Let Them Read! – Letting students choose what they read

Sometimes we’re so focused on the tree we miss the forest. Educators can fall prey to this type of thinking just as easily to anyone else. We spend millions pushing math skills through dozens of different methods, but neglect linking them to real life application. Teachers struggle over what items from history are relevant to students. They miss the opportunity to let students develop the ability to hone their analysis skills by not focusing on letting students discover the hows and whys of history on their own.

Then we have reading. Reading is possibly the most integral skill one can have. Without the ability to read, or even read well, daily life in this modern world is a struggle. Think of it, you can’t balance a checkbook, read the instructions for medication, or read the loan agreement your about to sign. Not being able to read is dangerous.

The fact that even one child will graduate high school without being able to read their own diploma, let alone one fifth, should turn your stomach. As a nation we spend about $2 billion in schools trying to correct this problem. In this struggle the lure of scientifically “proven” reading methods is great. Americans love the quick fix. Common sense still prevails in some. One those educators is Doug Noon. Doug has presented an idea so obvious many will label it revolutionary. This is no slight on Doug. Check out what he did in his classroom.

from Borderlands

I’m trying something different this year. I’m not assigning novels and telling everyone which pages to read, having class discussions about the themes, providing background knowledge, making vocabulary lists, or asking “comprehension” questions that I mark for a grade.

This year, everyone in the class reads what they want to read, and they read without interruption for 30-40 minutes each day. They tell me about their books when I go around the room asking how it’s going. I write down what we talk about. They read short passages quietly to me. They write in journals about their books. They meet with partners or in small groups, and they give oral “book reports” written on sticky notes. They make book recommendations to each other. They read at home and before school without being told to, and they tell me they love to read. I even saw one of my students reading a book walking down the hall the other day. It’s going viral.

In the beginning of the year I only had a few real readers in the class. One girl told me she couldn’t read. It wasn’t true; she just hadn’t found the right books. Most hadn’t read anything during the summer break, many chose too-easy books to read in class at first, and some wanted to see the nurse or go to the bathroom every day when it was time to read. But I wouldn’t let them; they had to read. Now, everyone settles right down, and it’s stone quiet the whole time.

For a very long time, it seemed to me that teaching Reading (capital R) was using too much valuable class time when the kids could have been actually reading. They were spending their time filling in blanks and looking up answers to questions nobody cared about. Assigned readings were either too hard, too easy, or too boring. There was no love in it, and reading was mostly a chore. I decided to test Stephen Krashen’s research-based 88 Generalizations about Free and Voluntary Reading, and it’s exciting to see these kids reading and talking about books because they want to, and not because they have to.

As I read Doug’s post I found a smile quickly spreading across my face. I had to stifle a shout of “someone finally gets it!” because my pregnant wife would not have been too pleased to be woken up at 6 in the AM.

I am a firm believer that about what kids are reading, it’s about getting them to read. Who cares if they’ve read Shakespeare or “Old Man and the Sea”. Most aren’t old enough to really grasp them anyway. If teachers and parents can instill a lifelong love of reading then the classics will come later.

Children also are making meaningful analysis of what they are reading, making stronger connections. That will last longer than someone having to explain what Yorik’s skull represents. And of course it’s free.

Pay attention people. Doug has emerged from the forest bringing some goods news. teachers would be wise to follow his lead.


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