“We now have a quarter century of studies that document three findings: literacy blooms wherever children have access to books they want to read, permission to choose their own, and time to get lost in them.” -Nancie Atwell
I was mesmerized by stories when I was a child. When entranced by a delightful book, I would spend hours devouring the narrative, getting lost in the world of the characters and wishing I could step into their world for just a moment. I saw glimmers of fictional characters in my teachers, my classmates, and even my parents. Even though I loved to read, some of my reading joy was shattered during school. The books I brought with me to class were not appropriate or “leveled,” a term I learned to loathe even as a child. Several books didn’t have Accelerated Reader labels on them, and if I read them, how would my teacher determine the points I would earn? Also, how could they determine the quality of the book I was bringing to school? I found myself hiding books under my desk or behind a text book, but I wasn’t as furtive as I hoped. Novels were snatched from my hands or I was asked to put my book away. In upper grades, there was never time for independent reading, and my choices as a reader were never discussed or encouraged. Unfortunately, school never helped me develop a reading life. Now, as a language arts teacher, I want much more for the children in my classes. I want them to fall in love with reading.
I have several middle school children in my life, ones I know personally, and their collective indictment about language arts classes is sobering, especially since they qualify for advanced programs. In their classes, independent reading is something that is done outside of the classroom, or completed in class to participate in incentivized reading programs. I’ll admit that in the past, I have denied my students independent reading time because I didn’t value free choice reading. I believed that the books my students chose would not satisfy the standard of reading that I held them to. In truth, students will surprise you with their choices. By giving students the freedom to choose their own books and providing them with a schedule that permits iindependent reading time, we promote student voice within our classes.
The benefits of free choice independent reading far outreach any graphic organizer, worksheet, skill drill, or group conversations that students are exposed to in our classrooms. We nurture reading and conversations about reading when we give students time to read. There isn’t a single language arts teacher who would deny the importance of reading, but free choice reading, the activity we relish as adults, becomes incredibly controversial when students are involved. The implication is that student choice is not valued. When we trust students to make their own choices, the classroom environment changes dramatically. Students move from passive attendees to active participants. They also discover more about themselves and their reading identity because they are compelled by genres they thought they would dislike. Anna spent most of the first semester reading great young adult literature, and her writing notebook was filled with drafts that spoke to her love of these books. When students finish a book, I always ask them, “What is your plan now?” I am curious what they want to read next, and if they don’t know, I help them. When I asked Anna what her plan was, she said that she wanted to read To Kill a Mockingbird, but she was afraid she wouldn’t like it. It was a classic, and those books had turned her off from reading in the past. I encouraged her to give it a try, and I helped her navigate the first several chapters until she could establish her interest. In the end, she fell in love with the story. And when we shared our favorite books at the end of the year, To Kill a Mockingbird was at the top of her list. I value the reading choices my students make, and although I may not agree with them, I do my best to guide them to excellent books. Anna enjoyed books that I disliked, but I respected her choices. This respectful learning environment encouraged her to read a classic, one that she devoured in just a few sittings.
I’m amazed at the reading communities that populate in my classroom over the course of a year. Students unite around authors they love such as Andrew Smith, Sharon Creech, Shaun Hutchinson, and Nicola Yoon. Fan groups form around books students cherish such as Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon, and Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston. These reading communities are organic and my classroom is always alive with conversations about books and authors and reasons why others should read them. Discussions emanate from groups around the room as class begins, and often, I find myself waiting for these vital conversations to end before beginning my classes. I am drawn into the different reading communities that develop in my classes. The beautiful thing about them is that I do very little to create them. Mainly, I give students time to discuss what they’re reading with their classmates. As they talk about characters, themes, unanswered questions, or unexpected twists in the story, they get to know their classmates in relation to books. They hear what other students have enjoyed and disliked, and during these discussions, reading recommendations naturally occur. I weave in and out of groups, listening for chances to slip into a conversations and catch a book recommendation. Before giving students the gift of free choice reading, these reading communities did not exist. There were no lively conversations about the books we read in class because I was the one choosing them. When students have the chance to self-select their own reading material, engagement in that material increases. More times than not, students will fall in love with a book they’ve chosen, and ultimately, they’ll want to share the story with someone else. Readers seek a community of other readers to share stories they love.
As students move through their academic careers, it is imperative that they develop independence in their reading lives. There are texts that students will not be able to negotiate on their own and they will need an instructor to help them navigate those texts; however, they will need fluency in their reading lives to help them reach a place where they can confidently approach rigorous works. I still believe that all students need exposure to Shakespeare, Milton, Hemingway, Austen, Eliot, Wharton, Lessing, and a host of other great authors. But I have had to learn that it is more important to help students fall in love with reading than to force and monitor reading experiences that I deem worthy of study. Students are more willing to read something challenging if their reading choices have been validated by their teacher. They are also willing to read challenging materials if they have built adequate fluency, a direct result of a rich reading life.
When given the option to choose what they read, students have ownership in their own education. They have an investment in the process because they are making the decisions about the books they read. I do have expectations about my classroom library and about the things my students read. But within those parameters, students have choices; they have ownership. I asked my students about the things that made my class enjoyable for them, and unanimously, they agreed that being able to select their own reading materials made a difference in the effort they put forth in class and the investment they made in assignments. Jovany, a student whose energy had frustrated teachers before, honestly explained that he loved to read but rarely found teacher-selected texts to be of interest to him. He adored the opportunities to choose his own books and spent hours meticulously arranging images and words on every book talk presentation he created for my class. In the final course evaluation for my language arts class, he explained that the book talk presentations were a favorite of his and he hoped he would have the chance to do more of them next year. I hope he does too. When students own their learning, they take it seriously.
Our students are counting on us. They aren’t waiting for us to get this right. They are moving to the next grade level, graduating, entering college, and accepting jobs. I am imploring all of us to reflect on our practice. Are we providing students with time to read, reflect, and discuss? Are we promoting a classroom environment that allows students ample time to find books they are interested in and get lost in them? I believe in the power of free choice reading because I have seen its potent magic in my classroom. Students weave beautiful stories about the things they love, and when they fall in love with books, those stories are magnified. We need a nation, a world of readers, and we can help build them. I’m encouraging you to fill your classroom with books that students will love and allow everyone a chance to select the ones they want to read. Then, allow them to get comfortable, whether it’s in their seats or a cozy place on the floor, and disappear into the beautiful narrative they have chosen. This is what enhances literacy. And above all else, it creates a reader.
P.S. I am not the same teacher I was a year ago. This article is more for me than anyone else and it highlights part of my journey of implementing free choice reading. I am not writing anything that hasn’t been written before; however, I only want my experience to inspire others and to show that when we value students’ voices, our classrooms become centers of learning, not centers of compliance. Without the help of incredibly talented writers and thinkers, such as Donalyn Miller, Linda Rief, Penny Kittle, Nancie Atwell, Kylene Beers, Bob Probst, Jim Burke, Mary Howard, and countless others, my understanding of the importance of free choice independent reading would have remained nonexistent. This post is dedicated to each of you. Thank you for your commitment to young readers and for inspiring me to be better teacher.