Why I Let My High School Students Choose Their Own Books
After writing about the importance of a classroom library, I began to think about my passion for students choosing their own books – my unwavering belief that the foundation of my class must be student-selected text. Kylene Beers told me during a Twitter chat that 75% of what is read should be students’ choice; Kelly Gallagher says 80% in his most recent book, In the Best Interest of Students. On this issue, however, an expert answer isn’t enough for me. This is an issue that I live every day, and that I, as a teacher of high school readers, must answer for myself.
Here, then, are my top reasons that independent reading is at the center of my reading instruction:
1. Independent reading is the ultimate differentiation. It allows each student to read what they need to read. They will be met just where they are in terms of difficulty (which is far more complex than lexiles and levels would lead us to believe), just where they are in terms of interest, and just where they are emotionally. How could one whole-class book ever meet those needs so specifically? Easy. It could not.
2. Independent reading strengthens the frontal lobe, the judgment, decision-making center of the brain. Because this area of the teenage brain is under construction, teens can be impulsive, thrill-seeking, and risk-taking. Allowing kids choice in books allows them to exercise their “choosing muscles,” i.e. their front lobe. And what a safe way to practice choosing! Yes, please make a bad decision in choosing a book – what a great, easily fixable learning opportunity. And if my students’ frontal lobes get strengthened via book selection, don’t I help them practice for real-world decisions, like whether or not to text while driving, to drink at a party with friends? Whether or not to go to college? Every day teens must be given chances to make choices that help them know themselves, what their values are, and what they want to do with their lives. Independent reading helps.
3. Independent reading increases motivation. Another favorite line I often hear at school is “these kids are just not motivated.” I agree. These kids are not motivated to do things they see no meaning in. They are not motivated to get excited about things with no clear relevance. But put something in front of them that they care deeply about? That is a different story all together. When kids choose their own books, no song and dance is required on my part, no catchy anticipatory set or sleek, fun-filled activity. The book is the motivation. My students read because they like what they’ve chosen, and if they don’t, they can choose again. Book choice motivates them to talk with partners, to share with groups, to debate, to think, to write, and ultimately, to read even more.
4. Independent reading creates hope. When you can read what you want, the message is clear: “You CAN read.” And when you can read, you can grow, and you can learn. What does this translate into? You can set a goal and achieve it. You can be different today than you were yesterday. You can graduate. You can choose college and/or a career. Independent reading creates a stairway of hope, on which my students are defining a future for themselves, all by the simple act of allowing them choice.
5. Independent reading shows I value individual human beings. This is the most important thing book choice does in my classroom. It sends, over and over again, the message, “I value you” to every student every day of the school year. It tells them that I see each personality, each set of values and life experiences. And I value them all. I see what is important in my students’ worlds, and I don’t look down at them, I extend a hand. When students feel valued, they release the need to fight for who they are (or who they think they are). They release the need to pour energy into not doing. They can explore their identities – Is this who I am? Is this what I want out of life? What are my talents and how do I want to use them? Independent reading gives kids a place to find themselves. Choice isn’t a token project; it’s the heart of our class.
I would love to be able to create a clean, upward-angling bar graph of data to show all my students’ growth over our short year together. But real-life rarely goes like that. It’s bumpy with ups and downs, set-backs and leaps ahead. Real growth takes commitment, year after year. We can’t encourage kids to develop a love of reading in elementary and middle school and then reveal the truth in high school: all that was a cute little joke; now we’re going to do real reading in novels you may or may not connect with or understand.
Real reading is choice reading. It’s escaping into a romance over Spring Break because I need that. It’s diving deeply into Book Love or When Kids Can’t Read, What Teachers Can Do in August because I need that. And, from time to time, it’s choosing to join a book group because I need that. If we want our kids to know real reading and to become adults who read, then we must let our kids choose.