The call for an end to required reading in school seems to have grown over the years. Proponents of reading by choice say that students who choose their own books are more likely to enjoy those books and thus more likely to become people who read for pleasure, not just for school. Personally, I have always taken a middle ground in the debate, arguing that there should be a balance between children choosing their own books and teachers assigning books that can be discussed as a class (since everyone has read it) and that may allow teachers to meet certain educational goals (whether that is teaching about something like symbolism or metaphors, or introducing students to the literature of a particular time period, movement, or author). For me, English is not only about encouraging life-long reading (though that is obviously important!), but also about discussing the people, ideas, and historical moments that have influenced culture.
However, the more I read about different approaches to reading in the classroom, the more I think that the proponents of required reading and of free choice actually share more common ground than is commonly let on. Because the truth is that most proponents of free choice are not actually arguing for children to read whatever they want without any guidance. They are (usually) not suggesting, for instance, that it is okay if a fifth grader never attempts to read something other than Magic Tree House (a series usually read by second or third graders) or if a child never moves beyond Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dog-Man. Proponents of free choice still have goals they would like students to meet and certain types of books they would like to encourage children to read. I see these goals as the following:
- Reading Diversely
- Reading on Grade Level
- Reading “Good” Books.
The reality is that, left completely to themselves, some children may never meet these goals. Many of the series most popular with young readers today are not particularly diverse. Many of the books most popular with children are not very sophisticated in terms of writing style. And many of the books most popular with children are graphic novels–which I love and encourage everyone to read, but which may not ultimately teach children how to approach a long, complicated text without any pictures. However, most teachers, I think, would try to steer their students towards books that represent a diversity of experiences and that ultimately challenge their students to gain the skills necessary to read longer and more complex texts.
The argument for free choice in reading is often framed as a sort of free-for-all where reading any book is seen as a good thing and all books are equal in terms of quality and content. I think, however, that this is usually meant to be the beginning of the process, a way to get children excited about reading so that teachers can then guide students to choose books that are on grade level or that the teacher thinks are “good;” the ideal is not to have a student who never reads outside their comfort zone and who never progresses to higher-level texts. I think this is not usually acknowledged in the conversation, though, because suggesting that teachers think some books are better than others sounds too prescriptive, too restrictive, too much like those people who assign books to their students. In the end, however, the proponents of required reading and of free choice are not really so far apart in their desire to see students succeed.