Daniel was just finishing first grade when he discovered an illustrated version of Lord of the Rings on the book shelf in our home. He started asking about the book and my husband described the story to him. He said, "I am going to read this book." Keep in mind that Daniel was not even six years old at the time. He was just beginning to read very simple books by authors like Dr. Seuss. Although he was doing well, he was not exceeding first grade expectations. Books by an author like Tolkien would certainly not have been within his ZPD at the time. When he announced he would be reading this book, I just said, "OK," thinking that he would likely just look at the pictures, ask questions and allow us to read to the book to him. But that is not what happened. The summer between first and second grade was the summer that Daniel read Lord of the Rings. He asked for help of course...a lot in the beginning. As the summer progressed he asked for less and less assistance to read the words, but was increasingly interested in talking about the story. He wanted to understand character motivations and plot structure. He craved more information about the fictional world which the characters inhabited. Daniel's interest in the story propelled him far ahead of what he should have been able to read. He finished the book that summer and continued to be an exceptionally strong reader and writer. Daniel is all grown up now and writes for a living. He lives to tell stories and create exciting new worlds for readers and audiences. I shudder to think what may have happened if we had steered him away from the book that drove his obsession with story telling.
By now you may be thinking that my son is the exception. It is a rare child who will read Tolkien before turning six. While that is true, I have seen this sort of scenario play out over and over again. Do you remember when Harry Potter was first published? If you had been around any elementary school kids at the time you would know that reading this book became sort of a right of passage. I personally witnessed many struggling readers begin to find reading independence through the Harry Potter series. It was suddenly very cool to be a reader and kids just craved these stories. Even if they weren't great readers yet, they would struggle and work and struggle some more so they could read Harry Potter. Children who had never before read a whole chapter book, were suddenly devouring a 312 page novel.
Unfortunately, I also witnessed many kids completely shut down in the wake of the Harry Potter wave. The first book in the series was published just as many school libraries were being "leveled." Some teachers and librarians, in their quest to get kids reading "just right" books, denied kids access to Harry; instead directing them to books that were shorter and easier to read. Children were told they weren't good enough at reading yet to read Harry Potter. The adults missed a golden opportunity to create lifelong, enthusiastic readers, that would likely never happen again.
There is research to help us understand the role that interest plays in reading. This article by Denise Johnson and Anne Blair provides a good overview about the role of self-determination and reading success. What we know is that students who are allowed to read what is interesting to them will read more and will naturally choose things with varying levels of difficulty. If we want to help children become lifelong readers, we must help them find joy in reading. Books that are truly "just right" are the ones the kids really want to read.