How Student Choice Empowers Readers

Student engagement

We’ve all heard the discussion surrounding the challenges of attention and retention in today’s “digital age,” especially when it comes to younger children. These kids have almost constant access to mobile devices that feed into their sense of instant gratification, and many thought leaders have wondered whether this type of exposure should be encouraged or not. The upside of students’ growing up with a device in their hand is that they are accustomed to interacting with the mobile technology that is now a part of many classroom environments.

Instead of fighting the change and trying to draw students’ attention away from their devices, I would suggest that educators take a lesson from why interaction with a device is so effective. Put simply, students engage with their technology because of the choice, control, and autonomy it provides in return.

As educators experiment with the give-and-take of student choice within a digital curriculum, it’s   important to try to anticipate how education will change around it. Much of this relies on providing the same digital engagement in daily lessons that students would otherwise find recreationally. When students are engaged, they’re more focused, they participate more, ask more questions, and get more out of the learning opportunity. Putting children in control of their education by using engaging technology helps build the necessary skill sets students will need in all content areas, reading and beyond.

Research from the American Psychology Association continues to confirm that providing student choice stimulates a child’s natural curiosity and motivation to learn. When combating cellphone distraction and shortening attention spans, it’s now more crucial than ever for educators to take advantage of organic interest. To do this, teachers can use student choice to inspire their students’ confidence in their ability to be successful learners. Providing our children with options to succeed in areas of their own choosing is a wonderful way to spark their natural interest in learning.

Choice and Generation Z   

In a recent article, Superintendent Dr. Royce Avery addressed the importance of student choice in his district, Manor ISD, especially when it came to working with Generation Z students. Avery asked how educators can find the perfect balance between traditional and digital approaches when attempting to better focus their student’s attention. The solution he found was for the district staff to share their control with the student body by offering them choices in how they would learn. This worked especially well, he said, when it came to reading.

By giving students the freedom to pick the books and subject matter they’re interested in, and then offering supportive guidance along the way, educators can feel confident in their students’ engagement with their reading and the likelihood that they’ll not only complete their assignments, but retain the information they have learned. This was demonstrated at a recent literacy summit hosted in April by the Tennessee Organization for School Superintendents. Attendees heard from a group of local fourth-graders from the Maury County School District who shared why having a say in what they read was important to them. Here are a few excerpts taken from their feedback:

“You can read whatever you want!” —Jasmine  
 “You can see if you are doing good. You can get a benchmark and try to get your Lexile up.” —Jose
 “When you find a book on your Lexile level you will love reading it.” —Caiden

The kids spoke avidly about how choosing books that matched their interest made them want to read more, and shared the sense of accomplishment they felt when they could see their scores and reading levels improve.

Getting children to read shouldn’t require strict rules or negotiation. If educators can be comfortable sharing control with their students, today’s digital natives will not only choose to read, but will be excited to do so. 

Elyse August


Elyse is Vice President of Services at myON. She has worked with educators, communities, families, and students across the nation to build sustainable programs that promote personalized literacy.