Supporting the Power to Choose Reading

By:  

Kate Lechtenberg

University of Iowa Doctoral Student in Language, Literacy and Culture

Posted on: April 4, 2016

When I was eleven, I decided I was ready for Sweet Valley High. I had read all the Sweet Valley Twins books, and because I was almost as old as Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield were in Francine Pascal’s series, I decided I had pretty much outgrown their sixth-grade ballet lessons and birthday parties. So I picked up Sweet Valley High, started reading...and quickly my eyes went wide. Jessica and Elizabeth had grown up, and high school was a lot more complex and risky than I had imagined.

Twenty-five years later, I don’t actually remember what Jessica and Elizabeth did that was so shocking, but I definitely remember the uncomfortable, sneaky feeling I had when I hid the book from my parents, read it in secret in my bedroom, and then buried it in the larger stack of books I was returning to the library. With a sigh of relief, it was back to Sweet Valley Twins for me.

The Most Important Lesson a Reader Learns Is How to Choose

Most readers have had their own Sweet Valley High moment: that moment when we realize that we’ve picked up a book that isn’t quite what we thought it was. That moment when we wonder, “What would my parents think if they knew I was reading this?” In these moments, children and adolescents need master readers to help them navigate the tough choices and sensitive issues, to share their stories of how they make their own reading choices, and to lead them to a variety of books--one of which is bound to be a good match for each reader’s interests, abilities, maturity, and personal and family needs.

I happen to be one of these master readers, eager to help young people craft their own reading identities and build their passions, skills, and knowledge, and I know hundreds more like me working in Iowa schools. We’re called teacher librarians.

In many—but unfortunately not all—Iowa schools, a certified teacher librarian is poised to help young readers find themselves in books, seek new challenges and ideas, and research their way to larger understandings of the world. Because we are trained as both teachers and librarians, we are uniquely prepared to help students negotiate these reading choices while balancing all the conflicting needs involved in selecting books: reading levels, student interests, literary merit, and the freedom to read that is so essential to the health of a library and to our larger democratic society.

After all, reading is a cultural process, not just an instructed one (Gee, 2004). As teachers, of course, we must instruct students in reading strategies and skills, but we also must welcome students into the rich culture of reading. Just as a master of any profession mentors her apprentice in the practices and habits of her field, a teacher librarian is a master reader who inducts young people into the world of questioning, selecting, connecting, and exploring through books.

Choice Fuels Reading Achievement

Helping teens select books is the best part of my job as a teacher librarian. I love getting to know students and their interests, piling possible books into their arms, and sending them off to select a book that is a good fit. Choosing books is definitely fun—but it’s also an important part of increasing reading achievement.

We’ve all seen it happen: our once avid readers abandon books as they get older. It happens just when their school reading demands increase, and they are in desperate need of engaging reading experiences. As our children become adolescents, motivation and engagement often wane. Allowing students to choose their reading—both in for literary and informational texts—leads students to engage with reading, increase comprehension, and build capacity for encountering complex texts (Guthrie & Klauda, 2014; Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000).

Amidst all the required assessments and rigorous curriculum in schools today, it can be easy to forget the importance of empowering our young people to make their own reading choices. But if we truly want to increase reading achievement and prepare our young people to be well-rounded college, career, and citizen-ready members of our community, we must prioritize our young people’s power of choice in reading.

Where do we begin? As parents, we can visit public libraries with our children, sharing our own childhood favorites and exploring new finds. We can browse the school library catalog online (most schools have an online catalog linked to their school websites), and we can help our kids plan for their next library visit. As teachers, we can give book talks, take our classes to the library (yes, even high school students like the freedom to browse the shelves!), and we can carve out time to read books of choice during our busy classes. Both parents and teachers can reach out to teacher librarians for more ideas about how to support our students’ reading choices.

My Sweet Valley High book choice may not have been what was right for me at the time, but I definitely learned to keep searching for a book that was right for me. And all these years later, I know that I’ll keep making choices as a reader—because even my reading misfires help me grow as a reader and a person.  

Kate Lechtenberg is professional development chair for the Iowa Association of School Librarians.

References

Gee, J. P. (2004). Situated language and learning: A critique of traditional schooling. New York: Routledge. Guthrie, J. T., & Klauda, S. L. (2014). Effects of classroom practices on reading comprehension, engagement, and motivations for adolescents. Reading Research Quarterly, 49(4), 387-416. doi: 10.1002/rrq.81 Guthrie, J. T., & Wigfield, A. (2000). Chapter 24: Engagement and Motivation in reading. In M. L. Kamil, P. D. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol. 3; pp. 403-424). New York: Routledge.