It’s no secret that the most effective way to get students to read is to let them choose what they read. Decades of research have studied students who read for pleasure, seeking to understand what motivates habitual reading and the benefits of those sustained reading habits. Movements and programs have likewise encouraged educators to provide dedicated in-class time to nothing more than allowing students to read, ensuring all students have unfettered access to books and uninterrupted time to enjoy them. Letting kids read what they want means students are more likely to read for pleasure, which has many benefits.
What is “student choice” in reading?
The idea of “student choice” means allowing students to select which books to explore based on their preferences and interests. For fiction, this means allowing students to read books from genres marginalized in literary classes (science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, etc.) written at their reading level and for their age group over focusing on “classics” typically written with outdated styles and vocabulary that creates a comprehension barrier to young, modern readers. As for non-fiction, this means providing them the opportunity and resources to explore topics that are not covered or underexplored in school. It’s amazing how, suddenly, kids who claim to hate reading engage in sustained, silent reading when they are allowed to read about robotics or dystopian fiction. Even more powerful is the effect of readers being able to see themselves in fictional characters in terms of experiences, struggles, culture, orientation, and physical appearance.
Knowing Yourself as a Reader
Half the battle in getting kids to read is helping them understand what they like to read. When allowing kids to pick books, there is still a learning curve of figuring out what they want and how to make that choice when their choices have previously been limited. They may need to be made aware of genres and topics they can read about. Some teachers use “interest inventories” to guide students based on their preferences and offer suggestions. Better yet, let kids explore libraries and bookstores on their own. This provides novelty and independence that most kids aren’t afforded at school. That being said, there is always the risk that students will avoid anything out of their already established preferences, limiting themselves inadvertently to other genres or subjects that would interest them, which is why it is so essential for the adults in their lives to model reading and suggest new books to them. Likewise, discussing their favorite TV shows, movies, and influencers with them will help guide them to genres and subjects to explore.
The Benefits of Reading for Pleasure
Once students can freely discover the worlds and knowledge available through books, they are twice as likely to choose reading in their free time. The benefits of reading as a habit are many and well-documented. They become better students across subjects but specifically show progress in vocabulary acquisition, spelling, and, surprisingly, math. Over time, this sustained reading functions as a brain exercise, developing and strengthening the capacity for deeper cognitive processing. Kids comprehend double the information read for pleasure than mandated reading assignments, improving recall and retention of that material. They also lengthen their attention span for intensely focused reading.
Student choice when reading is a powerful motivator to encourage reading, and across the board, kids who read consistently outperform their non-reading peers. This is most evident when comparing grade-level reading scores to percentages of kids who admit to reading for pleasure. Reading as a free time activity is at an all-time low, and in many places across the United States, so are reading scores. With this in mind, the focus should be less on what kids read and more that they read at all.
It’s no secret that the most effective way to get students to read is to let them choose what they read. Decades of research have studied students who read for pleasure, seeking to understand what motivates habitual reading and the benefits of those sustained reading habits.
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