The Importance of Choice in Fostering Independent Reading

By Donalyn Miller, sixth-grade teacher at Trinity Meadows Intermediate School in Keller, TX

People who lose the ability to make choices become disempowered. This is true for adults, and it is true for young readers. When every book a child reads is chosen for them — by parents or teachers — children lose self-motivation to read and interest in reading. Children should choose their own reading material most of the time, but they need exposure to a book flood to determine what books they like and learn how to choose their own books. Here are some suggestions to get started in your classroom or home:

Introduce authors and books through read-alouds.
Select books by prolific authors or the first book in a series, and read these books with students. When your students enjoy the read aloud, locate another book or two by the same author, suggest they finish the series on their own, or read another book in the same genre. With older children, visit authors’ websites and book review sites such as Scholastic.com and kidsreads.com. Develop reading fans and you will develop readers.

Create frequent opportunities for children to preview, share, and select books.
Children need to become comfortable with books and feel growing proficiency in choosing books for themselves. Take children to the library and discuss books that they could read. Provide students time to share the books they enjoy during book commercials. Build anticipation for new books by counting down new book releases by your favorite authors or by introducing the newest book in a series.

One activity I use often with my students is the Book Pass, created by Janet Allen. When I notice that my students are in a reading rut, selecting the same books over and over or avoiding certain genres such as poetry or nonfiction books, I assemble stacks of books from that genre that we can preview and discuss during class.

Students select one book from the pile and spend two minutes looking through the book. They may flip around to graphic features such as photographs and maps or read the dust jacket and first few pages of a novel. Students record their observations of the book and decide whether they would be interested in reading it. Once the two minutes end, students pass the book to another student or return it to the pile and select a new book. After several rounds, stop and ask students to share with the group what books they discovered that they may like to read, and then encourage them to check out these books.

Beyond previewing books for independent reading, you can use a Book Pass to reinforce concepts from lessons — asking students to find a simile or metaphor in poetry books, locate one key fact about fossils or the American Revolution, or make predictions about the characters, settings, or plots in fiction books.

Increase children’s access to books.
Surrounding children with books — in libraries, classrooms, and at home – positively affects reading interest and achievement. It almost seems too simple: Give children books, and they will read them. Countless studies prove that well-stocked and cultivated school and public library collections lead children to reading and that the most effective reading teachers have well-stocked classroom libraries too.

Access to books means more than having books on hand to read, though. Access also means that the books are accessible – that children can find books they are capable of reading. Recognizing that some of our students may read below or above grade level, we must provide books in a range of reading levels so all students can select books they can understand and enjoy.

Promote book ownership.
The more books children own, the more they read, and the more comfortable they feel choosing books away from home. Scholastic Book Fairs provides a low-cost opportunity for families to buy books for their children and gives schools and libraries incentives to purchase books for students.

Above all, validate children’s book choices when they select their own books to read. We often complain that children do not read, and bemoan their less than high-brow choices when they do choose their own books. It is okay for children to read comics, read the same book over and over, or prefer fantasy books. After all, adult readers have strong preferences in what they choose to read too! Fostering children’s confidence and ability to select books for themselves is our ultimate goal.
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