How to Choose Just Right Books – The Five-Finger Rule

Please note – some of the links below are affiliate links. If you click on them and make a purchase, I may receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. I only recommend products I love and have used personally. Thank you for supporting my blog.

Last week, my son came home from school with a reading book that was far too difficult for him.

“But my teacher said I could take it home,” he assured me. “My friend, Sarah, really likes it.”

As I listened to my son struggle through the first page, I knew he was going to get too frustrated to finish the book. Then, he would feel like a failure. And, he would feel like he wasn’t a good reader.

It was time to teach my son how to choose a ‘just right’ book. I offered to read the book to him, but explained that the book was too hard for him to read independently.

Children need help to choose independent reading books, especially when they’re starting out.

An independent reading book is one that is at the right level to promote fluency and reading comprehension.

What Is Reading Fluency?

child reading book and tracking with finger

“Reading fluency is the ability to read accurately, smoothly and with expression.”

Fluent readers will be able to recognize words automatically without having to sound them out. Fluent readers are able to read with expression and read for meaning. They are beyond the point of struggling simply to decode the text.

Increasing fluency is a priority of first and second grade teachers everywhere.

When you help your child choose a just right book, you are helping your child improve his ability to read fluently.

Why is Reading Comprehension Critical?

The entire purpose of reading is to understand what we are reading. We read to find out how to do something, to locate information, to answer questions, and also for pleasure.

“While people read for many different reasons, the chief goal is to derive some understanding of what the writer is trying to convey and make use of that information.”

If a child is able to decode (figure out the words), but not comprehend the text, we must help him develop reading comprehension skills. Part of this is by focusing on unknown vocabulary words.

The Importance of Vocabulary Development

When I studied Spanish Literature in college, I realized just how important vocabulary development is to reading comprehension. While I could decode books in Spanish, if I didn’t understand enough words on the page, I didn’t get the gist of the story. It became important to learn as many Spanish vocabulary words as I could.

It is the same for children. We must help them develop as much vocabulary as we can to aid the reading comprehension process. When we give them a book that is too difficult, they won’t understand it. If there are too many challenging vocabulary words on the page, it will interfere with their ability to comprehend the text. That is why it is critical to choose a ‘just right’ book.

How To Choose A ‘Just Right’ Book – The Five Finger Rule

boy holding up a hand with all five fingers extended

  1. Encourage your child to choose a book that looks interesting. Is the illustration on the front cover appealing? Does the title make you want to read the story?
  2. Do a ‘book walk’. Flip through the pages, look at the illustrations, and read the captions and/or chapter titles. Does the book capture your imagination?
  3. Open the book to a page in the middle of the story. Ask your child to read the page. As your child encounters difficult words he/she should hold up a finger. If your child is holding up 5 or more fingers by the end of the page, the book is too difficult to read independently.

Of course, we must apply this rule with common sense. If a child mispronounces names of people or places. This doesn’t count. My son loves reading tales of Greek heroes and mythology. I can’t even pronounce some of the names so I don’t count them when we use the 5-finger rule.

Now that I’m a parent, I believe this is one of the most important concepts a teacher can share with parents and children. The Five-Finger rule empowers children to choose books that will promote both literacy and enjoyment.

There are times to let children choose too easy and too hard books.

When To Choose Too Easy Books

Sometimes it’s beneficial to revisit ‘easy’ books. I encourage my son to read picture books to his little brother. He loves to do this and it really helps his reading fluency and ability to read aloud with expression. I love to hear them laughing together.

If you would like to read a post about funny picture books to read with children, try this one:


When to Use Challenging Books

I expose my son to challenging books every evening when I read him a story. Challenging books are books that are above his independent reading level. I purposely choose stories like Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone because I know my son will love the stories. I choose these books to promote vocabulary development and to provide ample opportunities for discussions with me. Not only do we enjoy these book discussions, but they also help with reading comprehension. My son’s high school English teacher will thank me one day for his ability to make predictions and answer inferential questions.

I hope the Five-Finger Rule for choosing ‘just right’ books helps you. Happy reading!

Leave a Comment