GETTING HOOKED by Tricia Kiepert

When I was seven years old, I rode my bike to a neighborhood garage sale and found this gem:

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Yes folks, that mustard yellow cover and those awesome Flintstones decals were somehow irresistible to me and I had to have that book. The problem was it was 25 cents and I had no money with me (I was seven…pre-planning was not a strength). I sped back to my house and raced through the breezeway into my mother’s beauty salon, where my mother was setting a lady’s hair in rollers. She always had quarters jangling in her uniform pocket. Surely she could spare one for this amazing book I had to have.

She let me have a quarter and I hopped back on my bike to purchase the book. Thankfully no one else had been tempted by it! I brought it home and made a blankets-over-the-clothesline tent in the backyard and I looked at that book for hours. I couldn’t read the words yet, but I was fascinated by the pictures of the birds inside. I looked at them over and over again and tried to spot the birds in our backyard trees. I was hooked.

But this story isn’t really about me. It’s about the job we as teachers do every year to hook our kids on books and reading. My job as a first grade teacher is to get the kids SO excited about books that they will want to put in the difficult and important work of learning to read—decoding the text and practicing reading skills and strategies over and over. I get to make the joy of reading worth all of that work.

Some kids are easy.

When I met Addi a few weeks before school started, she told me she loved Little Critter. I made sure to show her book basket number eight, which was filled with Little Critter books of all kinds. I also decided that my Little Critter plush doll would have her name hanging around its neck on our welcome bulletin board.

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Lauren came into first grade with a love for Biscuit books. I showed her that basket number four was filled with Biscuit books and right next door in basket five she could find the adventures of Noodles, another adorable dog character.

Sam and Jordan have been as happy as Clammy Clams ever since I showed them Chris Raschka’s Thingy Things series.

After I read aloud Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson, Morgan got to keep the book in her book box and she’s read it at least ten times.

And I can’t tell you how many kids have gotten hooked on reading by seeing Barney Saltzberg’s Beautiful Oops! and Arlo Needs Glasses.

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But some kids are harder. It takes more than one try before they are motivated to search out books on their own. It takes a little more research to figure out what is going to hook them into reading for a lifetime.

Meet Elliot.

On the first day of school I noticed that Elliot was wandering around during book shopping time, but not really finding anything. When I asked him what kinds of books he liked to read, he said, “I can’t read.” So I showed him how we can read the pictures if the words are too hard and again stated that he could pick ANY books from the classroom library.

“I don’t like reading,” he said to me. Challenge accepted.

During later book shopping times, he halfheartedly picked out some books, but I couldn’t seem to recommend anything that excited him. Until one day, he came in from recess with a pile of small stones in his hand. He was interested in the different colors, shapes, and sizes. He talked of having a rock collection at home.

That day I showed Elliot where the rock and mineral books were in our classroom and asked if he would like to choose some for his book box. His eyes lit up and I finally saw that excitement I had been looking for. During independent reading time, Elliot pored over those rock books. He took them home in his book bag. He showed me the pictures of the rocks he had at home. At this point, the words were still too hard, but Elliot was engaged in looking at those books.

Now I wondered how I would keep it going.

It was October when I discovered Mike Curato’s new book, Little Elliot, Big City. I read it to my class. Twice. In a row. And we all loved it. Usually we pick name sticks to see who gets to keep the read aloud in their book box to reread on their own, but this time I wondered aloud who should get to keep this one. The whole class called out, “Elliot!”

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Ahhh, it was beautiful. Elliot was happy to be the designated reader and he took Little Elliot, Big City home in his book bag to share with his family. His mother (bless her heart) purchased a copy of the book to have at home. Because he had heard the book so many times, he could read it himself. And that was pretty exciting.

As the weeks went by, I noticed that Elliot was writing a lot of small moment stories about catching snakes (sidenote: Elliot came into first grade not wanting to write at all. Now he writes volumes about the topics he loves). During book shopping one day, I showed Elliot the number twelve baskets, where he could find some books about snakes. He went through every basket and found ALL of the snake books and added them to his book box. Because he was interested and had some background knowledge, he worked a little harder at figuring out the words.

It seemed like nonfiction was the way to go with Elliot, but it is often hard to find a multitude of nonfiction that is a good fit for an emerging reader. Fortunately I found a good resource and chose some titles I knew would interest Elliot that he would be able to read and practice.

Now it is spring and Elliot has made so much progress! He sees himself as a reader. He likes books about nature and animals and has found joy in Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books. He will most likely be reading at or above grade level by the end of first grade.

When Elliot’s mom asked him the other day if he loved reading, he said, “No, but I LOVE writing!” He had a notebook in his hand and was talking about all of the things he was going to journal about and the stories he was going to write.

Elliot may not LOVE reading (right now, anyway), but I’m pretty sure he’s hooked on something great!

Tricia Kiepert teaches 1st grade in West Michigan. She enjoys cooking and baking and reading lots and lots of books. She is afraid of clowns and mascot-type creatures. You can find her on Twitter @tkiepert.