A thoughtful teacher recently wrote to me on Facebook with the following controversial question:
Jennifer Serravallo, could you weigh in on choice during reading workshop time? I know there are a lot of strong feelings and opinions by literacy leaders and teachers all around this topic and we all know teaching how to find good-fit books is important. What is your take on completely free choice or choosing from within level during the instructional independent reading time?
Phew. Good one, right? It’s a bit of an elephant in the room at a lot of literacy conferences I attend, and it relates closely to what I’ll be talking about at the annual ILA conference this summer. My answer is one that is based in my experience as a classroom teacher, my work as a consultant, and my recent research on whole book comprehension. Without further ado (I promise I’m not stalling!), here’s a slightly revised version of how I responded.
I want to create conditions where students are at their peak level of engagement during independent reading, and allowing children to choose what they read has been shown to boost engagement. I also regard independent reading time as an important instructional time where I’m conferring with students, helping them to select goals, and equipping them with strategies to support them with their goals, while students who aren’t meeting with me are independently practicing. Choice is important because it helps if the books they want to get better at reading are ones they chose themselves.
That said, I think it's dangerous to allow kids to choose anything they want if what they gravitate toward are too-hard texts. (Hear me out, librarians!) In my two-year pilot study for my whole-book assessment and teaching system called Independent Reading Assessment,I sent books with comprehension questions preplanted to schools all over the United States. I asked kids to answer questions as they were reading and, at the end, to rate whether they felt the book was “easy,” “just right,” or “too hard.” Countless kids responded that the book was “easy” while answering all or most of the questions incorrectly. This tells me that kids aren't as good at monitoring their own comprehension as I’d hoped and that many consider just getting the gist to be good enough. I want kids to have experience with texts that are highly comprehensible so they are able to do deeper thinking work. I want them to feel the joy of truly understanding. It’s no fun to be confused.
That said, there are a number of variables that determine text appropriateness, and a “just-right level” is rarely a fixed letter or number for most kids. Factors such as motivation, higher or lower levels of background knowledge, and more come into play when matching children with books. Being too rigid and allowing a child to choose only within a single level all the time doesn’t sit well with me, either. If once in a while a child chooses a book you think is a stretch, but you're willing to provide some extra support, or she's reading it with a book club who will support her, or the child has incredible background knowledge about the topic, then maybe it would be fine. On the other end of the spectrum, if a child wants to read easy books, I'm OK with that, as long as there is some just-right reading in his or her weekly “diet” of reading as well.
So, for independent reading, I’d tend to guide students’ choosing toward books that are “just right” (96% or higher accuracy, with fluency and comprehension) or “easy” with a rare exception for a book that’s a bit more of a stretch, in which I’m willing to provide extra support. My opinion is largely shaped by Richard Allington's research that has convinced me a high volume of high-success reading is crucial for readers to grow.
So what happens when a child chooses a book you know is too hard for independent reading? Well, I would never snatch a book from a child's hand. One thing I would do is to invite the child to take it home to read after their regularly assigned independent reading minutes in school and at home, or suggest it would make a good bedtime book with a parent or older sibling. Another thing I’d do is to find out what it is about the book that the child is really excited about, and then see if there is another book that fits the same topic/theme/character type/genre that is a better fit in regards to complexity. I often find that it’s the “hot new books” kids want to read, in part because it seems like everyone else is reading it, but also partly because the publisher’s marketing is so good! I think it’s a teacher’s responsibility to do book talks for the unsung heroes of the classroom library to make them seem as enticing as the latest YA novel that’s getting all the buzz, especially choosing to talk up the books that will be more within the reach of the readers in their class.
Jennifer Serravallo is the author of the new best-selling The Reading Strategies Book as well as the two-time award winning Independent Reading Assessment series. She was a a NYC elementary teacher and later a senior staff developer at Columbia University’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. She has also taught graduate and undergraduate courses at Vassar College and Teachers College.
Serravallo will present two sessions Saturday, July 18, at the ILA 2015 Conference in St. Louis, MO, July 18–20. The first will be “Assessing and Teaching Whole Book Comprehension: Fiction & Nonfiction,” the second will be “Accountability, Agency and Increased Achievement in Independent Reading.” Visit the ILA 2015 Conference website for more information or to register.