Should Children Be Allowed to Choose What They Read?

Reading is an essential life skill that many believe should be fostered in children at an early age to ensure that they have the experience, skills and knowledge necessary to handle more complicated reading later on in their lives. However, many educators are finding that it is not enough to teach children how to read—but that children need the motivation to enjoy reading a well. A recent study by the software company eReflect, who pioneered the 7 Speed Reading program software, found that children who are not motivated in their reading are overall less successful readers than their counterparts who are motivated to read. A less successful reader will not only read slower than their abilities indicate they can read, but they will retain less information from the reading. But how can educators motivate children to read in the first place?

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One oft-suggested solution is to allow children to choose what they read. In some educational systems, this is considered a revolutionary notion: many school systems have specific reading curriculum in place which indicates exactly what books children should read at specific grade levels. For example, a school system might enforce a curriculum that indicates what books children are going to read at every grade level. Some studies, however, have recently shown that allowing children to choose what they read not only makes reading more enjoyable for them, but it motivates them and actually makes them better readers.

A 2004 study by Guthrie and Humenick found that when children were allowed access to many different kinds of books and, more importantly, were allowed to choose what they read, motivation and reading comprehension were greatly increased. A 2011 study by Krashen had similar results, and an even newer study by the creators of eReflect also found that children who were allowed to personally choose what they read in the classroom during at least one point during the school day were better readers than their counterparts who could not.

However, not all educators approve of the idea that children should be allowed to choose at least one of their reading materials during the school day. The most common argument against this type of open reading curriculum is simple: budgets. Some schools claim that they can’t afford the large libraries necessary for an open reading curriculum that would allow students to personally choose books from a diverse school library. However, in counterargument to these claims, Richard L. Allington and Rachael E. Gabriel—behind the groundbreaking work “Every Child, Every Day”—had this to say:

Some teachers say they find it difficult to provide a wide selection of texts because of budget constraints. Strangely, there is always money available for workbooks, photocopying, and computers; yet many schools claim that they have no budget for large, multileveled classroom libraries. This is interesting because research has demonstrated that access to self-selected texts improves students’ reading performance (Krashen, 2011), whereas no evidence indicates that workbooks, photocopies, or computer tutorial programs have ever done so (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998; Dynarski, 2007).

While budgets are an unfortunate reality for many school systems, educators need to place reading at a higher priority within the budget to ensure that a diverse library is available for students at an early age to encourage motivated and enjoyed reading.

The benefits of allowing children to choose reading do not end simply at motivating them to read more, although this is certainly an important benefit. Other benefits include encouraging children to take risks, encouraging children to feel empowered and more confident and encouraging children to enjoy a task that may very well be of great use to them in the future.

When children are able to choose what they would like to read from a wide variety of books, they are more likely to take risks and branch out their interests in directions they might otherwise avoid. Mindi Rench, a language arts educator and specialist, had this to say on her recent decision to allow her 7th grade students to choose what they wanted to read:

This year, I asked my students to read widely across a variety of genres. While I required a certain number of books in particular genres, I left the titles up to the kids. I found in my conversations that students who had been stuck in a reading rut appreciated the nudge to explore other genres and picked up books they never would have read otherwise. I now have students who at the beginning of the year said, “I hate fantasy books, especially ones with dragons and fairies” reading books like The Sixty Eight Rooms and Small Persons with Wings, which is not your typical fairy book!

The importance of taking risks is not limited to reading. For example, a child who has taken the risk of reading science-fiction books may find that they are actually interested in science and end up pursuing an educational career in a scientific field. The reading decisions children make at an early age can, in fact, have an impact on what they decide they want to do with their lives.

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Allowing children to choose what they read also encourages a feeling of empowerment and trust between the children and their educators. Children who are allowed to choose what they read—whether it is within a specific category, such as “choose a fantasy book” or “choose a non-fiction book”—are being implicitly told that their educator trusts them to make the right decision. Studies have shown that children who are allowed to make their own choices, whether that choice is what they wear to school or what they read, feel more confident and empowered in other areas of their lives.

Finally, when children are allowed to choose what they read during school, they are more likely to view reading as an enjoyable activity rather than a chore or something they are being forced to do. An enjoyment of reading at an early age will help children become better readers and make reading at a higher level, such as in high school or university, an easier and potentially even more enjoyable experience.

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