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How to Create a Choice Reading Unit for High Schoolers

Do you struggling to get your high school students to enjoy reading? Choice reading is a great solution! Reading freedom is vital to engage middle and high school students. This post will walk your through the steps to create choice reading activities, choice boards, and projects.
 
As a 3rd year teacher, I had to teach As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, a book I never read up to that point. Plain and simple, I hated that book. It was such 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. The truth is with whole class novels we’re definitely forcing some students to read books they won’t like.
 
 
While 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, I realized that whole class novel units weren’t achieving my main purpose, to instill a love of reading in my students.

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. Here’s how I do it:

1. Define the Objective

Do you struggling to get your high school students to enjoy reading? Choice reading is a great solution! Reading freedom is vital to engage middle and high school students. This post will walk your through the steps to create choice reading activities, choice boards, and projects.
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.

2. Establish the Parameters 

Do you struggling to get your high school students to enjoy reading? Choice reading is a great solution! Reading freedom is vital to engage middle and high school students. This post will walk your through the steps to create choice reading activities, choice boards, and projects.

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:
The book has
  1. at least 20 copies available
  2. represents a valuable perspective
  3. fits a unique genre (different from the other selections)
  4. is age appropriate

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 perspectives.

*UPDATE: After this first trial run, I spent the summer building my classroom library and asking the high school library to order new books. Over the years, we’ve managed to create a 100% free choice reading unit. I do set some parameters, and you can read about those below.

Parameters

My AP students usually complete this unit over the summer. I only have around 20 AP Literature students each year, 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 subjective 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.

3. Design a Reading Survey

Do you struggling to get your high school students to enjoy reading? Choice reading is a great solution! Reading freedom is vital to engage middle and high school students. This post will walk your through the steps to create choice reading activities, choice boards, and projects.

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 Literary Lenses Unit 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.) 

4. Build In Discovery Day

I like to build in a day at the beginning of my unit to give students time to explore selections. This is the perfect time to do a book tasting, an activity that gives students time to “taste” or read an excerpt from different selections.

I always give students the opportunity to change their selection if they don’t enjoy the book they selected. After all, I do this in real life all of the time when I start book and realize it’s not worth finishing, and I bet you have too. Discovery day might help them make a better selection from the beginning so that they don’t have to change their books later.

5. Plan Reading Activities

Do you struggling to get your high school students to enjoy reading? Choice reading is a great solution! Reading freedom is vital to engage middle and high school students. This post will walk your through the steps to create choice reading activities, choice boards, and projects.

Once you have the general plan, it’s time to create reading check points that align to your objectives. The goal is to create activities for reflection, analysis, and sharing. These activities can relate to literary concepts, like characterization, symbolism, and tone, and rhetorical concepts, like tone, organization, and claims/support.

Throughout the unit, I like to mix up the activities that involve personal reflection and sharing, so that students are learning about their classmates’ work while having an opportunity to share their own work. This also adds an accountability piece.

I know this step can be daunting at first, so I created a complete unit that works beautifully with choice reading. Like all of my reading units, I use literary lenses as the overarching concept to create reading activities. There are literary studies, interactive activities, and an engaging project-based assessment at the end. You can check out my entire unit by clicking here.

If you’re interested in literature circles, which can be a variation of choice reading, check out this blog post on how I facilitate literature circles.

6. Provide Reading Time In Class

Do you struggling to get your high school students to enjoy reading? Choice reading is a great solution! Reading freedom is vital to engage middle and high school students. This post will walk your through the steps to create choice reading activities, choice boards, and projects.

As you’re creating your choice reading unit map, I suggest building in as much class reading time as you can. I’m still amazed how quiet my classroom gets when students who are usually quite talkative, dive into their choice selections. Also, it’s a great opportunity for you to build in a small accountability piece. As well as, obverse when students might not really be into their first selections.

If you’re wondering what you’re supposed to do while they’re reading, the answer is simple: READ! Modeling is an important strategy, so while they’re reading, you should read too!!

If you're interested in learning about Literature Circles with choice reading click here.