Unfortunately, I think it’s—dare I say—“trendy” to only talk about choice reading right now. Whether this pendulum-swinging trend is caused by something extreme, like some reactionary protests to the CCSS, or it’s a heck of a lot less melodramatic, like maybe it just feels good (and easy) to only talk about choice, we have to step back and get real.
Most teachers and students value some whole-class novels when they’re done right, and they value some autonomy when it’s supported appropriately [Check out the research conducted by Beers & Probst in Notice and Note].
Please don’t take this argument as me bashing those voices that are calling for more choice reading. Not only am I a fan and a disciple of those voices, but I am one of them!
Crush the False Dichotomies
The thing is, somehow the concept of “Whole-Class Novels vs. Choice-Only Reading” has turned into yet another needless battle in education. These omnipresent false dichotomies weigh on us as educators. They weaken our collaboration within our departments and schools by turning us into philosophical competitors. (Hhhmm… Sounds a lot like our current political landscape! And seriously, who needs any more partisanship right now?)
Let’s all just take a deep breath and admit that complex issues beg for balance. Let’s end the bickering and debates, and do what’s right for kids.
It comes down to these big ideas:
1. Choice Reading encourages students to develop personal reader identities.
If a student can learn what types of texts he loves to read independently, the likelihood that he will develop long-term independent reading habits is so much greater than if he wasn’t provided any choice. Who we are as readers defines us beyond our years in school, so we need to help students understand this aspect of their individual development. From genre and topics to habits and unique choices, students need to figure out what they love and how they read best. This self-discovery not only helps them truly identify themselves, but it also invites an awareness to areas where can grow and might need support.
2. Choice Reading encourages students to improve their stamina and fluency.
As with any passion that we’re developing, we need time to practice before we can be expected to do it with any ease or endurance. Malcolm Gladwell says that we need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert; therefore, to help our students’ stamina and fluency grow in the long-term, we need to get them reading as much as possible. My students and I always talk about developing these literacy skills within an analogy of marathon training. I can’t just expect to just show up ready to run the 26.2 with all the other racers without putting in miles and miles of training on my own, nor can I push myself as a runner to do hill sprints every day and think that rigor alone will prepare me for the big race or make want to even continue running when it’s all over. In terms of this analogy, I don’t even need to get into the danger of skipping hills altogether for the sake of only doing “fun runs,” because, by now, even if you don’t follow #runteacherrun, you get the idea.
3. Choice Reading encourages students to practice independent habits.
As adult readers, we know what it’s like be in the flow: to look up after we’ve read that last page, with tears still in our eyes, and notice that time has totally flown past us. As adult readers, we’ve developed habits independent of others in order to maintain (or at least attempt to control) our love of reading. Young readers are still learning how to manage their time, make plans for reading, engage in conversations with others, and find books on their own. Choice reading helps students develop these habits in the safe space of our classroom yet without the full on, high support of a shared text.
4. Whole-Class books support students as they build a shared intellectual experience.
When a learning community shares a text, they come together to share not just the plot and theme but a common, social experience. With their unique skills and individual backgrounds, students can build a rich conversation and deep collective thinking that will move the community beyond the state of just a singular understanding to “Ah ha! I never thought about it that way!” Together, students and teachers can model their thinking and strategy use for one another all while navigating complexity within their larger, collective expertise.
5. Whole-Class books support students meet the expectations of cultural literacy.
Outside of school, students will encounter all kinds of allusions to literature and references to informational texts. Already, in this post, I mentioned ideas from Gladwell’s Outliers. Now, if you’ve read this book yourself, you understand my reference on deeper level than those who haven’t yet it (Go and read! Seriously, see how geeked my kids were about it.) When we are in “the know” of cultural literacy, we can build deeper and wiser connections to each other and our world. Now, whether we share with our students texts that are “classics,” popular best-sellers, or otherwise, our students will have a richer, more fulfilling life if they are able to engage in conversations with others about the universal truths found in our society’s most valued books. Teachers can’t fool themselves and say that students will choose to read or understand these respected texts on their own. We need to share many of these important pieces with them in preparation for the rigors of college, career, and life beyond.
6. Whole-Class books support students practice sustained engagement.
Within the Reader’s Bill of Rights, among other things, we have the freedom to abandon choice books. This is a liberty to celebrate certainly, but we all worry about that one student who doesn’t stick with a book long enough to maintain any real commitment. She floats from Sarah Dessen to Elizabeth Scott and Susane Colasanti and so on without reading more than 50 pages. She does this, because she doesn’t have any the individual skills or teacher support that compels her to see it through to the end. In the same way, when teachers only share passages or excerpts of larger texts with their students, they remove opportunities to practice extended comprehension skills and examine fully developed literary craftsmanship. When we share whole-class texts with our students, together, we can focus on the content and examine the development of characters and craft over time.
7. Seeking balance supports students acquire character and non-cognitive skills.
If you’ve read any of my other posts in the last year, you know that I believe we need to help students develop their character and mindset in order to “promote long-term flourishing.” From the grit that it takes for my students to tackle Outliers in the fall to the self-control they need everyday (Lord, help them!) to cast aside their cell phones and delve into their choice books, we can use both choice reading and whole-class novels to present practice opportunities—or imaginary rehearsals—for students that go beyond literacy.
8. Seeking balance supports students broaden and deepen text exposure.
When we challenge our students with open-ended opportunities of choice reading, they can dig deeply into genres, authors, and topics of passion. Take Tristan for example: his “required genres” were all neatly colored in across the bottom of his Reading Invitation chart, but his haphazardly filled in Sci-Fi column towered up and over the backside of the paper, like a doomed Tetris game facing the end. At the same time though, I could help Tristan broaden what he thought was his only territory for reading by supporting him with whole-class texts. When we join our experiences around one shared piece, students are exposed again to genres, authors, and topics that they may not have consider alone but are willing to dive in with a strong community of readers.
9. Seeking balance supports students learn with and from stronger readers.
In the world of disciplinary literacy, all teachers must recognize that they are the best readers in the room, precisely because of our various subject backgrounds. As an ELA teacher, I cannot teach my sophomores to read a Bio lab report as well as their science teacher can. In the same way, I cannot expect to be the only “reading teacher” in my classroom. There becomes many expert readers in a class that has a balanced approach of choice reading and whole-class novels. Yes, I can support my students understand craft and historical relevancy like no one else in the room,but I can’t do what many of my students can for one another: only Erich can speak widely with Austin about which WWII book more accurately describes the B-52 bombers, and Jaspar and Chaz are they only ones who can share how Columbine shifted their perspectives on mental health, and Gabby and Jakob could lead hour-long lectures about the mythology allusions across Rick Riordan’s collection work. It when we come together and move apart on our own that our students can really flourish.
How is this debate playing out in your English department?
What are you doing to find balance? What is the appropriate balance?
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