The Unacknowledged Nuances in the Argument for Choice in School Reading

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.

21 thoughts on “The Unacknowledged Nuances in the Argument for Choice in School Reading

  1. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    I think a lot hinges on the balance we all believe in between “all books are valuable” and “actually, some books are better than others,” whatever your criteria for “better” may be. Of course, I think most readers don’t want to bash entire genres, but if you review books, as many people in this conversation do, then you are inherently judging whether individual books are valuable, worth reading, have interesting themes, are well-structured, etc.


    • Krysta says:

      That’s a good point. I think book lovers do tend to think some books are better than others. That’s why they are drawn to certain books and don’t read all books indiscriminately.


  2. Paper Worlds says:

    This is a really interesting discussion. It is difficult to find the balance between enabling children to enjoy reading, but also ensuring that they are developing their reading ability. However, I think it is vital that we let children choose their own books to read for pleasure at all ages.

    I do also think that there is a place for required reading, like you say for teaching about literature, but I think it is important to nurture a culture of reading for pleasure in young children. I don’t think you can create such a culture through required reading alone, or even through restricting reading choice by saying that children’s reading material must meet certain criteria (eg. diverse enough, interesting enough, complex enough).


    • Krysta says:

      I think part of the root problem, which I’ve seen more people talking about recently, is that there is apparently a number of reading/English teachers who don’t like to read. Well, how do you choose good books for your class library/to recommend/to assign? If a teacher doesn’t like reading themselves, sure, any required reading is going to be awful–because they think it’s awful, too!

      I think conveying enthusiasm and teaching, “Oh, if you liked the book we read as a class, try this,” or “Okay, we learned you don’t like X, Y, Z in a book thanks to our class read. What do you think of these recommendation?” could do a lot. And it would also make the students feel validated like, yes, you heard I hated that book, you acknowledged it, you acted like that’s okay (because readers don’t like all books–perfectly normal), and then you tried to take my tastes into account as a result. I think that could feel empowering, both because you’re being heard and because you’re learning that not liking a particular book doesn’t mean you are “not a reader.”


  3. Winged Cynic says:

    Great discussion! I’m on middle ground in this too; I’ve always felt the choices offered for required reading in school have been too predictable and restrictive, but that’s not to say that required reading itself is bad. I never would’ve built a tolerance for slower, longer, or hard-to-grasp books had I not struggled with them in school, so I definitely have an appreciation for them in retrospect.

    But of course, I do know people who’ve been turned off from reading entirely due to their school, so perhaps the solution would be to offer a greater variety of books that challenge students but still are enjoyable to them. Which also boils down to teaching too; I’ve had nightmarish English teachers who turned me off from books I otherwise would’ve adored (i.e. To Kill A Mockingbird), and high school isn’t a fun time for most teens, so it’s also about teaching in a way that doesn’t make students feel like those books are being shoved down their throats. 😛


    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I think the general consensus is a lot of teachers don’t actually read themselves (there was a survey on this recently, but I can’t find it…). So many just keep picking whatever books they read in school because they have no idea what’s even out there for children to read. So, in that case, required reading is not the problem. The problem is that students are being taught to read by people who don’t like to read themselves. I think we all see the irony in this.

      And, yes! I think teachers can really change how you experience reading. I HATED English class, even though I loved reading. And I hated Shakespeare for years because I had awful high school teachers. Then I had a great college professor and suddenly fell in love with Shakespeare.

      I think teachers need to be aware that they need to convey some level of appreciation and enthusiasm for what they are teaching. Hence why we need more English teachers who are readers.

      (I am confused as to how some people are teaching reading if they don’t even like it. Isn’t that an odd career choice?)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Winged Cynic says:

        Wow, I definitely need to do snooping on that survey! I didn’t know there were so many English teachers who didn’t enjoy reading – like, how on earth DOES that even happen?!

        But then again, you can legitimately see some teachers who simply don’t want to be there, and that’s a problem with education everywhere I suppose; underpaid and underappreciated teachers won’t do their job if they don’t find it worth the energy, and thus their students suffer in turn. It’s a sad cycle. :/

        Btw same! I used to think Shakespeare was the worst thing ever, but an amazing college professor made me really come to love it. I don’t think it’s the easiest subject to make enjoyable to learn, but I legit hung on his every word in class. Teachers truly make all the difference! 😀


        • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

          I know some teachers who are reasonably paid, and I think it’s often still not enough when they’re expected to work 70 weeks, be abused by parents, have students trying to get them fired because they “don’t like them” because they actually want them to do their homework. And then administration will do things like bump all the students’ grades at the end of the year so the parents and students will be happy. I would be IRATE if spent 70 weeks grading and grade norming, only to be told the grades are essentially made-up and I might as well have just written “A+” on all the tests. So I can see how even people who liked teaching in the first place would come to dislike or be burned out. Now…not liking the SUBJECT you teach in the first place is weird, unless we’re talking elementary school, where (in the US at least), teachers teach ALL the subjects, and I know some of *those* teachers as well who definitely mail it in on the subjects they don’t personally like.


  4. Kelly | Another Book in the Wall says:

    Another great discussion! 💕 I’m on the middle ground for this as well, and see why both ends of the spectrum are appealing for educators. There is no doubt that teachers want to see students succeed and continually develop reading abilities and critical thinking skills through reading. But, there’s a point where books can become so daunting, that students recoil from the very idea of picking one up for pleasure. I think there needs to be a balance of sorts, between having some required books, but also allowing students to have a bit more freedom in deciding which books these are.


    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I don’t see why we can’t have both in a classroom? Opponents of required reading act sometimes like reading a book as a class is some sort of terrible thing, but…don’t avid readers do the same thing? Read books together to discuss them? And, yes, sometimes you end up not wanting to read the book or not liking the book (like if you’re in a book club), but then you can at least learn to talk about what it is you don’t like and learn a little more about what you DO like. Which I think is important, too, for reluctant readers who may not initially know how to choose books for themselves that they might like.

      I guess I just don’t think required reading is so awful when it’s really just mirroring a practice avid readers tend to do for themselves for fun. Maybe drop some of the onerous worksheets associated with the practice, sure. But reading the same book together, one you didn’t choose for yourself–but may end up liking as a recommendation? Totally a normal thing for readers to do!

      I’m reading a book now with a friend because another friend suggested it. I do not like this book. I could have told you I would not like this book (and would have never read it on my own). But I’m giving it a try for the sake of reading in community.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Elspeth says:

    Have you noticed that very few discussions today allow for nuances? Almost all discourses seem to cede the most ground to the most extreme voices.

    This is never ideal, but when it comes to the well-being and education of children, it’s especially problematic.

    My observations mirror yours.


    • Krysta says:

      I think people find it easier to argue for an extreme. Look for nuances and things become complicated. And you may start to find you, gasp, have common ground with the “enemy.” So much simpler to take a hard stand and never back down!

      But I do wish proponents of reading for choice would admit they aren’t just saying, “Oh, yes, Dogman forever is as good as reading anything else.” Because I don’t think the average teacher believes that. Part of why you want to teach reading is so students excel in EVERY class. But, if they can’t read anything complex or anything without pictures, they can’t very well read their science or history or math books, can they? Reading Dogman 20 times is just the first step to getting students to reading stuff they do need to read. Because I don’t think other courses besides English have adopted the “children choose the curriculum” model. They still expect their students to do the required reading in science class and so on. But they’re also assuming the English teacher is teaching the students to read those science texts.


    • Krysta says:

      Yes! I’ve seen mention of the need for content knowledge for reading comprehension quite a few times over the past few years. And yet…very few people seem to be using this information. Maybe there are some star teachers out there trying new strategies, but, generally, large-scale change seems to be slow.

      I have also noticed a concerning lack of general, supposedly commonplace knowledge among students and I am really confused. It’s like I could refer to the capital of the U.S. or mention London, for instance, and…people just don’t know what the capital of their own country is or what country London is in. I don’t know why. Maybe they don’t read much, but shouldn’t they pick up some of this stuff from TV or going places or talking to people? The world is doing more than watching videos on how to make slime, right?


      • Elspeth says:

        The world is doing more than watching videos on how to make slime, right?

        Based on your own anecdotal observations, it sounds dubious.

        Slime plus Game of Thrones, Marvel movies, and Harry Potter (which I like) are all the types of entertainment we can watch and never run across much in the way of usable information.


  6. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    This is always the argument that never seems to go away. I agree wholeheartedly to being in the middle with this debate- there should be a balance in children reading for pleasure and for educational reasons. And I agree that left to themselves, children will never pick up certain types of books and will nearly always go for the easy option. I do think that it can seem quite prescriptive, but the real trick with reading lists is to find a balance- a lot of teachers try to put some books on there, that while well written, will be more enjoyable (my brain is fried, so my analogy is super inappropriate, but it’s like trying to get them hooked on some gateway books before going onto the hard stuff 😉 )- and a clever list will intersperse this with progressively more challenging books. Honestly, I’m beginning to find a lot of these arguments like “there’s no need to read classics, just watch the movie” and “children don’t need required reading” to just be a race to the bottom. It being hard or challenging is no excuse for not trying to push children’s (or adult’s!) boundaries. (especially as there’s plenty of kids not in the state system who will be pushed to read harder books and are going to go further ahead- sorry to go off topic a little- but I find this argument is often widening the gap between classes). Again, sorry if I’m a bit of a grumpus about this topic, I’m just a bit fed up by all the arguments I see around this.


    • Krysta says:

      I don’t fully understand the “reading wars” as this doesn’t seem to happen in other disciplines. No one says, “Oh, you don’t have to do the required reading for history class if you don’t like X period of history” or “Let them choose which math concepts they learn. Teaching the Pythagorean Theorem to someone who only likes the quadratic formula will scar them for life and scare them away from math forever.” The thing about school is, you should be required to do things because you’re being taught by subject experts and, as a student, you’re not as able to determine what is good or useful for you to learn. Of course, there will always be people who resent having to go to school to learn things they don’t see as interesting or useful. But that doesn’t mean school is bad.

      Also, good point. Statistics indicate that people read more as socioeconomic levels increase. Since reading is strongly correlated with doing well in school (in all subjects), not challenging everyone to read more on grade level would presumably lead to the class gap you mention.

      I actually have a sort of follow-up post to this in which I argue the arguments against required reading are more about how reading is taught and less about the fact that reading is required in the first place.

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        Gosh I couldn’t agree more! hahaha- yeah now I’m imagining if they tried this approach for maths! And I really agree with that as well!

        And yes- it’s something I frequently observe as well- while state schools push and push towards simplifying syllabuses, the gap widens as students from better socioeconomic backgrounds get more competitive. I don’t see how telling people “you don’t have to read classics” (as I’ve seen people saying) helps the situation at all. Personally, I see moves like this as obstacles to level the playing field.

        Oh I agree with that and look forward to the post!


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