Gross-Out Books

Why are blood and guts, gross out humor, and enormous spiders so endlessly fascinating?  Because they’re cool, that’s why.  And the idea of pursuing your curiosity despite it being taboo or displeasing to adults is empowering.  

As students gain knowledge about the gross and weird, they proudly think, “‘Listen to me.  I know what adults know too, and I am brave enough to speak of the unspeakable!’ They are pushing the edges of their knowledge as they push the edges of acceptability,” according to Jobe and Dayton-Sakari (73).

Students feel empowered as they build a special knowledge base through narrow reading.  When possible, encourage students to find a single subject to read narrowly on (yes, even if that subject is the later stages of digestion).  

Single-Topic Gross-Out Books

  • Gross-Out Animals That Do Disguisting Things by Ginjer Clarke 
  • Bugopedia by Discovery Kids
  • That’s Disgusting series by Connie Colwell Miller
  • Poop: a Natural History of the Unmentionable by Nicola Davies
  • Sanitation Investigation Series by Capstone
  • Icky, Sticky Gross Stuff series by Pam Rosenberg (warning, the Icky, Sticky, Gross Stuff in Your Food book is in fact quite gross)
  • Real Scary Spiders by Animal Planet


*The following books jump from subject to subject.  They don’t have the same effect as true narrow reading in a content area, however, they allow students to browse until they find exactly what they are interested in reading.

  • Grossology by Sylvia Branzei
  • Almanac of the Gross Disgusting and Totally Repulsive by Eric Elfman*
  • National Geographic’s Ultimate Weird but True series*
  • The “Guiness Book of World Records” series*
  • Oh, Yikes! History’s Grosses Moments by Joy Masoff



Free Voluntary Websurfing:



Jobe, R. & Dayton-Sakari, M. (2002). Info-Kids: How to use nonfiction to turn reluctant readers into enthusiastic learners.  Ontario, Canada: Pembroke.


Struggling-With-Life Readers

Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney; Llama Llama refuses to read with friends because he misses Mama.

Marco* was a challenging 6th grader with a chip on his shoulder.  He was resentful and rude with most teachers and students.  When I read aloud and shared book suggestions, he tried hard not to care.  When it was Marco’s turn to conference, he felt empowered stating “I hate reading.”  I replied confidently that he just hasn’t found the right book yet. No power struggle or blaming?  Marco was confused.

The nurturing, motherly thing that reading with children can be hurt Marco: his mother was in Honduras.  Marco’s father worked very long hours, always promising to bring his family together with the next paycheck.  Dealing with the setback of having to learn to read all over again on top of everything else he was dealing with– it was easier to just not read.

Eventually, his friend’s enthusiasm chipped away at him.  They roped him into a literary circle where he found his favorite series: Dragon Ball Z.  He toned down his earlier defiance with “I hate reading –except comics, I like comics.”  Soon this act wore thin too. He read enthusiastically and shared books with his friends. The last week of school, Marco embraced his reading identity and admitted what I already knew: “I love reading.”  With this statement, he accepted a lot more than just books.  Grumpy, aloof, or hostile feels easier at first.   Yet, given time, books help us accept what is good and joyful, even as we struggle with what is unfair and painful.


*I changed Marco’s name for his privacy.  However, Dragon Ball Z is a real manga series that my kids are really addicted to.

Effortless Reading: Magazines

Dr. Krashen’s Effortless Reading Hypothesis: we acquire literacy best when we read whatever feels easy (84).  Nothing feels easier than flipping through a soft-cover magazine with brilliant, colorful photos to find an article that speaks to you.  The visuals, short blurbs, call-out boxes, and high-interest topics feel exciting.  Inexpensive to replace, magazines are perfect to send home with students, and easy for students to gather around and share with friends.

Some of my favorite magazines:


Continue reading Effortless Reading: Magazines

Story Listening + Book Talk

Is it a Book Talk or Story Listening? Is sharing your favorite cars magazines Free Voluntary Reading or can it morph into content-based instruction?  When sharing books and stories that inspire genuine curiosity, my classroom will not be limited to a single method.

Here I combine Story Listening with a Book Talk on the book Cardboard by Doug Tennapel.  The overlap between Story Listening and Sheltered Popular Literature is obvious: there is no test or comprehension questions, just an invitation to join in a good story.  (Note, the book was swooped up by an eager reader before the end of the Book Talk.)

A Print Oasis

Outside of your classroom, many children do not have a safe, clean environment where books are displayed proudly.  Jim Trelease warns that a “print desert” deprives children of access to books, reading role models, and a place to get excited about reading (108).  Send the message that books enrich our lives by decorating your classroom with books: on shelves, walls, and desks, under and on the whiteboard, and every available surface.

When Displaying Books:

  • Books should look intentionally placed, not cluttered.  Displays should be colorful and feature only books with attractive covers.
  •  Whenever space allows, books should face out (Trelease, 89).


  • Donalyn Miller cautions against labeling an “easy” section.  Instead consider placing easier books (ex. comic books) on the same shelf, but in bins facing out to lure new readers.


  • Don’t be afraid to display books by interest, or even target groups (ex. boys or girls). Switch out the books on display frequently.

Involving students in book displays:

  •  Students should have a routine for sharing what they are reading in a way that builds community.  Frank Serafini recommends ”providing space for personal collections, or book baskets, for students to organize future reading materials” (35).  Another approach is an individually-designated spot (ex. round table or edge of a white board) where books can be left at the end of the day for the group to see and share on a daily basis.


  • During daily lessons, display books in an inviting way.  Use this time to model selecting and talking about books with friends.  Encourage spontaneous response-to-text: if students have an interesting comment, let them dictate it to you.


  •  Instead of book reports, consider asking students to create book displays to show off what books they read and what they loved about them.


Miller, D., & Anderson, J. (2011). The book whisperer: awakening the inner reader in every child. New York, NY: Scholastic Inc.

Serafini, F.  (2015).  Reading Workshop 2.0: Supporting Readers in the Digital Age. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Trelease, J. (2013). The read-aloud handbook. New York: Penguin Books.

Not Just Reading, Pleasure Reading

“I do not promote reading to my students because it is good for them or because it is required for school success. I advocate reading because it is enjoyable and enriching.” – Donalyn Miller, The Bookwhisperer


Everyone knows it is “good for you” to read…or join a debate team… or go to college…but these things feel overwhelmingly lofty for less traditionally academic children.  The rich get richer and poor get poorer when students consider reading for the sake of external achievements (Stanovich).

The solution is pleasure reading, also known as Free Voluntary Reading.  Reading because it is pleasurable -not just because it will get you a better grade, job, or social status- appeals to all learners. Those who have failed to make the grade before, struggling readers, benefit most from pleasure reading (Mason, 1997).  Non-English major university students, presumably less likely to read in English to promote future careers, make much higher gains with Free Voluntary Reading (Mason, 2007).

Programs like Accelerated Reader that use external rewards make it likely that students will quit reading after the rewards end (Krashen 2011, 49).  Pleasure reading shows gains on tests of reading comprehension (Krashen, 2011; Mason 2004; Yamashita).  Pleasure reading lures in all children: those who know they will be president someday and those who think they’ll drop out next year.

Mason, B. & Krashen, S. (1997). Can Extensive Reading Help Unmotivated Students of EFL Improve? International Journal of Applied Linguistics.  Retrieved from:

Mason, B. (2004). The effect of adding supplementary writing to an extensive reading program.  The International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching (IJFLT), 2(2): 12-15.

Mason, B.  (2007). The Efficiency of Self-Selected Reading and Hearing Stories on Adult Second Language Acquisition s, more efficient.  “Selected Papers from the sixteenth international symposium on English Teaching.” English Teachers’ Association / ROC, Taipei: 630-633.  Accessed at:

Krashen, S. (2004).  The Power of Reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, and Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited (2nd edn.).

Krashen, S. D. (2011). Free voluntary reading. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Stanovich, Keith E. (1986).”Matthew Effects in Reading: Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy.” Reading Research Quarterly, 21(4): 120-125.

Yamashita, S. (October 2013). Effects of extensive reading on reading attitudes in a foreign language. Reading in a Foreign Language.  25(2): 248–263

Sheltered Popular Literature

To develop life-long reading habits, the only true necessity is plenty of time and access to good books.  However, children benefit greatly from reading role models, adult and peer engagement, and even direct instruction in how to select books.

Sheltered Popular Literature is an approach to promoting Free Voluntary Reading.  It was envisioned and first described by Stephen Krashen, but it remains largely unused in language classrooms.  Unlike more intensive reading approaches, Sheltered Popular Literature supports but does not stifle autonomous reading; students are given choice in books and limited accountability.  Books are not limited to “classics,” as the goal is to introduce children to high-interest books to help them discover what they love to read and feel comfortable navigating the library.


Continue reading Sheltered Popular Literature