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The research base on student-selected reading is robust and conclusive: Students read more, understand more, and are more likely to continue reading when they have the opportunity to choose what they read.    

Richard Allington and Rachel E. Gabriel, “Every Child, Every Day” Ed Leadership 2013

Making the commitment to have students choose most of what they read each day in the reading classroom is a call for celebration!  It is a giant step toward creating a reader-centered classroom.

But ensuring that everyone is matched with good-fit books it can also feel really messy and chaotic.

Kids don’t become expert book choosers overnight. It takes time, explicit instruction and scaffolded practice. Yet, we can’t hold off having them do lots of independent reading until we’ve taught them all we want them to know about book choice.  So, how can you get started without going crazy?

To begin with, simply let kids know you want them to choose books they care about and can read.

  • “Readers choose books that they’re excited to read.”
  • “Readers choose books that they want to spend time with.”
  • “Readers choose books that feel like a good fit.”

Even if students choose imperfectly (and it’s certain they will), remember that learning to do anything well requires some missteps along the way. Choice is powerful even when imperfect. In fact kids’ less-than-great-choices can give us clues about what additional support they might need with regard to book choosing strategies.

In the beginning, don’t worry too much when your students choose texts you think are too hard or too easy. Eventually, because of your patient teaching and support, they’ll learn to make more refined choices. You can’t teach them everything at once. Accept these early choices as a starting point and go from there.

Following is a list of five ways you can support book choice in the early days of independent reading.  These are teacher tips meant to help you through the messy and mismatched choices kids are bound to make when they first begin to choose most of what they read every day.

1. Teach three ways to read a book. Even before they start to read the actual words, there are other ways children can read texts. By teaching three ways to read a book, you reassure your students that you will accept a range of approaches to early reading, including:

  • Read the pictures. There is a great deal of close reading of picture books that can be done without reading a single word. When we teach children how to read the pictures, and reassure them that this is a type of reading that we value, we open the door for even emergent readers to engage deeply with text.
  • Retell the story.  Retelling is a another powerful option for students who may not be reading traditionally, yet. Retelling of texts that have been read aloud in the classroom is a favorite of many emergent readers.
  • Read the words.  Reading, or attempting to read, the actual words on the page is

Emphasizing these three ways to read a book is especially helpful as K–1 students and students with limited English develop independence, since they provide an immediate path to engagement, without the need to decode text.

2. Trust your kids. Always approach book choice with a spirit of optimism and trust. Believe your kids have the best of intentions when choosing books.  When you see kids make questionable book choices, learn what you can about how they chose the book.  What were they thinking about?  What appealed to them?  This will provide information about the kind of teaching they will benefit from to improve future choices.

3. Patiently respect their early book choices. Learning to choose books takes time and practice, trial and error, explicit teaching and reinforcement. It is one of the most important life skills for readers to have. Resist the urge to correct students’ less-than-perfect choices too quickly; book selection is a developing skill.  It’s okay for kids to spend some time experiencing the discomfort of an imperfect fit.

4. Provide ongoing teaching. Your students will need ongoing teaching about how readers consistently make good choices, delivered during whole-class instruction, small-group instruction, and individual conferences.  This instruction is not just a September event, but takes place across the entire year, through teaching, reteaching, and a continual stream of new strategies and tips for finding good-fits. (My book Simple Starts; Making the Move to a Reader Centered Classroom provides loads of specific student strategies.)

5. Avoid being too rigid about levels. Although reading levels are important for instructional purposes, kids need the freedom both to stretch themselves with more difficult material and to revisit simpler materials during independent reading. When they are motivated by choice, kids are often capable of more than we imagine.  Avoid limiting kids to just one or two levels of texts for independent readers.  Access to a range of texts is important for all readers.

Don’t wait for your kids to master book choice before you start providing lots of chances to read self-selected text. The journey to good-fit book choices begins with a single text and a patient teacher.