Why We Need to Listen and Let Kids Read What They Want

Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want – and  Why We Should Let Them
By Jeffrey D. Wilhelm and Michael W. Smith with Sharon Fransen
(Scholastic, 2014 – Learn more)

anne-anderson-2014Reviewed by Anne Anderson

My thanks to Jeffrey D. Wilhelm and Michael W. Smith for their research that resulted in Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want – and Why We Should Let Them. Their answers to these two questions should cause educators to examine how we can bring pleasure into the reading lives of our students.

Reading beyond the Classroom

reading unbound andersonIn Part I, the authors “explore the nature and variety of the pleasures committed readers of genres that are typically not taught or approved of in school take from their reading.” (p. 26) Each chapter begins with personal stories from Wilhelm and Smith; each chapter ends with a section titled “What We Can Learn From….”

While I found their research and the information about how they coded students’ responses interesting, I found myself most intrigued by the students’ responses and insights about their out-of-school reading:

Rori:  “Well, I usually read the most when I’m like really mad or if I’m really sad because it’s a way of escape for me.”  (p.43)

Helen:  “I actually have a book right now that I’m a couple of pages away from the end and I stopped reading it [and] said, ‘No, I will not finish it.’”  (p.45)

Then, there’s this comment addressing in-school reading:

Michelle:  “I think my least favorite assignment would be the ones where we have to, we have like reading journals; and we’re supposed to pull out like certain things from them or like, you need to put things down about the plot and any questions you have…and, I have to stop my reading to do that.”  (p. 46)

These students also talked about how reading helped them become better writers, better talkers, and better thinkers. And isn’t that what we want for our students?  These conversations also provided the authors – and this reviewer – with insights into what students liked and did not like about in-school reading.



Michael W. Smith answers questions
in these Scholastic video clips.

What Genre Fiction Offers

In Part II, The Particular Pleasures of Popular Genres, Wilhelm and Smith focus on particular genres (romance, horror, dystopian fiction, and fantasy). The students in this study are a little older than those featured in Part I, and they offered strong opinions in support of a particular genre and in support of choice.

Kylie:  “School tells us to read books, because ‘everyone’ has read them. Because you are expected to know them. I much prefer book lists where you make a choice. Not everyone likes the same books. I can take a list to [my] librarian and discuss what would be the best match for me.  And my librarian knew me and helped me find the books I needed.”  (p.121)

Allie:  “Sure, being a Twilight reader identifies me.  I mean when people ask you if you read Twilight it says a lot about you.  People will say: ‘I loved it, too’ and then you have this shared thing, or there is a stigma.  Either way, [being a Twilight reader] is part of your identity.  (p.138)

Jazzy:  “[Explaining] can close things off.  I want to stay open….It [reflecting on reading] can bring stuff up.  It can bring stuff up that is hard to say, and feelings that you really can’t say, and when it [evokes such feelings] then it’s good and it stays with you.  It’s like growing your insides into something new.”  (p. 167)

Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want – and Why We Should Let Them will cause teachers and administrators to revisit those “assigned” reading lists. In fact, we may even acknowledge that it is okay to read “junk.”  The book concludes with a reminder to “be the kind of teachers who help our students fall in love with books in ways that foster a lifelong devotion to reading.”

Anne Anderson finally got out of the 8th grade after 24 years and 9 weeks. She spent the next 9 years sharing her expertise in literacy and writing with K-12 teachers and administrators throughout the district. She credits National Writing Project and Poetry Alive! as turning points in her growth as a teacher. She now shares her expertise nationwide as an Educational Consultant and through her website and her bi-monthly newsletter, Spotlight on Success.


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2 Responses

  1. I love this…and I agree! But how do you accomplish this when you are required to teach certain texts and barely have time to accomplish that? Any thoughts are appreciated!

  2. Here’s one thought: surround the required texts with some “junk” reading. While teaching the required text, include choice titles that your students might find appealing. Talk about other titles with similar themes, topics, genres, characters, setting, etc. to your required reading. Also, be sure your students know that you read for pleasure!
    Now, share this book with your building administrators so they can get on board! Our students deserve to experience the joy of reading!

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