I remember falling in love with my first book. My mom used to take me to the library once a week so she could study. I would hang in the kids section browsing books, generally bored. I had the choice of any book in a large children’s section and I made a lot of choices. One day I found a book I loved. It was Alanna by Tamora Pierce. I loved it because of the setting (specifically the time period-medieval times), the magic and the female empowerment. So I read more by this author because many of her books have these elements. Then I searched out similarly written books- books of the same genre or with similar settings. I was off to the races. I was no longer in love with one book- I was in love with reading. I wonder who I would be today if I hadn’t had the choice to explore whatever books I liked until I fell in love? I think all of our students deserve this opportunity.
Why is it important to give students choice in their reading?
Because giving them choice provides a better opportunity for engagement with the text. They have to choose to engage. Take my own life as for example. I am a self-professed bibliophile. I love books. I collect them, surround myself by them, immerse myself in them. I also put a lot of them down- without reading them. If I can’t get into the book, It’s not worth my time to read. That doesn’t mean I’ll never read it; it means I won’t read it right now. When I pick it up another time I might dive right in. I need to be open to whatever the author is giving me in order to fall into the book. So do students. They become open through background knowledge, a sales pitch from the teacher- better yet another student, or the challenge of an intriguing assignment that gives them a sense of agency and accomplishment. Nobody is open to receive what an author has to give just because some disconnected body chose to put it in an anthology, or because somebody outside of the classroom decided it had to be read. In these situations the teacher better have a great elevator pitch, an intriguing assignment, or some way to make the mundane seem fun, because if the kids don’t check into the reading they are going to check out of the lesson and possible school itself. When students are allowed to pick their own reading, they are more likely to engage and by engaging have a better chance of falling in love with reading. And if they aren’t yet ready to fall in love- they can at least choose which books to date until they do.
What if students aren’t yet ready to choose?
Then the teacher needs to- for the purposes direct instruction. But how? By knowing the students’ interest, the grade level content, by sharing a beloved piece of text, and most importantly by finding texts that will capture the students’ attention and modeling how to interact with them. The teacher than has a multitude of choices, from open source, adopted materials, library shelves, blogs and online articles, or a clip from this morning’s newspaper. We should not be limited to the abridged versions curriculum publishers have been able to get their hands on. After modeling carefully selected texts teachers need to allow students the time and space to explore texts not only to practice what they are learning but so they can make their own choices. Students should not be limited (not in 2017) we aren’t in one-room schoolhouses anymore with a short supply of reading material. We are in the 21st century it’s no longer about access to reading material but how to select what’s worth our time reading. It is our job as teachers to help them learn how to do this. Help them to notice why. Why did they choose that book? Why is not a good fit at this time? What could be a good fit at this time? What obstacle is in the way and what can we do to break through that obstacle? And when they find something they love- why do they love it?
When teachers know their students by taking an interest in them and their likes and dislikes than students begin to trust the teachers. A recommendation from a trusted teacher means something. When a teacher allows students to follow their interests the students learn to follow their interests. And isn’t that what we want? Students following their interests? I understand many of us have to contend with pacing guides and you may consider me to be a bit up in the clouds of dreamland thinking it can be otherwise. I maintain that both can happen. I argue that teachers can, engage students, cover the grade level standards, be guided by (very different from chained to) the pacing guide and still offer choice, still let students follow their interest and help students fall in love with reading. We need to give students the choice.