Change Your Stance on Outside Reading: 4 Factors to Consider

When I started teaching, I did not assign outside reading. Eventually, I tried it, but remained skeptical. I discovered there was a contingent of teachers who were strongly opposed to the idea. “They just don’t want to read,” some would say. “And they cheat,” the same people would continue.

Do students choose to avoid reading? Yes. Do they succumb to the temptation to cheat? Yes. I’m not going to deny it. But the benefits of assigning outside reading far outweigh these concerns though. Here are a couple of stories.

Last year, a student told me, “I am so grateful for this assignment because you helped me find my inner bookworm!” We had great, brief conversations about reading over while she was in my class. Another student told me she made her brother drive to three libraries and finally a Barnes & Noble just to get her hands on a copy of the second book in a series. She found the first book because of the outside reading assignment and didn’t even care if she was to get credit toward the next outside reading for this book. 

I waded slowly into the concept of assigning outside reading. Over the past decade, I have not only grown to believe that outside reading is beneficial, but it is a must! If you’re not assigning it, you should. Right away.

As you think it over, here are 4 factors to consider.

Factor # 1: Choice. Most classrooms are filled with text that the teachers sling at students who get little to no say in the matter. Giving the students an outside reading assignment allows the students just a little bit of agency. And we all know that if we get a say in a task, we are far more interested in the outcome.

Factor # 2: Exploration. Right alongside choice is the freedom to explore. This is important in developing readers. They need to be able to peruse and try new things on their own, without their teachers telling them what to do. Of course, you should give them boundaries, but let them go where they want within those parameters.

Factor # 3: Low Stakes. I give the outside reading assignment enough value to get their attention, but I don’t make it so crucial that it will break their grade if they don’t do it. Our students already have tremendous pressure to read better, analyze more, and think deeper. For this assignment, though, I just get out of the way and let them enjoy a book. I have them read a 200 page novel and complete a one-page, five-question write up they submit at the end of the grading period. That’s it!

Factor # 4: Challenge. Even though it’s low stakes, it is still a full book. And it is assigned on top of everything else we do in class. But that means that they have to figure out how to fit it in. It is up to them. And that’s the challenge. It’s not always easy, but it’s an opportunity to stretch. And our students need more opportunities to stretch themselves.

If you don’t assign outside reading, your students are missing out on the possibility of experiencing the above. And the teacher who is still concerned that their students won’t read a book, even one they choose, and that they will cheat, I want you to know those elements concern me too. But instead of focusing on what could go wrong, I choose to focus on what goes right.

If you come back for Thursday’s post, I will show you ways I nudge students into reading their outside reading books all the way through. They resist the temptation to avoid their reading and cheat on the work they submit. And many of them end up enjoying at least one thing they read that year.

Which of the 4 factors persuades you the most? What is top reason that keeps you from assigning outside reading? If you do assign outside reading, leave us a success story in the comment section below. And if you know someone who would want to read this post, please share it with that person.

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