To teach the love of literature, let students choose their books

kids reading booksThere’s a lengthy article at the New York Times about middle-school English teacher Lorrie McNeill and her experiments in encouraging her students to engage with reading, and it’ll probably come as little surprise to many of you that she’s found that giving the kids (almost) free rein to pick their own titles has been much more successful than following the classics curriculum and force-feeding them Moby Dick and To Kill A Mockingbird:

The approach Ms. McNeill uses, in which students choose their own books, discuss them individually with their teacher and one another, and keep detailed journals about their reading, is part of a movement to revolutionize the way literature is taught in America’s schools. While there is no clear consensus among English teachers, variations on the approach, known as reading workshop, are catching on.


… 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.”


… literacy specialists also say that instilling a habit is as important as creating a shared canon. “If what we’re trying to get to is, everybody has read Ethan Frome and Henry James and Shakespeare, then the challenge for the teacher is how do you make that stuff accessible and interesting enough that kids will stick with it,” said Catherine E. Snow, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. “But if the goal is, how do you make kids lifelong readers, then it seems to me that there’s a lot to be said for the choice approach. As adults, as good readers, we don’t all read the same thing, and we revel in our idiosyncrasies as adult readers, so kids should have some of the same freedom.”

This certainly chimes with my own experience of literature education when I was at school, and I come from a much more privileged background than McNeill’s students. We were made to read lots of classics (including To Kill A Mockingbird, which I remember as one of the most tedious books I ever had to open), and despite the fact that I’d been a keen reader from a very early age thanks to the encouragement of my parents, I honestly believe it was this teaching method that made me abandon English Lit as an education option at the earliest available opportunity. [image by <cleverCl@i®ê>]

Luckily, I never stopped reading (predominantly genre fiction, as should come as no surprise), but I wonder if I might have thought of becoming a writer much earlier in my life had the connection between books I loved and books considered “worthwhile” been made at that stage. Now I’m older, I read much more widely, and recent years have seen me exploring classic literature with a passion that could only have come from having learned for myself just how much pleasure reading a novel can bring (though, to my shame, I’ve still never gotten round to reapproaching To Kill A Mockingbird, which I suspect I’d appreciate far more now than as a callow and geeky 13-year-old).

What were your experiences of literature education at school? Did you lap up the classics, or did they bore you to tears? Do you think that it’s better to encourage kids to read “proper” literature, or just to encourage them to read, period?

6 thoughts on “To teach the love of literature, let students choose their books”

  1. I remember being taught to read using a series of books called Wide Range Readers… but I soon drew so far ahead of the rest of the class I was encouraged to use the school library to choose books myself to read. The only books I can actually remember taking from the library – I was about 6 or 7 at the time – were the Dover Fairy Books, a colour-coded series of fairy/folk tale collections.

  2. I definitely agree that encouraging them to read, but letting them pick the books (with some guidance) has got to be a better practice towards keeping them life-long readers. Perhaps a required assignment here and there (Tom Sawyer, Shakespeare) is okay, but letting the student pick is the best way, IMO.

    There were a number of classics that I enjoyed greatly – the Illiad, the Oddessey, and the afore-mentioned Tom Sawyer. But there were other readings that were just deadly dull – I’m looking right at you, Hundred Years of Solitude!

  3. I’m all for letting them pick their own books. I hate the classics to this day. It is much more imortant to get them reading and learning how to read, than forcing them to buy the Clif Notes. Which everyone does. T

    I thought Heimingway was a joke then and still do. I just don’t see the genius in writing like a 4th grader. Forcing me to read him added nothing to my education or life. How come everyone that has read and remembers all the classics is usually ungodly boring?

  4. Wow. It’s fascinating that two books I absolutely loved — and read for myself, not because they were on a reading list — are on other people’s “deadly” list. I read To Kill a Mockingbird when it was a relatively new book. (Perhaps it spoke to me more than you, Paul, because I knew the culture it was set in.) And I’ve read One Hundred Years of Solitude in both English and Spanish for my own pleasure, though I probably couldn’t read it in Spanish now and I still can’t talk about it intelligently.
    What I remember as being deadly dull was Dickens’s Great Expectations and the Lamb retellings of Shakespeare, which were dreadful, particularly since I’d already read a few of the plays. Early on I was reading far above my grade level, and I was lucky enough to have parents who let me read anything I wanted, so I read everything from Nancy Drew to Aldous Huxley. I recall an English teacher who wouldn’t let me read a John Steinbeck book for a book report, since Steinbeck was “too advanced” for high school readers.
    Recently I had to read The Scarlet Letter because I was teaching a class through a low-residency MFA program and my student chose it. I’d read it in high school and found it boring. The re-read was a great revelation: the book is funny! It’s mostly a satire. That aspect of it was completely lost on me as a teenager, and I don’t think any teacher ever pointed it out. In fact, I suspect people assign The Scarlet Letter with the idea of teaching about morality. I’m now working on Moby Dick, which is also funny as hell and full of biting social commentary. It’s given me a whole new perspective on 19th Century American literature — interesting, because one of the reasons that I wasn’t an English major is because I didn’t want to take courses in 19th Century American literature, which I thought was tedious in the extreme.
    The thing is, novels are written in the style of their day, and those styles go out of fashion. Frankenstein is a great novel, but like all novels of the period, there are about 100 pages of set up before you get to the real story. That’s hard on the modern reader. 19th Century American literature often hides its humor in complex sentences that must be read carefully — a difficult task for a teenager. Though it occurs to me that if teenagers knew The Scarlet Letter was written to mock the Puritans, they’d be reading it on their own and passing it around to their friends.

  5. I don’t think I would have acquired such a wide knowledge of literature if I hadn’t been “forced” to read certain books. I think a mixed approach would be best (some required books or a list of required books from which to pick plus your own “free” choices).

    Then again, I was also taught Latin and Greek, French and English. It was simply expected in my country.

  6. Paul,
    I think allowing the kids to choose the books they wish to read is a great approach in encouraging kids to read! But before I could even implement this idea with my own kids, I had to teach them to read first, which was a challenge in itself.

    When I first taught my children to read, I used a method of phonics, but quickly realized this worked for my eldest but not my youngest. She didn’t grasp reading. So after trial and error I began to realize she was a visual learner who needed both elements to learn to read. She only became successful in learning after the sound and visual were combined. And now she is reading at a higher grade level than her fellow students.

    I have seen a huge improvement, and suggest for anyone whose kid is struggling with reading to try using both sound and visual to help their kid overcome it too.

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