times had to re-read the one they had in their desk or borrow one from someone at their table group.
As I squatted down next to the possible budding engineer, he looked up at me and set down the heavy volume. Because of previous conversations he knew what I was thinking. “Oh,” he said, “I forgot. I should read this during desk book time, right?” I nodded, and he quickly slipped the book into his desk and grabbed another from his reading box. He settled in to work with a more appropriate level story without too much fuss, knowing he would still get to read his fascinating book later on.
Audrey Bon, A.B.Ed.
Audrey is a tutor at Brainspring Learning Center in Plymouth.
“Independent Reading”, Spear-Swerlinghttp, Louise. <www.readingrockets.org/article/independent-reading>.
“Leveled reading: The making of a literacy myth”, Pondiscio, Robert, 2014. <https://edexcellence.net/articles/leveled-reading-the-making-of-a-literacy-myth
“Reading Interventions: Fluency”, Educational Service Unit #1. <http://www.esu1.org/SPED/RtI-readfluency.html>