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Striking a Balance: The Intersection of Choice and Canon

How Implementing Student Choice Can Turn Your Students into Lifelong Readers

Do you remember how you felt when you turned the final page of the first book you ever fell in love with? The moment you set the book down, stared at the ceiling, and experienced all of the emotions that the fictional world created for you? Perhaps you’re reading this and you’ve never had that moment. Maybe you walked into your 10th grade English class, read Lord of the Flies, and decided that was the end of your literary career. I mean… could anyone have blamed you, honestly?

If that’s the case, you aren’t alone. In classes all over the country a literacy crisis is brewing. Students now are reading significantly less than any generation before, and the solution to this crisis may lie far beyond the likes of Shakespeare and Hemingway.

A study conducted by Pew Research Center stated that, “about 29% of {13-year-olds} said they never or hardly ever read for fun, up 21 percentage points from the 8% who said the same in 1984.” There’s a myriad of reasons students are engaging less with reading; the emergence of social media and short form video being primary culprits. However, year after year students are showing up to their English class and being introduced to the next book on the roughly unchanged list of canonical texts that has been solidified for decades. A list which, typically, doesn't peak the interests of young readers nor reflect their modern day experiences. 

Now, the classics are classics for a reason. They’re books that have shaped, changed, and influenced literature immeasurably. But, they’re also texts which require focus, critical thought, and mental stamina to study. For students who aren’t convinced they even like reading in general, this is a deadly combination that kills any potential for that student to experience the reason why that book is canon. A student rarely will ever understand, for example, the magnitude of the beautifully tragic message Yann Martel leaves you with in “Life of Pi”—that one can persevere when the odds are against them and that everyone has the power to create their own story in the face of tragedy—if they cannot first make it through the marathon that is those first 36 chapters.

It’s unlikely that a student will commit to a challenging book if they don’t know that the payoff is worth it and that joy does, in fact, exist between the pages. So, let them find their joy. Give them the space to explore and discover that if they don’t like reading, it’s simply because they are reading the wrong books. Because joy does exist between those two hard covers, and they can find it. Let them have the time to find their moment, when they set the book down, stare at the ceiling, and think. This is where students will become the readers that are capable of dissecting Moby-Dick and persevering through all 607 pages of Robinson Crusoe. Implementing student choice does not mean forgoing the canon. It just gives students a chance to find the spark in reading alongside the learning. Choice versus Canon need not be the ever-dreaded dividing question amongst English teachers. They can both happen in harmony.

5 Benefits of Incorporating Student Choice in English Literature 

  1. Increased Engagement and Motivation

    When students have the freedom to choose what they read, their level of engagement and motivation naturally rises. Students become active participants in their learning journey. The excitement of selecting a book that aligns with their personal interests and preferences can make reading a genuinely enjoyable experience. Once they’ve been given the space to discover this, then the ability to read assigned texts and engage with them becomes easier. 

  2. Diverse Perspectives and Representation

    It’s no secret that the canon has a limited range and showcases a narrative that does not typically represent large demographics of students. Incorporating student choice enables a diverse range of voices and perspectives to enter the classroom, offering more inclusivity within education. Students come from various backgrounds, and their literary preferences reflect their unique experiences. By allowing them to choose their reading materials, educators expose students to a broader spectrum of cultures, experiences, and viewpoints. This not only enriches their literary understanding but also encourages empathy and open-mindedness. 

  3. Personalized Learning

    Every student has their own learning style and pace. Allowing them to choose books that resonate with them allows for a more personalized learning experience, which in turn allows them to excel at their own rate. Some students might be drawn to historical fiction, while others prefer contemporary romance or science fiction. When students can choose books that align with their interests, they are more likely to connect with the material on a deeper level, leading to enhanced comprehension and critical thinking. These are skills that will make studying canonical texts more accessible as students will have confidence in their own abilities and be familiar with the rewards of reading.

  4. Critical Thinking and Analytical Skills

    When students have the autonomy to choose their reading materials, they take on a more active role in analyzing and critiquing the content. Engaging with a text they personally selected encourages them to think critically about themes, characters, and literary devices. This level of analysis contributes to the development of strong analytical skills, which are essential not only for literature but for all aspects of life.

  5. Lifelong Reading Habits

    Instilling a love for reading is one of the most valuable gifts educators can give to their students, and sadly, so many students now are leaving the classroom without ever having received it. Allowing students to choose their reading materials nurtures a genuine appreciation for literature and often leads to the development of lifelong reading habits. When students experience the joy of finding a book they love, they are more likely to continue exploring literature beyond the classroom, and sticking with difficult literature within the classroom .

3 Ways to Begin Incorporating “Choice Books” into Your Curriculum

  1. Consistent Silent Sustained Reading 

    Silent Sustained Reading, or “SSR,” consists of carving out specifically allotted time for students to engage in reading independently. The key to successful SSR is consistency. It's ideal to set aside multiple 10-minute sessions each week. You can seamlessly incorporate SSR into your classroom routine by establishing regular reading times, like 10 minutes on Mondays and Wednesdays. By allocating this small yet consistent amount of time for students to enjoy reading, they can pursue their own interests without disrupting other classroom activities. This allows SSR to coexist with class novel studies and literary exploration, promoting both reading engagement and deep literary synthesis simultaneously.

  2. Quarterly Book Projects

    Incorporating quarterly book projects based on student-selected readings can be an effective way to blend choice and academic engagement. Educators can start by providing students with a list of diverse genres, allowing them to pick a book that resonates with their interests. Once a book is chosen, students can embark on a multi-step project that encompasses various skills. This could involve writing a critical analysis essay that delves into themes, character development, and literary devices, or creating a visual presentation that captures the essence of the story. Encouraging periodic check-ins and discussions about the chosen books ensures that students stay on track and can share insights with their peers. By incorporating these quarterly book projects, teachers foster independent learning, critical thinking, and a sense of ownership in the students' literary exploration.

  3. Weekly “Book Talks”

    Think of book talks as a student's very own TED Talk. They would have time each week to dive into their book, and at some point during the quarter they would be called up to deliver their book talk to the class. The idea is that each student only has to present one time, but there will be 1-3 presentations per week to get through everyone. The beauty of book talks is that students can deliver one whether they are 30 pages into the book, or 300, because it’s centered on their thoughts, feelings, and interpretations of what they’ve read thus far. Once students have selected their choice books, hand out a piece of paper with all of the points they will need to address during their presentation. Consider asking about theme, genre, a brief summary, and even a favorite quote. Book talks don’t need to be long! They should be short, fun presentations that get readers thinking about (and learning about) a ton of new literature! To make book talks even more engaging, consider rotating the guidelines each quarter. One quarter can require an in-person presentation while another can allow for a more creative mode like a video or podcast. 

Dr. Bill McBride, an international speaker and author of Entertaining an Elephant, said “I was lucky enough to grow up when … the most wonderful thing a teacher might say was, ‘Go to the library and pick out a book.’” In 2023, when student engagement is at an all time low and so many students ardently believe they don’t enjoy reading, revitalizing this sentiment should be one of our primary goals. Implementing student choice in reading may be one way to bring back the love for books.

Learning that is engaging, fun, and inquiry based yields the best results. Propello currently offers standards-aligned, inquiry based science curriculum for grades 6-8 with ELA coming very soon! And guess what? We’ll have a novel study full of choice books ready and waiting for you! Join the waitlist here.