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Using Series to Support Middle-Grade Readers

By Alycia Zimmerman on April 4, 2012
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5

It’s no surprise that series books are the most popular section of my classroom library. Series books provide excellent support for middle-to-late elementary students who are transitioning into the more independent stages of their reading development. From the predictable, episodic series at the earlier part of this reading band to the single story-arc dramas that dominate the more advanced series, I’ve seen students make great strides when they plug into a just-right series. Read on for tips about using series books in your classroom. Then, next week, I’ll share a list of my favorite series books for kids!


Getting to Know “Transitional” Middle-Grade Readers

Before thinking about how to use series books in our classrooms, it is helpful to think about who will be using these books — namely, our middle to upper elementary students. In most grades 2–5 classrooms, many of the students are considered “transitional readers.” That is, they have moved past the emergent/early reading stage with its focus on decoding predictable texts. However, transitional readers have not yet reached the advanced/proficient/independent stage, and still need some supports to help them with increasingly challenging texts. They are well on their way in their reading development, and series are a great way to help them over the comprehension hurdles of this stage.

Transitional readers have wide-ranging reading needs that look very different in terms of their reading behaviors. In general, transitional readers may be tackling some of these challenges:

  • Sustaining comprehension and interest over longer, more complex chapter books
  • Inferring content-specific vocabulary
  • Understanding a wider range of genres that require more background knowledge

The Case for Series Books

My students talk about their favorite book series the way some of us teachers talk about our favorite Thursday night TV programs. “Have you tried Lemony Snicket? It’s sooo cool!” one student tells his friends. Meanwhile, other students swap their Geronimo Stilton books each morning with the fervor of art house auctioneers. What is it about series books that tempt some young readers to read ten, twenty, even thirty books in succession?

In her book On Solid Ground: Strategies for Teaching Reading, Sharon Taberski writes about the supports provided in series chapter books:

Children at the transitional stage read a lot of ‘series’ books. Through their shared characters, settings, and events, these books support transitional readers’ development just as the repetitive language and structure of emergent and early texts supported them when they were starting out (p. 17).

As reading teachers, we know that our students need to read many books at their independent reading level in order to make progress. (For more information about the correlation between time spent reading and reading achievement, check out Richard Allington’s research, such as this article about effective elementary literacy instruction.) However, many transitional readers have a difficult time “getting into a book,” and some reluctant readers spend more time browsing for books than actually reading them. Once a student is comfortable with a series, he will have many books with which to practice reading before having to face the challenge of finding a new book again. When a student is hooked on a series, I generally breathe a sigh of relief — he’s set, at least for now!


Five Tips for Teaching With Series Books

  • I dedicate a large section of my classroom library to series books. Even when I place the same series books into my leveled baskets, my students are far less likely to pick up that book. I don’t know exactly why, but I find that my students always gravitate towards the series baskets.

  • To get my students hooked on a particular series, I often begin a series with the entire class as a read-aloud. Other times, I introduce a series with a guided reading group or book club. For instance, after I began reading the tale of the vampire rabbit Bunnicula to my class, over half my students begged me to add the rest of the series to our library. They were already “friends” with the characters, and I had prepared them for the challenges of reading this series (mainly the vocabulary) during my interactive read-alouds.
  • Some children suffer acute withdrawal upon finishing a beloved series. I had one student who simply stopped reading altogether when she got to the last Little House novel. She explained to me that she didn’t want the series to end — that she’d miss Laura too much. We need to be sensitive to our students’ reading needs and anxieties as they finish up a series. Some students experience their first success as fluent chapter book readers with series books, and they may unconsciously worry about finding other books they can succeed with. It’s crucial to help them find another engrossing book or series to tackle. (It turned out that Caddie Woodlawn was just the book this student needed to help her say “good-bye for now” to Laura.)
  • When I have several students reading one series, I’ll often create another basket in the library labeled “If you love [Insert Series Title], you might also like . . . ” For example, for students who love the Ivy and Bean series, I’ll put a basket next to it with books from the Clementine series, the Mallory series, and the Babysitters Club series. Scholastic’s BookAlike feature in their Book Wizard is particularly helpful in finding next-book suggestions for students who are in limbo.

  • Be on the lookout for students who get “stuck” in a particular series. Some students truly need to read every Magic Tree House book, but other students may stick with the series even after they have outgrown it. Other students bounce back to series that they’ve previously read because they want to relive their “glory days.” Thankfully, some favorite early-series authors like Ron Roy and Debbie Dadey write more than one series, which can make for an easy transition for stuck series readers. However, when one of my students logged her twenty-fifth Boxcar Children book, I had to stage a mini-intervention, my own childhood copy of Nancy Drew in hand to tempt her. Two teaching guides, for grades 23 and grades 45, have suggestions for “gateway books” to help students transition out of a series. 

Stay tuned: next week, I’ll share a list of some of my favorite book series. (For more series suggestions follow me on Twitter too!) In the meantime, be sure to sign up for Scholastic’s Series Favorites Live Webcast scheduled for April 17, featuring the authors of Goosebumps, Guardians of Ga'Hoole, and Dear Dumb Diary.  

I keep series books easily accessible, and I change the selection throughout the year.

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