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Choice: A Key Motivator for Teen Readers

By Kristen Bruck
 | Feb 13, 2019

As a child, I loved to read, but I never enjoyed English class. I read books that were assigned, but trying to remember details to earn points on a quiz just didn’t seem relevant to me. Now, as a parent, I dread the summer reading assignments that my kids bring home. Like most students, they don’t want to read a book that doesn’t interest them or complete an assignment so that their school can check a box to say they “read” over the summer. Even worse are the computer programs that limit students to specific books, answering questions to earn points. These may be easy ways for schools to track “reading,” but these assignments are not reading; they are chores!

Throughout my life—as a reader, a parent, and an educator—I have found that restricting choice almost always backfires, making kids less likely to want to read.  Right no. 3 of the International Literacy Association’s Children’s Rights to Read—a new initiative aimed at ensuring every child has access to the education, opportunities, and resources needed to read—states that  “Children have the right to choose what they read.” From my experience, however, this right is rarely realized. 

As an English teacher, I know that reading is more than just the answers on a test; it’s a way for all of us to find reflections of ourselves and connect with others. That is why I have changed my classroom in the past year. I still teach skills, standards, and texts that are part of the curriculum, but now I also incorporate time for students to use these skills to make meaningful connections in books of their choice.

To start, I allowed my students to choose their summer reading—with no limitations. I provided suggestions, but told them they could read anything that interested them. At first, students were confused—they couldn’t believe they could choose what to read. I gave them time to look through books that I had checked out from the public library, I showed video recommendations from their teachers, and they began to get excited about the idea of reading for pleasure. We created a website for students to share book recommendations, and when we came back to school in August, students continued to share their favorites through book talks. Most important, I gave students time in class to read the books they had chosen.

Allowing and encouraging choice has been no easy feat in a school that does not have a library. How could students choose books without any to choose from? So, I went online and researched popular books for teens (particularly ones that featured diverse protagonists), talked to my students about books they loved, and even used social media to find titles of books. Then, I bought books, asked friends and local community partners to donate used books, and started an Amazon Wishlist and several successful crowdfunding projects. My classroom library, which started out with just 20 books, has grown to several hundred books—and it keeps growing. Just this past week, a student said to me, “Mrs. Bruck, what are you doing? I actually like to read now!” She told me that she never liked to read anything before this year, but now she finds herself unable to put books down and is even engaged in reading assignments from other classes.

Too often, we hear about teenagers who “just won’t read,” but if we do it right—allowing choice, creating time and space to read, and providing high-interest books—then we can foster a lifelong love of reading, even in students who never imagined they would be readers.

Kristen Bruck is a high school English teacher and reading specialist. This is her 18th year teaching. She previously taught middle and high school social studies as well as English courses at a local community college. She is the mom of two kids, a son in eighth grade and a daughter in fifth grade.

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