Should We Force Students to Read Certain Books?

There I went and did it again, tripped myself up and got lost.  Once again forgot what my students had told me, thinking I knew best.  Thinking I was doing the teacher thing to do, whatever that is.  And yet, that nagging feeling of something not being right just wouldn’t go away.  So last night I tweeted

And soon, my own fear was confirmed.  Many agreed; when we dictate genres it is almost the same as dictating books.  What we want is for kids to read widely (Thanks Donalyn!), not selectively  and whenever we mess with choice we may end up turning kids away from reading completely.

Yet, my reasoning remains; I want to expose students to new genres.  As one student told me yesterday, if she had not been “forced” to read a historical fiction book she would have never known how much fun they would be.  And yet, it is the whole “force” I have such a problem with. I was forced to read certain books in school and I hardly ever enjoyed them.  I would read them as fast as I could, slowing down only enough to answer the mandatory question sheet and then resume the book I really wanted to read.  Just the act of “having to” read a certain book ensured that it never made my top ten list of best books read that year.  I don’t want to do the same to my students.

Yet, as teachers, there seems to be times when we have to “force” things on students.  Otherwise we worry they will not be well-rounded learners.  They might not be ready for the next step in their education, they might not be ready for the adult world.  Or will they?  Can we let students choose their own education and still become successful adults within a public school setting?  I don’t have the answer.  

So I will call a morning huddle today, lay my fears on the line, my dilemma  and see what the kids come up with.  Perhaps we will just read whatever we want.  Perhaps we will have 4 free choice books and 2 from new genres.  Perhaps, I will ask them to just read as much as they can in the limited time we have left.  I don’t know what will happen but I know my students will have ideas if I only listen. I know they will set me back on track, they always do. 

7 thoughts on “Should We Force Students to Read Certain Books?

  1. I am torn on this issue, also. As a young student I usually hated it when the whole class read the same book page by page together, but this is not what you're suggesting at all. I didn't mind choosing a book from a list of options provided by the teacher. Due to reading lists like this, I read many good books that I probably wouldn't have chosen on my own. Some choice is key; a positive feeling is created when the student gets to make the final decision about their book! It sounds like your plan of asking them to read from a genre they don't normally choose is reasonable and would expand their horizons a bit. I am interested to hear what the students suggest.

  2. Hey Pernille – this is an issue I go back and forth on… much like the role of a the driven vs student driven personalized curriculum. One thing I think I have realized is that we need both. I think it was Gordon Neufeld who said, "We need to always listen to what students want… but it is dangerous to assume that kids know what they need."I think a balanced approach in which kids have time to read books they choose along with time to read books that the teacher offers will help to encourage the joy of reading as well as expose them to genres they may not have realized they enjoy. I would never have known I enjoyed Tolkien until I was forced to read it in school – although I have to say that it was the teacher that brought that book to life.Thanks for bringing another key discussion to the forefront.

  3. While i'm all for students having as much choice as possible when reading, I think there is a time to "force" (I hate that word) kids to read specific books. We want/need to expose our kids to new ideas, genres, authors, etc. especially in a "liberal arts" setting, but there are also some benefits to be had from our class reading and discussing a book together. Balance is key, but also somewhat elusive.

  4. I guess I would have to know more about the setup of your book challenge to completely understand your dilemma, but it seems you are struggling with how to encourage students to read widely without infringing on their ability to choose. While I would never force a kid to read specific titles, at least not for an independent reading block, I also won't sit idly by and watch a student read nothing more than Captain Underpants throughout 5th grade. As I see it, the space between is vast. Why can't the "challenge" be to ready 5-7 books across 3-4 genres? You are pushing wide reading. They get to choose.

  5. I have addressed this tension with my second graders by ensuring that we have time for Self Selected Reading as well as guided reading daily. The most essential element of reading instruction is the actual act of reading, and students read more when they choose the text. I find that whole class strategy instruction is best facilitated when we are all reading the same text, but individual reinforcement and reteaching of strategies happens best during conferencing with students during SSR. The read aloud time (in my experience with sixth graders as well as second graders) has been the best encouragement for students to diversify their SSR choices. I try to read aloud from a variety of genres so that students have exposure and often get hooked without feeling forced to read something outside what they think are their interests.

  6. "I would have to say it was the teacher who brought it to life." That's the key. Most of what I was forced to read in school, I hated. Julius Caesar was not something that had any interest for me in high school. Same with Night. It was simply too far outside my experience. These books couldn't connect with me although they are great books and ones I came back to enjoy later in life.Children's level of life experience is important, but the greatest key is the teacher's ability to bring it to life. Are they passionate about the book? Can they find ways to make it relevant to the lives of their learners. If so, maybe there is much to be gained.

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