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3 Ways to Offer Choice and Challenge in Reading

Yesterday I got the opportunity to write for our state NCTE affiliate, the West Virginia Council of Teachers of English!  Their best practices blog is full of great stuff–definitely check it out, and follow @WVCTE on Twitter for more ideas and resources.

Here’s my offering for their blog–and I’d love to know how you offer your students choice and challenge in their independent reading.  Please share in the comments!


I can be a bit of a lazy reader.

I get impatient while reading, waiting for the plot to pick up, and abandon books with gusto.  I leap from mystery to mystery, romance novel to short fiction, and toss in the stray nonfiction book when I’m feeling curious.

When I first began making choice reading a priority in my classroom, many of my students were lazy readers, too.  They gobbled up YA fiction in droves, but balked when I booktalked a classic, or an award-winning piece of fiction, or any nonfiction.  Some of them refused to move beyond their genre of choice for a whole year.

I knew, when I committed to choice reading, that it went far beyond just YA.  I knew that all kids were capable of reading sophisticated texts, making complex choices about when and how and what to read, and that all readers have a hunger for a challenging, engaging read.  But I wasn’t seeing my students living out those expectations, so I built in some structures to help them get there.

Reading Challenges — I began scaffolding students up to more difficult reading choices with reading challenges.  I read about these in Book Love by Penny Kittle, but wanted to put my own spin on them as far as making very specific challenges went.  So, the first reading challenge involved picking a book outside your comfort zone (which required a fun day of work identifying our own reading zones); the second challenge involved reading a nonfiction book, the third involved reading an award winner, and so on.

By working as a whole class to try new books out simultaneously–me reading along with my students–everyone felt comfortable getting uncomfortable.  We were all struggling along together, trying to decipher the vocabulary in a new book, or the structure of a new genre, or the style of a new kind of writer.  I built in mini-lessons on these things, but I think it was most helpful that we talked about these issues in the light of being real readers–not “struggling” readers.

Authentic Writing about Reading — When I first joined GoodReads many years ago, I realized how much my reading life was improved by just quickly taking the time to rate what I’d thought of a book.  Before that, I’d start and finish books and never really think about them again.  Soon, I began writing short book reviews, and then long ones, first just for myself, and then for the benefit of other readers.  I began reading more book reviews to get a sense of what I might talk about other than writing and characters.

I wanted my students doing something similar, so we began studying book reviews–popular, funny ones on Goodreads and Tumblr; professional ones in the New York Times and the New Yorker; even famed reviewers like Roger Ebert, whose writing moves about film we applied to books.  Students began tweeting at authors, writing reviews informally in their notebooks and formally for our school paper and giving their own booktalks to one another.

Nurturing a Real Reading Life —  No longer were kids feeling confined to books I handed them.  They began to choose books more independently, armed with information about their tastes, their peers’, and what was popular in general.  I began to see more students reading books that didn’t come from my classroom library, more students talking to one another about books, and a bigger variety of books being read in general.

In my own reading life, I modeled these challenges.  I read The Great Gatsby, Walden, and a few other classics for the first time in years, and truly appreciated them more during these second reads.  I wrote book reviews on Goodreads, the Nerdy Book Club, and Three Teachers Talk.  I tracked my reading in my notebook, on GoodReads, and on Twitter, setting goals and trying to take a moment to jot down, in quick review form, WHY I liked or didn’t like a book.

These practices not only helped me become a better reader; thePicturey helped my students grow as readers, too.  Anna’s favorite book of all time became the award-winning A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, while Connor was blown away by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.  These books and more were chosen, read, and evaluated independently, without the confines of assignments or the too-broad sea of “your choice” to hold them back.

Shana Karnes teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader.
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4 thoughts on “3 Ways to Offer Choice and Challenge in Reading

  1. Anonymous May 19, 2017 at 10:24 am Reply

    Hi! Can you explain what you did for the “fun day of work identifying our own reading zones?” 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Shana Karnes May 20, 2017 at 8:39 am Reply

      Hi! Yes, it was a fun lesson starting with a quickwrite on what it means to be in and out of our comfort zones, then a table discussion of what a comfort zone is, then a mini-lesson on a reading zone (the comfortable space low on our reading ladder in terms of length, vocabulary, genre, topic). We brainstormed some exemplar texts of our reading zones (for me, mystery; for my students, a lot of YA) then talked to one another about books that might be just outside, a little further, and way outside our reading zones. We agreed to settle for titles that were a “little further” to push us when selecting books within our challenge frameworks.

      I hope that helps! Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. William Eastman (@thebillyeastman) May 19, 2017 at 10:15 am Reply

    I swear you are listening into the conversations we are having in my district as we move toward a workshop model in HS. I spent the past two days with groups of teachers, modeling workshop and talking about what we have to leave behind in order to move forward. The question often is, “how do we ensure we are challenging the kids to read more sophisticated texts when we aren’t doing whole-class teacher-selected novels anymore?” Thanks for sharing these are great ideas for challenging all the readers in the classroom, including ourselves.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Shana Karnes May 20, 2017 at 8:40 am Reply

      Yes! I love it! And the answer always is, they will challenge themselves if we give them the options. All kids crave a challenge! Thanks for reading, Billy!

      Liked by 1 person

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