Choosing Choice: How Research and Best Practices Changed My Teaching

Instructional Coach Jaclyn Karabinas on giving up control

Reading researchers have told us for forty years that allowing students to choose their own books is among the most powerful moves we can make as teachers. For new teachers with little experience to draw on, defending a philosophy outside a prescribed basal and making the shift to a reader-centered classroom is daunting. For me, it took about a year, and I knew that I’d made the best decision for the kids in my room.

The shift started at one of my first team meetings. Our task: Level the students and set a schedule for switching classes so that we could target instruction to each reader’s needs. Our leadership also reminded us that everyone had to use the basal so that each child had the “same exposure.”

My heart and mind swirled with questions: What about their own books? What if the basal story is too hard? Too easy? How can it help everyone if they all have different needs? Like most first-year teachers, I was barely treading water, so off I went. I read aloud, we worked through the basal-story themes, and my kids did the workbook pages. But my students showed little excitement, wonder, or feeling for reading. They didn’t see themselves as readers, and they weren’t invested in reading. I was doing reading to them between 10:05 and 11:00.

Frustrated, I recalled my own experiences. As a child, I somehow just read even though I had few or no comprehension strategies, and despite the time I put in with those ubiquitous SRA cards. Later, when I was a preservice teacher, organizing student-centered literacy instruction was not a core part of my training. Now, facing my first classroom, I had more questions than answers.

Then, in my second year, a colleague suggested I read Regie Routman’s Reading Essentials (2002). I devoured it and felt hope. Regie recommended practices based on first-class research and on her own practical classroom experience. Those practices focused on making books enticing and plentiful so that students could choose their own reading adventures and become real readers.

So I drilled holes in my bulletin board and added rain gutters to display the covers of the books I collected for my classroom library. We spent our first week designing and personalizing reading journals. I modeled my reading life as we all got to know ourselves as readers and shared our reading lives with one another. Interest and anticipation for books was now piqued, and when we received boxes of books acquired from book order points, together we unpackaged and celebrated each new possibility, each new title.

The lights went on for my students and for me.

I had walked through a door of professional reading that illuminated a deep history of research, experience, and direct work with countless students. I wasn’t alone anymore! Soon my bookshelves overflowed with titles from authors such as Ellin Keene, Linda Hoyt, and Debbie Miller. These were teachers’ teachers — passionate about teaching, learning, and child development. They showed me that the concept of giving students choice had thrived since at least the early 1980s. Their classroom ideas and their belief in the importance of choice stood on the shoulders of giants in the field. People like Don Graves, Lucy Calkins, and Nancie Atwell were cited innumerable times in my favorite professional books. Others had asked and answered the same questions I had, and my heart was light with new options.

Giving up control doesn’t come naturally, but it is one of the most important shifts we can make to help readers engage and grow more quickly. The notion of providing choice is not a hunch, but rather a practice that is deep-seeded in the action research, history, and experiences of numerous educators and authors. By examining ourselves as readers, modeling how to make choices, and sharing our reading lives, we can instill a love of reading and support skills that translate well beyond brick and mortar school walls, and beyond tests. I learned that I needed to carefully and deliberately step out of the way so that my students could become independent readers. By giving up control, I allowed students to engage in their own learning rather than merely comply with my instructions.

In their article, “Every Child, Every Day,” literacy expert Richard Allington and Rachael Gabriel, Assistant Professor of Reading Education at the University of Connecticut, share that choice is perhaps the most important element of high-quality reading instruction. Certainly, students will (and should) encounter texts that have been chosen by a teacher for a variety of reasons, but developing the skill of choosing books they like and can read “increases the likelihood they will read outside of school.” And, yes, even these high-profile researchers drew upon the deep body of research to make their points (Ivey and Broaddus 2001; Reis et al. 2007). Allington and Gabriel note further that reading performance improves when students read self-selected texts (Krashen 2011), while no evidence indicates that worksheets or computer programs create such an impact. (Cunningham and Stanovich, 1998; Dynarski, 2007).

It almost sounds too simple: Give students access to many books, provide personal choice, and off we go building skilled readers (Guthrie and Humenick 2004). However, think carefully about the wide range of needs, abilities, levels, and interests of the children in your classroom. How could a single program and workbook address all of these angles?

It can’t. But I’ve discovered that you can, just as I did. Together, as we provide quality instruction, lots of books, daily choice, and a community of readers, we turn a simple idea into powerful teaching and learning. Choice leads us to the path. Engagement sustains the journey.


Jaclyn Karabinas is an Educational Consultant and Instructional Coach with ExpandED in New Hampshire. She specializes in the integration of arts and technology into curriculum and facilitates professional development for K–12 educators, higher education faculty, and preservice teachers.


Works Cited

Allington, Richard L., and Rachael E. Gabriel. 2012. “Every Child, Every Day.Educational Leadership 69 (6): 10–15.

Cunningham, A. E., and K. E. Stanovich. 1998. “The Impact of Print Exposure on Word Recognition.” In Word Recognition in Beginning Literacy, edited by J. Metsala and L. Ehri, 235–62. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Dynarski, M. (2007). “Effectiveness of Reading and Mathematics Software Products: Findings from the First Student Cohort.” Washington, DC: Institute for Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20074005.

Guthrie, J. T., and N. M. Humenick. 2004. “Motivating Students to Read: Evidence for Classroom Practices that Increase Motivation and Achievement.” In The Voice of Evidence in Reading Research, edited by P. McCardle and V. Chhabra 329–54. Baltimore: Paul Brookes.

Ivey, G., and K. Broaddus. 2001. “Just Plain Reading: A Survey of What Makes Students Want to Read in Middle Schools.” Reading Research Quarterly 36: 350–77.

Krashen, S. 2011. Free Voluntary Reading. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Reis, S. M., D. B. McCoach, M. Coyne, F. J. Schreiber, R. D. Eckert, and E. J. Gubbins. 2007. “Using Planned Enrichment Strategies with Direct Instruction to Improve Reading Fluency, Comprehension, and Attitude Toward Reading: An evidence-Based Study.” Elementary School Journal 108 (1): 3–24.

Routman, R. 2002. Reading Essentials: The Specifics You Need to Teach Reading Well. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.