Provide Choice.

Provide Time.

Provide Access to Books.

Sounds easy, I guess. I know from experience that it isn’t though.

Consider the first factor: providing kids choice in terms of what they read.

Few people would question the logic that suggests kids who are allowed to choose their own reading material are more likely to actually read it. Yet, many teachers are still making MOST of the reading choices for their students and finding themselves frustrated when kids refuse to read or fail to comprehend text.

What are your experiences with providing choice? Do you feel it is best to teach one book to an entire class, or do you experiment with structures like literature circles and reading workshop, which provide more choice? When providing choice to kids, what considerations must be made? What does instruction look like? What does assessment look like? What are the rewards of providing choice, and what challenges must be faced in doing so?

Eight years ago, I decided that if I were to accomplish anything within the space of my school year with 140  English Language Arts students, it would be this: all of them would finish the year with ONE author, genre, or book that they could name as a true favorite. I wanted all of the kids in my class to enter high school knowing themselves better as readers and knowing what kind of reading they loved…regardless of how dormant, uncommitted, or unmotivated some of them admitted they were.

My first decision was to provide choice and to provide students the tools necessary to make good choices. This is what I discovered:

Reluctant readers were overwhelmed by choice. They weren’t aware of the genres, authors, and subjects available to them, and they waited for teachers to tell them what to read because they hadn’t been taught how to make choices based on their own preferences. I remedied this by organizing my classroom library by genre and reading level. I also surveyed my students around their interests and began talking about books that aligned to them. Copies were kept at the front of the room for easier access, and as kids began reading, I began inviting them to talk informally about the books that they were reading…using real kid language and real kid criteria for recommendation (or not). I knew I hooked many of them when books “went viral” in my classroom: kids began passing them around and small circles of interest began springing up around particular authors.

Some of them didn’t know what their preferences were. So, I asked them to identify their favorite movies, television programs, and musicians. Back then, I shared books that had similar characters, conflicts, and themes through book talks and bulletin boards. Thanks to the web, there are other options available now. For instance, have you considered using movie trailers to book talk? I started aligning some favorites at the bottom of this wikispace. What would you add, and what other tools do you use to align students’ interests with reading choices?

Kids don’t always select titles that are appropriately challenging. Using DRA, Lexile, and Guided Reading levels is helpful, but students don’t always have access to that information, and life-long readers certainly don’t rely on it. How many adults know their reading level? How many feel they NEED to know this in order to love reading and learn as a result of it? How do we determine if a book is too easy or too difficult to read? Most of us read a bit of it and decide from there. Teaching kids basic strategies for selecting appropriately leveled books makes providing choice a bit easier. So do tools like this one. I know there are others too–what do you recommend?

Concerns about content are always at the back of every teacher’s mind. Here is what we know about helping kids fall in love with books: the books have to speak to their lives, their passions, and their experiences in very real ways. Every classroom is home to kids who are dealing with all sorts of mayhem in their lives inside and outside of school. Many of them do not share their stories. Some will choose books that allow them to escape this reality, but others will choose books that speak to them…..books that help them feel less alone. And some of those books? Well, they may have content that you or others find questionable. The tricky thing about value systems is that we each have our own. They are unique to us. I feel that it is the parents’ right and responsibility to guide their children in the choices they make as readers. I also feel that adults have no business imposing their value systems on children who are not their own by limiting their access to books (within reason, of course). As a parent, it grates on me when others do this with my own kids. We hear much about handfuls of concerned parents who oppose books and work to have them removed from school library shelves, but we don’t often hear from the parents whose children have their choices limited in the process. I’m one of those parents, and as a teacher, I tried to keep that reality in mind.

I shared my perspective with my administrators before I began providing choice to kids, to ensure that we were on the same page. I was fortunate to have their support, and I was also fortunate to have the support of many parents as well when I began my open house presentation with this discussion every year and when I sent home letters inviting their participation. I welcomed them to sign off on each book that their children chose throughout the year so that they felt comfortable with the books they were reading and developed a simple system for monitoring this, but many parents (most, in fact) were comfortable waiving that right entirely.

When Choice is Provided, it’s Hard to Ensure That Students are Actually Reading. It’s impossible for teachers to read every book that students are accessing when choice is provided. This is probably the largest concern that teachers share with me, and it’s one I find a bit perplexing. As a teacher, I DID select several titles that we read together as a class, and I’m not suggesting that teachers who do this are wrong. What I’m suggesting is that unless kids have the opportunity to choose what they are reading consistently, they may not grow to enjoy the process as much as we’d like them to.

 The fact is, when texts are assigned, it’s still hard to ensure that students are reading. More importantly, if they are reading, it’s less likely that they are enjoying it. “But a lot of my kids LOVE Shakespeare,” I hear often. Of course they do, and I’m not suggesting that we drop Shakespeare off of any curriculum map.  But what about the kids who don’t and who won’t, no matter how hard you try to instill your passion within them?

Also, reading isn’t merely about gathering facts and assessment isn’t about testing kids on them to generate grades or discover who is unprepared. Teachers who provide choice KNOW when kids are reading because if they aren’t, they are allowed to make different choices. If they aren’t, they are unable to book-talk well. If they aren’t, they show no effort to select books with intention. And if they aren’t, good teachers help them to learn more about themselves as people so that they are able to find books that they love. Kids read because they WANT to, not because they are told to. Incidentally, some kids don’t want to read books, and this is okay. Provide them alternative reading materials. Show them how to create an RSS Feed.

What are your thoughts about this? How do you go about providing choice to readers in your classrooms? What have you discovered, through your own practice in terms of rewards and challenges

Tomorrow I’ll be sharing my thoughts time and ways to motivate reluctant readers on a tight schedule.


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