Fostering Reading Through Student Choice in High School

Like many Generation X’ers and Millennials, my high school English classroom memories stem from my experiences reading popular required readings such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, and Catcher in the Rye. I can honestly tell you that to this day, I remember very little about these classics because at the time, they were not books that spoke to me as a reader. As a self-proclaimed “math guy” who was only taking English because it was a graduation requirement, my teachers were unable to use these texts to convert me into a frequent reader, a characteristic that should have set me up for a lifelong love for reading. I don’t blame my teachers in any way for this gaffe. In fact, I believe the English teachers I had at Timberlane Regional High School were some of the best that I have ever worked with, but they were limited in their ability to increase student motivation for reading by the philosophy of required reading texts.

In a recent Education Week article, teacher Barbara Wheatley reminds teachers: Don’t Crush Reading Motivation. She talks about the need for all students to become passionate and proficient readers and notes that to achieve this, children need to engage in many different types of reading. She goes on to acknowledge the importance of guided reading with a teacher as a tried and true instructional method, but the bulk of her article is spent discussing the importance of self-selected reading. With this strategy, students may choose with little or no intervention reading materials based on their interests. Wheatley writes, “Through self-selected reading, students gain both a sense of independence and greater self-confidence.” Wheatley argues that with self-selected reading, it creates a continuous cycle: “If children are motivated to read, they will spend more time reading and become more engaged in reading, which then motivates them to read more. Motivation is vital.”

Incorporating student choice into reading instruction is certainly not a new topic, but today’s progressive classroom teachers are taking this idea to a new level. Self-selected reading is starting to take priority over guiding reading. Proponents of providing student choice in reading argue at the secondary level that reading declines and too many students don’t read the assigned texts.  In Book Love, New Hampshire teacher Penny Kittle takes this issue head-on. Heinnemann, the publisher of the book, writes: “In Book Love Penny takes student apathy head on, first by recognizing why students don’t read and then showing us that when we give kids books that are right for them, along with time to read and regular response to their thinking, we can create a pathway to satisfying reading that leads to more challenging literature and ultimately, a love of reading. On her website, Kittle summarizes research from the Scholastic’s Kids & Family Reading Report: The National Survey on the State of Kids and Reading, 2015. Her analysis leads three factors that can predict whether a child ages 6-17 will be a frequent reader:
  • Children's level of reading enjoyment
  • Parents who are frequent readers
  • A child's belief that reading for fun is important
What can high schools do to help all students become frequent readers? Schools like where I work at Sanborn Regional High School in New Hampshire have started #SanbornReads, a school-based Twitter hashtag dedicated to promoting choice reading in the school community. Sanborn teachers like Crystal Bonin find ways to celebrate choice reading by having students add their choice books to a paper chain that she keeps in her classroom all year. Last year’s chain, held by students on the track, reached 792 books long!  Sanborn teachers are also having serious discussions within their professional learning community with English teachers about what books should be required in their classes and what themes could be addressed instead through a variety of texts. If the goal is to increase the likelihood that students will become frequent readers, Sanborn is one school that is taking bold steps to think differently.

This article was written originally for MultiBriefs Education.


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