What is a “Just Right” book? (For ALL level/age students)

Reading Time: 4-5 minutes

I’ve noticed in China recently, possibly due to the heavy marketing of the word “phonics”, that parents and Chinese teachers are spending more time on reading. 

Before, reading was merely “reciting” texts from the book that you listened to and followed along with on a poorly recorded tape or CD. It’s great that students are being encouraged to read more, but unfortunately  I’ve seen the bad side effects of improper teaching methods. 

What happens now is that students can sound out words but don’t know the meaning. They can read passages of words, but still don’t know the meaning. They haven’t been taught reading strategies or skills.

Kids need to read books that they can both decode (read the words) and comprehend (understand the meaning). Teachers call this a “just right” book, or a book that is at the child’s instructional level.

The “Goldilocks” Method

Let me explain what that means.

A “just right book” at a student’s instructional level is a book that stretches the student just a bit — not so much as to make them frustrated but enough to continue growth as a reader. This child would make an error on about one word out of twenty.

If your goal is to have students recite texts to pass tests, it doesn’t matter which books you give them or which methods you use to teach. All they have to do is improve their memoriziation skills. However, if you want them to enjoy reading and gain knowledge from what they read, that’s a completely different goal. 

So, if this what you want, keep reading. 

You’re probably wondering how can you tell if a book your student wants to read is at her instructional level? You can help your child do the “Five Finger Test” to figure out if the book is just right.

The Five Finger Test

  1. When your student finds a book they want to read, have him flip to a page in the middle of the book. (One with the same amount of text as the other pages.)
  2. Ask your student to read the page — out loud so you can help.
  3. From a closed fist, hold up a finger each time your student misses a word. They can do this on their own eventually.
  4. No fingers means that the book is an independent level — it’s easy to read and perfectly fine for part of a reading diet. One to five fingers means the book is at an instructional level — BINGO! — just right for them to grow as a reader. Six or more fingers means the book is at a challenge or frustration level and not recommended because the student won’t be able to comprehend the text.

Reading Levels Explained

The teacher can provide feedback by matching the book to the reader. This can be done by having the student read aloud while the teacher listens and records the miscues. At this time the teacher may also pay attention to the phrasing and fluency of the reading. After calculating the percent of miscues for accuracy, the teacher calculates an error rate. An error rate of 1 in 20 words suggests an easy text, an error rate of 1 in 10 suggests an instructional level text and an error rate of greater than 1 in 10 suggests a hard text (Fountas & Pinnell, 1999).

It would be acceptable, occasionally, for a student to choose a slightly difficult book if he or she is interested in a specific subject and finds a difficult book that centers on this subject. However, providing a steady diet of books that are too difficult for the student will cause more harm. The student needs to understand and enjoy the book for reading success. Many students who choose hard books give up on the book out of frustration. 

  • Too Easy
    • Have you read it lots of times before?
    • Do you understand the story very well?
    • Do you know almost every word?
    • Can you read it smoothly?
  • Just Right
    • Is the book new to you?
    • Do you understand a lot of the book?
    • Are there just a few words on a page you don’t know?
    • When you read, are some places smooth and some choppy?
  • Too Hard
    • Are there more than five words on a page you don’t know?
    • Are you confused about what is happening in most of this book?
    • When you read, does it sound choppy?
    • Is everyone else busy and unable to help you?

Helping them without just translating or telling them word… 

When they can’t read the word, say…

  • Can you sound it out?
  • Can you think of the word or movement that helps you remember that vowel sound?
  • What is the first and last sound? What word would make sense?
  • Does it have a pattern that you have seen in other words? (ex -an, -ack, re-, co-)
  • How does the word begin?
  • You said_______. Does that make sense?
  • What word would make sense that would start with these sounds?
  • Put your finger under the word as you say it.

When they want to read a book that is too hard, say…

  • Let’s read it together.
  • This is a book you will enjoy more if you save it until you are older — or later in the year.
  • [Be honest!] When people read books that are too hard for them, they often skip important parts. You will have more fun with this book if you wait until you can read it easily.



Related Articles:

The Complete Guide to Choosing Books for EFL Learners (Part 1)

Everyone Loves a Good Story! (Use it in YOUR Classroom)

50 Storybooks for Beginning Learners

Get a FREE E-Book: 100 Ways to Help Beginning Readers

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