Should Kids Pick their Own Reading Texts?

  • 12 January, 2019
  • 15 Comments

As regular readers of this blog know, there is an entire segment of the literacy community who thinks I’m an idiot.

I’ve been married for a long time, so those kinds of judgments don’t usually bother me.

But let’s be honest, we all like to be liked, so another blog about why kids learn less from reading on their own is probably not in my best interest. And, that definitely is not what this is going to be about… or at least not what I wanted it to be about.

You see, over the holidays a friend of mine posted chart from a presentation at this year’s Literacy Research Association meeting. It included effect sizes for the impact of student choice on learning. The effect size for the impact of choice on reading motivation was .95 and on reading achievement was 1.20. With big-whomping payoffs like those you’d be foolish to assign books. Let ‘em read what they want to!

My interest was piqued.

I’ve long known that choice matters in motivation. I prefer doing what I want rather than what others want me to do. I’ve written about the value of choice in teaching, but have pointed out that it didn’t have to be about which book to read—it could be about who to read with, which part of the room to read in, or even which order to fit this reading into the morning schedule. (In this blog entry, my focus is on instructional reading--that reading required by teachers with an instructional purpose. I strongly believe that when kids are reading independently--that is when they are deciding that they want to read for their own purposes, they should be allowed wide latitude in what they read.)

But these statistics seem to be saying that book choice is where the big payoff is and if that’s the case, I really missed the boat (in Chicago, missing the boat in January is a cold proposition).

I set out to write a mea culpa, mea maxima culpa kind of blog entry touting kids’ choice over teacher’s choice.

Except that isn’t what I found out when I looked into this.

Twitter indicated those statistics were from John Guthrie, an honest and rigorous researcher. (Those statistics could be solid).

But the source was a chapter from a book called Voice of Evidence. It’s a good book, but such books usually are not good sources for research evidence. Chapters in such books are not reviewed and edited as research.

The Guthrie and Humenick chapter aimed to would answer the question, “What motivates students to read?” Instead of a traditional qualitative literature review, they reported on a meta-analysis. Unfortunately, it was not reported like a research study for the most part. You can’t tell which studies were reviewed for instance, a real weakness.

They identified 22 relevant experimental studies which offered up 46 effect sizes on student choice and its impact on reading. Based on this analysis they concluded that when kids are allowed to choose what they want to read there are big boosts to reading motivation and achievement.

The chapter discussed a handful of the meta-analyzed studies to illustrate their conclusions.

These descriptions surprised me. They weren’t so terrific for making this kind of judgment.

For example, one of the studies (McLoyd, 1979), had children examine 10 books and rate them in terms of how interesting they were. They then assigned half the children their first choices and the other half their last choices.

Yep, that’s right.

No one in this study chose anything. Everyone’s book was assigned. They either had to read a book they liked or a book they didn’t like. McLoyd let the kids read for a few minutes and then interrupted them, keeping track of how long they continued reading.  The kids who were assigned books they liked read a bit longer than the ones assigned books that they didn’t.

That’s a big confound of choice and interest. That kids spend more time reading books they like than books they don’t wasn’t that surprising to me. (Of course this is in contrast to my believe that children spend more time “eating” asparagus than ice cream; but that’s quite another matter).

Another of the studies included (Reynolds & Symonds, 2001), also confounded choice and interest to the point where, again, I was stuck concluding that kids would rather learn about something they were interested in, than being assigned stuff they were not. But choice is the issue in this only if you think that teachers always manage to assign what kids don’t like.

Another strange choice of a study was that of Lesley Morrow (1992). In this study, students were assigned to one of two treatments. One treatment provided students with instruction and workbook activities from their basal readers. The second provided students with much the same instruction (though abbreviated a bit to open up some time) to allow for students to read self-selected books from classroom libraries and to receive lessons and activities based on those books.

No question that the free choice group out-performed the comparison group but was that outcome difference actually due to choice?

The choice group was required to read more and to do more reading lessons. They had access to a classroom library (complete with rocking chairs and felt-boards and other materials). The children in the choice group all received subscriptions to Highlights magazine so they could read at home (and half of this group received instructional support from their mothers with these library books).

Complex interventions of this type may work, but this kind of study cannot reveal the active ingredients. Was it the extra reading lessons? The increased amount of reading? The Hawthorne effects due to the attractive new libraries added to the classrooms? The magazine subscriptions and increased reading at home? Or was it that the kids got to choose some additional books (to the textbooks)?

Meta-analysis can be terrific but including studies that look at fewer than 10 minutes of reading or that are so confounded that it is impossible to attribute the impact to the variable of interest is sure to undermine its value.

Student text choice likely has some payoff in terms of motivation. But its impact on achievement is likely much smaller than these Twitterverse postings would suggest. I’d still be hesitant to make student book choice a big part of my reading instruction.

Why would I be hesitant to have kids select the books?

One of the big things that kids should be learning about reading is how to negotiate text complexity. Teachers (and publishers) should be selecting texts that will challenge kids in particular ways.

These challenges might be simple and straightforward: particular vocabulary the kids are unlikely to know, or sentences that have particular kinds of complexity (like passive voice or especially long noun phrases or compound verbs).

Or, they might be structurally or conceptually complex. Stories with multiple protagonists or that include flashbacks, or informational texts that challenge one’s perceptions as science texts sometimes do.

With such texts, teacher can guide students to confront these interpretive problems.

When kids do the picking, it is less certain that their choice will present such confrontations, and even when they do, the teacher would less likely be in position to add the essential teaching that would help the student to transform this confusion into learning.

There is a place for student book choice within reading instruction, but it is much smaller than those Twitter charts may suggest.

There is a good lesson in this for those educators who think they can just take John Hattie’s chart of effect size as the source for their school improvement efforts. You cannot interpret effect sizes without some awareness of the original studies included in the analysis. The old adage garbage in, garbage out still applies.

 

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Sharon George
Jan 12, 2019 08:35 PM

Dear Dr. Shanahan,
First of all, I'd like to thank you for your response to my previous emails. Secondly, thank you for your work in Ohio with school systems who applied for federal grant resources last year. My school did not receive funding, but my district's 7-12 grade literacy department did, so many of my students will benefit in the future!

My concern/question is this. My district has invested much time and money in Lucy Calkins reading and writing script books, also known as Teachers College. Their program seems to strongly espouse views of John Hattie (see link below). Given the information you have shared in your blog, what advice can you give those of us (especially my TESOL and Intervention Specialist colleagues) who struggle with the use of the Lucy scripts for our struggling readers? Evidence-driven studies to read and share? Thanks for any wisdom you share.
Sharon G.

https://readingandwritingproject.org/services/professional-development/reading

Our work in reading, like our work in writing, is grounded in research on evidenced-based teaching (see John Hattie’s Visible Learning, Geoff Petty’s Evidence-Based Teaching, etc). Readers make their thinking about texts visible by talking and writing about texts. Teachers study what readers do, and consider goals that are within reach yet rigorous. Through feedback, teachers give readers an understanding of the progress they have made, and name important goals and work they can do to become more proficient.

Sharon George
Jan 12, 2019 08:35 PM

Dear Dr. Shanahan,
First of all, I'd like to thank you for your response to my previous emails. Secondly, thank you for your work in Ohio with school systems who applied for federal grant resources last year. My school did not receive funding, but my district's 7-12 grade literacy department did, so many of my students will benefit in the future!

My concern/question is this. My district has invested much time and money in Lucy Calkins reading and writing script books, also known as Teachers College. Their program seems to strongly espouse views of John Hattie (see link below). Given the information you have shared in your blog, what advice can you give those of us (especially my TESOL and Intervention Specialist colleagues) who struggle with the use of the Lucy scripts for our struggling readers? Evidence-driven studies to read and share? Thanks for any wisdom you share.
Sharon G.

https://readingandwritingproject.org/services/professional-development/reading

Our work in reading, like our work in writing, is grounded in research on evidenced-based teaching (see John Hattie’s Visible Learning, Geoff Petty’s Evidence-Based Teaching, etc). Readers make their thinking about texts visible by talking and writing about texts. Teachers study what readers do, and consider goals that are within reach yet rigorous. Through feedback, teachers give readers an understanding of the progress they have made, and name important goals and work they can do to become more proficient.

Tim Shanahan
Jan 13, 2019 05:03 AM

Sharon-
I’d tell you the same things that I’ve told Lucy herself. The idea that kids have an instructional level is not a research-based idea and that students would benefit from more explicit teaching and guidance in interpreting language. Thanks.

Cheryle Ferlita
Jan 14, 2019 12:13 AM

Always remember, Haters gonna hate!
Thank you for helping to keep me grounded. As a teacher I tend to get very excited about ideas especially after attending conferences. I am constantly checking myself to see if what I am doing is truly working as evidenced by student progress and ability to read and understand their texts, or if it is just what reading teachers including myself have always done.
I do have a problem with a computer based program we use called Reading Plus. This program has a guided window that moves across the page showing small phrases. Sometimes this window can move as quickly as 260-340 words per minute. The program goal for students reading at 5th grade is at least 195, butbit moves up every time students receive a passing score. As I observe and watch students using the program, and as I try myself to keep up I totally lose comprehension and any sign of fluency. I have raised these concerns with my administrators and even with the program trainer, but they say there is lots of research they have used to support their program and this is one of the most important aspects of the program. This long winded email to say thanks for your last post on fluency.

Tim Shanahan
Jan 14, 2019 03:26 AM

Thanks, Cheryle... there is a program like that that does have some decent research support...it might be that one (if so, it is associated with the Taylor fellow that I cited above). I’m not sure how this kind of thing helps as such programs tend not to work at all. I’d encourage you to watch its results carefully.

Tim

Richard Long
Jan 14, 2019 04:21 PM

A core question to any learning is how do we move from being comfortable to learning something new? If the teacher takes the self-selected text and then uses it to push a student, then the content provides the motivation (interest) to try something new. And, with that the teacher is able to help a student to grow. Unfortunately, most new teachers don't have that ability to use this technique to help 25 plus students in the time they have. I would argue that the technique is useful under specific circumstances that research needs to explore in a comprehensive manner.

While practice by using content that motivates can make a difference at the level students are at; new learning on how to read is the art of the teacher turning the material into instruction that make a difference for most learners.

Valerie Chernek
Jan 15, 2019 07:03 PM

Dr. Shanahan: Thank you for your expertise on this important topic -- reading and literacy.

I believe children and students of all ages need both reading instruction and time for independent reading.

Do you know of or have research on the use of educational audiobooks for students with learning disabilities?

Thank you.

Taylor
Feb 05, 2019 02:37 PM

I found your blog to be very insightful. I believe that reading instruction and independent reading should be balanced in the classroom. This is where text complexity is important and should come into play. If teachers use text complexity correctly students can become strong readers and can eventually comprehending more increasingly challenging text. I do agree that teachers and publishers should be selecting texts that will challenge students in particular ways, but in order to select those text teachers have gain an understanding of student's backgrounds and reading abilities. By doing so the teacher, the publisher, and the student can figure out the right text for them to read. We also need to become more diligent in tying in reading with other parts of learning, such as math, science, social studies, etc. We as teachers can not automatically assume that students should be challenged only with difficult books. We cannot start at "exit level" text. Students should start with a text that fits their reading needs and work up to more complex text. The main goal is to create positive outlooks on reading for the students. Teachers should understand how their students read, create rigorous goals, provide feedback, and monitor progress.


Jennifer Stokley
Feb 08, 2019 10:28 PM

As a first-grade teacher I am exposed to 12 different ideas and ways to teach reading every year. Most things my school district/principal/whomever come up with are grounded in "research". The problem is exactly what you state: How good is the research? I agree that student choice is not beneficial to students in an instructional setting. As the teacher, I have a goal in mind and need to choose the reading material that will support that goal. I do believe that students will attend and learn more if I can find books that appeal to their interests. If I am teaching adjectives to a group of 6-year-old boys, the book that involves trucks will hold their attention and encourage discussion far better than the book about kittens. I also need to teach children how to read by choosing books that are challenging yet readable. A student may not challenge themselves or pick the third-grade chapter book because, “His brother reads that book.” I am a believer in research but after 25 years in the classroom I do not need research to tell me that in order to teach a concept I need to pick the materials. I can give children choices during independent reading time.

Shannon Bentley
Feb 09, 2019 03:31 PM

Dr. Shanahan,
I appreciate your insight about the value of analyzing the validity and reliability of the types of research studies conducted, and later presented as "THE" research when someone attempts to give us, teachers, the latest solution to reading instruction, customized and differentiated for every student.
I am a middle school, sixth grade, integrated reading and language arts teacher with DoDEA overseas. My husband is an active duty military service member, so we move quite a bit both in the United States and overseas. For almost twenty years I have had the privilege to teach in various schools, public, private, independent, and DoDEA. However, with this mobility, I can honestly say that I have been asked to teach literacy in many different ways, or a combination of several ways, in each school. The philosophies for each method center on some sort of research about the best way to teach reading with students, but at times we often find several conflicts among experts.
Especially in the middle school years, we are told that we need to allow students to find their interests and build upon those for educational enhancement, yet there are so many quality pieces of literature and elements of world culture that students will miss out on if they are not exposed to reading texts that are not necessarily of their own choosing. Not only would students miss out on the exposure to various quality texts and genres, but also as a teacher, trying to conduct lessons and conversations with so many different texts for instructional purposes—it’s simply overwhelming.
Although I am fairly new to teaching with the CCSS in ELA, I am impressed at the level to which my students are able to close read a text with guidance, and provide literary analysis. Honestly, I can say that using these more complex texts absolutely provide a rich opportunity for students to demonstrate critical thinking skills and growth. Some texts that students choose to read in independent reading time are simply just for fun…there isn’t much to think deeply about or analyze. The instruction from these texts would prove difficult to prompt as much challenge and growth with students.

Jaclyn Schabel
Feb 10, 2019 05:32 PM

Thank you for confidently supporting the role of the teacher in guiding students in the classroom. The more I read about this topic, the more I wonder if part of the argument for student choice stems from the fact that teachers are too often not seen as the professionals that they are. A teacher’s role is to guide students to challenge themselves with texts that force them to confront new ideas and different thoughts. In a classroom that allows for only student choice, we are taking away a teacher’s ability to guide. Consider this situation in medicine. Would the general public encourage a patient to create his own cocktail of pills and serums in a free choice situation? Certainly, we would want the patient to seek the opinion of the doctor considering the doctor’s role as an experienced medical practitioner. Why do teachers not get the same encouragement to guide learning?
In my own classroom, I am too often faced with students who are afraid to challenge themselves. They don’t want to approach difficult texts because it means they may have to look up new vocabulary or work through temporary confusion. In a society that promotes instant gratification, students struggle to wade through difficulties in search of an answer. They would much rather read an “easy book” with a point of view that validates their own understanding of the world than to explore something new. They want to find the “correct answer” instead of creating their own interpretation. Allowing for constant free choice would lead most of my high school students to read social media posts and photo captions only. How does this promote learning?
For decades, students have been taught that texts need to be viewed through a lens of understanding the author’s background. With the shift to the New Criticism approach, students finally had a role in interpretation. Maybe what is necessary is not so much free choice but more free thought. Why don’t we focus instead on teaching students to take in several opinions and determine which one is most fitting for their lives? Why don’t we teach students to confidently analyze text instead of waiting for teachers to tell them what to think? The debate shouldn’t be about letting students read whatever they want whenever they want but about how best to lead students to think for themselves and define their own ideals.

Daphine
Feb 10, 2019 07:20 PM

I have long been an advocate of student choice in reading, but to a certain extent, within my classroom. What I mean by this is my students choose from a classroom library of books that enhance the learning environment. The students enjoy reading extension books that increase the content knowledge that they are currently or have previously learned about. Of course, research says that, when given a choice, students outperform those who are not provided a choice. I have observed in my own class that students are more likely to read more and improve their reading ability when given choices.
I know that I must teach to the complexity of the standard, and because of that I don't have a choice that allow students to choose their own reading materials. That sometimes means that I may have to assign passages or books that will help meet the text complexity that is required.
I also allow students the time to read for enjoyment. The students are able to check books that they prefer out from our media center and I give them time to read those choice books in the classroom. Just as adults, students do really need to make decisions about how literacy will affect their lives.
I would love to get research-based practices into the hands of those who make the decisions for the teachers and students; the district personnel. Even though the research has been out for quite some time, districts worldwide seem to ignore the evidence.

Kim Lane
Feb 11, 2019 01:00 AM

Thank you so much for your impeccable knowledge of literacy. I agree with your comment that we need to look into the “research” before we consider it good research. I am an advocate for both free choice reading and guided reading. As a kindergarten teacher, guided reading is the fundamentals of reading for my learners. This is how they learn to read. Although the text they are reading is basic, it is appropriate for my students. As they become efficient readers, choice is valuable to allow them to not only become fluent readers, but also to build comprehension and background knowledge. It is vital as a teacher for me to choose text appropriate books that will allow the students to become independent readers. If the text is too difficult, it could stifle their learning. If the text is too easy, they will not grow. Educators have to look at the whole student not just their level. We have to look not only at the Lexile level, but also at the language and clarity of the text when allowing a student to read. We all want the best for our students. Allowing them the opportunity to choose books that are appropriate for them will help them become proficient readers.

Arshay King
Feb 11, 2019 04:36 AM

As a reader, I think it I safe to say that when I choose a text of my own to read and I am more engaged. Even as a student when a teacher assigns a reading assignment and gives a list with book choices to choose from, I am easily more engaged because I still have a say so and it will be something of my interest. Although our engagement level is higher when we choose a text that does not necessarily mean that we are enhancing our reading skills. Text complexity tells us that a reader should be matched with the task and the text in order to reach an instructional goal. Text complexity also tells us that the quantitative component should be a starting point as to where we should begin choosing texts for our students, but not the only factor. We must consider students’ prior knowledge with a text’s content because the more prior knowledge the more productive a student’s interaction will be. I think to accommodate the want for students to choose their reading texts while still providing with text complexity we should give them the initial responsibility to choose their first read, but they must make goals to increase their stamina and reading. Lastly, we can push to increase the connections between text and tasks during independent reading time.

Robert F
Feb 12, 2019 09:17 PM

Tim, thank you for your comments on the programs of Lucy Calkins, and thanks for talking to her directly. Apart from the research question of whether or not choice enhances performance, the Writer’s Workshop has significant logistical and intellectual problems. If you are teaching two or even three grade levels or class groups and each class has chosen five or six different books to read, you might have as many as 18 books in play at once. It is impossible for a teacher to carefully read and structure instruction for so many books. This goes back to your point that students need more teacher direction. The Reader’s Workshop minimizes the teacher’s role on purpose, of course, and its structure makes teacher guidance impossible. Students are left to “teach” each other. Struggling readers are abandoned. It is my understanding that minimally-guided instruction, “discovery” learning it all its forms, has been shown to be ineffective.

Beyond that, there is the intellectual problem of holding a book’s knowledge in common. If the entire class has read a story or a book, we can use that later on. “Remember the choice that character Y faced?” But if we don’t hold that knowledge in common, such common understanding is lost. And while I understand that personal experience isn’t proof of anything, I can think of many books that I was assigned in school that I didn’t like at first but came to respect and love. I trusted my teachers to make good choices and the vast majority of the time they delivered. Even as a teenager, I knew that they picked more important, challenging books than I could have and I appreciated their ability to provide guidance.

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Should Kids Pick their Own Reading Texts?

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