‘The Future of Reading: Pick Books You Like’

The New York Times wants us to know that “the future of reading” or, at least the “latest thing in classroom gimmicks this fall,” is teachers letting students read what they like.

Fans of the reading workshop say that assigning books leaves many children bored or unable to understand the texts. Letting students choose their own books, they say, can help to build a lifelong love of reading.

“I feel like almost every kid in my classroom is engaged in a novel that they’re actually interacting with,” Ms. McNeill said, several months into her experiment. “Whereas when I do ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,” I know that I have some kids that just don’t get into it.”

Critics of the approach say that reading as a group generally leads to more meaningful insights, and they question whether teachers can really keep up with a roomful of children reading different books. Even more important, they say, is the loss of a common body of knowledge based on the literary classics — often difficult books that children are unlikely to choose for themselves.

“What child is going to pick up ‘Moby-Dick’?” said Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University who was assistant education secretary under President George H. W. Bush. “Kids will pick things that are trendy and popular. But that’s what you should do in your free time.”

Indeed, some school districts are moving in the opposite direction. Boston is developing a core curriculum that will designate specific books for sixth grade and is considering assigned texts for each grade through the 12th.

Joan Dabrowski, director of literacy for Boston’s public schools, said teachers would still be urged to give students some choices. Many schools in fact take that combination approach, dictating some titles while letting students select others.

Even some previously staunch advocates of a rigid core curriculum have moderated their views. “I actually used to be a real hard-line, great-books, high-culture kind of person who would want to stick to Dickens,” said Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University and the author of “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.” But now, in the age of Game Boys and Facebook, “I think if they read a lot of Conan novels or Hardy Boys or Harry Potter or whatever, that’s good,” he said. “We just need to preserve book habits among the kids as much as we possibly can.”

Ah, there he is. You knew Harry Potter had to show up eventually, right? Interesting that he is noted as a good thing, or at least of comparably quality as serial books like The Hardy Boys and “whatever.” Stephenie Meyer’s books, though, seem to be placed one rung down or more from Harry’s position on the serious-reading-hierarchy chart:

In a 30-minute reading period that followed, each student hunkered low in a beanbag chair. Ms. Atwell moved quietly among them, coming in close for whispered conferences and noting page numbers to make sure each student had read at least 20 pages the night before.

One girl had “Nineteen Minutes” by Jodi Picoult, while a boy a few seats away read Khaled Hosseini‘s novel “The Kite Runner.” Another boy was absorbed in “If I Die in a Combat Zone,” by Tim O’Brien.

Throughout the week the teachers observed Ms. Atwell open each class with a mini-lesson about a poem as well as one in which she talked about research on how the brain learns to read fluidly.

Despite the student freedom, Ms. Atwell constantly fed suggestions to the children. She was strict about not letting them read what she considered junk: no “Gossip Girl” or novels based on video games. But she acknowledged that certain children needed to be nudged into books by allowing them to read popular titles like the “Twilight” series by Stephenie Meyer.

As an unschooling daddy whose children read voraciously and just about anything they like (current list: 9 year old Swiss Family Robinson, 11 year old Bran Hambric, 13 year old Anne of Green Gables [Book 5], 16 year old Patriot Games, 17 year old Evergetinos, 19 year old Brothers Karamazov), I “get” this concept. Until you become a student of fine writing, the goal to accomplish is about “that you read” not “what you read.” In The Read Aloud Handbook I remember learning that the only reading habit or taste in books that a survey found of men and women with graduate degrees in academic and professional fields was that as children they read serial books (Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, etc.) compulsively and repetitively.

Reading is a skill and it is an acquired taste for pleasure. In the case of Harry Potter and Twilight, it can also be the gateway to a lifetime of rewarding, edifying, and delightful reading, not to mention a means to understand the reading experience and the artistry of writing more profoundly.

Your comments and corrections, please.


  1. Well, as with most things, there’s good things & not so good things about this approach. But as someone disenchanted with government schooling, the kind of one size fits all approach to education, I find it refreshing to let students have some choices. The trick is making it possible for the teacher to have the time & ability to be a guider of a wide variety of children. Although teachers back in one room schoolhouses taught children from all age levels & they usually had one set of children through their entire primary education instead of a succession of teachers for each grade level.

    I think half the battle is instilling in children a love for reading early on. My mom & grandmother read to me as early as I can remember. I went into school reading already & always skipping ahead in the various reading books we were given. But of course, you always had to stay on the same pace of the rest of the class.

    But you’re right, John, the goal at first should be getting a child to see reading as a pleasurable experience. Build them up into more & not necessarily better literature but more challenging stuff.

    Glad to see Harry made it up in the same league as Conan! 🙂

  2. Love this plan. Obviously, it’s good for kids to develop the discipline of reading and the reward of working through difficult books. But you’ve got to find the joy of reading before you’ll ever be convinced of the rewards of hard reading.

    revgeorge is definitely right about the headache it might cause a teacher. Potentially 30 different books per classroom!

  3. In my ENG 113 class, my college students have an essay topic which allows them to argue for a certain book or series to be included or assigned to school children. Unfortunately, my college students have often not read enough to have many choices, but I do usually get some fantastic HP and Twilight papers, as well as some on Lemony Snicket and Goosebumps. The student doing the Goosebumps paper this semester used a super statement once made about the author, R.L. Stine, that on his tombstone it should say “He got boys to read.” I’ve no use for Goosbumps myself, but I’ve seen plenty of students make first-rate cases for their usefulness as gateways to greater reading.

  4. Arabella Figg says

    This reminds me of my experience as a piano student.

    My teacher was a very serious 16-year old prodigy when I began lessons at age eight and I quit after five years. She was upset because she felt I had talent, but I was bored. I wanted to play popular music, and she insisted on classical only. If she had allowed both, it would have motivated me to stick with it. Alas, a pianist in the making, down the tubes. 😉

    I can still hear “Curl Your Fingers!!!”

    Yes, let kids find and introduce them to riveting stories that motivate them to read, so they’ll grow up enjoying books, and the rewards story offers.

  5. “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”
    — Mark Twain

    I include this in my elementary school Parent’s Night presentation every year. Choice matters.

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