Studies continue to show what most intrinsically understand: that students who are engaged do better in school, and are more likely to graduate and succeed. Educators, then, are left with the important (but often extremely challenging!) work of figuring out how to engage their individual students, each of whom is wonderfully unique.
I recently had a student in my class who taught me a valuable lesson about giving adequate reading choices to foster student engagement. I had introduced a nonfiction reading project, which was to be followed with a writing exercise to present what they had learned. The first instructions were to choose any animal to research. “How exciting—any animal?!” I thought. One particular student, however, looked bored. She had picked sharks and was slumped in her chair, barely engaging with the text about sharks we’d found at her level. Uh-oh….
After a quick conversation with the student, I could clearly see that the animal topic was not sparking much interest for her. I had expected that she would love this project, but I had missed the mark. I remembered that her teacher from the previous year had told me this student loved learning about real people. I further realized that the animal prompt was somewhat arbitrary and not the real purpose for the project. Time to change course a bit!
The next day, I asked the student, “Would you like to research a person instead?” Her eyes lit up. “Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?” she asked with enthusiasm. The class had discussed him the day before. Suddenly, she seemed alive! We arranged for her to visit the school’s library. She came back practically skipping with a few books and digital resources about Dr. King.
The student finished the project with intense concentration and interest, endeavoring to engage with the text and write what she learned with great detail.
I had offered students choice, yes, but not the kind of choice that was meaningful to everyone. Research suggests that meaningful choice provides the ability to feel ownership, to demonstrate competency, and to have a sense of belonging.
Reading choice increases student engagement by offering ownership and control, an important step in building motivation for students to push themselves in their own learning and persist when confronted with difficult tasks or concepts. When a student has ownership, reading can feel more relevant and meaningful to that student’s life, interests, and goals. Students can be offered control over topics, the type of text, or text medium, with the teacher still retaining control over other areas of the assignment.
When students make their own reading choices, they may choose a topic they already know a little or a lot about. This background knowledge gives them confidence that not everything will feel foreign. Building upon prior knowledge will give them the courage to stay motivated in their reading, helping to avoid discouragement and increasing their self-efficacy.
Giving students reading choices also helps build the classroom into a community with each student as a member, reinforcing the important idea that it is a space for all learners to engage. Encouraging students to share their reading choices with others can further grow this sense of belonging and, by extension, student engagement. Check out this previous post for ideas on how to extend the community of readers beyond the classroom.
The student in my class continued to do biographical research projects, pushing herself to read more advanced texts in the process. By matching her with a more appropriate choice, I had offered her the control and connectedness she needed to be truly engaged. When an educator can offer meaningful choice, students have the space to become excited, self-directed learners!
Tracy Pruitt is a classroom teacher at an urban, public K-6 Montessori school in Wisconsin.