5 Series My Emergent-Bilingual Readers Are Loving by Priscilla Thomas
Over the past 11 years, I have defended the necessity of independent reading in a wide variety of high school English classrooms. Whether my students were 9th grade boys in a vocational school or honors-level 11th graders, I have always believed in the value of reading for joy, reading by choice, and reading on your own. I’m obviously in good company, and I’m so grateful for professional organizations that align with my thinking, and communities like Nerdy Book Club that nurture me and my readers. But reading by choice has not always been a shared vision in the schools I have worked in, and my more recent work with newcomers to the US has demanded justification for the time given to independent reading.
“That’s ok for students who already speak English,” I have been told. “But these kids need to learn the language more than they need to read a story!”
Respectfully but consistently, I have disagreed. Fortunately, I now find myself teaching 9th and 10th grade emergent-bilingual students at a school that has embarked on a mission for school-wide independent reading, so I don’t need to spend as much energy advocating for reading. Instead, I get to focus on stocking our classroom library with books that my students want to read.
[A quick aside on terminology: I refer to my students here as emergent-bilingual students (as established by Ofelia Garcia), though that is not the official label attached to the young people I teach. My students are labelled as SLIFE (students with limited or interrupted formal education), ELLs (English language learners), newcomers/beginners, and a handful of other acronyms that are meant to identify them on school data reports. I use the term emergent-bilingual when talking about my students to remind myself and everyone I am speaking to that my students are not identified by what they lack or how others may view them as limited. I find that names matter (or as stories have taught me, that names have power), and naming my students as people with potential and ability allows me to see them as those who can.]
The books that my students are loving this year are as varied as they are themselves, but I am always keeping tabs on what flies off the shelves and stays off the shelves, getting passed around between students instead of retuned to the bin. Below are 5 of the most popular series for my 9th and 10th grade emergent-bilingual readers. This list features books in English, though multilingual reading and reading in native language is supported and encouraged in our classroom.
The I Survived… series by Lauren Tarshis
In these short works of historical fiction, Lauren Tarshis tells the stories of huge, world-shaping disasters through the eyes of young people. My students have been devouring this series so hungrily that I have yet to finish reading a single one – everything from I Survived the Sinking of the Titanic to I Survived Hurricane Katrina to I Survived the Shark Attacks of 1916, has been taken out of my very hands by an eager reader. The combination of the fictional narrative and the real facts about these historical events has my readers riveted, and it’s made for entertaining and educational reading conferences for us all. Scholastic has the series in a variety of bundles, so you can try out a handful if you want to give your readers an introduction to historical fiction. I have found that the students who enjoy these most appear to be reading at an early middle school level in their native languages.
Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Walters, and Brooke A. Allen
I feel like if you are not already on the Lumberjanes Train…what are you waiting for?! My own personal love for Lumberjanes coming along to give quirky, silly girls a fun fantasy camp-world to escape to, has been quickly picked up by my students; boys and girls alike cannot get enough. The art in these graphic novels is as vivid and appealing as watching cartoons, and the hilarious but still sometimes spooky storylines are the stuff that has my readers cozying up to read pages together and try to stifle their laughter. The writing is both accessible and layered, so readers of varying levels have been drawn into the series. It’s becoming one of the most re-read series in our classroom library, as well. Lumberjanes may be the best investment of my library purchases.
Orca Book Publishers
I first came to rely on Orca’s books as a staple of my classroom libraries when I taught a group of 10th graders that was the very portrait of “reluctant readers.” They had all the typical bristliness and malcontent of 10th graders, and on top of that, reading was hard. Middle grade books were dismissed as “for babies,” but the YA fiction that concerned the topics they were interested in were confusing and difficult to get through. I stumbled across Orca’s table at the NCTE Annual Convention that year and it was like my most desperate, grit-toothed prayer had been answered. Orca’s hi-lo series puts YA themes into MG level texts, allowing for older students to read about the topics and stories that draw them in and feel relevant to their lives – relationship drama, substance abuse, difficult family situations – in an accessible format. They also have Spanish and French translations of their series available. The books are short, but long enough to feel like an accomplishment for many of my students who have yet to read whole books on their own. I recently added some new titles to our classroom library and theirs were quickly the most popular bins of the week. Find them here.
The Hat trilogy by Jon Klassen
I’m sure it comes as no surprise that my students have been loving Jon Klassen’s trio of hilarious books: I Want My Hat Back, This Is Not My Hat, and the newest, We Found a Hat. The seemingly simple language and illustrations draw in my readers of all levels, even those who don’t quite get the same belly-laughing experience as readers who pick up on the tone and the off-page antics. When I brought in We Found a Hat, five of my students huddled up to read it together, before passing it off to another group of readers.
Who Would Win? By Jerry Pallotta and Rob Bolster
I came across this series on a Scholastic shopping spree a few months ago and, full disclosure, I ordered them for myself. Who Would Win? is pretty much the print version of the entertaining arguments we have at my house after we watch a fascinating animal documentary or YouTube compilation. The super-short, super-interesting books present information about the two animals in hypothetical combat in a variety of engaging formats: infographics, photographs, diagrams, and captivating illustrations. I have described this series to fellow teachers as “Zoobooks meets Pokemon,” and I was recently delighted to find one of my students creating a Pokemon-style illustration of a Komodo dragon, complete with “powers” and “special attacks,” after reading about the reptile’s chances against a king cobra. The series has had great crossover appeal, attracting readers who like animal stories along with those who prefer action and games, and their colorful, varied page styles have a magazine-like quality that seem to make them less intimidating than chapter books or articles on the same subjects.
As I said earlier, I’m fortunate to work in a school that has made reading, by choice and for pleasure, a goal for all students. But even in this kind of environment, there has been initial discomfort about choice-based reading and both teachers and students express anxiety over “taking away” English-language instruction to make time for reading. The strongest evidence that independent reading is worth it, I have found, is seeing that students enjoy it and want more of it. And that only happens when the choices available are interesting and accessible for the students we are teaching. I would love to hear what is working for YOUR readers, so please share some titles in the comments!
Priscilla Thomas is a teacher who has taught in NYC public schools around the Bronx for 11 years and counting. She is currently teaching at a school for newcomers to the US, in Queens, NY. She is a member of NCTE and the New York City Writing Project, and a lover of all things Nerdy. You can read more about her classroom and professional life at her blog, thosewhocan.org