So your students are starting to read chapter books!…

We are so pleased to have the amazing Jennifer Serravallo back as a guest blogger this week sharing her expertise on reading comprehension with all of us. Jen is the author of the Independent Reading Assessment for grades 3, 4, and 5 in Fiction and Nonfiction (Scholastic, 2012, 2013) and of the Heinemann titles Teaching Reading in Small Groups (2010) and Conferring with Readers (2007). She’s a speaker and independent literacy consultant who worked for 8 years at the TCRWP. You can find her at or follow her @jserravallo. This week you can find her right here on chartchums! Welcome Jen!

So your students are starting to read chapter books!…

(But although it looks like reading, are they really getting it?)

It’s that time of year in many primary classrooms. The time when readers go from reading and re-reading stacks of short books at lower levels…and start reading (drumroll please) **chapter books!**

Kids wear this chapter book reading identity like a badge of honor. Teachers marvel at how many levels the students have progressed. Every line of students’ reading logs are filled with a single series being read at school and at home. And parents, with pride, buy their kid every book in the entire series he or she is obsessed with.

Can you tell what Luna's current reading passion is?

Can you tell what Luna’s current reading passion is?

BUT…. But now our conferences get trickier. We sit down, say “how’s it going?” and find that it’s harder to know – really know – if the student is getting it. In fact, what does getting it even mean now?

In this post, I’ll offer you a few tips to make sure that you’re supporting students’ comprehension in chapter books. Having a May and June of engaged readers and a summer of self-directed reading depends on it! (check out my friend Chris Lehman’s May 11 post on summer reading:

1.    Make sure you are looking at whole book comprehension

Those running records you did at pre-chapter book levels meant kids were reading the whole book before retelling and/or answering some comprehension questions. But now that they’re in chapter book-land, they’re likely only reading an excerpt or a constructed passage for a running record. Comprehension questions don’t look at what happens across 60 pages – so now you need a new way to do that.

Stop and reflect spots help assess understanding of the whole book.

Stop and reflect spots help assess understanding of the whole book.

Consider planting sticky notes inside of chapter books that ask children to reach back into earlier pages to demonstrate how well a reader is able to accumulate information from across many pages, synthesize that information, and make meaning. You can create a chart to share these questions with students as tools for them to self-monitor their own comprehension, too!

Questions to ask yourself to check your understanding.

Questions to ask yourself to check your understanding.

  • What is happening now? What caused this to happen?
  • Why is ______ acting like this?
  • How has the character changed from the beginning of the story until now?
  • What is a lesson you learned after reading the whole book?

2.   Make sure you know your library well enough to pull off your conferences

It’s impossible to expect that you’ll know every single book in your entire library. But the good news about early chapter books is that you don’t have to. Try to aim to know popular series and levels.

If you’ve read one Magic Tree House, you’ve read them all (sorry, Mary Pope Osborne). Early chapter book series are predictable on purpose: They are meant to support children new to stories of this length with characters they know and plots that feel startlingly similar one to the next. Try to read at least one book from of each of the popular series and you’ll feel like you know a whole section of your library.

Second, try to have a two-book-per-level touchstone text. Know two titles from each level and think about what makes that level more challenging than the one before it. I find it helpful to think in terms of four categories:

  • Plot and Setting – what’s new in this level about how many events happen within and across chapters? Is the plot linear? How familiar are the settings and how much support is there to know the settings?
  • Character – how well-developed are the characters at this level as compared to the prior level? What changes do the characters go through? How important are secondary characters?
  • Vocabulary and Figurative Language – how frequently will a reader encounter challenging words or phrases? How much support is there in the text to figure out their meaning?
  • Themes and Ideas – What are the messages and lessons a reader should take away from the text? How clearly does the reader understand these?

3.   Make sure your students have an image of what it means to really understand whole books. 

The intersection between text complexity (what’s hard about the book) and a reader’s skill lies in what it looks like for the reader to truly understand. I meet fifth graders every week who describe a character in a book at level U as “nice.”  To me, that’s level K work in a level U text. And that equates to not really getting the book.

We need to hold students to the expectation that they have to demonstrate their comprehension (whether written or oral) that shows they’re making meaning equivalent to the meaning that can be made given the level. For example, you can’t expect a reader to explain character change at level K where characters don’t really change. But if a reader at level N can’t articulate how the character’s changed, then he’s missing out on some meaning.

Consider describing for students what it looks like to really be “getting it” and then showing an example. You might read aloud a book such as Judy Moody, and co-create rubrics that show varying levels of understanding. Kids can then monitor, and mentor, responses to their own books to those on the charts.

Here’s one for Plot and Setting:

The sample post-its provide examples of  expectations.

The sample post-its provide examples of expectations.

One for Character:

Understanding Character rubric.

Understanding Character rubric.

An example for Vocabulary and Figurative Language:

Vocabulary and Language rubric.

Vocabulary and Language rubric.

And Themes and Ideas:

Themes and Ideas for Level M readers to consider as they stop and jot.

Themes and Ideas for Level M readers to consider as they stop and jot.

Here’s to deeper comprehension, you chapter book readers!

Thanks Jen!

Happy Charting!

Marjorie and Kristi


7 Comments on “So your students are starting to read chapter books!…”

  1. luckeyfrog says:

    My 3rd graders had reading journals where they had to write a response to their writing. A lot of people do letters where the students just retell or summarize, but I told my students that their journals were for THEIR thoughts- not the things I could find in the book, but the things I could find in their heads ABOUT the books. I would respond back and forth to them, and they grew so much. I could really tell who was truly understanding and thinking deeply about their reading.

    I also would occasionally read a response aloud (anonymously) and have the students “rate” it with their fingers, 1-4. I love the idea of correlating the points to an anchor chart showing an example of each one. I think after modeling, it would be perfect to use after a read-aloud! You could give every student a Post-It note and then let them rate how strong they think their response was by placing it in the appropriate area on the chart!

    Thanks for some great ideas!

  2. learningontheedge says:

    This is great! I like how you have developed a learning continuum to gauge the kids of responses. This is something I would love to work for when my first graders become my second graders next school year.

  3. Margaret C says:

    Super, super helpful – thank you!

  4. […] So your students are starting to read chapter books!… (guest post by Jennifer Serravallo) […]

  5. Nancy says:

    Conferring about chapter books has been a challenge but you have definitely given some great advice. Thank you very much. I am now a follower.

  6. alyssia2777 says:

    Reblogged this on What Rahni Is Reading and commented:
    Excellent post that we are immediately incorporating into Rahni’s weekly reading journal for school! Check it out!!

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