How Do We Select Books Students MUST Read?
by Sarah Tantillo
In Reading without Limits, Maddie Witter advocates for reading instruction that includes a mixture of shared, guided, and independent-choice reading. I support this approach. Identifying books for the latter two categories is fairly straightforward (albeit dependent on your budget): you need leveled, high-interest books. But how should we select the books that every student must read?
While we want students to fall in love with reading through text choices that excite and interest them, we also need to cover some ground in each grade—skills and content—and ensure that students are adding to their background knowledge base.
When selecting texts that everyone in the class will read—especially at the secondary level—it’s important to expose students to certain classics so that they don’t arrive at college wondering who Shakespeare is. E.D. Hirsch has written extensively about the importance of building cultural literacy and its role in strengthening literacy, period.
In this same vein, my earlier book The Literacy Cookbook explains how prior knowledge drives the comprehension process. It’s a process of accumulation: Reading relies on and builds knowledge, which then improves comprehension, and more reading builds more knowledge and more comprehension.
Another factor that should influence selections is text complexity. The College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading speak to this issue very directly with Standard #10 (in the category of “Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity”):
Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.”
The standards at each grade level specify the grade level or band of text complexity at which students should be reading. For example, in grade 5, Reading Informational Text Standard #10 is: By the end of the year, read and comprehend informational texts, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts, at the high end of the grades 4–5 text complexity band independently and proficiently.
The importance of pushing for text complexity cannot be overstated. Research (particularly by Jeanne Chall and Donald Hayes) has shown that the dumbing down of textbooks is correlated with a drop in SAT scores. Reflecting on Chall’s findings, Marilyn Jager Adams observed in an article for American Educator (Winter 2011), “If students had neither practiced nor been instructed with reading materials as hard as the SAT passages, then one could hardly expect them to read the latter with competence and confidence.”
Adams argues for vigilant use of rigorous reading materials, noting that “the challenge … lies in organizing our reading regimens in every subject and every class such that each text bootstraps the language and knowledge that will be needed for the next.”
In other words, you shouldn’t start with the most rigorous texts, but you should organize instruction in ways that ensure your students tackle those most challenging texts in every grade. Adams recommends directly teaching key words and concepts, gradually building students’ knowledge base, and then increasing the depth and complexity of the texts.
Culture and gender
Along with textual rigor, we must also consider cultural and gender-oriented relevance. In The Trouble with Boys, Peg Tyre notes that one reason boys struggle in school is that their elementary school teachers often select texts that boys consider “too girlie,” and when faced with such books, “they decide they don’t like to read.” Indeed, as much as I love the Common Core Standards themselves, I am not wild about all of the suggestions in Appendix B for grade-level appropriate texts.
For instance, the grade 4-5 list made me wonder, Does everyone really have to read Black Beauty? Really? Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman raise this same point in Pathways to the Common Core, noting the 1877 novel’s “formal, archaic language” and observing that in the Common Core’s recommended reading list, “contemporary children’s literature clearly takes a backseat to classics.”
So, OK, even though some girls might love it, Black Beauty might not be for everybody. But how should you decide which texts to require in your curriculum and which to save for optional or independent reading?
Along with the issue of gender, here is another important angle to consider: What are the demographics in your school? This question raises at least two other questions: (1) How will you entice students with culturally-relevant selections? And (2) How will you widen students’ perspectives through the lenses of diverse texts? It’s not enough to draw students in; we also have to show them the wider world. Discussions around these two questions often sound like conversations about nutrition: How can we achieve a healthy balance?
What about themes and topics?
In addition to contemplating cultural and gender relevance, we must also consider the curriculum’s themes, potential author studies, and a range of genres. Let’s examine these ideas more closely….
• What themes/topics will you address this year—both in your subject and in other content areas? For example, if you’re an English teacher, have you talked with the history and science teachers about interdisciplinary opportunities and appropriate texts to build background knowledge? English teachers should not be the only ones using books in their curriculum.
When we began designing the ninth-grade curriculum at North Star Academy, we decided that in addition to an array of books in English and history, students would also read The Hot Zone by Richard Preston (an engrossing narrative about the Ebola virus) in their biology class.
• Which authors have written enough grade-level appropriate books to warrant consideration for potential author studies? One school I worked with made the following choices:
• Which genres do you want/need to address? Look to the Common Core Standards for guidance. The K-12 Reading Informational Text Standards require that we pay persistent attention to nonfiction (and, again, across the curriculum, not just in ELA classes).
The K-12 Reading Literature Standards consistently mention “stories, poems, and drama,” but they approach them differently in different grades. Here is a quick overview culled from the Standards:
Whatever texts you select, it’s important to remember that your choices will significantly shape student learning.
Rationales like “We’ve always used that book” or “We have 500 copies of it” or “It doesn’t really fit, but the kids like it” are not good-enough reasons to keep a text. Instead, as much as possible, let’s make thoughtful, purposeful decisions about the books we ask all of our students to read.
Sarah Tantillo writes frequently for MiddleWeb about literacy and learning. Sarah is the author of Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action and The Literacy Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction. She consults with schools on literacy instruction, curriculum development, data-driven instruction, and school culture-building. Sarah has taught high school English and Humanities in both suburban and urban public schools, including the high-performing North Star Academy Charter School of Newark. Visit her website.