How To Prevent Kids From Being One-Hit-Wonder Readers

My daughter Emma hates to buy new shoes.  For the longest time this utterly baffled to me.  I love new shoes.  I love browsing the shoe aisles, picking up shoes, trying them on, and finally selecting the perfect pair.  But not Emma.  Emma resists even acknowledging me when I suggest that her well-worn sneakers are looking a bit shabby and we could go shoe shopping.  "I'm good," she says, over and over again.

Finally, I asked, "Emma?  Why don't you like new shoes?"

Her explanation reminds me of my classroom conversations with students who have just finished the first book they ever loved and now they're trying to get into a new one.

"They're so comfy right now," Emma explained, "I love the way they feel; they're perfect.  If I get new ones, they'll be all stiff and won't feel right. I'll have to break them in, and I hate that feeling.  These fit great so there's no point in getting new ones.  They won't be as good."

Back to the classroom.  I used to think the key to hooking kids who didn't see themselves as readers yet was finding the perfect book.  We're told that, right?  If a kid can find a book they love, they'll be a reader!  There's no such thing as a kid who hates reading; there are just kids who haven't found the right book yet!  While these ideas are most certainly true, what they fail to convey is that our newly passionate readers are going to need a lot of support beyond that first book.  And sometimes, they actually need more support on the second book than they did on that first one.

First book loves are like your first human love.  They're powerful, addicting, all-consuming.  You want to talk about them all the time.  You want to share with everyone you know.  You want to drop their name into conversations every chance you get.  You think no one else understands just how amazing this book is.  But first book love ends, often leaving the reader with heart-break or despair.  There will never be another as great as that.  Sigh.

This is why second book support is essential for these newly blossoming readers. A second good book is going to teach students that there truly are more fish in the sea. It will teach them that finding new books and settling into the story and characters is just part of the process of being a reader.  And it happens over and over again.

What many new readers do, however, as they start the second book is expect to feel right away exactly like they felt late in their first book.  This is like my daughter with her shoes.  She wants her new sneakers to feel as comfortable as the old, broken-in ones right away, forgetting that these beloved kicks were once stiff and new packed in a cardboard box too. New readers want to know and love the characters immediately, to feel into the story right away.  We have to help them see that the deep love they feel developed over the course of the book, that this stiff "new book feeling" is only temporary, and that this feeling is perfectly natural.

So what do we need to do as teachers who want to build life-long readers instead of one-hit-wonders?  Here are some ideas:

1.  Model:  First we need to explicitly talk about what it feels like to start a new book, especially after reading one we've loved.  I model (in my best sulky, whiny teenage way) how grumpy I can be at the beginning of a new book.  I model how confused I am, having to turn back pages and reread or look at the back cover because I don't even know these characters' names yet.  I show them all this - how lost I often feel.  And then I tell them why I persist, why it's worth to hang in there for several chapters or at least 50 pages (or 100 if it's a complex adult novel).

This modeling usually takes place right at the end of independent reading, in those 3 minutes where I grab my book and sit down to read.  It feels more natural to me to actually be starting a new book and to use facial expressions and sighs to let them see me working to get into this new book.

I also describe the curious feeling that grows inside me as I get my feet underneath me, when I start to figure out where and when the book is taking place, who these characters are, and get a sense of where this story is going.  While all authors know the importance of the beginning of a novel, these new readers have a narrow definition of what a hook is.  They often want to be grabbed by the front of the shirt and yanked into a book.  But they need to know that some books take you by the hand and lead you in; other books drop you in the middle of action that you don't understand yet; and still other books will immerse you deeply into a whole new world with little action to start.  If we really want students to become readers, they have to know these things and know that all readers must play an active role in making sense of new books at the beginning.

2.  Book Lists:  If you're like me, your book list is a visible pile of books you're planning to get to.  If you're really like me, this pile has family member piles and they're everywhere--on my school desk, my home desk, my bedside chest, the bureau behind the kitchen table, and on the passenger seat of my car.  You get the idea.  I have many books in the wings waiting to come on stage.  But our new readers don't have this.  They have that one book they've loved and a devastating suspicion that they will never find another book they'll love as much as that one.  As an experienced reader, if I pick up a book that I'm not feeling, I have a reserve--many, many other books I can go to.  I also recognize that sometimes it's not that I don't like the book, I'm just not in the mood for it right now.

This is the importance of an ever-growing "Books I Might Read" list.  The wording there is intentional--might is a powerful word for new readers.  It implies that these books are options, choices, but not have-to's.  These picky readers have had enough had-to's in their lives.  If we truly want to create readers, they have to know that they are in control and can choose for themselves which books will work for them.

Our "Books I Might Read" list is constantly growing.  I book talk, sometimes formally at the beginning of class and sometimes informally as I'm browsing the shelves helping someone find a book and I stumble across one a student might like.  Other times, it's one-on-one book talks, during a conference when a book occurs to me and I suggest it just to that reader.

This is the power of being a YA reader yourself.  You can't do book talking if you don't know and read books.  You also won't do it very well if you don't know your audience.  What will appeal to this group of readers?

Back to that list.  Kids also do a lot of the book talking in our classroom--not formally, but informally.  Every day I do a status of the class check to record page numbers and this is an excellent time for the kids inject their feelings about books. Sometimes kids will comment on others' books they've read or want to read next. Many books are added to lists in this moment.  It's especially compelling when I say a name and I am presented a STOP hand, a nose buried in a book, and "just a second" croaks out as the student just "has to finish this part".  These are moments to pause and let kids talk.  "So you like this book, huh?  Want to tell us a little about it?" which opens the door to the reader having an authentic moment to give an impromptu book talk.  So powerful.

3.  Book Stacks:  Another essential piece of getting students into the next (and the next) book is to set a book stack in front of them as they search for their next book.  Yes, they've got their list and they often choose from that, but something about the presence of a real little mountain of books to choose from says to readers, "Look!  Their are so many other books you could choose to read!  Keep your hope alive!"  These physical books right in front of the student helps them not only see titles, but check out the size of the book, the size of the print, the way it's written, what the front cover looks like.  These are all extremely important features to someone who's not quite convinced she's a reader yet.  (Shoot,  they're important to me and I've been an avid reader for years!)

A stack of books can be pulled and waiting on a student's desk the next class period when you know a student needs a new book.  This not only lets them see that there are other books they might like, it shows them you've been thinking about them, you know them, and that you expect no gaps.  But I'm not always ready with that, so impromptu book stacking also happens quite frequently in my classroom.  Dalaiza finished Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson last week and immediately proclaimed, "I need another one JUST LIKE THAT!"  I showed her where I was planning to look-- the mystery/suspense section.  I pulled out five books.  She systematically rejected each one after a page or two.  I kept them coming.  All of a sudden she said, "Do you have books in here about teenagers and babies?" Where that came from I decided not to explore right then.  Off I went to the teen issues section and pulled our Imani All Mine by Connie Rose Porter and Hanging on to Max by Margaret Bechard.  Imani All Mine it was.  The pile in front of Dalaiza got her thinking, and she followed then exploratory thoughts her brain was having and found another book...nothing I would have predicted and nothing that was on her list.  She needed to hold books, to flip through books, and to pay attention to her own feelings.  The book stack helped her to do that.

*     *     *

Helping to support a reader who's finished that one perfect book is so important if we want kids to become readers of books instead of the reader of that book.  The first book might remain their favorite for a long time; they might compare all other books to it for years, but to truly become a reader, these students must be supported as they move on from their first love and discover new loves just waiting to be picked up.  Modeling, book lists, and book stacks all help support these readers who might easily conclude it was just luck that they ever found a book in the first place.  We certainly don't want that.

As Emma and I head to the shoe store next time, she might look for the exact same pair of black Nikes she's gotten twice before.  If she finds them, our shopping trip will probably be over (and her nose will be buried in yet another Japanese Manga book--her current obsession).  She'll get another pair, wear them for the next 10 months until I drag her to the shoe store again.  But just maybe, surrounded by all those shoes and the ability to choose what fits her now, she'll be drawn to something different this time and a whole new love will develop.  The only way this can possibly happen is with bunch of choices, the freedom to pick whichever pair speaks to her, and a mom who gently nudges, keeps the shoes choices coming, and reminds her that soon these new ones will be broken in and she might even like them better than the old ones.

Happy Sunday!

P.S. Here are a few of my favorite books that have helped shape my thinking about what new readers need. If you don't know these titles, I highly recommend them!

1.  The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller
2.  The Reading Zone by Nancie Atwell
3.  Book Love by Penny Kittle
4.  Readicide by Kelly Gallagher


  1. Love this. And I can kind of see how she went from Allegedly to books with teen moms.

  2. As soon as I read your comment, I was like, "Duh! The baby!" :)

  3. I had one hit wonder experience with my students too! Thanks for helping me identify what it was and how to prevent it this year!


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