Using the Five Finger Rule to Help Your Child Find a Book that is “Just Right” to Read Independently

Hurray, your child is a reader now!  This can be a truly exciting time for him or her.  Being able to read independently opens a whole new world of adventure.  If a child is given the chance to choose what he or she wants to read, they are more likely to develop of love of reading.  Of course, you can still help guide them towards books that are at an appropriate independent reading level and read to them, but it’s also important for children to be able to find out what they like.  The 5 Finger Rule is a quick and easy way to show your child how to know if a book is “Just Right” (not so challenging that they are struggling, yet not too easy).

What is Independent Reading?

“Independent reading is the reading students choose to do on their own. It reflects the reader’s personal choice of the material to be read as well as the time and place to read it. Independent reading is done for information or for pleasure. No one assigns it; no one requires a report; no one checks on comprehension. Independent reading is also called voluntary reading (Krashen 1993; Short 1995; Morrow 1991), leisure reading (Greaney 1980), spare time reading (Searls 1985), recreational reading (Manzo and Manzo 1995), and reading outside of school (Anderson, Wilson, and Fielding 1988).

Voluntary reading involves personal choice, reading widely from a variety of sources, and choosing what one reads. Aliterates, people who have the ability to read but choose not to, miss just as much as those who cannot read at all. Individuals read to live life to its fullest, to earn a living, to understand what is going on in the world, and to benefit from the accumulated knowledge of civilization” (continue reading here)

Five Finger Rule

Have your child:

  • Randomly select (roughly) a page for picture books or a paragraph for chapter books.
  • Begin reading
  • Put up a finger for each word that he or she struggles reading or is unable to read independently
  • Continue reading the rest of the page or paragraph
  • If, by the end of the passage, your child is holding up 5 or more fingers, he or she is probably not at an independent reading level for that book.

Shouldn’t I Direct My Early Reader Towards Books That Are Challenging?

You may be wondering, “Isn’t it good to challenge early readers? Isn’t this how they grow and progress on to more advanced reading?”  The answer to this question is YES!  It’s absolutely important to provide challenging texts in order to teach them how to become better readers.  This happens during reading instruction or during “reading together” times. However, I’m talking about independent “for fun” reading.  When was the last time you really enjoyed a book that had you sounding out every other word? See my point here?  If reading is always a struggle and never fun, odds are your child will never learn to love it!   Children need opportunities to read books that they choose and that are Just Right for them.

A Few Notes:

  • Please, please, please don’t confuse this with instructional reading or even having mom or dad sitting beside them, following-along-reading.  In both of those other scenarios, an adult is present, guiding or instructing the child.  Independent reading is just that–independent.
  •  It’s important to understand that this is a general “rule of thumb” approach. I tend to stay away from absolute, black or white approaches to anything.  If your child has his or her heart set on a book for independent reading that is above what the 5 Finger Rule shows would be independent reading, let them try it!  For example, as a 4th-grade teacher I once had an exchange student who was below the reading level in English.  He, like most of the other students in my class at that time, was in love with the Harry Potter series.  I knew that this book was considerably above his independent reading level, yet I never advised him that he should choose an easier book to read during DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time.  He loved the series and I was not about to squelch that.
  • The point of the 5 Finger Rule is to empower children to be able to make their own book selections-not to limit them with a rigid rule.

5 Ways to Encourage a Love of Reading in Your Young Child

Comments? Suggestions? Please share!

Jennifer Rustgi developed a love of children’s literature during her years teaching reading as an elementary school teacher and became inspired to write her own stories through her experiences with her young daughter. She lives in Austin, Tx. with her family. A Moon of My Own is her second children’s book.