It’s a Matter of Choice

Fall is an exciting time!  For those of us who spend a great deal of our existence in and around the field of education, this is the turning of the new year.  It’s a time for new resolutions, higher expectations, and hopes that this year will be… well, better than last year.

For our middle school students, this is also a time of settling into new routines with new teachers.  Students have new schedules, new classrooms, new expectations being placed upon them.  It’s a lot of ‘new’.

One routine we hope is not new–and is finding its place this year– is independent reading.

With the vast array of activities and distractions that can encompass today’s fast-paced lives (texting, competitive sports, social media, clubs, activities, etc.) it can be easy to lose sight of (or de-emphasize) the importance of reading.  But this cannot be!

A great thinker once said, “Reading creates a wider inner dimension.”  Those of us who identify ourselves as “readers” know this to be true.  We know that reading helps us widen our repertoire of imagined experiences, expand our knowledge of the human condition, and increase our awareness of the world at-large.

The great American novelist, George RR Martin once said, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies…The [person] who never reads lives only one.”

But how do we– those of us fortunate enough to be in a position of influence for young adults– encourage, support, and foster a love of reading in our students?

One tried-and-true method is allowing for choice.  Choice in reading is key.  In fact, in Brian Cambourne’s (1988) research on literacy development, (click here to learn a little more) choice is identified as a condition of promoting self-direction and agency– desirable qualities all adults likely wish for their future adults.

Agency can be defined as “the state of being in action or of exerting power.”  Allowing students choice in their reading material is fostering agency and independence.

In reading workshops and classrooms across the country (and probably around the world), a common time cited by middle school students as a time when “reading was the pits” was when “someone chose what I had to read for me.”  Sometimes they phrase it as, “When I didn’t get to pick my book”, or “When I had to read _________ (insert adult-selected title).”  I’ll never forget the time when, while leading a training in Portland, Oregon, a teacher shared about the time he was made to read The Hobbit.  “I didn’t read another book for five years,” he reported.  “Up until that time I felt like I was a good reader.  But after I had to read that book, I didn’t feel that way anymore.  So I stopped reading.”

Choice matters.

Sometimes as adults, however, we are not always comfortable with the choices our students make as readers.  We think to ourselves, “Really? That’s what you want to read?” (okay, maybe some of us might have said that aloud once).  When we find ourselves in this situation, we might want to consider the following options:

1.  Inquire as to what it is about the text that has interested the student.  This might sound like, “Hmm…what had you pick that [book/magazine/blog/article]?”

2.  If the student offers little information, follow up with: “Can you say more about that?”

3.  If you are unfamiliar and/or uncomfortable with the choice, you may consider reading it first. Or you might offer to read the text “together”.  Avoid creating a ‘forbidden fruit’ situation, but rather aim to foster a reading mentorship in which you are clear about your role.

4.  If you are unable to approve the material selected by your student, be as clear as possible about your reasons.  You may also want to have some alternate suggestions up your sleeve, or offer to search for other texts that contain similar themes, ideas, characters, etc. (stay tuned for ways to search for books).

Remember that the goal of any reader ought to be to outgrow him/herself.  We strive to be the caterpillar over and over again, letting each book, text, article, post, or tweet help us cast off a new cocoon, leaving us anew.  Thinking differently.  Thinking more. In a wider dimension.

Today a reader, tomorrow a leader. (Margaret Fuller)

Author: Lanny Ball

For more than 29 years, Lanny has taught, coached, presented, staff developed, and consulted within the exciting and enigmatic world of literacy. With unyielding passion and belief in the possibility of workshop teaching, Lanny has worked to support students, teachers, and school administrators around the country in outgrowing themselves as both writers and readers. Working first as a classroom teacher, then as a coach and TCRWP Staff Developer, Lanny is now a literacy specialist, working and living in the great state of Connecticut. Outside of literacy, he enjoys raising his three ambitious young daughters with his wife, and playing the piano. Find him on this blog, as well as on Twitter @LannyBall. Lanny is also a former co-author of a blog dedicated to supporting writing teachers and coaches that maintain classroom writing workshops,

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