Best Practice of the Month: Self-Selection

Jeannie.Standal's picture
 Do you have a roommate in your library? Did you decide it would be a good arrangement, or did you realize one day that you had extra software on the computer and a drawer full of colored dot stickers that were not yours? Have you found reading level numbers in the front of books that boss you and your students around? "Read this, not that!" "No, that's too hard." "No, that's too easy." Pushy roommates, those reading incentive programs.
To be fair, reading incentive programs (the most well-known is Accelerated Reader, or AR) were not intended to be the tyrannical task masters they've become. Somehow, instead of serving as a fun incentive, participation has become a required assignment and it is limiting reading selection to students' prescribed reading ranges. Perhaps it's time to relieve text complexity based reading incentive programs of their rule-making status and put them back in the guideline category, where they belong.
Here are just a couple of the reasons it can be counterproductive to rely too heavily on these programs:
(1)  Reading ranges are accurate guidelines for text complexity (a quantitative measure), but are not meant to measure interest or maturity level (qualitative measures)1. That means that it is unwise to order a book for your library based on the reading level; a 4.8 reading level does not mean that book will be appropriate for a 4th grader.  To Kill a Mockingbird, Twilight, and Pretty Little Liars are all in the 4th and 5th grade reading levels, but none are appropriate for an elementary school library. Lexile is another example of a text complexity measure; it has the same strengths and limitations as the text complexity scale used by AR.
(2)  Restricting students to a small reading level range can limit their access to subjects that interest them and squash curiosity. Students who are motivated by interest can read far above their stated reading level in that subject.  Dinosaur books are an excellent example of this phenomenon: second graders can read, comprehend, and pronounce terms like paleontologist, Jurassic, and pterosaurs with ease.  It goes without saying that these terms are not in the second grade curriculum. Students learn the vocabulary and comprehend the meaning of the text because they are interested in it.  Conversely, some reading below reading level is not harmful.  Lots of easy reading makes reading easy.
(3) We know that "[e]ducators must focus their attention not only on how students read, but also why."2 The why of reading has less to do with reading skills, and more to do with their engagement in the text.3 When students are allowed to self-select reading material, they end up with items they find interesting instead of books adults hope they will find interesting.  When they are interested, they become immersed in the text and don't think about the mechanics.
For example, whether they are reading on a first or sixth grade level, kids love Captain Underpants books (AR Reading level 4.2-5.3) because they are funny and engaging. While we hope they want to read children's literature full of great characters and life lessons, we must face facts: it's tough to compete with the Flip-O-Rama. So let them enjoy Captain Underpants, unaware that they are using phonics, decoding, and comprehending.  Eventually, they will graduate from Captain Underpants to something non-tighty-whitey related.  In the meantime, they have found a love of reading.
While it would be silly to throw reading incentive programs out of the library entirely, perhaps it would be beneficial to demote them from roommate to one tool in the tool box.  As librarians, we know the right book at the right time can change a student's life and can create a more passionate reader and writer.  It would be a shame for a student to miss out on that book because it is not in the correct reading range.
1Renaissance Learning website accessed at http://www.renaissance.com/about-us, November 3, 2014.
 2Johnson, Denise & Anne Blair.  The Importance and Use of Student Self-Selected Literature to Reading Engagement in an Elementary Reading curriculum.  Reading Horizons, 2003, 43(3).  pag. 181-202.  Accessed at http://scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1155&context=reading_horizons November 3, 2014.
3Johnson, Denise & Anne Blair.  The Importance and Use of Student Self-Selected Literature to Reading Engagement in an Elementary Reading curriculum.  Reading Horizons, 2003, 43(3).  pag. 181-202.  Accessed at http://scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1155&context=reading_horizons November 3, 2014.