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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Should Kids Pick Their Own Reading Texts?

January 14, 2019

As regular readers of this blog know, there is an entire segment of the literacy community who thinks I’m an idiot.

I’ve been married for a long time, so those kinds of judgments don’t usually bother me.

But let’s be honest, we all like to be liked, so another blog about why kids learn less from reading on their own is probably not in my best interest. And, that definitely is not what this is going to be about … or at least not what I wanted it to be about.

You see, over the holidays a friend of mine posted chart from a presentation at this year’s Literacy Research Association meeting. It included effect sizes for the impact of student choice on learning. The effect size for the impact of choice on reading motivation was .95 and on reading achievement was 1.20. With big-whomping payoffs like those you’d be foolish to assign books. Let ‘em read what they want to!

My interest was piqued.

I’ve long known that choice matters in motivation. I prefer doing what I want rather than what others want me to do. I’ve written about the value of choice in teaching, but have pointed out that it didn’t have to be about which book to read—it could be about who to read with, which part of the room to read in, or even which order to fit this reading into the morning schedule. (In this blog entry, my focus is on instructional reading--that reading required by teachers with an instructional purpose. I strongly believe that when kids are reading independently — that is when they are deciding that they want to read for their own purposes, they should be allowed wide latitude in what they read.)

But these statistics seem to be saying that book choice is where the big payoff is and if that’s the case, I really missed the boat (in Chicago, missing the boat in January is a cold proposition).

I set out to write a mea culpa, mea maxima culpa kind of blog entry touting kids’ choice over teacher’s choice.

Except that isn’t what I found out when I looked into this.

Twitter indicated those statistics were from John Guthrie, an honest and rigorous researcher. (Those statistics could be solid).

But the source was a chapter from a book called Voice of Evidence. It’s a good book, but such books usually are not good sources for research evidence. Chapters in such books are not reviewed and edited as research.

The Guthrie and Humenick chapter aimed to would answer the question, “What motivates students to read?” Instead of a traditional qualitative literature review, they reported on a meta-analysis. Unfortunately, it was not reported like a research study for the most part. You can’t tell which studies were reviewed for instance, a real weakness.

They identified 22 relevant experimental studies which offered up 46 effect sizes on student choice and its impact on reading. Based on this analysis they concluded that when kids are allowed to choose what they want to read there are big boosts to reading motivation and achievement.

The chapter discussed a handful of the meta-analyzed studies to illustrate their conclusions.

These descriptions surprised me. They weren’t so terrific for making this kind of judgment.

For example, one of the studies (McLoyd, 1979), had children examine 10 books and rate them in terms of how interesting they were. They then assigned half the children their first choices and the other half their last choices.

Yep, that’s right.

No one in this study chose anything. Everyone’s book was assigned. They either had to read a book they liked or a book they didn’t like. McLoyd let the kids read for a few minutes and then interrupted them, keeping track of how long they continued reading. The kids who were assigned books they liked read a bit longer than the ones assigned books that they didn’t.

That’s a big confound of choice and interest. That kids spend more time reading books they like than books they don’t wasn’t that surprising to me. (Of course this is in contrast to my believe that children spend more time “eating” asparagus than ice cream; but that’s quite another matter).

Another of the studies included (Reynolds & Symonds, 2001), also confounded choice and interest to the point where, again, I was stuck concluding that kids would rather learn about something they were interested in, than being assigned stuff they were not. But choice is the issue in this only if you think that teachers always manage to assign what kids don’t like.

Another strange choice of a study was that of Lesley Morrow (1992). In this study, students were assigned to one of two treatments. One treatment provided students with instruction and workbook activities from their basal readers. The second provided students with much the same instruction (though abbreviated a bit to open up some time) to allow for students to read self-selected books from classroom libraries and to receive lessons and activities based on those books.

No question that the free choice group out-performed the comparison group but was that outcome difference actually due to choice?

The choice group was required to read more and to do more reading lessons. They had access to a classroom library (complete with rocking chairs and felt-boards and other materials). The children in the choice group all received subscriptions to Highlights magazine so they could read at home (and half of this group received instructional support from their mothers with these library books).

Complex interventions of this type may work, but this kind of study cannot reveal the active ingredients. Was it the extra reading lessons? The increased amount of reading? The Hawthorne effects due to the attractive new libraries added to the classrooms? The magazine subscriptions and increased reading at home? Or was it that the kids got to choose some additional books (to the textbooks)?

Meta-analysis can be terrific but including studies that look at fewer than 10 minutes of reading or that are so confounded that it is impossible to attribute the impact to the variable of interest is sure to undermine its value.

Student text choice likely has some payoff in terms of motivation. But its impact on achievement is likely much smaller than these Twitterverse postings would suggest. I’d still be hesitant to make student book choice a big part of my reading instruction.

Why would I be hesitant to have kids select the books?

One of the big things that kids should be learning about reading is how to negotiate text complexity. Teachers (and publishers) should be selecting texts that will challenge kids in particular ways.

These challenges might be simple and straightforward: particular vocabulary the kids are unlikely to know, or sentences that have particular kinds of complexity (like passive voice or especially long noun phrases or compound verbs).

Or, they might be structurally or conceptually complex. Stories with multiple protagonists or that include flashbacks, or informational texts that challenge one’s perceptions as science texts sometimes do.

With such texts, teacher can guide students to confront these interpretive problems.

When kids do the picking, it is less certain that their choice will present such confrontations, and even when they do, the teacher would less likely be in position to add the essential teaching that would help the student to transform this confusion into learning.

There is a place for student book choice within reading instruction, but it is much smaller than those Twitter charts may suggest.

There is a good lesson in this for those educators who think they can just take John Hattie’s chart of effect size as the source for their school improvement efforts. You cannot interpret effect sizes without some awareness of the original studies included in the analysis. The old adage garbage in, garbage out still applies.

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"Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift." — Kate DiCamillo