Choosing to Read: Helping Students Want to Make Choices,By Sheilah Egan

“Choosing to Read” is an oxymoron for many students. Why would they choose an activity that is frustrating and, for them, actually unpleasant? Can the choice of reading materials make a decided difference in whether or not a student “chooses to read.” Having had the opportunity to discuss this subject with a variety of educators and reading specialists, I am convinced that giving students their first tastes of success and pleasure in association with reading is key to developing life long readers, who know how to read and process a wide range of materials. One such educator is Joan Kindig, Associate Professor of Reading Education James Madison University.

Joan Kindig, the former director of The Virginia Center For Children’s Literature at The University of Virginia, has worked with school age children through graduate students. Her efforts to help students make the choice to read have been applauded nationwide. Her book, Choosing to Read: Connecting Middle Schoolers to Books, is a valuable resource for librarians and reading teachers. I have known Dr. Kindig for a number of years and have been privileged to observe her working with students and hear her presentations in a variety of settings, including The Children’s Book Guild of Washington, university literature conferences, and educational presentations.


At Shenandoah University’s 2013 Summer Literature Conference, Kindig jumped directly into the meat of her presentation, asking those of us seated in the mini-auditorium leading questions about how to engage readers. “What drew you to reading? What kept you reading? What keeps you reading as an adult?”

As she spoke, I pondered what and how I began reading; my mother read aloud to me right from the very beginning. Books were important in our home, as were magazines and newspapers. Kindig said she had been drawn to books as a child and that even now she continues to read those she missed before becoming a “reading specialist” and professor. I mentally applauded her awareness that not having read something at the “right age” did not preclude reading anything that would spark a sense of wonder in a person.

The thought-provoking questions continued with: “What can books do?” Her own suggestions included, “allow the reader to live vicariously, travel the world, discover others’ situations (and compare with readers’ own), ‘live’ life outside of one’s own world, etc.” Naturally, everyone was thinking of his/her own list of how a book could impact a reader. I thought of the pleasure of escaping to places that I knew I could never visit in real life and of the power of learning about other cultures. The teacher beside me whispered that she learned to cook from a book. We all had ideas to contribute as we experienced just how Dr. Kindig begins her own sessions of discussions and book talks designed to promote involvement of readers through choices.

Citing one particular project, Kindig went on to detail the specifics of working with Warren County (VA) Middle School to encourage seventh grade readers. Middle school is a notorious for “losing” readers. This project’s question was “How to get the students interested?” and ” . . . keep them interested.” The huge array of titles for middle school readers covers an extremely wide range and yet, many of the titles are simply not suitable for the students upon whom they are foisted. A Tale of Two Cities is not suitable for seventh graders,” Kindig plainly stated. She had a grant to buy books to introduce the students, parents, and teachers to books that were more appropriate and intriguing for all seventh grade readers. To spur reading, the Warren County project used a variety of tactics such as book talks, Father/Son Book Clubs, Book Night Presentations, and class time for discussions of titles. Parent involvement was critical, as was helping the adults understand that having books and other reading materials available at home is very important in the development of readers. There were many chances to model the building blocks of reading: reading aloud, valuing books, and the power of words to transport, instruct, and inform all members of a family. Kindig continued to tell more about the project while delivering her ideas about how and why books can (and should) appeal to middle grade readers.

Books must have relevance to engage readers. Kindig stressed that the use of archaic language, lack of background knowledge, and the absence of relevance are all deadly factors for struggling readers. These factors set the reader up for failure, discouragement, and a false sense of what reading is. Many students faced with reading “the classics” have a difficult time understanding how any book could “relate to them.” Offering choices and providing multiple opportunities for approaching books with a different perspective can often draw students into reading (even against their preconceived notions). Wonder by R. J. Palacio is an excellent title to draw in reluctant seventh grade readers. Their background knowledge of the situation should be solid and the story line is completely relevant to students. Furthermore, the book is a fifth grade reading level book and is accessible to most seventh graders. The success they feel will not be diminished by the perception of a “low level” reading book. Because the main character has a severe facial deformity, readers are immediately aware of how his situation might play out in their own school. In the story, he is tormented by others, some of whom are terrified of him, until they get to know him and discover that his personality is of far greater interest than is his facial malformation. Universal themes will reach reluctant readers if they can be exposed to them in an appealing way.

Some concrete suggestions for book introductions included playing excerpts from the audio version of titles, playing scenes from movies based on books, reading aloud specific passages, and using “book trailers” found on-line. Kindig told of having asked many students if they had ever used Spark notes (Cliff notes for those of us in the audience with gray hair). Students indicate that they do use them and rely on them for grades. One fellow said that he had gotten a B+ on his Beowulf report without ever having read even one word of the actual book. He did admit that he had listened to the classroom discussions, as well. What is the objective of exposing students to “great” literature if there is no motivation to actually read them? Could it work better to engage them in reading at an earlier age and have them be eager readers in the upper grades?

In individual schools it is essential to enlist the principal in supporting reading programs that really engage readers. The politics of county curriculum, SOLs, the Common Core Curriculum, and the basic requirements of teaching are already in place, but not specific titles to be read. The librarian or teacher can be instrumental in helping choose titles that will, indeed, engage reluctant readers and their families. Many heads nodded in agreement when Ms Kindig said, “Assigning a book may guarantee that it is not read . . . Providing relevant choices is extremely important.”

Kindig then outlined some basics for the selection of titles for students:

  • Instructional Level: Consider the ability and “place” of the students as well as the reading level, suitability, and pace of a book. Some titles are wildly popular in one place, yet they flag in other geographic locations. Know your audience. Middle grade boys in rural settings are already familiar with hunting and forest lore that would be alien to city dwellers.
  • Define what reading IS: Acceptance of their interests is the first goal – then an instructor can move readers on to other genres or forms of reading. Developing stamina and purposeful reading comes with practice. These skills can be built through reading magazines or classified ads, a strategy often overlooked and undervalued in the classroom setting. “Teachers and librarians must have the tools to manipulate readers so that they can then lead readers to understand that there are books ‘for them.'” There is also room for subterfuge in supporting the curriculum “real estate.” Use the “This reading is not for you” sort of ploy to entice readers. Kindig believes that video game manuals, sports magazines, manga, graphic novels, field guides, “you name it in nonfiction” are all valid reading, especially for those reluctant to tackle a long novel. With the importance of reading nonfiction in the Common Core Curriculum, this is an area that can easily be expanded on the “required reading” lists.
  • Account for gender bias: Be certain that any list offers a wide enough variety to engage all classroom readers. My experience strongly suggests that girls will read “boy,” books but that boys will not choose to read “girl” books. (One young man did read Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown because it had a knight on the cover. (“I would never have started that book if I had known he was a girl!“)
  • Model Reading: Encourage parents and teachers to model reading. Students do notice what adults are reading and can become curious about “that article in Dirt Bike magazine” if it is left lying on the coffee table. Jackie Woodson discussed her own family’s reading habits and said that humor had been the key for her daughter to find enjoyment in reading. “Keep the energy going and the reader will grow.” Kindig encourages families to explore “all sorts of things” and “let their children know that reading can actually be fun. Kids love humor and the gross…capitalize on these.

As the session continued, Kindig spoke about her philosophy of working with reading instruction and readers. I was particularly struck by her exhortation that “Reading should not be busy work. There should be a real purpose to an assignment. There should be themes for discussion, skills that are developed, ‘teachable moments,’ as well as exposure to the bigger world.” Developing readers need to understand and experience:

The Benefits of Wide Reading

  • Students begin to see themselves as READERS
  • Statistical evidence shows that students improve in all areas when they are active readers. Success breeds success.
  • Vocabulary expansion and development of critical reading skill help students’ performance on standardized tests.

She began strewing tips like acorns falling in autumn. I was ready to sign up for one of her courses! Here is a smattering of the ideas that were flying about even though the session was officially at an end.

Nonfiction: Give students multiple exposures to books such as Phineas Gage or Dr. Jenner and the Speckled Monster: The Search for the Smallpox Vaccine. Put “Nonfiction book bins in the classroom” to guide students to primary sources and reference books for browsing “even in those few moments of down time.” Students may decide that they “need to borrow this one.” Create book baskets that can move between classrooms.

Comprehension: Kindig tells pre-teachers that the best way to find out if students are reading and comprehending is to have a vigorous discussion to determine if the students “get it.” The entire class benefits from the discussion (remember the Beowulf fellow?) and talking engenders excitement.

READ ALOUD EVERYDAY…even if you have to convince the administration that this is a valid part of preparation for SOLs and a real commitment to the Common Core ideas.

PROMOTE READING EVERYWHERE and EVERY DAY: Peer book reviews, book centered talks everyday in the classroom, “get them talking-word of mouth is the best advertising,” sponsor in-school book fairs, jump start fellow teachers at faculty meetings by suggesting books “that worked” in certain classrooms, facilitate book clubs (parents, teachers, students, volunteers, administrators…).

And her very last words to the group?

Go get lost in a book.

Updated 12/01/13

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