Self-selection: “How do you know if they’re reading?”

When I meet people and it comes up that I teach high school English, one of the first things people ask is what my students have to read as part of my class. When I explain that many of the books they read are self-selected, the next question is “Wow, how do keep track of all those different books?”

I have learned that validating whether they’re reading is 1) not as difficult as it might seem, and 2) works better the less complicated the requirements are.

When a student finishes a book in my class and wants credit for having read it, I do one of three things:

  • Find a quick online quiz on the book
  • Trust them, and do nothing but check it off (I do this randomly for most students at some point throughout the year)
  • Do a quick book talk.

For a book talk, they must have a copy of the book. They hand it over and I open to a random page. I read a paragraph or two out loud until they seem to recognize the part of the book, then ask them to explain what’s going on. While they are talking, I leaf back and forth to try and validate what they’re saying. If I’m satisfied, they’re good to go. If not, I choose another spot and see if they remember that part.

If we go through 3-4 spots and they don’t seem to be able to tell me much, I hand the book back. I ask them to look over it again and we’ll try again tomorrow.

Why not an essay, a summary or a book project? I want my students to love to read and to read (and receive credit for) book after book if that’s what they want to do. I am wary of projects, posters, or summaries–anything that has the potential to get busywork-y–that will discourage them from reading as much as possible.

We absolutely write papers and do projects based on the books we’re reading, but that’s not a requirement every time a book is completed. I want the validation piece to be super simple so they aren’t discouraged from finishing books. Many students will read more slowly in order to get out of “more work” like doing a project or summary, and we’re hitting those skills in different parts of class anyway.

Is the system foolproof? Probably not. Does it encourage as much reading as possible? I hope so. Do we do this with all books? Absolutely not–with Julius Caesar and To Kill a Mockingbird, we’re delving deeper and we have different objectives. But the objectives in self-selected reading are different: I want students to realize how many great titles are out there and be encouraged to read as many of them as they want, just for the sake of reading, reading, reading and loving it.