Academic journal article Middle School Journal

The Power of Independent, Self-Selected Reading in the Middle Grades

Academic journal article Middle School Journal

The Power of Independent, Self-Selected Reading in the Middle Grades

Article excerpt

If we want our students to grow to appreciate literature, we need to give them a say in decisions about the literature they will read. (Atwell, 1998, p. 36)

Now, more than ever, teachers are challenged to negotiate multiple and contradictory demands on their time. Across the nation, schools have been required to raise their standards for student achievement and make "adequate yearly progress." This is just a sample of the abundant evidence that the complex work of teaching described two decades ago by Apple (1986) has intensified. Teachers have had to adopt curricula, instructional strategies, and assessment techniques that undermine their ability to conduct authentic, engaging activities and contradict their professional beliefs about effective teaching, learning, and schooling. Pressured to comply with state and district mandates, teachers may follow scripted, back-to-basics lessons and, as a result, feel frustrated about the assaults on their professionalism and the prevalence of "test-prep pedagogy" (McNeil, 2000).

As they experience relentless pressure to improve test scores, teachers face a constant challenge to maintain their commitment to student-centered pedagogy-though we do not suggest the two are mutually exclusive and lack correlation (e.g., Tatum, 2006)1. Our main argument in this paper is that, despite the aforementioned challenges, literacy educators should keep independent, self-selected reading at the center of the middle grades language arts curriculum. We believe that a literacy-rich classroom environment grounded in student-centered pedagogy offers possibilities for engaging all learners and encouraging them to be lifelong readers. After outlining a rationale for independent reading in a reading workshop classroom environment, we describe how these practices were enacted in an eighth-grade classroom in Maine. We share students' reactions to these practices, which remind us how influential books can be when students are given the opportunity to choose what they read in a classroom environment that values reading.

A rationale for independent, self-selected reading

Independent, self-selected reading is widely supported in the empirical and practitioner-oriented literature, as summarized in the annotated bibliography in Figure 1. In a recent review of the literature, Morrow (2003) concluded that the amount of time children spend leisure reading is correlated with reading achievement, that teachers play a critical role in influencing students' attitudes toward reading, and that immediate access to books and an inviting atmosphere are important in promoting reading. Similarly, Flood, Lapp, and Fisher (2003) reported that "the effectiveness of voluntary reading programs, in which classrooms were filled with high-quality trade books, reported success in overall reading comprehension as well as improved attitudes toward reading" (p. 938). Studies that have focused specifically on middle school students further support independent, self-selected reading (Broaddus & Ivey, 2002; Ivey & Broaddus, 2001; Pflaum & Bishop, 2004), and studies that have focused on increasing boys' motivation to read and improving attitudes about reading also support choice and in-school time for reading (Horton, 2005; Weih, 2008). Even a study of graduate students who were allowed to choose their reading revealed 93% felt selecting their reading was more meaningful than being assigned reading by the instructor (Ho & Choie, 2005). It is clear that independent, self-selected reading is a research-based practice beneficial for all students.

Independent reading in a reading workshop classroom

At Saco Middle School (SMS), a public middle school near Portland, Maine, more than 700 predominantly White, working- to middle-class students who speak English as a first language attend separate, heterogeneously grouped reading and English classes every day for 50 minutes each. The second author, an eighth-grade reading teacher at this school, conducts a reading workshop classroom inspired by Atwell's (1998) revised theory of the purposes and procedures of a workshop curriculum. …

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