I have taught English on the secondary level for the past 12 years, and for many of those years I taught books only one way: I would hand out a set of novels, and study guides to go along with them. In class we would do close readings and go over the study guide questions, and, of course, as an English teacher I was compelled to pick apart all those symbols.
There were quizzes along the way and a big test at the end, all of which assessed the same topics we covered in class, and mimicked many of the questions on the study guide. Once we finished one book, we would move on to the next. It was lather, rinse, repeat.
While I may be painting a uninspired picture, this traditional approach certainly has its benefits: With a common text, skills can be targeted and taught with examples that everyone recognizes. Whole-class discussions are more vibrant and engaging since everyone has (theoretically) read the same book, and everyone has the potential to participate. It’s also much easier to assess.
Yet there are also drawbacks.
When students have no choice about the books they read, it can harm their independence as readers. Students feel less invested when they’re handed books and told to dive in. Within this model, they often learn to play the game of paying attention in class and regurgitating what the teacher wants on a test or quiz. Often, when students have no agency over what they read, they stop enjoying it. And this ultimately kills their motivation.
Students Speak Out
How do I know this?
I polled my students—150 high school seniors—at the beginning of the year.
Many had not read a novel cover to cover in their three years of high school. Some had read enjoyable books recently, but some had to go back to middle school to find a book that excited them. Many gave up on reading long ago.
Kelly Gallagher, author of numerous books on reading and writing, noted in a tweet earlier this year: “For the 3rd year in a row, 90%+ of my seniors have admitted they have fake read their way to the 12th grade. Schools must change!”
Gallagher introduced this need for change in Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It: “Shouldn’t schools be the place where students interact with interesting books? Shouldn’t the faculty have an ongoing laser-like commitment to put good books in our students’ hands? Shouldn’t this be a front-burner issue at all times?”
I discovered the importance of giving students choice four years ago when I completely revamped independent reading. I decided to give my students a say in what they read and how they responded to it. I wrote about how transformational this practice was in an Edutopia post called “Start a Reading Revolution.”
My students’ scores on standardized tests soared.
Since then, I have expanded upon choice each year, opening up my curriculum to more reading opportunities with greater freedom. I have not abandoned the whole-class novel. It still has a vital purpose and place in my classroom, but I have found ways to devote more time to student choice.
Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer, is a leading advocate of choice. She writes, “Students will read if we give them the books, the time, and the enthusiastic encouragement to do so. If we make them wait for the one unit a year in which they are allowed to choose their own books and become readers, they may never read at all. To keep our students reading, we have to let them.”
Three Keys to Successful Independent Reading Units
Here are some of my favorite tactics for using choice to keep high school readers engaged:
Schedule book talks. I team up with my librarian to give the best sales pitches possible for the books we think students might be interested in reading. This year A Million Little Pieces, Lone Survivor, Looking for Alaska, and The Score Takes Care of Itself were wildly popular. We had to beg, borrow, and steal additional copies of each to keep up with the demand, all because of successful book talks.
Set aside class time for reading. My seniors have a full academic load, play sports, work, participate in clubs, and have college applications and scholarships to complete. It would be naive to think that they all go home and read for 30 minutes, without checking their phones or giving in to other distractions. Class time can be a sanctuary from the din and discordance of their daily lives, and they can retreat into the confines of a good book. It may be the only time of their day they have that luxury.
Devise engaging assignments. I have had my students blog while they read, complete genius hour projects (passion projects they work on in class), or do an “unproject” (where, unlike a traditional project, they had no guidelines, only a rubric). In each instance, they are challenged to think outside the box and find creative and interesting ways to show deep understanding. The more freedom that students have in what they can do with their book, the more pride they will take in the process of reading. I did not prescribe what they should do, only what they should demonstrate.
The more ways we can get students to enjoy reading, the more successful they will be in the classroom. Sometimes that involves uniting a class around a common text to build skills and have dynamic discussion. Other times, it means opening up the gates of choice and allowing them to discover their own passions as readers.