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The School Reading List: Should Kids Choose the Books?

It’s hard to imagine making it through high school without reading at least one of Shakespeare’s plays. Students who wouldn’t otherwise pick up classics like To Kill A Mockingbird, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Scarlet Letter usually get exposure to them during their academic years. These literary masterpieces are woven into American culture, joining other important works that are frequently referenced in national conversations. Many believe that including these books in standard curriculum is a must to ensure students’ long-term success.

However, a growing number of teachers, students, and families are reconsidering traditional methods of choosing classroom reading lists. Instead of sticking with the same classic books for the class, some teachers are giving students a role in selecting the books that they’ll read. The final list may look quite different from conventional classrooms, but advocates point out that students are more engaged in their learning when they own a portion of the curriculum. Is one method more effective than the other?

The Pros and Cons of Using Established School Reading Lists

The biggest benefit to relying on standard reading lists is offering students exposure to important literature that they might not otherwise read. Books connect individuals from a variety of backgrounds, giving them a common language that lasts a lifetime. For example, popular culture is full of references to Romeo and Juliet, Lord of the Flies, and 1984.

Better still, students might find unexpected joy in the poetry of Langston Hughes or Maya Angelou. They might relate to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’s Francie Nolan or be inspired by Anne Frank. Without teacher-directed reading lists, they might never read these works on their own.

However, there are two significant cons to required reading lists that include books students wouldn’t otherwise choose for themselves. First, when readers aren’t interested in the material, they are less likely to be successful in meeting the requirements of an assignment. The work may be completed poorly, if at all, and students may take shortcuts. There are study guides for all common reading-list books available online or at any book shop. Students may be too tempted to simply visit SparkNotes and never read the material or form their own opinions.

Second, disengaged students don’t develop the intended skills when completing their assignments. Even if they force their way through the book—and many do not—it is unlikely that they will engage in thoughtful analysis of elements like language, plot, theme, and character development. Developing these sorts of analytical thinking skills is the primary goal of any reading assignment.

Finally, some books that regularly find their way to school reading lists deal with controversial and sensitive topics. Teachers and administrators may receive push back from parents who prefer that their children refrain from reading material they find offensive. Parents may not always be aware of a class-mandated books and find objectionable topics or language after their children have begun reading the material.

The Advantages—and Disadvantages—of Student-Directed Reading Lists

The trend toward empowering students to select some or all of their reading material is gaining traction, because teachers who have implemented this method report positive results. After years of designing ever-more-elaborate lessons and projects in an attempt to engage reluctant readers, they have resigned themselves to the fact that sometimes, students simply don’t connect with a particular book. However, when given a chance to select books that pique their interest or have personal meaning, students dive in. Teachers spend less time coaxing and cajoling, and more time focusing passionate readers on developing better language and critical-thinking skills.

Of course, there is risk to this approach. Students may ignore the classics that stretch comprehension skills, offer intimate views of alternative lifestyles, and examine important social issues that are still relevant today. Few people read their first Shakespeare play by choice, but the common experience of getting through one—then going on to enjoy others—brings people together.

Giving kids a say in the class reading list may increase their engagement with the material. However, they may miss the opportunity to enjoy some of the masterpieces that continue to shape our culture. And parents may also have objections to the books the kids choose. Even extremely popular books, such as the Harry Potter series, can be problematic for some.

Which method of choosing literature do you think is more effective? Is it possible to combine the best parts of both methods to maximize students’ success?

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