How to Motivate Originality with Student Book Choice

When we’re teaching writing, it’s important to make reading accessible and intersectional with student interests. In this blog, we’ll examine how and why reading lists are formed throughout a student’s educational experience, as well as ways in which educators can dismantle barriers to original writing. The result? Engaged, motivated, students who produce original ideas.

Let’s start.

Research shows that allowing student book choice for early readers leads to improved standardized test performance, has a direct link to scholastic achievement, allows students to take risks, provides educators with visibility into student reading tendencies, helps children become better writers, and enables students to identify reading with pleasure. And by proxy, correlate critical thinking with pleasure.

Reading lists focused on student interests engage a classroom and make students an authority on the reading. (Such passion also makes for spontaneous and delightful teaching experiences). Research shows that any age, book choice motivates students to read.

In early childhood, according to Dr. Pamela Cantor in a recent Edutopia blog post, book choice “sets in motion a child’s ability to direct interest towards something that matters to them. If we can capitalize on the interests that a child has, what we’ve done is taken some of the difficulty out of learning it.”

Furthermore, reading choice encourages student ownership of their own education and motivation. Colette Bennett, in her article, “Reading Choice Encourages Student Ownership,” says, “By giving their students a choice of reading materials in the early grades, elementary teachers increase academic independence and motivation. However, in most school systems, a student's choice of reading material lessens as he or she moves up to the middle and high school grades.”

So why the divide in book choice? And if teachers gradually own book choices as a student advances through schooling into secondary education, what are the consequences?

Bennett continues, “Perhaps it is no surprise to researchers that the decline in reading proficiency coincides with a decline with student autonomy or choice in reading materials. That decline in choice is created by an increase in teacher control of reading materials at the higher grade levels.”

Let’s give teachers the benefit of the doubt (we should always be given the benefit of the doubt, for the record) and look at the reasons why this occurs. If book choice in early grades is linked to better writing and original thinking, why do teachers control reading materials at the higher grade levels?

In his paper, “Why Teachers Adopt a Controlling Motivating Style Toward Students and How They Can Become More Autonomy Supportive,” educational psychologist Johnmarshall Reeve reviews seven potential reasons as to why educators control reading choices. Included in his list are the inherent power structure between teacher and student, accountability to administrators and parents, as well as external social values that enforce controlling behavior in classrooms.

These pressures are real. And it’s understandable why teachers control reading lists.

The Chicago Tribune highlighted book choice in student learning in a 2015 article. In one anecdotal situation, there was the argument that "We need kids who are reading a whole lot more, and a whole lot more demanding stuff, than they will read on their own," from a grandmother. This is exactly the kind of external pressure teachers do face, and which leads to a controlled reading list.

But is such a claim true? Will students challenge themselves if left to their own devices? And how can we allow choice within a format that shepherds students to sophisticated, challenging reading, and consequently, original thinking?

Bottom line, what we as educators are doing is nurturing intrinsic motivation. At the root of motivation is empowering choice--and as we’ve done with humans from a young age, autonomy must be provided, with scaffolding, in order to foster inner motivation.

This empowerment is the stuff original thinking is made of because when students don’t believe their own authority, students are vulnerable to short-cut behavior.

There are great examples for providing such scaffolding, including ideas like choosing classrooms books by vote or forming book circles.

Another option includes providing students a list of books from which to choose, keeping in mind classroom diversity. This alternative still makes room for student autonomy, albeit within a framework that still addresses curriculum goals and administrative approval.

And yet another possibility is leaving room within your curriculum for spontaneous reading assignments. Bring up opinion pieces for current topics to discuss.

Reading is subjective--and there will likely be students who dislike the reading assignment. Students should also be allowed to dislike a book--and perhaps even write an assignment analyzing their own assessment, so that they can get past “dislike” into understanding and analytical thought.

The possibilities go on--as part of a Learning Community for Asian Pacific American Student Success, we focused on student empowerment. This meant including readings that spanned the gamut from the graphic novels American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi to classics like Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. These readings were ones to which our students could relate and topics around which they could claim authority. These readings of award-winning, canonized books made writing accessible to students without a history of educational success.

Most students arrived in my community college basic skills class without knowing what a thesis sentence was, or properly differentiating between summary and analysis. By semester’s end, they were squeezing meaning out of texts, linking threads, and coming up with analytical thesis statements that they then turned into analytical papers on subjects that ranged from identity and cultural conflict to ways in which characters absorbed trauma. This would not have been possible had we chosen reading assignments to which they felt no emotional connection and to which they had no authority.

Reading lists can strengthen the relationship between educators and students--because students feel seen and students feel heard when reading content is focused on their interests. And a student who is seen and heard will be more likely to produce original ideas, complete assignments, and be motivated to learn.

While book lists are largely concretized prior to the academic year or semester start and oftentimes assigned to us by administration and powers outside of our direct influence--do consider your student population as you compile your reading list. Look into spontaneous readings. Make room in your lesson plans for impromptu, student-centered reading. Make room also, for student book choice.

As you get to know your students--and actively listen for their interests--you’ll become familiar with readings that have the potential for student engagement, empowerment, and original thinking. The upside is an engaged classroom, students who are motivated to learn and produce original ideas, and impassioned essays.

Posted on the Turnitin Blog on 2 April. To read more great stories visit our blog.

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