Variety, variety, variety. This is what we should be pushing students toward in independent reading--a broad range of genres and texts. Right?
Well--maybe not. In the last few years, I've come to appreciate the value of "narrow reading." (This article by Stephen Krashen is an excellent introduction to the term.) While narrow reading is often suggested for ELL students, I think it has great value for emergent and striving readers as well.
What is narrow reading? Consider the case of my youngest son. This year, every single book he has checked out from the library has been an animal nonfiction book. Every single one. As he has become a more confident first grade reader, he has found words and ideas that appear in every book--animal, baby, habitat, predator, prey. These words that show up again and again have become his cornerstones for decoding other unfamiliar words. His narrow reading is not at all limiting to him. In fact, it's empowering.
A student in my reading class has done something very similar. This year, he has read my entire collection of Horrible Harry books. "Harry's not quite so horrible in this book," he told me one day. He knows the characters and the settings of the books quite well, allowing him to allocate more mental resources to track the plot. (He tried a Secrets of Droon book today--I hope he likes it!) Another student, an ELL reader, has been working on The Spiderwick Chronicles since October. Yet another student has taken the fourth grade equivalent of Aidan's track, reading every animal book that I have in my classroom.
Narrow reading has a role in instruction, too. As I've been wrapping up text structure, we've been reading a series of related texts about vernal pools. These texts have different text structures, but show similar main ideas and vocabulary. This is so helpful for struggling readers, especially in the area of making inferences. Many students have trouble with making inferences because of a lack of background knowledge. When we read related texts, these students get the background knowledge they need about the topic.
As we were doing a repeated choral reading of "Salamander Crossing", I decided to ask an inference question based on the morning's science lesson.
"Do you think that mole salamanders are nocturnal, or diurnal?" I asked.
Because the text mentions mole salamanders migrating at night, the students were able to answer this fairly easily. But one student said thoughtfully, "Why are they nocturnal, I wonder?"
Another student--one who often struggles with answering multiple choice questions--blurted, "Because of moist." When we looked at him, he added, "You know, they have to stay moist. They're salamanders."
Those of you who work with struggling readers know that this is what we live for. Unprompted question, unprompted response, unprompted support for that response--these are the actions of real readers. In this case, our narrow reading gave these students the mental space to try out these more sophisticated reading strategies.
But now, as the ice melts and I start to think about going to look for salamander eggs in the vernal pools, our focus changes--from text structure to a return to fiction. Over the next few weeks, as state tests tromp through our days, we'll take a closer look at making inferences in fiction.