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Championing Choice in a School that Doesn’t

The freedom to read can change your lifeIn a recent comment on our blog, a teacher asked how he can foster a love of reading when his school rigidly dictates the reading selections used rather than allow students or even teachers to select modern, relatable literature students might find more engaging.

Research indicates student choice in reading material has a substantial impact on the development of reading skills. Selecting their own reading gives students ownership of their literacy-developing activities. Furthermore, students are more likely to select books that speak to their lives and their interests, making these books better choices for motivating the students to actually read rather than just try to bluff their way through tests or rely on Spark Notes.

In their 2012 report “Every Child, Every Day,” Richard Allington and Rachael Gabriel outlined 6 elements of successful literacy programs. Number one on their list was “Every child reads something he or she chooses.” As they explained:

The research base on student-selected reading is robust and conclusive: Students read more, understand more, and are more likely to continue reading when they have the opportunity to choose what they read. In a 2004 meta-analysis, Guthrie and Humenick found that the two most powerful instructional design factors for improving reading motivation and comprehension were (1) student access to many books and (2) personal choice of what to read.

But what happens when a teacher, eager to promote literacy, is trapped in a school where administrators keep too tight a rein on reading choices? How can one teacher change the school’s culture so that students can see reading as a pleasure rather than a chore?

One strategy, suggested by Millie Davis of the NCTE Intellectual Freedom Center, is to begin conversations with other teachers around the question, “How do we develop life-long readers?” Let others gather their own research, and it will all lead back to the importance of students choosing their reading materials. Once the teachers agree, they can approach administration as a united, knowledgeable group and can discuss improving the school’s policies.

Another option may be to start an extracurricular book club during lunch or after school. Even if only a few students join such a club, the joy they find in reading may gradually inspire other students to join, and in time you may even find the majority of students following Mark Twain’s legendary advice to not let schooling interfere with their education.

For more, check out NCTE’s policy brief on adolescent literacy.