The Freedom to Read

When I was a kid, learning to read was easy for me. I read early and often, and usually to the exclusion of something else I was supposed to be doing. Did I hide behind a tree and read during morning swim practices? You bet I did. The water was freezing, and I didn’t like how the floating Japanese beetles would always get caught in my hair. Books were a joy and an escape, and I used to feel so disappointed and frustrated when some teachers would turn reading into a job, sucking the life out of a story with endless highlighting and dissections, moving at a snail’s pace, and telling us the “right” way to interpret the book instead of giving us room for our own interpretations.

When I became a teacher my goal was for every child to take pleasure in books. Once kids have mastered decoding, reading is really about guided thinking. We’re not teaching kids what to think, but we are teaching them how to think. In other words, books aren’t the content; they are the delivery system. As teachers, we can use any book to model reading skills, literary structure, or theme. So why not choose books that kids will get excited about? Or why not let them choose the books themselves? In my classroom I offered a wide variety of shared novels and free-choice books that allowed my students both to grow and stretch into new challenges, but also to luxuriate and delight in the sheer pleasure of a good story. To create more joyful, enriching reading experiences in our middle-grade classrooms, we have to do one very important thing: We have to trust our readers.

If we give tests on novels, we aren’t trusting our readers. If we assign kids only into ability-based reading groups, we aren’t trusting our readers. If we make kids highlight and label every single page, we aren’t trusting our readers. Trusting our readers means that we believe that our students can pick up a book and get something out of it without our immediate guidance. Of course our guidance is important to give students a richer reading experience, but if we stand over them and curate every moment of reading, then we rob them of the ability to find some of that richness on their own.

If our goal is for students to connect to books and walk away with a rich understanding of what they’ve just read, then how does that inform our instruction in the classroom? For guided reading, it can start by letting students find books that speak to them. In one classroom I selected three novels that shared a theme I was interested in exploring with students: the power of words. The novels, Harriet the Spy, The Word Eater, and Frindle, varied in length and complexity, and I gave a short book talk about each novel to the class. During the morning break, students were free to pick the books up, read a few pages, and see which one most interested them before making a selection. I trusted my readers to make the choice that worked best for them, and they began their book groups already invested in getting the most out of the novels they chose.

If we trust our readers to have meaningful dialogues with and about books, how will we know it’s happening? Good readers talk about the books they read, so I need to listen to the conversation and adjust my teaching accordingly. If kids are just using book discussions to talk about plot, how can I move the conversation to character? If nobody is mentioning the author’s writing style, is there a prompt or an activity that will invite readers to focus on that? What about the quiet kids? How can I get deeper insight into their thoughts? I also used reading notes and reading letters with my students, not to monitor time or number of pages read, but instead as a place for them to record their thoughts about what they were reading. These were a place to share ideas, to write notes back and forth to each other about the books we read. Our notes and letters to one another were places where we had some of our deepest and best conversations.

Trusting readers also means trusting books. If one person loves a book, that book has value. Not just to that one person, but to the world. Sometimes as teachers we fall into the problematic pattern of thinking that the books we choose to teach have more value than the books that students choose to read. While some novels might be easier sources of teaching material for us, it doesn’t mean they are superior to the dogeared Goosebumps book that’s always checked out of the classroom library. It’s simply a different tool for a different purpose. Just because I don’t see the immediate literary richness of a “junk food” book, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. Could I invite my students to teach me? Imagine the opportunities for learning if students were challenged to identify and analyze the literary devices that make their favorite “guilty pleasure” book so enjoyable. Showing students that every book has value reinforces our shared belief that every reader has value.

And isn’t that why we teach reading in the first place?