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Choosing a Book in the Comfort Zone

By: Elaine K. McEwan

Estimates indicate that students can acquire and retain two or three words per day through direct, explicit, contextualized instruction. Given a 180-day school year, that comes to 360-540 words per year, a far cry from the vast number of words necessary for adequate vocabulary growth. In addition to direct, explicit instruction of word meanings, you can encourage students to read more. To accomplish this, students must be taught how to select books at their appropriate reading level, avoiding boredom and frustration. Reading in the "comfort zone" means that students read well enough to understand the text. There are three components to reading in the comfort zone:

  • Accurate decoding of 95% of the words or better
  • Knowledge of at least 90% of the words
  • Comprehension of at least 75% of the words

Frequently, student novels and textbooks are written above the comfort zone of at-risk readers. Therefore, students must be explicitly taught how to select appropriate books while enjoying Incentives that encourage them to read.

A book in the comfort zone means you can read 98% of the words accurately.

  1. Select a book that seems interesting.
    • Read the title and front and back covers
    • Look at the size of the font, the illustrations, the white space, and the number of pages.
    • If the book still seems interesting to you, continue with the following steps. If not, choose another book.
  2. Choose three sections in the book to test: one near the beginning, one near the middle, and one near the end.
  3. Count out about 20 words in the first section, or about three lines of text.
  4. "Whisper-read" the passage.
  5. Mark any words you have trouble with or do not understand. (Do not count names of people.)
  6. Look away from three passage and tell yourself what you just read.
  7. If you missed more than one word, the passage was too hard.
  8. If you could not explain what the passage was about, the passage was too hard.
  9. Repeat Steps 3-8 for the middle and ending sections of the book.
  10. If you missed zero or one word in each passage and you could explain each passage, the book is in your comfort zone. Read and enjoy! (If two or more passages are too hard, save the book for later in the year.)

McEwan, E.K. (2008). The reading puzzle: Vocabulary. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press