Maybe I should put that question in context because, of course, choice is important. It empowers, it validates, it motivates, it engages. But in the context of extensive reading, is it really that important? Being able to choose the text you read, I mean. It’s cited as one of the cornerstones of extensive reading along with ease, variety and pace. But I’m not so sure it is always that important.
Recently I was giving a presentation at TESOL Spain on extensive reading, and how we, as teachers, can support and encourage students to become confident, independent extensive readers. Choice was one of the issues that came up. I touched briefly on its importance, and on ways we can help our students choose. I also touched very briefly, too briefly, on the idea that maybe it isn’t actually that important.
We were talking about how we choose books in a bookshop (or online): being attracted by a cover, looking at the blurb, reading the first paragraph, turning to page 99 – and how we can simulate these choices in the classroom. They’re all fun activities but as I was describing and modelling them in the workshop I was thinking about the last couple of books I’d read, and how I’d chosen them. Or maybe more precisely how they’d been chosen for me, and I realised that for me, for those books, choice wasn’t at all important. Not the choice of the book at least.
I’ve read and enjoyed (well, more precisely am still enjoying) three novels in the last month or so. In my pre-parenting days that would have been very slow, but at the moment that counts as avid reading! And I didn’t choose any of them. Two were given to me by a new friend, a friend of a friend in fact, who was passing through and left two books with me, two books he’d enjoyed. We’d only met for an hour or so for a walk on the beach, but enough for me to treasure the gifts and to be interested to read his recommendations. So I didn’t choose the books, but I did choose to trust the reader who was passing them on. So I guess not purely devoid of choice. And I did choose to read them. They could have sat on my bookshelf gathering dust (like a few Christmas presents have) but there’s something about a second hand book, especially when it comes with a recommendation.
The first still fills my head with images and dialogues. I finished it on the train to the conference and recommended it to another friend of a friend – someone I’d met for the first time that day. It seemed very fitting! The second was (as recommended) a “real page turner”, a thriller that kept me up late into the night. A weak ending, but a great premise for a film. That one’s still on my bedside table, waiting for the right reader. And the third I’m reading for work. It isn’t a book I knew about before, it isn’t a book I’d chosen to read. I’m reading it to see if there are any extracts we can use in an anthology. But the pleasure of reading it has taken over from the work (in fact possibly even slowed it down a little as I can’t choose what to excerpt till I read to the end!)
Which brings me back to choice. I didn’t choose any of those books, but I avidly read them all. And I can remember a couple of occasions recently where students didn’t choose the book they read – or didn’t choose to read, but read avidly.
The first was with a group of high school students in their last year, studying for their university entrance exam. One of the most important skills for the exam is reading – speed reading, skimming, reading intensively – and they need to be confident readers. I knew that some of the students were already reading in English (the strongest students, the ones who had no problems with the exam). I also knew that some weren’t even reading in L1. We, the teachers, chose four short stories, each at a different level, and asked the students to choose the level that was most suited to them. We explained that we wanted them to be able to read the story quickly and easily and enjoy it. We “guided” the choices so that everyone was reading at their own level (or below). There was a very limited element of choice. There was a thriller, a love story, a sci-fi story and a horror story, but most of the students couldn’t choose by genre as they needed to put level first. They were told they had to read the story over the holidays and would gain bonus points that would go towards their final classwork assessment if they did (no choice there, quite the opposite in fact!) But despite this lack of choice, the response positive, especially among the “non readers”:
- I liked reading the story at Christmas because we never read in English and it was a great opportunity.
- I liked the Dracula story because it was interesting.
- This was the most interesting activity. I like the story very much.
Almost a third of the students (out of 120) choose the short story reading task as one of the three most memorable activities during the seven month course. All those students were in the non-reader bracket.
The second example was an individual student in a similar class. But this class was streamed. Most of these students had little hope of getting their reading up to speed in time for the exam. Some had given up. One in particular was sullen and unparticipative and generally negative. One day I took some elementary graded readers into class. A different book for each student. We talked about level and pace and they each took a book home to read for the next lesson, a week later. This was no great sweeping victory. Only one student actually read the whole book. But it was the sullen student. He had finished the book. He wanted another. And he had a smile on his face. I guess it had been a long time since he’d experienced success, and the pleasure of success, in English. A small victory.
In the comments on a recent post on Jeremy Harmer’s blog about reading , there are some interesting examples of “book club” type reading programmes, where the students don’t choose their texts as such, but all read the same book (or in some cases short story). Here’s one example from Swansea university where taking the element of choice away has helped tutors target the students who need it most.
So, maybe choice isn’t all that important, at least not as a starting point. In fact choice can sometimes be daunting. Too many titles in a bookshop, too many suggestions on Amazon. Sometimes there’s so much choice that you just give up! And sometimes, maybe, in order to help our students, we can take the element of choice away, and just leave them with the simple pleasure of reading.