Helping students choose books for reading pleasure

Librarians and teachers have an important role in helping students learn how to find a ‘just right’ book. Libraries are full of stories and ideas and play a crucial role in giving children and teens free access to books they can choose from. The challenge for students lies in knowing how to successfully browse, preview and select what to read for pleasure – a vital step in reading engagement.

On this page

Reflecting on own reading practice
Enabling adults
Practical strategies
What the library can do
Online strategies and tools
Reading culture
Reading plans
Evidence based practice
Further information

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them. Neil Gaiman -Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming

Reflecting on own reading practices

When we reflect on how we choose what to read, we can identify skills we use to browse and select books, and the wider contexts that support making reading choices. This also involves knowing our own reading preferences and the purposes for our fiction reading – delight, discovery, interest, pleasure.  

How do choose what to read? What are your reading preferences? Where do you source reviews and recommendations? Are you in a book club? How many books do you have “on the go” at any one time? What works for you as a reader, and how do you build similar approaches into your classroom / library time for students?

Sharing reading strategies with your students helps them discover and articulate what they like to read and why. It develops their sense of self as a reader, strengthens their browsing and selecting skills, and leads to a lifetime of reading for pleasure.

“…It's only in a library that all children of all backgrounds can freely explore the huge range of books and where they have the freedom to find their own tastes and discover literature at their own pace. Ursula Dubosarsky in SCIS Connections, May 2014

Enabling adults

Aidan Chambers describes the critical role of “enabling adults” in young readers’ lives, as the teachers, librarians, parents and family time and resources for reading that:

  • stimulate a desire to be a thoughtful reader through exploring connections, enthusiasms and puzzlements
  • demonstrate how to be a reader and what it is to be a reader
  • respond to create a reading community.

Regarding book selection, this means as an enabling adult you would:

  • know your students’ interests / reading interests, and know the literature through reading it yourself
  • model choosing what to read, verbalise your thought processes while browsing and selecting, and describe how it is done
  • provide ample time for students to browse and choose, and plenty of resources to choose from
  • support students as they make the transition from picture books to junior chapter books / series, to fiction and genres
  • help a student identify their purpose for reading, how to evaluate if a book meets that purpose, and strategies to determine a book’s suitability
  • foster collaboration between classroom / the library / home
  • read aloud to children and teens – sometimes whole books, the first of a series, or first pages / chapter to provide an introduction and entry in
  • encourage regular book talk and promotion, sharing of reviews, book discussion.

Find out more about school staff as readers.

Practical strategies

As an enabling adult you would:

  • teach book selection strategies
  • have guidelines on display in the library or classroom
  • guide parents about how they can help their children choose what to read. 

For readers who know their reading preferences, browsing strategies may include looking for:

  • favourite authors
  • authors you’ve heard of and are interested in reading
  • titles heard about from family, friends and reviews
  • favourite genre sections if books are arranged this way
  • recently returned books
  • new book displays
  • books that look new –“up to date” and in good condition. 

For younger readers selection strategies may also include:

  • The Goldilocks strategy – “Is this book too easy, too hard, or just right
  • The five finger rule – identifying the number of 'difficult' words on a page for the reader to evaluate if the text is at the right level
  • The Two Sisters have an I PICK mnemonic for “good fit” books:I look at a book, Purpose, Interest, Comprehend, Know all the words

Selection suggestions to help students choose could be displayed in the library:

  • Look at the title and the cover – does it appeal?
  • Read the book jacket blurb – does it interest you? Give different genres a chance.
  • Read the first page/s
  • Read information about the author on the jacket
  • Look at print size for ease-of-reading
  • Listen to friends, teachers, parents and librarians’ suggestions
  • Look for popular authors and series
  • Use the catalogue to look up authors, titles and subjects that interest you
  • Ask for booklists and check displays
  • Give a book a fair chance – read several pages or chapters.

What the library can do

There is so much a school library can do to scaffold students as they look for their “just right” books. Starting with an appealing, bountiful, current, relevant collection, you also need a: 

  • reader-friendly environments using clear, helpful signage and attractively displayed resources with plenty of face-out display of book covers
  • junior fiction books arranged by series to encourage reading mileage and confidence
  • fiction arranged by genre is more user-friendly for students than a long alphabetical sequence, and playing to their reading preferences
  • clear, helpful signage and labels
  • displays on themes, topical issues, new books, read-alikes
  • photos of readers and their reading recommendations.

Along with a inclusive reader-friendly space you'll want reader friendly policies, service and strategies including:

  • an inclusive collection with a wide range of resources and formats
  • generous borrowing limits that reduce the likelihood of students being unable to borrow because of overdue or lost books and allow students to take a risk with a book
  • to promote books across ages -ie promoting easy reading fiction as “quick reads” to older children, helping encourage struggling readers to find books that suit their abilities
  • limiting choice can sometimes help someone who is overwhelmed, eg a “good books” box with 10 or so titles, or pick an alphabet card and then choose something to read just from that letter of the alphabet
  • friendly, helpful librarians who can connect with their library users and make connections between book and reader, “I thought of you"
  • active book promotion – visitors, talks, reviews, booklists, challenges, competitions, quizzes, top ten most popular books borrowed from the library, reading bingo or reading board games.

Thought provoking reads
A display of thought provoking reads

ImageThought-Provoking Reads for Junior High Students by Enokson on Flickr

Find out more about creating library friendly environments.

Online strategies and tools

  • using the library web catalogue and website to promote / connect / feature titles and readers
  • blogs in the classroom and library, individual or school, with reviews by students or links to reviews online
  • making book trailers using Photostory, Animoto, etc
  • tweeting about new books in the library or connecting a book club
  • QR codes to connect to reviews or an author’s website
  • screen savers or digital photo frames with scrolling photos of readers and their recommended books, or award winning titles, or top reads from the library
  • online personal or class reading logs, eg using LibraryThing or Shelfari – using the “if you liked this, you may like this…” function
  • online bookclubs, eg GoodReads, Biblionasium or Inside a dog
  • using Pinterest to create visual booklists
  • connecting through the library Facebook page, new books, author information
  • creating Livebinders with favourite books, authors, genres, themes, readalikes
  • Skyping with an author or students from another school
  • Using tools such as Prezi, Glogster, Slidely or ThingLink to promote titles, authors, genres, or reading favourites.

Reading culture

Helping students choose what to read is also about the wider reading culture context – helping students “become literary, not just literate. For young or struggling readers without rich book knowledge or wide reading experience, choosing what to read is so much more challenging. These suggestions are more broadly around immersing students in literature to give them the vocabulary, examples and recommendations they can apply when browsing.

  • Regular book talking and discussion time – why I chose this book, who else might like it, what kept me reading to the end, connections made with self / other texts / the world, enthusiasms, puzzlements….Steven Layne, in his book Igniting a passion for reading, calls this regular classroom book chat time “buzz about books”
  • Book clubs and literature circles, using “readers advisory” terms to discuss books – plot, character, setting, themes etc and exploring genre.
  • “Risk it for a biscuit” and other strategies to get students take a punt on a new title or genre.
  • Displays of books read and discussed in class to refer back to eg teacher’s reading, read alouds, class favourites.
  • Developing a strong and visible school-wide reading culture, home-school partnerships and community connections to promote the value, pleasures and benefits of being a reader.

Reading plans

Donald Graves suggests that one measure of an effective classroom reading programme is if students have reading plans, which help students know what to read next. 

  • Hooking kids into series, particular authors or genres can be an effective way of keeping reading momentum. 
  • It could help for students to keep an easy reading log or record of what they have tried and enjoyed, perhaps using LibraryThing or a notebook. 
  • A simple Someday or Books to consider list for future reading encourages students to jot down titles from a friend’s recommendation, reviews or booktalk sessions to refer to when browsing.

Another idea is having some structured reading requirements. The “Book Whisperer” author Donalyn Miller requires her middle grade students to read 40 books a year, free choice of titles, but across a range of genre.

Free choice is crucial. In his book Better Than Life, Daniel Pennac outlines 10 Rights of the Reader, which champion the freedom to read for pleasure:

  1. The right not to read
  2. The right to skip pages
  3. The right to not finish
  4. The right to reread
  5. The right to read anything
  6. The right to escapism
  7. The right to read anywhere
  8. The right to browse
  9. The right to read out loud
  10. The right to not defend your tastes.

Evidence-based practice

Evidence-based practice includes: evidence FOR practice, IN practice, OF practice.

If you are implementing new approaches and practices around helping students choose what to read, it may be interesting and useful to gather some information about students’ skills and attitudes. For example through a simple pre / post survey, about how they choose books, their level of confidence and success, strategies they use, what the issues are for them.

Find out more about student reading interest and surveys.

Further information

Becoming a classroom of readers, article by Donalyn Miller on ACSD website.

Just Right Books - a downloadable resource from Mrs Jessica White's blog. (PDF)

Rights of the reader (PDF)

Once upon a storytime article by Laura Armstrong on SCIS website.

Reading Suggestion Engines on Pinterest by Joyce Valenza

Chambers, A. (1991) The reading environment: how adults help children enjoy books. Stroud, UK: Thimble.