Sunday, January 15, 2017

Creating Life-Long Readers through Choice

I am pleased to present this guest post by Lesley Roessing, Director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and Senior Lecturer in the College of Education, Armstrong State University. Lesley is a former graduate student of mine at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, PA. Like any teacher I love to see my students make good.

By Lesley Roessing

A meta-analysis of 41 studies examined the effect of choice on intrinsic motivation and related outcomes in a variety of settings with both child and adult samples. Results indicated that providing choice enhanced intrinsic motivation, effort, task performance, and perceived competence, among other outcomes.
-- (U.S. National Library of Medicine)

I wake up and roll out of bed. What shall I eat? Cereal? Oatmeal? Bagel? Breakfast bar? I have choices. No one tells me what to eat; I eat what I want and what I feel I need—limited only by what is available. Maybe I want to eat oatmeal fourteen days in a row; possibly I have a craving for a decidedly less-healthy donut on a particular day. The following day I try a multi-grain, no-sugar, vegan-friendly cereal bar, knowing that I can discard it if I take three bites and find I hate it. I go to my closet. Again, I can wear what I want, limited only by what I own and what I deem appropriate for the day ahead—my purpose, my audience.

I experience the same situation with what I watch on television, what movies I view, and what books I read. I make my own choices, sometimes with the advice of friends or colleagues and sometimes with the guidance of experts in the appropriate field. Sometimes I read a book because my book club is reading it, but again I have the choice of which book club to join and whether to read that month’s book so I can attend and contribute to the meeting. I experience some failures but a lot of successes along the way. I have come to know myself as a viewer and reader.

But as I talk to teachers and visit schools, so many students are being told what to read, when to read, and how to read. I held a literacy workshop and asked educators to free-write about what they read, when they read, where they read, how they read, and what they do after they read and what they do if they are not enjoying what they are reading. I then asked them to contrast what they wrote about their personal reading behaviors with the reading in their classrooms. The majority looked shocked, chagrined, embarrassed. Many shared that they were told what their students had to read and when. Some even said that all teachers in a grade level needed to be on approximately the same page in the same book at the same time. Some even admitted that the curriculum content was up to them as long as they covered the standards but that “having students all read the same book at the same time was easier—easier to implement and easier to assess.”

What is our aim in including reading and literature in the curriculum? If our aim is to grow lifelong readers, I contend that we are failing.

According to studies, about 50% of Americans polled are alliterate, which means 50% of Americans can read but rarely do so. A third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and neither do 42% of college graduates.

There is a decline in, or even a halt to, reading both for pleasure and academics at the middle grades. Alliteracy occurs when students are capable of reading, but choose not to read. It is also known by the terms “nonreaders, literate nonreaders, and reluctant readers.”

The other day, a friend and I were talking about the classics, and I asked her, a former teacher, if she had read a certain novel. She laughed. “Yes, the Cliff Notes version.” That is not an anomaly. When I asked my university Adolescent Literature class how many had ever read Spark Notes or Cliff Notes instead of a novel or multiple novels, almost 100% raised their hands (even the pre-service and in-service English teachers). There is a reason these companies stay in business. And what’s the point? No one said they read the Notes along with the novel because they couldn’t understand the novel; they read them instead of the novel because they didn’t want to read the novel. If they are reading merely a synopsis and explanation, why assign the novel?

A few weeks ago I was talking to a middle school teacher about working with her class to read self-selected books in book clubs. She turned to me and said, “I don’t I can do this. I have to tell you; I am content-driven.” I looked confused. I said, “I can’t think of one novel where the content was important—unless the reader is appearing on Jeopardy.” I am not saying that students shouldn’t be introduced to all sorts of literature, including the classics. Many, including me, love many of the classics, but I was a reader first.

When I look back to what I remember reading in middle school and high school, it was what I read on my own—not self-selected choice reading for class, but reading completely outside school, for my own benefit. After all the Nancy Drew mysteries, I read anything about Edgar Cayce and Henry VIII, all the books by Dr. Tom Dooley, any biography by Irving Stone, and Daphne DuMaurier novels. There probably were more. I can’t remember anything I read for school. Despite school I continued reading, but many college students have told me that they stopped reading in middle school, when they were told what to read. In the two courses I teach which required reading YA novels, self-selected with a genre or issue, at the end of the course students tell me that they forgot how much they liked to read or that they didn’t know they liked to read.

You might have noticed that I have been using the term “students,” rather than “readers.” That is because we first have to grow readers, students who think of themselves as readers and are on their way to becoming life-long readers. I had many eighth grade students who admitted they never had previously read an entire book or had read only one or two books in the previous middle school classes or rather fake-read those books. Those same students became readers of twenty to thirty books by the end of that eighth grade year.

How? I would like to take the credit and say it was my amazing choice of whole-class reads and exhilarating discussions of plots, character, setting, and figurative language, and the spell-binding tests I gave. But in honesty, the answer was choice—theirs. Choice was the prime motivator. At the end of seventh grade, Dave told me that he was “not a reader.” On the last day of school, he turned to me and said, “I still don’t think I like to read but I haven’t read a book this year that I didn’t like.” (He read at least 25 books that year).

Think about it. There are very few topics or writing styles or genres that interest everyone. I did attempt each year to choose one such book for our one whole-class shared text. I introduced students to reading strategies, literary elements, authors, writing styles, plot variations through reading whole-class short stories, articles, and poetry, knowing that readers can’t make choices until they know something about themselves as readers and they can’t make text choices until they know something about text. I then let my students loose on a shared novel that I thought most would like and all could read within the shared experience. For me and most of my classes, that book was The Giver, but there was noting magical about the novel other than it is well-written, employs made of the terms and concepts of plot, character, setting, and mood we had been learning, has interesting concepts which can lead to deep ethical discussions with students, especially eighth graders who are mature enough to understand them, and touches on many interests. As Sean later told me, “The Giver was a good choice because it was a type of book most of us would not have chosen on our own, but many of us went on to read the other books in the [at that time] Lowry trilogy.”

I don’t employ a whole-class text to teach students how to read and what they should read, but to open up the possibilities of how to read and what to note and notice. When readers move on the self-selected individual reading or group-selected book clubs, I encourage them to read novels, memoirs, and nonfiction in diverse genres, formats, a variety of challenge level and lengths, and with multicultural characters, by multicultural authors. While I don’t require certain quantities, I want them to be aware of their choices and extend them.

I designed a chart for my university Bibliotherapy class which I would use if I still were in the classroom so that students could analyze, and reflect on, their reading diversity:

I introduce readers, and they introduce each other, to books though book talks, book blogs, book trailers, book passes, gallery walks, and featured books-of-the-week.

Reading should be personal. Not every book speaks to every child. However, when a student finds that book, a reader is born. It takes the right book at the right time for the right reader to make the match. This could be the topic, the issue, a character, the writing, or even the setting. I just read Jordan Sonnenblick’s Falling Over Sideways, and even though I already love his writing style and reading about the eighth graders I taught for twenty years, what hooked me was the father’s stroke. My mother had a stroke and lived for many years with the physical and mental limitations. I am an adult and my mother was older than Claire’s father, and I don’t know how common stroke is with middle-aged men, but many of my students lived with, or near, their grandparents who in many cases were their caretakers, or had an ill parent, and this novel would have resonated with them. Other books have hooked me for other reasons, but it is always personal.

The most important strategy a teacher can employ is to have books in the classroom, a diversity of books (refer to the chart above when adding to your library). I was lucky to be able to build a classroom library over the years and even though we had a wonderful school library and a librarian who gave the best book talks ever, most of my “reluctant” readers chose books from our classroom library which was shelved by genre and where an “abandoned book” (one that had been previewed but still not found to be enticing after 2-3 chapters) could be returned and the next book on a personal list could be checked out.

To build a library, the holidays are a good time to ask for library presents. Any student or parent who wishes to give a gift can contribute a book in their child’s name. Design a “Book Given in the Honor of…” tag for parents or students to complete and affix to books. The students could even take part in a contest and then the winning designs copied onto labels, the contest advertising the wish for books.

Imagine the pride when readers can point to favorite books they chose to share with others.

Lesley Roessing is Director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and Senior Lecturer in the College of Education, Armstrong State University. She designed and teaches a course in Bibliotherapy to use picture books and YA literature to help guide children and adolescents through problems. Lesley is the author of The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension (Corwin, 2009), No More “Us” and “Them”: Classroom Lessons & Activities to Promote Peer Respect (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), Comma Quest: The Rules They Followed; The Sentences They Saved (Discover Writing Press. 2013), and Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically & Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). Contact her at or follow