How to Engage Your High Schoolers with Choice Reading

I am so excited to bring this series to you today. I have been researching choice reading since the spring of 2014, when my English department decided to create a summer reading program. After our pilot trial during that summer, I gave in to my instincts and started reading about choice reading units versus whole class novel units. With several successful attempts at choice independent reading under my belt, I gained confidence in my conviction that I could be on to something big with this choice reading idea, which led me to read more and more on the subject. 
Still, it wasn’t until I read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer that I decided to tackle a true choice reading unit in class during the school year. My initial take on the book left me feeling somewhat defeated, though inspired. I felt that much of the information in the book was specific to younger levels; therefore, I was left with more questions than answers: 
How would I ensure that my students were picking books that were appropriate? 
How could I possibly read enough books to offer direction and advice to over 80 students? 
What would they do in class on the days that they weren’t reading? 
How would I challenge them to think critically about their reading if they were all reading different books? 
How would I encourage active reading?
How would I assess their understanding of the book?
In this blog series, I will explain how I answered these questions and in doing so, created one of my best and proudest educational endeavors. I hope you will find my experience helpful. More than anything else, I hope you find it inspiring. If something I did inspires you, like Donalyn Miller did for me, then my English-teacher heart will be content.

Whole Class Novel Versus Choice Novel 

There are compelling arguments for both whole class novel units, a unit in which the whole class reads the same novel, and choice novel units, a unit in which each student chooses a novel to read. In my nine years of teaching, I have facilitated whole class novel units and choice novel units. While there are certainly challenges to both endeavors, I found one really significant issue with whole class novels: some students simply hate the book. I chalked it up as a “get over it” experience. I could be heard rationalizing something like, “Sometimes in life you’re going to have to do things that don’t particularly spark your interest.” “Consider it a learning experience.” “Most students love this book!” or “How could you not like it?” Ouch! Did I really say that? No wonder, I had students who claimed they didn’t like reading. To combat these students whom I was sure weren’t reading the assigned out-of-class work, I forced in-class reading on them. I hated popcorn reading as a student, and I hated it even more as a teacher. If I was going to get students to like reading, stressing them out about mispronouncing a word in front of the class surely wasn’t going to do it. 
It wasn’t until I was on the other side of the classroom that I finally could empathize. Because reading is one of my strengths, I rarely found a book that I couldn’t chug through, even if I didn’t like it. However, one year, I was tasked with teaching As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. Plain and simple, I hated that book. It was a struggle to teach a book that I could barely force myself to pick up. As much as I hated it, it was a pivotal learning experience for me. Now, I could see how I was alienating some students during our whole class novel units. 

This is not to say that whole class units do not have a place in the English classroom. For example, I love whole class drama units. To me, they lend themselves to whole class study for the engaging way roles can be assigned and acted out. Whole class novels absolutely can be done effectively, but from this point on, I knew I wanted to try something different. 

The Set Up

Defining the Objective

When I first began this endeavor, I struggled to visualize the choice novel unit in my classroom. My vision was blurry because I struggled to define just what they were to do. As with any novel unit, I knew I wanted my students to be engaged in a higher-order analysis of the work. I also knew if they hated the book, were unmotivated to read it, and therefore, not reading it, it was impossible to get them to dig deeper. Sure, I could force the book on them in class, but just how engaged would they be? The answer is not at all. Been there, done that. I had to define my objective.
Using a backward design approach, I broadly defined the goals of the unit:
  1. inspire students to enjoy reading
  2. engage students in creative and critical thinking related to their reading
With these two ideas in mind, I had a new focus and could start to take on the challenging questions related to the book choices. I encourage you to start with your overall goals for the unit. Yours certainly could be different from mine; however, I found that these two goals serve most classes and grades.

Creating a Book List OR Establishing the Parameters

Book List

Due to the number of students who would be participating in this unit (60 students across four classes), I soon realized that absolute free choice was out of the question. I didn’t have the resources (books or time) to service that many students. Alas, I hit what I thought was a devastating road block. 

However, just because I couldn’t give the students free reign on their choices, didn’t mean I couldn’t give them a choice; it didn’t have to be all or nothing. The answer was simple: a book list. The decision to use a book list solved a number of problems. A well-researched book list would give them choice, but I wouldn’t have to worry about complexity or appropriateness. With that many students, I wouldn’t have the time necessary to review each selection. The challenge was giving enough choices. Here is the criteria I used to when constructing the book list:
  1. The book has at least 20 copies available.
  2. The book represents the curriculum. (My class is British Literature.)
  3. The book fits a unique genre (different from the other selections).
  4. The book is age appropriate/approved by the school board.

I searched every inch of the high school to find sets of books that could work for this project. I decided on eight options that represented different genres, including love, heroic, adventure, Gothic, mystery, drama (as in dramatic action, not a play), psychological, and nonfiction. (Obviously, the nonfiction option was not a novel, but it was about Jack the Ripper, so it fit the British content, and it met the other criteria. In retrospect, I’m really glad I included a nonfiction option for students who really would rather read nonfiction.)


My AP students will be participating in this unit after the AP exam. It will be the perfect creative culminating unit after the stress of the rigid AP exam. I only have 22 AP students total so a true free choice assignment is much more realistic. Even still, using the experience with my other classes, I’ve already created a set of parameters:
  1. The book must be on the approved book list set forth by the school board. (If you do not have an approved book list, this one might read, “The book must display literary merit.” This is something that is subject and will require your approval; however, I would still give them a chance to argue their case.)
  2. The book must be age appropriate.*
*By age appropriate, I am referring to complexity. I do not use page numbers as a requirement, but rather focus on the appropriate complexity for their age group.
Because our district has a number of classroom sets of books that would fit this description, I will offer them these choices. However, if students would like a book that I do not have copies of, they are responsible for arranging their own copies.

Designing the Reading Survey

The purpose of the reading survey is to ask students about their interests so you can help them make a reading choice that they will enjoy. It also helps me make some recommendations if a student is on the fence about two choices. This reading survey works well if you ask general questions about the students reading (and watching) interests. I include watching in my survey because I do not want them to feel defeated if they haven’t read much in the past. They can’t really know what books like, if they haven’t read much before, right? By asking them what they like to watch, I can get a feel for what they might like to read. I personally love using Google Forms for the reading survey because my information is saved in a Google Sheet for easy access.

My reading survey is included in The Critical Thinker’s Novel Study Bundle in both digital and print sources.
(Being that we did this project in March, I already knew my students well enough to develop this list. However, you may want to give a reading survey before you create the book list if you are starting this project before you feel confident about the trends for the year or age group.) 

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Click here to keep reading about how I used Book Snaps for an introduction to the choices and a student-led enrichment activity. While you’re there, don’t forget to download your free Book Snap template!

Happy Reading,

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