Choosing Books to Read

In this section:

Think back to your childhood and your earliest reading memories. What were your favorite children’s books growing up? One of the most fun parts of volunteering with KOREH L.A. is choosing books to read together with your reading partner, because you will have the chance to revisit books you enjoyed as a child, learn all about the new and exciting books that kids are reading today, and get to know your student’s specific interests and abilities through the books that they enjoy.

It’s more likely than not that the books you enjoyed most as a child were the books that you decided to read for yourself, rather than the books that were assigned to you by teachers. Likewise, volunteers should encourage self-selected reading so students can choose books themselves on topics or subjects which especially interest them. When students select their own reading materials and read for enjoyment, they receive the most gains in reading achievement, including better reading comprehension, writing style, vocabulary, spelling and grammatical development. Giving students a choice of reading material is critical because not only are they more motivated to read the books, but the words and facts they learn build on knowledge they already possess.  As long as the students are given a chance to listen to, read and discuss books that match their interests and reading levels, they will be invested in reading.

If you don’t have access to a school library to visit with your student, one way to encourage self-selected reading is by bringing a wide selection of books to each reading session and giving your student the option of which one to read. Your guidance in choosing books that are appropriate for your student can be especially helpful in building their reading and literacy skills and helping to foster a love of reading!

Choosing the Right Book for Your Student

Making sure a book is at the right reading level for your reading partner can be a challenge. How do you know if a book is too hard or too easy? Try out these strategies:

  • Use the five-finger rule. Open the book to a page with a lot of text. Ask your student to read the page out loud. For every word that they do not know on that page, discreetly put up one finger. How many fingers do you have up?
    • One finger (thumb): Thumbs up! Great book choice. This will be easy reading for your student.
    • Two fingers (thumb and index finger): Makes an L, so you are “looking good!” Enjoy.
    • Three fingers (makes a W): Warning! You may need to assist your student in reading this book.
    • Four or more fingers (whole hand): Stop! This book may be too tough to enjoy alone. Offer to read the book to your student instead.
  • Try the Goldilocks Method, a method to determine if a book is “too hard,” “too easy,” or “just right!” Here are the criteria for a book that is “just right”:
    • The book is new to your student and the topic is interesting to them.
    • Your student understands what is happening in most of the story.
    • Your student can retell what they have read.
    • Your student recognizes most of the words on the page, but there are some words to work on.
    • Your student can read the book by themself but may need help if they hit a tough spot.
  • Choose books based on your student’s Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) level. DRA is a method used by many schools and professionals to determine a book’s level. It rates book on a numerical scale from 1 to 80. Choose a book that your student read well independently, look up its DRA score, and search for similar books, all by using Scholastic’s Book Wizard tool! This reading level comparison chart compares DRA levels to grade levels.

Ask a volunteer: How do you choose books for your students?

  • Start with a simple book and see how your student does. Use books with repetition. You can always start off with children’s classics, like Dr. Seuss. They are classics for a reason!
  • Bring books from a variety of reading levels and have your student try them out, or gauge their level by asking what books they have read recently.
  • Use the school librarian as a resource if there is one present at your school, or go to your public library.
  • Find out your student’s interests and choose books that relate to what they like.
  • Series are great options for kids. Check out the Magic Tree House series.
  • Give your student a choice; it makes them feel like they are in control and can make the reading session more fun. Or take turns choosing books with your student.
  • Think about the holidays or any other relevant events coming up. Ask your student what holidays their family celebrates.
  • Make sure to pay attention to your student’s body language to find out if they like a book or if they want to stop and switch to another activity (fidgeting, getting frustrated, etc.)

Sometimes, a student will choose a book that is above or below their reading level. Remember that we are not extensions of the teacher. Instead, the mission of KOREH L.A. is to foster a love of reading.  A book’s level doesn’t matter as long as a child feels comfortable and is interested in the subject. If your student selects a book above their reading level, feel free to encourage your student to challenge themselves.

Ask a volunteer: What do you do if your student insists on reading a more challenging book?

  • Make the book less intimidating by covering up some of the words and going line-by-line. Have them follow along with their finger so you know they are paying attention.
  • Just talk with your student! Especially with younger kids, you just want them to vocalize and increase their self-esteem. Ask a lot of questions about the book or talk about the pictures in the book first. For younger students, picture walk through the book before reading it.
  • Take turns reading, or have the student switch between reading aloud to you and reading silently to themselves. Follow up with questions.
  • Read to them. Pick more challenging books to expose them to harder vocabulary.
  • Turn the tables and have the student ask you comprehension questions about the book.
  • Allow student to draw pictures of what they read (if they have a hard time saying it).
  • Play “baseball.” To get to a base, your student has to answer a question about the story. They will want to pay attention to the story so can move around the bases.
  • Don’t be afraid to stop reading the book early and move onto something else if your student loses interest.

Where to Find Books or Reading Materials

  • KOREH L.A. Book Lists. Browse through our favorite books here.
  • Go to your local library. Many branches have librarians who specialize in children’s books. Seek them out and have them recommend a few books for you and your student.
  • Children’s Choices Book List. Every year, over 12,000 students from across the country read recently published books and vote for the ones they like best. Coming from kids themselves, this is a great trusted resource.
  • Children’s Book Council Book Finder. Children’s Book Council is the national nonprofit trade association of children’s book publishers, dedicated to supporting and informing the industry and fostering literacy. You can use this website to search for books by age, genre, format, and theme.
  • Reading Rockets Themed Book Lists. Reading Rockets is a national multimedia literacy initiative offering information and resources on how young kids learn to read, why so many struggle, and how caring adults can help. Use their website to look at books by theme. Every book has a recommended age level.
  • Scholastic’s 100 Greatest Books for Kids. Check out Scholastic’s top recommended books and sort by age group and categories.
  • Reading Level Comparison Chart. Use this chart to approximate your student’s reading level. You can also search for books by level here.
  • Common Sense Media has an excellent series of book lists on various topics and for various ages.

Ask a volunteer: Where do you find books or reading materials?

  • Take a special trip to your student’s school book fair.
  • Think outside the box! Use comic books or newspapers to find fun reading materials for your student
  • If your school has a library, check and see if the books are labeled with their level. Some schools give student reading assessments to each student – ask your student if they know their reading level.
  • Borrow books from your student’s class.

The Lack of Diversity in Children’s Books

The school district where KOREH L.A. volunteers work, LAUSD, is incredibly diverse! Here are a few characteristics where our students differ from one another:

  • Language1: A total of 93 languages other than English are spoken in LAUSD schools. LAUSD serves 141,490 students who are learning to speak English proficiently. Of these English learners, 92.8% speak Spanish as their primary language. Other languages include Korean, Armenian, Tagalog, Cantonese, Arabic, Vietnamese, and Russian.
  • Socioeconomic status1: Approximately 77% of LAUSD students qualify for free- or reduced-price meals.
  • Ethnic background1: A majority (74%) of LAUSD students are Latino, 9.8% are White, 8.4% are African American, 6.0% are Asian, 0.4% are Pacific Islander, 0.2% are American Indian, and 1.0% are two or more races (not Latino).
  • Family structure2: In the U.S., over the past 50 years, the American family structure has changed and the number of children living in a nuclear family has decreased. No longer is the nuclear family the type of family for the majority of children in the U.S. As of 2013, just 46% of U.S. kids live in a home with two married heterosexual parents in their first marriage, and 34% of American children live in a single-parent household.
  • Our students are also diverse in other ways including gender, religion, sexual orientation, physical ability, and mental ability, to name a few.

1 Source: Los Angeles Unified School District Fingertip Facts 2015-2016

2 Source: Pew Research Center analysis of 1960 and 1980 Decennial Census (1% IPUMS) and 2013 American Community Survey (1% IPUMS)

However, of the children’s books written in 2013, only 8% were written by or about people of color. As you can see, our schools are diverse spaces, but children’s literature as a whole is not a diverse space. Given this gap, we have some work to do!

Source: First Book

Reasons to Share Multicultural and Diverse Books with Your Student

When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part When there are enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children, they will see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities, because together they are what make us all human.”
Rudine Sims Bishop, “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors”

An understanding of multiculturalism and diversity is a tool that KOREH L.A. volunteers can use to better engage their students and thus make them better readers. There are two main reasons why multicultural and diverse books can be particularly engaging for students:

  1. Children’s books can provide a mirror of the reader’s own experiences. Children search for themselves in diverse books, see themselves in characters, learn about their cultural roots, heritage, and traditions, and explore unique challenges particular to their environment and culture. Diverse books help readers create a sense of identity, value, and a positive attitude toward themselves. In a survey of 2,000 schools, 90% of educators believed children would become more enthusiastic readers if they had books reflecting their lives.
  2. Children’s books can provide a window into other’s lives. Diverse books help students develop empathy toward peers, learn acceptance and respect for others, and gain a more realistic picture of the diversity that exists in the world. They can also dispel misconceptions associated with specific cultures, address tough topics, and prepare students for whatever life brings. Multicultural books can fascinate children by showing them the richness of other cultures, showing them languages they’ve never heard, and taking them to faraway places they’ve never explored.

The goal of KOREH L.A. volunteers is to foster a love of reading in their students, and one tactic that you can use in order to do this is to pick diverse books that reflect the lives of your students or the lives of others. Multiculturalism is not an isolated or supplementary topic to your work, but it actually can go hand in hand with the work that you do.

In review, there is a broad diversity in the population of the students that we serve, but a lack of diversity in children’s literature, and this gap has important consequences. Books can have an effect on our students’ understanding of the world, and understanding of themselves. As volunteer readers, you are often responsible for choosing the books that you and your student will read together. You have a great opportunity to address the lack of diversity in children’s literature by choosing multicultural and diverse books for your students to read.

Ask a volunteer: Why should we share diverse and multicultural books with our students?

  • So that all students can see representations of their own culture in the books that we read.
  • To learn about and become familiar with someone else’s culture.
  • To understand and be comfortable with difference.
  • We want books to accurately portray the pluralistic world around us.
  • Diverse books broaden students’ world views.
  • They help develop their self-esteem and a positive self-image.
  • To enjoy the unity and variety of the human experience.
  • They give all students a chance to see themselves as heroes!
  • To catch up with changes in schools and society.
  • To promote tolerance.
  • To learn how to relate to your student through his or her culture.
  • To understand language barriers.
  • To help the students identify with the curriculum.
  • To instill pride and a sense of importance.
  • To generate excitement and interest.
  • To help students share their culture with others.
  • To relate to student’s interests.

Guidelines for Choosing Multicultural and Diverse Books

When you are trying to choose a book, ask yourself if the book has the following characteristics3 to determine if it is appropriate to share with your reading partner. If you’re not sure about sharing a certain book with a student because of their personal history or life experiences, ask the teacher!

  • The book avoids offensive expressions, negative attitudes, or stereotypical representations. Characters should be well-developed, independent thinkers who face challenges and solve problems. Avoid books that have characters with stereotypical roles and behaviors. Minority characters do not have to be “the best” at something to be valued and accepted by the majority group.
  • The events and situations are historically accurate. The book is explicit and precise about the cultural roots of the group. For example, a book about Native Americans depicts characters from a specific nation, not generic “Indians.”The book also avoids any suggestion that there is a single cause or simple answer to the socio-historical dilemmas of the culture being represented. Characters should be competent problem solvers who respond positively to their challenges.
  • It’s a good story! The plot should be interesting, accessible, and worth revisiting. Characters are memorable and distinct.
  • The story includes words and phrases from the culture. Even better if there is a pronunciation guide!
  • The illustrations depict people from different races in different ways. Look for drawings that suitably convey skin color and facial details. Characters of the same ethnic group do not all look alike. Merely darkening or lightening a character’s skin color to indicate that he or she is African American, Asian, or Hispanic is inappropriate. And avoid books that use stereotypical caricatures of a group’s physical features.
  • The book does not set different cultures or groups in opposition to each other. Minority characters are leaders within their community and solve their own problems.
  • The story acknowledges the diversity of experiences within a particular cultural group. Look for books that portray cultural events accurately, but also everyday events with diverse characters.

Other questions to consider:

  • What makes this book “diverse”? Is this a book with a culturally-based theme? Or a book about every day, realistic events that contain diverse characters?
  • Is the author from the culture being depicted? Research has shown that culturally-conscious books written by authors who are not a part of that culture do not emphasize the same aspects as a similar book written by an author from the same culture. Oftentimes the book written by the non-member of a cultural group is found lacking in authentic story and illustration.
  • Is there anything that would embarrass or offend a child whose culture is being portrayed? Would you share this book with a culturally diverse group of children?

3 Adapted from K12 Reader and School of Education at Johns Hopkins University-Multicultural Children’s Literature: Creating and Applying an Evaluation Tool in Response to the Needs of Urban Educators

Where to Find Multicultural and Diverse Books

Ask a volunteer: Where can you find multicultural and diverse books?

  • Sometimes the school library has diverse books on display that you can borrow.
  • Check with your local librarian for some specific diverse book recommendations.
  • KOREH L.A. volunteer George wrote a wonderful book with his late wife on the topic of gender equality. Inspired by George’s own daughter, What’s a Girl Gonna Do? One, Two, Kick Off Your Shoe! is a humorous fiction for young teenagers (and advanced KOREH L.A. student readers) about a girl who joins the high school football team.

Strategies for Reading Multicultural and Diverse Books with Your Student

Research done on multicultural education has found that when we empower students to understand the perspective of others, they will be compassionate and welcoming towards newcomers who might first appear “different,” and that one of the best ways to introduce students to other cultures and ways of life is through books, especially those with pictures. After reading a book about your student’s culture or another culture, use these discussion questions4 to talk about the book, ignite critical thinking skills, and allow your student to put themself in the shoes of others.

  1. Are the characters in the story like you and your family?
  2. Have you ever had an experience like the one described in the story?
  3. Have you lived in or visited places like those in the story?
  4. Could this story take place this year?
  5. How close do you think the main characters are to you in age?
  6. Are there main characters in the story who are boys or girls?
  7. Do the characters talk like you and your family do?
  8. How often do you read stories like these?

4Adapted from Kid World Citizen

Another small activity you can do with your student is to create a “passport” for them. Every time you and your reading partner finish reading a book about a city, culture, or country, ask your student to draw or color a picture about what they read on an index card. Once you are done, punch a hole in the corner, and collect the index cards in a large binder ring, yarn, ribbon, or thread. After a few books, you and your student will have a virtual passport of all the places you’ve explored together!

Finally, don’t forget to celebrate Multicultural Children’s Book Day every January by sharing a multicultural book with your student!

“A good book can help to break down barriers. Books can make a difference in dispelling prejudice and building community; not with role models and literal recipes, not with noble messages about the human family, but with enthralling stories that make us imagine the lives of others. A good story lets you know people as individuals in all their particularity and conflict; and once you see someone as a person—flawed, complex, striving—then you’ve reached beyond the stereotype. Stories, writing them, sharing them, transforming them, enrich us and connect us and help us know each other.”
– Hazel Rochman, Against Borders