Equity Resources, Teaching Tips & Tricks, Truth for Teachers Collective | May 17, 2023
Hi-Lo Texts: Reaching fringe readers with text bands
By Amy Stohs
Have you struggled to find books that aren’t too babyish for below-grade-level readers? Or, have you been worried about recommending books with overly mature content to young readers who need more challenging texts?
I can relate.
When I taught 6th grade, at times I had English learners with limited literacy in their home language or English, and I also had students who were reading above grade level by years and interested in Young Adult literature. That is a huge span of reading levels, but they are all emotionally 6th graders. They typically watch the same tv shows and movies, are interested in the same pop culture trends, are curious about the same current events in the news, and are obsessed with the same YouTubers or TikTok trends.
Most books are written in such a way that they are geared towards the typical aged reader for that level. This works for the “average” reader, but teachers know that classrooms do not merely comprise grade-level readers.
While I would personally say the task of curating a classroom library has been easier as a 2nd-grade teacher, I still have students spanning kindergarten-4th grade reading levels.
I love my classroom library. It is my pride and joy. So, I have put effort continuously each year I’ve been teaching to gather up more books that are windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors to my students, that are highly engaging for book clubs, that are appropriate for all levels of readers. I am an avid reader myself reading 1-3 books per week. While enjoyable, it can be an arduous task to select books for a diverse classroom of readers.
The purpose of this article is to provide a few recommendations for each grade band and give you some tools to support readers within different text bands. I’ll share my recommended lists, including free decodables for students learning to read cvc words, picture books with diverse characters, engaging novels in verse and graphic novels to hook reluctant readers, and more.
Use text bands to broaden a student’s reading “level”
I first heard about text bands at a TCRWP Reunion in New York. The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project promotes a workshop model for reading and writing and has numerous units of study as a curriculum and many resources available for teachers. When I was at a session on reunion day, I heard about using text bands to help select books for readers.
There are certain text levels that are more pivotal turning points than others. Here is an example document of characteristics of different text bands. The levels here refer to guided reading levels. There are multiple ways to level texts and one level does not accurately state everything there is to know about a book. When we look at text bands, though, we can group students within a band together to read for a book club.
For instance, if a classroom has a group of students reading across N, O, P, and Q levels or approximately in that range, they can be grouped together to read, for example, a text labeled as P. The N and O-level students may need some scaffolding and support, but the students can still be reading within the same text band since those book levels are grouped better together due to the characteristics of that level of the text.
If a student is reaching within their text band (at the lower end of the text band) then they may need some extra check-ins with the teacher or stop and think post-it notes planned ahead in their book. This will help the student reach for that more difficult text while still being within a zone of proximal development. Consider how you can work within a range of reading levels for each student versus only one cut-and-dry number or letter designation.
I am not a fan of leveled classroom libraries or leveling books with only one measure (Lexile, Guided Reading, etc.). Levels can however help us get information about a book’s characteristics or writing style even though it’s not going to tell us everything about a book.
A student’s reading level similarly does not tell us everything about a reader. Just because the student’s level J and the book’s level J line up does not mean that that book will be a good fit for that reader. This is another reason why it’s helpful to keep in mind a broader band of options for each reader where they can read within a range of levels. If you want to read more about why I think you should Let Readers Reach you can check that post out.
A word on audio: decoding and comprehension
In this article, I am not going to discuss audiobooks or podcasts. Those are excellent sources for readers, and I am not discouraging them at all. If you’d like to learn more, you can listen to a great interview and Truth for Teachers podcast episode with Angela on Listenwise which details the benefits of integrating listening skills into your classroom.
How to use podcasts in the classroom as a tool for equity and differentiation (with Listenwise)
When we think about reading as comprehension and following a story or synthesizing a main idea, listening is 100% reading; however, we also need to teach students phonemic awareness – how to sound out words, manipulate phonemes/sounds, recognize spelling patterns, how speech and text are connected, etc.
Decoding is a main thread in the world of reading and as teachers, we can’t dismiss this entirely. Therefore, in this post, I’m going to share book recommendations with the idea that students are decoding these words in print and/or decoding while listening to an audiobook concurrently.
In my experience, even readers who are far behind grade level desperately want to read a book in their hands and keep up with their grade level peers. The recommendations I’m sharing are intended to make that experience happen for kids.
Keep in mind that I am grouping grade levels together for ease of skimming for you as the teacher. By all means, look at any grade level and any book; it may be what you were looking for even if it’s not labeled with your particular grade range.
For primary students, picture books can be a great equalizer. While picture books can be great at all grade levels, for independent reading, they tend to be more popular in primary grades.
Many reaching readers will enjoy rereading a text you’ve read aloud in class since they can fill in the gaps they otherwise might have missed independently. I also have found it easier to find picture books with more diverse characters than early reader series. Picture Books also offer rich vocabulary in an accessible package. Here are my favorites.
- Abuela by Arthur Dorros
- All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold
- An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long (Nonfiction animal series)
- Dreamers by Yuyi Morales
- Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson
- Eyes that Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho
- Home is In Between by Mitali Perkins
- Hoop Genius: How a Desperate Teacher and a Rowdy Gym Class Invented Basketball by John Coy (Nonfiction)
- Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall
- Just Ask! By Sonia Sotomayor
- Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena
- Over and Under the Pond by Kate Messner (Nonfiction animal series)
- Powwow Day by Traci Sorell, Madalyn Goodnight
- Sam and the Lucky Money by Karen Chinn
- Same, Same, but Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki Shaw
- Saturday by Oge Mora
- Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean’s Most Fearless Scientist by Jess Keating (Nonfiction)
- The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson
- The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
- Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto
- What Will You Be? By Yamile Saied Méndez
For students learning to read, decodable books are those books that can be sounded out easily. They follow predictable phonics patterns and include very few high-frequency trick words/sight words that break rules.
Decodables reinforce word patterns and build confidence in readers. These are essential for students learning to read and are great for those students who need more explicit practice reading word patterns, so they could be used for older students building confidence in reading skills as well.
Decodables for Learning to Read:
- UFLI Toolbox (all free) – also includes lessons in slides to use
- Just Right Readers Decodables e-library (all free)
- Beyond Decodables (all free)
- SPELD SA Decodables (all free)
- UFLI created this Decodable Text Guide which links not only to their decodable passages but to other passages as well from different sites and collections by text feature. Some of the links in the spreadsheet are to reputable companies where you can purchase books (Alphabet Series, Flyleaf, etc.)
Book recommendations by grade level
There are many, many lists out there of which books are the right level for each grade. Below, I am aiming to narrow down that list by doing two things. First, I’m purposely including texts that have more cultural diversity. This is because I find that “Top 10” lists for grade levels and books you may have inherited from retired teachers tend to lack these titles.
Second, I am trying to give you the titles I’ve seen as the most popular among students I’ve taught. That is not to say it will be the same in your context, but I think it’s a good starting point. Also, I am sure that every person reading this will think, “How could you not include THIS book?!” I might have forgotten it or I might just not know about it.
Feel free to add it in the comments! I’d love to hear other recommendations. Also, I can’t list every single book I love in the lists below (although I think I’ve almost tried!)
2nd & 3rd grade Reaching to Read:
- Dav Pilkey Graphic Novels: Mighty Robot, Dogman, Captain Underpants – graphic novels (F series)
- Dragon by Dav Pilkey (F Series)
- Elephant and Piggie Books by Mo Willems (F series)
- Hi Fly Guy! By Tedd Arnold (F Series)
- J.D. the Kid Barber by J. Dillard (J.D. and the Great Barber Battle – F Series)
- Katie Woo Series by Fran Manushkin and Tammie Lyon (Katie Woo Series – F)
- Katie Woo and Pedro Mysteries by Fran Manushkin (F Series)
- Ling and Ting by Grace Lin (F Series)
- Meet Biscuit! (I can read F series) by Alyssa Satin Capucilli and Pat Schories
- Meet Yasmin! by Saadia Faruqi (F Series)
- Pedro’s Mystery Club by Fran Manushkin (Pedro Series – F)
- Princess in Black by Shannon and Dean Hale (F Series)
- Ruby Lu, Brave and True by Lenore Look (RF Series)
- Sadiq and the Pet Problem by Siman Nuurali (F Feries)
- The Toad: Disgusting Critter Series by Elise Gravel (NF)
- Vivi Loves Science by Kimberly Derting (also available as I Can Read F series)
- Your Friend, Parker by Parker Curry, Jessica Curry (Ready to Read F series)
- Zoey and Sassafras by Asia Citro (Dragons and Marshmallows – 1F Series)
2nd & 3rd grade Strong Readers:
- A to Z Mysteries by Ron Roy (F)
- Amelia Bedelia by Herman Parish (F Series)
- Bad Guys by Aaron Blabey (F series)
- Gone Fishing by Tamera Will Wissinger (RF, Novel in Verse)
- Matilda by Roald Dahl (F, Fantasy)
- One and Only Ivan (and One and Only Bob) by Katherine Applegate (novels in verse) *also great for reaching readers in secondary if you’re doing a novel in verse or poetry unit
- Precious Ramotswe by Alexander McCall Smith (RF Series)
- Spy School by Stuart Gibbs (F Series)
- The Witches by Roald Dahl (F, Fantasy)
- The Year of Billy Miller & Billy Miller Makes a Wish by Kevin Henkes (RF series)
- Wings of Fire by Tui T. Sutherland (F Series)
I Survived Series Lauren Tarshis (HF Series) *also great for reaching readers in secondary if you’re doing a historical fiction unit
4th & 5th Grade Reaching to Read:
- Ada Lace on the Case by Emily Calendrelli (F Series)
- Annie Sullivan and the Trial of Helen Keller by Joseph Lambert (NF graphic novel)
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney (F series, lots of visuals)
- Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon (F Series)
- Ivy and Bean by Annie Barrows (F Series)
- Jada Jones, Rock Star by Kelly Starling Lyons (F series)
- Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl
- Franny K. Stein by Jim Benton (F Series)
- My Weird School Series by Dan Gutman (F series, humor)
- Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea by Ben Clanton (F graphic novel)
- Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales by Nathan Hale (HF series, graphic novel)
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Narnia series) by C.S. Lewis (F series, fantasy)
- What if you had Animal Hair? by Sandra Markle (NF Series)
- Who Is?…What Is?…. Series (ex. Who Was Anne Frank? NF series, biography)
- Who Would Win? by Jerry Pallotta (NF Series)
- Zapato Power Series by Jacqueline Jules (Freddie Ramos Takes Off – F series)
4th & 5th Grade Strong Readers:
- Allies by Alan Gratz (HF; other books by Gratz also are great)
- Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston (Fantasy series)
- A Night Divided by Jennifer Nielsen (HF; other books by Nielsen are also great)
- Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation by Ari Folman (NF graphic novel)
- Big Fat Zombie Goldfish by Mo O’Hara (F Series)
- Crossover by Kwame Alexander (RF, novel in verse)
- Little White Duck: A Childhood in China by Na Liu, Andres Vera Martinez (graphic novel, NF)
- The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen (HF)
- The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer (Cinder – 1st book in F series, sci-fi)
- Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell (HF, novel in verse)
- Track Series by Jason Reynolds (novel in verse, F series – Ghost, Patina, Sunny, Lu)
- Voyagers: Project Alpha by D.J MacHale (1st in F series, sci-fi)
I am not going to list recommendations for stronger readers for middle and high school since I think those are easier to compile for educators. As students get older, there are two genres in particular that I find helpful to keep engagement up: Novels in Verse and Graphic Novels.
Graphic Novels offer picture support for students and can be rigorous for comprehension still. Novels in Verse allow students to read a book that feels big or “grown-up” while still offering bite-sized lines to read. These also tend to get to the essence of a story more quickly which can be engaging for readers. You can read more about why I love graphic novels here & novels in verse here.
In addition, here are a few authors I’d highly recommend for approachable and engaging books:
- Elizabeth Acevedo
- Kwame Alexander
- Don Brown
- Joseph Bruchac
- Matt de la Pena
- Alexandra Diaz
- Alan Gratz
- Thanhha Lai
- Jason Reynolds
- Angie Thomas
- Padma Venkatraman
- Jacqueline Woodson
More Accessible Texts for 6th & 7th & 8th Grade:
- A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park (NF)
- Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon (NF, biograph, graphic novel)
- Behind Rebel Lines: The Incredible Story of Emma Edmonds, Civil War Spy by Seymour Reit (HF)
- Booked by Kwame Alexander (RF, novel in verse)
- City of Ember by Jeanne du Prau (F series, dystopian)
- Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans by Don Brown (NF graphic novel)
- El Deafo by Cece Bell (F graphic novel)
- False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen (F series, Fantasy)
- Girl Who Owned a City by O.T. Nelson (F, dystopian)
- Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins (F series, The Underland Chronicles)
- Hidden by Helen Frost (RF, novel in verse)
- Holes by Louis Sachar (RF novel)
- House Arrest by K.A. Holt (RF, novel in verse)
- Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (F, novel in verse)
- I Survived Series Lauren Tarshis (NF Series)
- Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina (RF)
- Miles Morales: Spider Man by Jason Reynolds (F, fantasy)
- New Kid by Jerry Craft (F, graphic novel)
- Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas by Jim Ottavani and Maris Wicks (NF graphic novel)
- Refugee by Alan Gratz (HF)
- Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow by James Sturn (NF graphic novel)
- Save Me a Seat by by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan (RF)
- Taking Sides by Gary Soto (RF)
- Tetris: The Games People Play by Box Brown (NF graphic novel)
- The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya (RF)
- The Great American Dust Bowl by Don Brown (NF graphic novel)
- The Thief of Always by Clive Barker (F, fantasy)
- The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (F, mystery)
- Trapped in a Video Game by Dustin Brady and Jesse Brady (F Series)
More Accessible Texts for 9th – 12th Grades:
- All American Boys by Jason Reynolds (F)
- A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman (RF, novel in verse)
- Brief Histories of Everyday Objects by Andy Warner (NF graphic novel)
- Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (novel in verse, memoir)
- Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham (HF, RF – two timelines)
- Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle (NF graphic novel)
- Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai (F)
- Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson (novel in verse, RF)
- Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds (F, novel in verse)
- March: Book One (and Two and Three) by John Lewis (NF graphic novel)
- Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya (RF)
- Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy by Rex Ogle (modern Little Women graphic novel)
- Messi: The Inside Story of the Boy Who Became a Legend by Luca Caioli (NF)
- Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga (RF, novel in verse)
- Overturned by Lamar Giles (F)
- Santiago’s Road Home by Alexandra Diaz (RF)
- Survivors of the Holocaust: True Stories of Six Extraordinary Children by Kath Shackleton (NF graphic novel)
- The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater (NF)
- The Disappearing Spoon and other true tales of rivalry, adventure, and the history of the world from the periodic table of the elements by Sam Kean (NF)
- The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (RF, novel in verse)
- The Unwanted: Stories of Syrian Refugees by Don Brown (NF graphic novel)
- T-Minus: The Race to the Moon by Jim Ottavani (NF graphic novel)
If you teach High School English, I also recommend Betsy Potash from Now Spark Creativity for lots of ideas. Some of her posts about choice reading include “What To Do When a Student Says I Hate Reading”; “Got Reluctant Readers? There’s help”; “How to Match Readers with Books”.
Where to find more appropriately-mature books
It would be ideal for us to read every single book we put in front of students but that is impossible. It’s not a goal we could ever achieve. Apart from taking advice and recommendations from fellow educators, another great resource is Common Sense Media.
This website is great for educators as they’re scanning books to see if it’s appropriate for students. The site rates positive messages, positive role models, diverse representation, violence and scariness, sex, romance, and nudity, language, products and purchases, and drinking, drugs, and smoking for each title.
Common Sense Media is also great for parents and has meaningful information for them. I find that parents sometimes enjoy their child reading a “challenging” book but they don’t necessarily realize all the mature aspects that go into that novel.
Final tips on using hi-lo texts and text bands
1. Equity not equality
You will not be able to spend equal time with each reader or writer. This is not only unrealistic to expect but also not beneficial to all students. If a student is confident in reading and writing, sometimes they just need the time to practice those same skills and become fluent.
Also, not every student will get the same level of enjoyment out of your class. You’re aiming to give students what they need within the constraints of your time and energy, not create an identical experience and level of enjoyment for every student.
2. Opportunities, not perfection
Your goal is not to make sure that every student has the perfect book for them all the time; your goal is to provide reading opportunities that are within a reasonable range for each student. Your goal is to set students up for success in reading, but you cannot make the stars align for every book and every unit for every kid.
There will still be books kids don’t like; that’s just life. I personally sought to get kids to LOVE at least one book in my class so much that they raved about it at home and school. That one really positive experience can propel growth in multiple areas.
3. Use themes to tie a classroom together
Whenever I am in a unit that is centered around a genre (nonfiction text features, literary nonfiction picture books, science fiction and fantasy, historical fiction, etc.), I try to find books that are appropriate for different leveled readers within each genre.
What I typically do if everyone is reading in a book club is create a google form with book trailers or at least images of books. Each question is a duplicate. The first question they select their first choice, the second they select their second choice, and the third they select their third choice. I also have the books out physically to flip through.
I personally found that students are excellent at selecting books that are appropriate for themselves, but even if they reach too high or too low, I can usually find one of their top 3 choices that lines up with my assessment of their skill. After a book club unit, the books are available for independent reading, so they are not cut off from their first choice in any case.
If a student really wants to read something, I’ll have an honest conversation with them that it might be hard, so they’ll have to put in extra time and energy to keep up with the group. If they think they can do it, great; if that makes them nervous, I tell them it’s a “not right now” book. It’s something they can try later.
4. Set up a positive climate towards all books
Some of the things I did that seemed to support my reaching readers were to read aloud different types of books. When I finished reading aloud a picture book, I’d raise it up asking who would like to read it. The more I did this, the more popular it became to read picture books. I would create book clubs for just graphic novels and just novels in verse towards the beginning of the year to establish that these were real genres with lots of options that I valued.
5. Privacy matters
Even as young as 2nd grade, I notice students who are struggling become self-conscious about their reading abilities. They deserve some discretion on your part. Group them with students who need the same skill work so they feel on par with peers. Give them opportunities to listen to you read aloud from a popular series that on-grade-level readers are experiencing. Then, they may be able to reread that book again on their own.
Give them hidden differentiation where everyone has the same type of decodable book/same genre or worksheet or word work choice board but they might have different activities, an easier text, or different words to choose from. If you have an older student working on primary activities such as letter and sound matching, word sorts, or books that look geared towards very young readers, let them work in a quiet, private corner or in the hallway.
Just a little move might make them feel more at ease to work on their skills in confidence. I write about a few more of these strategies in my blog post, “How I teach reading to a class that spans 7+ grade levels.”
18 manageable ways to differentiate when kids have gaps in their learning
I hope this article gave you some resources for building up your classroom library and/or selecting books for book clubs for students that will be both age and level appropriate. This is not meant to be comprehensive, but I hope that some of these ideas will support you. I know that finding engaging books for struggling secondary readers was a huge challenge for me, and the more we share as educators, the more opportunities our readers have to thrive.
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