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When Are 'Just Right Books' Just Right?

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I recently came across an interesting blog post that questions the theory behind "just right books"—books that meet students at their instructional reading level, thus, in theory, encouraging them to become stronger, better readers.

Written by Kathleen Porter-Magee, the Bernard Lee Schwartz policy fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the post focuses on research from Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Diane Lapp in their new book, Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading (International Reading Association, 2012) which, she says, argues that having students focus on "just right" books could actually be undermining their learning in three fundamental ways: the books make reading too easy for students, the theory overlooks the role instruction should play in improving comprehension and building knowledge, and the theory causes teachers to focus on teaching skills in isolation rather than on teaching students to react appropriately to challenging texts.

I found her post particularly thought provoking in light of a column by Justin Minkel that the Teacher Leaders Network recently posted on Education Week Teacher that focused on improving students' reading. The column continues the conversation about the importance of accessible libraries for students and details a project Mr. Minkel was involved with to increase the reading fluency of at-risk readers by providing them with a home library of 40 books that they could read, and re-read. The project was a success and Mr. Minkel saw significant growth in his students' reading abilities, as other educators have seen with similar efforts.

Over the course of two years, Mr. Minkel was able to stock his students' home libraries with books at a range of levels, from Maurice Sendak's well-known picture book Where the Wild Things Are, to Percy Jackson's young-adult fantasy adventure novel The Lightning Thief. As Mr. Minkel writes:

Students' fluency improved because the children could engage in repeated readings of favorite "just right" books, and parents reported increased time spent reading at home during weekends, holidays, and summer break.
The only incentive for this increase in reading time was intrinsic: the pleasure each child felt in reading his or her own book, beloved as a favorite stuffed animal.

I'm curious about what all of you think: In your opinion, when are "just right" books the right call to make? Or does the idea counter good reading practice?

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