The benefits of reading are unequivocal. The more students read, the more they learn about themselves and the world around them — and the more adept they become at critical and analytical thinking. The more students read, the more vocabulary they acquire. Their understanding and use of language become more sophisticated, and they’re able to express themselves more effectively. They become more capable of advocating for themselves and having a voice in society. Reading in high school is important, just as it is in earlier grades.
Yet, research suggests students tend to read on their own less frequently as they get older. A 2020 survey from the Pew Research Center found that 42% of 9-year-olds said they read for fun almost every day. Among 13-year-olds, that figure was only 17%. Not only that, but students of all ages are reading for pleasure less often these days. The same Pew Research Center survey given 11 years ago found that 53% of 9-year-olds and 27% of 13-year-olds were reading for fun.
As educators, how can we spark a love of reading among high-school students and get them to read more often? A key strategy is to empower them with choices.
Why give students choices in what they read?
By the time students reach high school, most of the books they’re reading are ones assigned to them. But when students lose the freedom to choose which books they read, they often lose their enjoyment of reading, and their engagement suffers.
Conversely, when students are allowed to choose what they’d like to read, their interest level rises. When a group of eighth-grade teachers stopped giving assigned readings in favor of student-driven, self-paced reading from among a collection of high-interest materials, they found that students read a lot more, and a greater percentage achieved proficiency in high-stakes testing.
Student choice and agency are powerful motivators. As author Daniel Pink noted in his book “Drive,” autonomy is one of the three critical factors that motivate us as humans. Giving students choices in what to read also makes it more likely that they’ll find books they connect with deeply, books they won’t want to put down.
Giving students more choices starts with making a wide range of diverse books available to them, including books spanning multiple genres, perspectives and reading levels. It also means carving out more time for independent reading.
Even when required reading in high school is necessary, teachers can provide students with multiple options around a similar theme or topic. For example, if students are studying World War II, they might choose from among classics such as “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank, “A Separate Peace” or “Catch-22, ”as well as more recent works such as “Code Name Verity,” “We Are Not Free, Even As We Breathe” or “Invasion” and graphic novels such as “Maus,” “Displacement” or “They Called Us Enemy.”
How literature circles can help with reading in high school
At one of our high schools, we surveyed students to learn how much they were reading and why they do, or don’t, read independently. The biggest issue we heard from them is a lack of time. Our students are under so much pressure today. In addition to rigorous courses, students are volunteering and taking on multiple extracurricular activities to ensure they get into college, working part-time jobs and handling home obligations. I often see students fall asleep in the library because they’re so exhausted.
The most important thing in our district we’ve done to encourage our students to read is to give them choices. Many of our teachers have shifted toward using literature circles instead of having the whole class read the same novel.
With literature circles, students get to choose from a list of approved novels. I partner with the faculty to develop a list of choices that are diverse so students can see their identities reflected in the text if they’d like. They can also read about subjects and characters they know nothing about if they’d like to expand their horizons. We give them time to read and explore the book they’ve chosen, and then students discuss the books they’ve read in small groups.
It can be challenging to give students choices with reading in high school while still covering the curriculum. We have found that literature circles help us do that effectively. They give students more responsibility for their own learning, while establishing structures for making sure they have meaningful conversations about the books they’re reading.
The benefits of graphic novels
We try to include graphic novels in our lists of approved titles, as we’ve found success in engaging reluctant readers with this genre. While some educators might balk at letting students read books with less challenging text, it’s important that we let reluctant readers choose what they want to read and guide their reading practice from there. A University of Oregon study also demonstrated graphic novels also build vocabulary, averaging 53.5 rare words per thousand compared with an average of 30.9 rare words per thousand in children’s books and 52.7 in adult books
We use OverDrive Education’s Sora reading app, a digital platform that gives students instant access to a broad range of ebooks and audiobooks. With Sora, we can provide class sets of multiple books in a cost-effective way with short-term rentals from the many thousands of diverse reading materials available from the catalog.
In our survey, some students told us they hadn’t finished a book since the fourth grade. That, to me, says a lot. Giving students choices in what to read requires a lot of work to ensure that they are meeting the required standards, but it also engages students more deeply while making it far more likely they’ll actually read books for class.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.