I've always thought of guiding kids toward the right books as something of an art. Knowing the right book to spark a kids' interests or expand their world is a powerful thing. Some teachers, librarians and parents know just how to lay their hand on the perfect book.
For emerging or struggling readers, it may be that there is more science and less art to it than I thought. I had the chance to attend a workshop with Dr. Ilda King last week. Dr. King consults with school districts all over Massachusetts and evaluates struggling readers and makes plans to help them. Some kids will need focused tutoring like Orton-Gillingham or Wilson but many kids benefit from what she calls "Systematic Guided Reading." Most of the people who are implementing her plans in schools are paraprofessionals or volunteers. There's nothing very unusual that happens when one of these tutors sits down with a student. For the most part, the child reads and the tutors gives one of several prompts to help the kids through the tough places. (I'll write about how to respond to errors in another post.)
The magic mostly comes in the picking of a selection of books for the student to read. Here's the basic idea: (there was supposed to be a diagram here, but that seems to be beyond my technological abilities at the moment--but picture a pyramid.)
Kids should be reading lots of books. Dr. King says 60 in a school year for 4th and 5th graders. I'd put it higher than that for homeschoolers, because we have the time. At any given time, the student should have a bin or basket with 7-8 books. Most of the books should be really quite easy for the student-- they should be able to read with 97 or 98% accuracy. (These easy books are base of the pyramid.) Students benefit from repeated readings of these books to read fluently. Repeated readings of easy texts have been shown to be the greatest builder of fluency. I'll write more about the different scales used to determine readability and how to use them at a later date.
The books that they are reading with an adult can be a little harder, with slightly more complex sentence structure and slightly harder vocabulary. (Maybe 1 or 2 of these for every 5 or 6 of the easy ones.) It should still be a happy experience to read this text . The adult mentor can allow 2 or 3 attempts at a word and then just supply the word without comment. (I will introduce and pronounce the characters' names before we start a chapter. There are more "rule breakers" and foreign pronunciations in names than in almost anything else.)
Every once in while, suggest a book that is a real reach. (Maybe after 5 or 6 really easy books and 1 or 2 slightly harder ones.) A kid's non-fiction interests are the perfect way to do this. Non-fiction tends to have more unfamiliar vocabulary and it's perfectly okay not to read the whole book. If you have a new car and you want to know how to set the clock, you don't necessarily make yourself read the whole manual. Kids are no different. It's perfectly fine to read just for information sometimes.
The most important thing I took away from the workshop with Dr. King was essentially this: we need to give our kids permission to use books the same way adult readers do. We don't pick a chemistry text or Nietzche for our pleasure reading. A lot of what we read is easy for us, containing the same plots and characters as the books we have read before. Sometimes we read just for information. We take what we need and leave the rest for another day. Kids can and should do this, too.