10 ways to up your book recommendation game


Recommending good books is half an input-based teacher’s job. It is also deeply rewarding to use books you love to connect with students. Here are 10 tips to give more exciting, compassionate book recommendations.

1. Know your students.
Take the time to get to know your kids by discussing shared stories, books or movies, or just chatting about anything that interests them. If they love the romantic stories you share, that can be a clue to recommending books.

2. Know your collection.
Read all your books, or at least skim them. Over the summer, I read Spanish-language versions of the same beginning readers I recommend in English and French to my students.  The time traditional teachers spend making worksheets or grading tests is more pleasantly spent reading good books.

3. Be honest.
“I tried this and I couldn’t get into it, but (this other student) said he loved it.” Honesty about a single book you disliked makes the other 10 you recommend seem more sincere. Be honest and avoid books you think won’t be a good fit for students.

4. Maintain a variety of genres and levels.
A variety of books makes recommending books easier. Realistic fiction is a good starting point for students who don’t yet have a favorite genre. Reading aloud and Sheltered Popular Literature can introduce students to new genres and titles. Recommend those books again later during readers conferences and kids are likely to give them a try.

5. Have a “First 30” list.
Be ready at any moment to spout off the first 30 easiest titles for beginning readers. These are easy books you are sure they can be successful with.  As you offer them the book, read the first page aloud (or two…or 100) to them, individually or in small group reading circles if time allows.

6. Be a little messy.
As you walk around, pull anything and everything from the shelves, Don’t re-shelve, just start a big stack.  My classroom library doesn’t use exact shelving or call numbers.  Kids are encouraged to pull books from anywhere, try out books, and return any they don’t want anywhere in that section/genre. Model exploring, putting your hands on books, and having fun.

7. Be spontaneous.
Don’t have the recommended books already pulled; this seems insincere.  You can have a mental list of books you want to recommend that kid, just let kids see you pull the titles off the shelf.

8. Ask questions.

Start your recommendation with a question. If you speak their L1, do so.  Ask “Have you tried mystery books?” or  “What do you think of comics?” Really listen. You may opt to record the conversion/impromptu readers conference later, but don’t take notes in front of students. Give them your full attention and adapt your recommendations based on their responses.

9. Make time for individual students.
Find the time to meet with each student one-on-one. Those students who struggle to find the right book will loiter in the library longer, so station yourself there or seek out readers who look lost.

Note to foreign language teachers or those with larger, homogenous groups all ready to start reading at once: invite first-time L2 readers to trickle to the library when they are ready. After shared stories get very long, tell students they can either read the story text or read a book.

10. Love your books.
Be enthusiastic when you recommend, and show off at least a few books you honestly loved reading. If you don’t love it, mention other students who gushed about it. Periodically weed out any books students don’t love: especially those with worn, dated covers or boring stories. Nothing makes teaching more joyful than a library you genuinely love.

Real Choice

This graphic organizer or that one?

Justin Beiber or Lady Gaga?

Free write about whatever you want.

Comprehension-based classrooms often offer what Alphie Kohn calls “pseudo-choice.”  Real choices have to allow children autonomy.  They may need guidance at first, but quickly they control what they read and how they respond to text.  Then, they self-identify as readers.

Krashen’s Stages Hypothesis slowly takes students from less to more choice…without the need for superficial choices.

1.  shared stories -little choice
1.5  Guided Self-Selected Reading – some choice
2.  FVR – choice!
3. Specialized Reading : total choice; the world is your oyster

Choice only grows over time.

I used sheltered instruction (sometimes mistakenly associated with “CALP” in the CI community) for the first several years of my career.   After I started using FVR, I had to leave it behind.  Once choice in books is a part of your class culture, there’s no going back to teacher-selected reading passages.

The Great Story Reading Project

The Great Story Reading Project begin with teachers of Chinese and expanded to seven languages and hundreds of teachers world-wide sharing comprehensible texts for free.  In July 2017, the Great Story Reading Project was launched by the Stories First Foundation, an educational nonprofit promoting stories and reading for language acquisition.

The site is a wiki: it can be read, shared, and printed for free by anyone.  Users may create an account and contribute comprehensible stories.  Users can also edit any typos, or adapt or translate any existing stories into other languages or ability levels.  All stories should be public domain or free of copyright.

One of my favorite stories, Rapunzel, is available  in English,  French, and Italian.  Want to help adapt it into Spanish, Japanese, or Chinese? Visit storiesfirst.org/greatstoryreadingproject to join in!


Just Drop “Immersion”

Stephen Krashen writes, “I suggest we simply stop using the term “’immersion.’” He suggests dropping “dual immersion” and “bilingual immersion” as well.
Many foreign language teachers glamorize “immersion” without fully understanding the term.  “Immersion” implies students should be surrounded by L2, which in certain second language (not foreign language) settings is used to promote prejudicial English-only laws. This impacts my English Language Learners who are deprived of bilingual education due to politics, ignorance, and confusion.
Please join Dr. Krashen in dropping this term from your vocabulary.

Specialized Reading & Student Choice

In his Stages Hypothesis, Stephen Krashen recommends:

1. Stories

2. Free Voluntary Reading

3. Specialized Reading (Academic Reading)

In 1. Stories and 2. FVR, students listen and read for just for fun.  However with 3. Specialized Reading. Students not only read what they love: they read to solve problems and feel like experts.

Specialized Reading requires:

1. many years of FVR to develop autonomous reading habits and advanced reading ability,  and 2. a high-interest non-fiction section in your classroom library or  Free Voluntary Websurfing.  Yet the real key to Specialized Reading is 3. student choice.  Think: independent study.

Students choose when they are ready to move away from FVR …don’t push them too soon.  If students test out of ESL before doing Specialized Reading, that’s okay.

Students choose when they have found a topic worth reading about.  They decide when to abandon that topic and move on.

Students choose what books, blogs, articles, etc. to read.  They may choose to skip any passages they don’t need and read only the passages that are interesting to them.

Students choose how to use the new knowledge they find in books.  As with any reading, no tests, no comprehension questions. Students seek answers to questions they create.  They respond to text in an autonomous, authentic way: usually with a product or project they decide on and feel passionate about.  If they loved an article on photography, they may chose to pick up a camera.  If they loved a book on fashion design, they may try out a few sketches.

All of these choices can be supported with teacher suggestions.  Yet student choice  ensures that text is compelling and comprehensible.


Krashen, S. (2018). Do Libraries and Teacher Librarians Have the Solution to the Long Term English Language Learner Problem? CSLA Journal, 41(2): 16-19. Available at: http://sdkrashen.com/content/articles/2018_krashen_long-term_ells.pdf

Krashen, S., Sy-Ying, L. & Lao, C. (2018). Comprehensible and Compelling: The Causes and Effects of Free Voluntary Reading. Libraries Unlimited: Westport, CT.

Creating Visuals


Myth: Story Listening is drawing a story.

Stage 1 of Story Listening uses drawing to create visuals by drawing them on the board during shared oral stories.  Later, students will slowly need fewer and fewer illustrations.  Eventually, they will prefer none at all. They will ask you to go faster than you can draw.

Dr. Beniko Mason informally that her intermediate students ask to hear a story once quickly with illustrations to get the gist; then they ask to hear it again without drawing.  Just ask your students what they prefer.

Truly Silent Reading

“I still suffer twinges of guilt when I have to ask students to stop talking during reading workshop. But they’re talking about books!…And they’re not reading. And they’re distracting the readers around them.” – Nancie Atwell, The Reading Zone p. 32
I have experienced this guilt and struggled with silent reading as well.  It is often hard to enforce complete silence during reading time.  I find the following helpful for sharing excitement for books, but maintaining silence.

  1. Designate a time for groups to exchange ideas after silent reading. Consider literary circles.  Always let students control:
    • What they read: students self-select, but may also abandon a book during the daily post-reading group discussion;
    • How long they will discuss;
    • What they will discuss: they should ask all the questions;
    • How they will discuss: they can respond by talking in L1, L2, or sketching, then exchanging sketchbooks.
  2. Have a system for students to write down ideas to share later.  In those moments children have an idea they want to share, get them in the habit of jotting down a quick note on a bookmark or post-it.  Note this should be voluntary. 
  3. Be available.  Instead of talking to a friend and distracting them, they should be able to share with you.  Make sure you whisper with students.
  4. Books on tape and ear buds as listening stations may help students get in a silent reading habit.  It can be hard to pull together throughout the year, but may be worth it for the very first few books.  When I first introduce literary circles, I give students a table full of 20 or so good first titles to choose from, each with sets of 5 books, an audio book and listening station.  Quickly students familiarize themselves with norms and ater a few weeks/a few books, they get free-reign of the library, typically leaving audio books behind.