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December 11, 2013

Reading for Success: How Reading Partners Chooses Just the Right Book

I am a firm believer that you simply can’t go wrong with a good book, so this time of year usually finds me at my neighborhood bookstore hunting for the perfect book for each person on my holiday gift list. This year, I’m hoping The Goodnight Train will fit both my two-year-old son’s current passion for “choo-choos” and my desperate need for him go to bed.

I consider myself lucky that my job entails coordinating the search for just the right books for the thousands of Reading Partners students across the country. Reading Partners is committed to bring great books to students who struggle with reading. Our curriculum materials include a core collection of over 300 titles used across our reading centers. How are books chosen for inclusion in the Reading Partners curriculum? Here is a glimpse into the questions we consider.

Choosing BooksWhat do students need to read to be successful?

The process of updating Reading Partners’ curriculum to align to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), rigorous K-12 learning standards for students that have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, heightened our already-vigilant attention to selecting books to accompany our lesson plans. The CCSS highlight the need for students to read a balance of literature texts, such as stories and poems, and informational texts on a variety of topics. Across genres, the standards call for an increase in the complexity of the texts students encounter. This is to counteract an alleged decline in the demands of textbooks in America over the past century and subsequent lack of student preparedness for college and the workforce. New research challenges the claim that the complexity of student textbooks has declined over time, but agrees that providing exposure to complex text and the necessary supporting instruction to help all students’ read and comprehend it is still a crucial next step for US education.

Is a book a good match?

Instructional goals for students are a key factor in Reading Partners’ book choices. The CCSS highlight the importance of “text to lesson match;” if a lesson addresses a certain skill, the book used must provide ample opportunities for students to practice that skill.  Shelly’s Shell is a good match for our Beginning Readers lesson on the “sh” sound as Shelly splashes and shakes her way to a new home. Our Comprehension Readers lesson on identifying the author’s message in an informational text is better served by the National Geographic Kids book Spiders, in which the author outlines reasons that spiders don’t deserve their scary reputation. (Whether a reader agrees with this message is open for discussion!)

Does a book present the right level of challenge?

Reading Partners looks for books that will present a challenge for students while still being manageable. At the Common Core’s suggestion, we evaluate each potential text’s reading level using both quantitative and qualitative measures. Systems like the Lexile Framework and the Fountas and Pinnell Text Level Gradient provide us with an analysis of a text’s difficulty based on factors like sentence length, word frequency, and skill demands. However, good judgment is always important. We ask ourselves how our students will likely navigate the topic, structure, and vocabulary of a book to determine whether it is appropriate for a given purpose.

Will a book engage and inspire students?

All readers deserve books that speak to them. Research shows that increased student motivation and engagement contributes to faster reading growth.  A book may align with an instructional goal and be the right reading level, but if students aren’t likely to like the book, the title doesn’t have much chance of earning a place in the Reading Partners collection. Since Reading Partners serves a diverse population of students, books are selected to appeal to both boys and girls and to a variety of interests and backgrounds.

At Reading Partners, we hope you have the opportunity to give or receive a great book this season.  To experience Reading Partners’ handpicked collection of books firsthand, sign up to become a volunteer tutor in your community today!

This post is part of a series on the Common Core State Standards and Reading Partners’ curriculum. Questions can be sent to Director of Program Development Lindsay Barrett at

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