Does Choice Reading Create Ladders?

As regular visitors here know, my students read books of their own choosing every day for the first ten minutes of class.    Then they write blog posts about those books, and they write comments on each other’s book blog posts.  This simple practice has revolutionized the way I approach teaching reading.  It has also resuscitated the reading habits of dozens of students who freely admit at the beginning of the year that they haven’t finished a book of their own choosing since about fifth grade, and that most of the books assigned for school are either skimmed, skipped, or SparkNote-ed.  I’m proud to be counted among the number of teachers using choice reading as an important part of our approach to helping students improve their literacy skills.  In addition to the choice reading, we also read whole-class novels and plays, write a lot, and conduct high-level discussions in a variety of formats, but my students start each class period enjoying a book that they chose.

Back to my students in a moment.  One of the most influential books in my thinking about choice reading is Reading Ladders by the venerable Teri Lesesne.  The premise of Reading Ladders is that teachers can lead students to books of increasing sophistication by beginning with a particular title and then providing “ladders” to other books by suggesting other similar titles that are more challenging.  Although I’ve drastically oversimplified a truly important book here, I hope I’ve given enough of a flavor of Reading Ladders to allow me to make the point I intend about my students’ reading choices.

At the beginning of the school year, as my students begin to re-discover the joys of reading that had escaped at some point, they tend to choose YA books almost exclusively.  That’s 100% OK with me.  A lot of of YA literature is … literature.  But that’s not even my goal.  My goal is for students to re-discover how it feels to choose and enjoy a book, a sensation that most of them had not experienced for several years of their young lives.

In these closing weeks of the school year, however, something else is happening.  I’m seeing multiple examples of students who have created their own “reading ladders.”  The guy who read manga for the entire first semester is now focused on the works of John Steinbeck.  Today he was immersed in The Grapes of Wrath.  The young lady who read three Neil Gaiman books in a row showed up today with Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.  Another girl finished Crank by Ellen Hopkins last week and is now reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.  How about the guy who read Eight Men Out and then moved to The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx?

I cannot for the life of me see how any of those books connect to the ones that followed, at least in the sense that Teri lays out in Reading Ladders.  The linkage appears to be nothing more than peripatetic meandering that has led these students to choose books more challenging than what they last read.  I trust this self-governing process. 

Maybe students have to get back on the reading bus at the same stop where they got off.  If they left off a few years ago with high-interest, fairly simple books, maybe that’s where they need to pick up.  To force something else upon them would maybe accomplish something, but it wouldn’t accomplish my goal of re-connecting students with book enjoyment.  After gaining expertise in finding and reveling in books of a certain comfort level, I’m seeing student seek out books that are more challenging, and they’re doing it on their own.

And what if each of the students mentioned here shows up next week with Diary of a Wimpy Kid?  That’s OK with me.  They’ve shown me that they are capable of choosing and enjoying sophisticated literature.  If they need a break from that all that sophistication, I understand, and I’m confident that they will find their way back up the ladder.

What about the kids who have read only YA books all year long?  That’s OK with me too.  Like I said, YA books can be literary, challenging, and meaningful.  If they are choosing YA books right now, they must need YA books right now.  My goal is to maintain and sustain book choice and enjoyment for an entire year.  As long as I don’t see students going consistently backwards in their choices–down the ladder, if you will–which I have not seen even once–I trust that I’m building a habit that they can maintain at least over the summer, hopefully into next year, and maybe even into adulthood. 

As long as the ladders are reaching higher levels, I’m proud of my students for their choices, and I trust that they can set their own ladder climbing pace. 

Oh.  One more.  How about the guy who read every Dexter book and then showed up with One Hundred Years of Solitude? I don’t see the rungs of his ladder, but he’s obviously climbed them, and I’m pretty sure he would not have found his way to Garcia Marquez without first reading those Dexter books.

Maybe I could and should be more active in pushing students toward more challenging books, but then again, I provide challenging literary experiences in the other class activities.  Pushes from me might contaminate the relatively organic book choice process that seems to be working beautifully.

Am I on the right track here?  When students have free choice in reading material, do their choices eventually spiral upwards?  I welcome your thoughts and stories.  Thanks for reading.

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8 Responses to Does Choice Reading Create Ladders?

  1. Beth Shaum says:

    I love this post! Reading Ladders was such an amazing book. It was one of the books that really stood out and helped me write my research paper about choice in the classroom, but like you, I don’t really force my students into planned, structured ladders. It seems more of a guideline for teachers to help us start thinking in a new way about books.

    I’m also finding quite a few of my 6th graders heading for classic texts in their quest for something more challenging. Of course, at this age, many of them end up abandoning them because they’re just not ready for them, but I’m OK with that. I knew one of my students who tried reading The Scarlet Letter would inevitably abandon it, but I was happy that she knew she was in a classroom that she could make the attempt and not be scolded for letting it go.

    I have a girl right now reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and normally she breezes through books (she’s one of my students who has far exceeded reading goals in my class) but she is being much more slow and careful with this one. That’s what I love about giving kids choice. We’re differentiating for students and helping them find their own way across the reading landscape.

  2. Gary,

    I think you are absolutely on the right track here. When you say the most important part of this is for students “to re-discover how it feels to choose and enjoy a book, a sensation that most of them had not experienced for several years of their young lives,” I think you hit the nail on the head. Just as one of your previous posts asked to trust teachers, I trust that students will work their way up the ladder when they are ready to. As you say, sometimes they need YA literature (and sometimes I do, too). If we are able to foster a love of literature in our classes, students will naturally migrate to more “challenging” texts if they choose. It has also been my experience that students either stay on the same rung for a while (which is fine) or move up. I’ve never seen anyone fall down the ladder.

    Thanks as always for your insights!

  3. One of the whiteboards in my room contains only book recs by kids for other kids. As someone added Christopher Moore’s Sacre Bleu to the board, I hear her say to another reader, “If you liked Fool, you’ll love this one” and I found myself asking her” If I liked Hunger Games, what would I like next,” and she promptly answered “Incarceron!” I countered with “what if you had to recommend a non-YA book?” So she is thinking about that one. I guess she is analyzing her ladder–have to got to do more with this idea. Do you think they need to think consciously about the ladder??

  4. louvain95 says:

    Choosing – reading – blogging – commenting: you do teach them to think by themselves and to exchange ideas. More or less Socrates’ method!
    Congratulations! I am 66 and rejoice seeing enthusiasm and creativity in your difficult profession. These kids are lucky!
    All the best,
    Lou

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