Part 3 – Independent Means Independent—The Importance of Student Choice

Part 3 of The Independent Reading Series
(Originally posted on Sept. 1, 2015.)

In his article A Skill for Life, high school teacher Steve Gardiner explains that “We write learning objectives, create computerized reading programs, and schedule day-by-day instruction, but we often ignore the fact that human beings most frequently succeed at activities they enjoy.” He goes on to say, “We don’t need to spend a lot of money or design complicated programs to help students learn to enjoy reading; we just need to give them time to learn that reading can be enjoyable. When that component is in place, students will not only score high on state accountability and college placement tests but also develop the attributes of what I call good adult readers.” 

Question: What is the primary factor in helping students enjoy reading?

Answer: Give them choice in what they read!

There could be other answers. For example, one answer could be to give students access to books they can read. While this could be one response, the problem is that if students don’t want to read the books, the books’ readability won’t matter.

As English language arts and reading teachers, we have to figure out what our students’ interests are. I would always start the school year with an interest inventory. In my reading intervention class, I worked primarily with students who didn’t like reading, so if I would have asked, “What types of books do you like to read?” then I would have received their stock response: “I don’t like to read books.”

However, by asking about their hobbies (sports, skateboarding, skiing, surfing, video gaming, etc.), I was better suited to help my reluctant readers select books they might be interested in. I also learned to ask about the types of movies my students liked to watch (adventure, science fiction, comedy, romance, etc.). I asked students to list their favorite movies or the movies they have watched recently. I also asked about the types of TV shows they liked to watch. All of these responses gave me ideas about the types of books they might like.

In addition to asking about their interests, I would start the year by having students browse books through a book pass. Before beginning the book pass though, I would first model for students how to interview a book by asking (myself) questions like:

  • Does the title sound interesting?
  • Does the blurb on the back cover sound interesting?
  • Do I know anything about the author?
  • Is the book a genre I like to read?
  • Has anyone told me anything about this book?
  • When I look at the beginning of the first chapter, does it look too hard? Too easy?
  • Are there more than five words on any given page that I don't understand?

While some students might not have been able to answer all of these questions early in the process, they soon became used to asking these types of questions as they looked for books.

Once students were comfortable with the interview process, they would go to the shelves and find 3-4 books they thought looked interesting. Then, they would complete an interview of each book. They would record the title and brief summary of each book and then indicate whether it was a book they might be interested in reading. They only had a few minutes with each book. Then, they would pass their books to the next person, and the process would continue. We would spend at least 10-15 minutes just passing books and noting titles and our level of interest in each book. By the time the book pass was finished, students would have handled dozens of books and end up with at least 3-4 books on their sheet that they might want to read.

Once we have exposed students to lots of books, and a large variety of books, the greater the chances that students will find something they like. I’ve seen highly reluctant readers, who are terrified to pick up a book larger than half an inch thick, pick up a two-inch thick book because it was about a topic they were excited about (zombies, vampires, basketball, video games).

Students will also self-select books they can read easily. It’s natural for students to choose not to read books that seem too difficult, or to abandon difficult books partway through if they do decide to give it one a try. English language learners may be more open to reading difficult texts because they assume that every text they read will be difficult. This is why it is important to listen to students read aloud periodically, especially when they choose a new book. If they stumble over words regularly, then we need to coach them how to choose a more appropriate book.

Teachers, please trust your students when they want to abandon a book. I’ve abandoned many a book, mostly because I found them boring. If we are bored, it makes reading even more difficult. When you see a student abandon a book, say “That’s OK. I bet we can find you something more interesting.” Then direct them to the section of the classroom library that has books they are likely to have an interest in and have them select 3-4 books that look interesting based on the covers. Have them take those books back to their desk and complete a book interview for each. If they don’t like any of those, they can go back to the library and continue looking. Sometimes, it helps to have another student, with similar tastes, recommend a book. Other times, you might have a student read at least the first chapter of a book they might be interested in. Often, they will continue reading.

In “Meeting Readers Where They Are,” Carol Gordon explains that “Since low achievers typically do not read voluntarily outside of school, most of their reading is mandated. These students express anger and defiance, as indicated by survey data. In many cases, low achievers don’t really hate to read—they hate to be told what to read.”

Independent reading needs to remain independent: Students need to feel free to choose texts that interest them, no matter how fluffy we may think the book is.


Continue to check back for the continued series on independent reading:

Part I: The Power of Independent Reading

Part II: Building a Classroom Library—If You Build It, They Will Come

Part III: Independent Means Independent—The Importance of Student Choice

Part IV: The Importance of Series Reading

Part V: Independent Reading—The Foundation of Vocabulary Instruction