At all levels of education, students are expected to read as part of their classwork or homework. They’re supposed to be able to comprehend and make use of their assigned reading, whether for discourse, critical analysis, or any number of essays or research papers. Yet, I don’t think it’s enough that students should *have* to read in order to complete their assignments—mandatory reading is fine and understood and assumed to be part of the curriculum. Instead, students should *want*to read in order to improve their understanding, not just because they must do so, but because they find it enjoyable and of genuine fascination or interest, rather than a desultory slog through yet another article in order to glean whatever details they need just to complete their work.
I’m a nonstop reader, but when I’ve been handed an assignment, told to read and report back, it’s admittedly sometimes been a bit of a challenge. I’m sure we all know students can sometimes feel like automatons, fed in data for analysis without much choice in the matter, and if they don’t have much interest in the subject, then they don’t engage well, they don’t assimilate that information, and don’t make good use of it. GIGO.
This is, of course, not a new problem at all. As one of the pieces I’ve studied shows, the desire to encourage students to increase their autonomy and enjoyment in reading has been around for decades, presumably even longer. Clarence Calder’s “Self-Directed Reading Materials”, from 1967, goes into some detail in the effort to understand the phenomenon. His study involved allowing students to choose from a selection of reading materials for an assignment (versus a control group with non-chosen, assigned reading), and offered two hypotheses: first, that self-directed students will improve their reading over the directed students; and second, that self-directed students would “develop a more positive attitude toward reading” (248) than the control group.
Although Calder’s results (carefully analyzed for statistical significance) fell short of his first hypothesis, the experiment did indeed show that those students given a choice of reading/task materials ended up actually enjoying reading more, and feeling more positive about doing so, even with difficult vocabulary or unusual tasks. They may not have advanced significantly compared to their peers in this short period, but an overall good attitude toward one’s own effectiveness and willingness is a very important step in any task, including reading. Calder’s study is decades old, but the point still stands.
In a way, this also dovetails with the literacy assignment my group detailed before the class just last week. Our proposed exercise did not just give a single task or prompt to the theoretical students/class, but instead offered an array of choices that still conformed to the general demands of the assignment. The exercise was not open-ended, either, thus resulting in what some call “option paralysis”; by offering a limited selection, the student would have the ability to choose the reading that interests them the most, thus increasing their desire to do the reading (and perhaps supplementing it with additional materials if they so chose).
One thing I’ve found is that accomplishing one task does actually promote a feeling of confidence and achievement, thus increasing the chance that any other related work may proceed with greater efficacy. If a student has a little freedom, exercises those options and enjoys doing so, they’ll likely feel better about future assignments as well. Granted, there’s still some restriction in what their choices are, but this is of necessity. Too little and the restriction may reduce that chance of success and increased confidence due to frustration; too much choice (or total freedom of choice) and they may come back with something entirely unsuited to the curriculum, or no reading at all. Students still need some direction, though some might also call it the illusion of choice, but it seems to have worked 45 years ago, and is likely to continue to be a successful tactic in encouraging readership.