Navigating Choice Reading with High-Stakes Accountability in Mind

As long as we have had formal education in the U.S., we have had a fair amount of public crisis discourse about how students can’t read, and we persist in committing to classroom practices that often contradict our stated goals of creating eager and proficient readers among our students.

One of my arguments about how we fail reading in our schools is that virtually all K-3 students are eager to read, but very few high school students maintain that same joy; what those students have in common are 10+ years in school, where reading goes to die.

English educator and researcher Lou LaBrant began in the 1920s and 1930s producing what we would call today action research showing the essential power of choice in reading to foster both eager and proficient readers.

In the subsequent years, research on reading has confirmed over and over that access to books in the home and choice in reading are the most powerful ways to achieve the kind of literacy we often lament is missing in our young people.

During the most recent accountability era, when high-stakes testing has become king, students are increasingly schooled in scoring well on test-reading, and as a result, they are taught to hate reading. We may well have today a much greater problem in the U.S. with people who hate to read, who don’t read, than who can’t read.

And that fact is the fault of formal schooling.

The source of this dilemma is high-stakes accountability grounded in testing. As a high school English teacher throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I taught in South Carolina, an early adopter of standards and testing, and I also taught in the Advanced Placement program.

After attending my local Writing Project and finishing my dissertation on LaBrant to complete and EdD, I became resolved to seek ways to honor choice reading and my obligations to prepare students for testing. I documented that adventure with my AP students in English Journal: When Choice Failed — Or Did It?

When I saw a recent post, AP English and Choice Reading, I was prompted to revisit some of the key elements of how all teachers can remain committed to powerful and research-based literacy practices such as choice while also meeting our obligations during high-stakes accountability.

My short version is what I always say about good writing instruction: If we practice rich and authentic reading practices, students will be even better equipped when faced with narrow and reductive test-reading than if they had only test-prep reading instruction.

The fundamental shift that must occur in order for any teacher to make choice reading work in real world demands of the classroom is to let go of seeing any text as the goal of instruction and to recognize our literacy goals are broader than any details about that text.

In other words, we must not seek to make our students experts on The Scarlet Letter, nothing more than fostering trivia knowledge, but seek to use any novel in the pursuit of all literacy moves (including critical literacy) and to foster genre, medium, and form awareness.

If we believe people should read novels, we must seek ways to invite students to read any novel in order to grow more proficient in that practice, to grow more eager and joyous as well.

As I detailed in EJ in 2003, instead of doing assigned whole-class novels and plays in AP Literature, I allowed students to explore the provided list of writers from the College Board/AP as well as the identified works over the years on the AP Literature test.

From that narrowed and purposeful range of works, we developed broad categories within which students chose works to facilitate whole-class discussions even as students were reading different works.

For example, we had units grounded in black writers and female writers, but we also included Shakespeare and modern U.S. drama categories in order to prepare well for the AP test.

I call this tethered choice because students become active and informed participants in both choosing what they read and keeping that choice tethered to instructional goals and accountability demands.

Choice reading is powerful and accountability is a reality for both students and teachers; however, these two facts do not have to become a regrettable choice for teachers.

If we teachers can embrace the eagerness and joy all children bring to school and then become facilitators for helping those students remain avid readers who recognize the formal obligations of schooling, our reading classrooms can honor both choice reading and achieve the sorts of measurable outcomes demanded by accountability.