Student Agency vs. Reading Instruction

It is no secret that this year I have been trying to create a classroom culture that respects and supports’ my students’ agency in their journey as learners. One of my biggest challenges this year has been figuring out how traditional approaches to reading instruction can fit within a model designed to help students take back ownership of their own learning.

I’m currently completing my MEd capstone on student agency and in my research I came across a very provocative quote from Mary Chapman (an early learning expert at UBC) and I can’t seem to get it out of my mind:

“At the end of the day, if they don’t like reading and writing and they don’t do it unless they are forced to… what’s the point?” 

If my students only read and write when they are forced to read and write… what is the point, indeed.

So naturally one of my fundamental goals this year has been to create a culture of passionate readers and writers – with the help of much advice from Pernille Ripp. But moving from helping students learn to love reading… to helping students become better readers, is where I feel the waters start to get a little murky.

When I think about the commonly accepted approaches to helping students become better readers through the lens of student agency I begin to question some of our approaches. There are currenlty many common approaches to reading instruction under the microscope by many teachers – reading longs, mandated home reading programs, etc. – all of which I agree with. However, in addition to critically questioning these approaches, my learning tension tends to extend to other strategies for reading instruction – namely traditional approaches to guided reading.

When I think about guided reading through the lens of making students better readers I can see  benefits. But when I think about guided reading through the lens of student agency I can see red flags. In traditional approaches to guided reading the teacher chooses what, when, where, why and how the student reads. So I wonder, where is their voice and ownership in this activity? And how does this impact their love of reading?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not under the misconception that children magically learn to read and we as teachers don’t have a role in helping that to happen. But if I think back to the quote about students only reading when being forced to read, and how a lack of agency in the process likely contributes to this, then I begin to wonder…

How can we get the benefits of guided reading without sacrificing students’ agency in the process?

I have no magic answers, but I do have a few ideas about some possibilities….

I think a first step is shifting the culture of forced feedback to found feedback. Currently, we are giving students feedback about how to become better readers – whether they want that feedback or not. Which begs the question, how effective is unsolicited feedback. If we are telling students how to become better readers, and they don’t care – how much action is being taken based on that feedback? Again, don’t get me wrong I respect and recognize the neccessity and power of feedback in the learning process, I just wonder if there is a way to help students want to gather feedback, instead of just giving it to them.

I think order to create that culture of “gathering feedback” we need to start by asking the question “who owns the learning?” In a traditional approach to guided reading the teacher is doing the learning to the student. The locus of control rests with us as the teacher. We are making all the choices about why, what, how, when and where. The students merely shows up when we tell them to, reads what we tell them to, does what we tell them to and thinks about what we tell them to. They may be “active” in the sense that they are reading, speaking, thinking, and sharing, but they are not “agentic” in the sense of experiencing ownership over their own improvement as a reader. I think until this transfer of ownership occurs we can’t expect students to seek out feedback about how to improve.

I’m not saying scrap all approaches to reading instruction or stop guided reading altogether. I’m just saying that I think it’s time we reinvision these approaches. I think we need to be careful that our best intentions to create strong readers – aren’t creating strong readers… who only read when forced to. I think we as educators need to be asking questions like:

How can we empower students to know themselves as readers so they make informed choices about how they can improve?

How can we give ownership back to the students so that they are signing up to be part of a guided reading session?

How can we get the benefits of reading instruction without compromising student agency? 

How can we create better readers and writers without creating readers and writers who only read and write when forced to?


4 thoughts on “Student Agency vs. Reading Instruction

  1. Sonya terBorg March 3, 2017 / 8:39 am

    This sounds really great. I would love to know how this plays out in your room? What does this look like in the day-to-day? I love the Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller. I haven’t been a homeroom teacher for three years but this was the methodology I followed to develop reading skills. What does “gathering feedback” look like? I am in the process of deciding on a project for my Masters and agency is at the top of my list for choices – this is giving me a lot to think about so thank you for sharing your thinking!


    • tbondclegg March 3, 2017 / 9:00 am

      Hi Sonya,
      Thanks for your comment. At this point I have more questions than answers – so thank you for sharing some resources. I will be sure to check them out! As far as the day to day, I’m still working on it – trying different things, reflecting, asking students for feedback. With regards to “gathering feedback” my vision is to shift from us as teachers saying “here is how you are doing and here is how you can get better” to empowering students to understand themselves as learners and to create a culture where they are the ones saying “can you give me some feedback about how I’m doing and how I can get better” – whether that is from us, their parents, other teachers, peers, professionals, community members etc. Good luck with your Masters research… interestingly enough I have found that the concept of student agency has much more prevalence in blogs and twitter discussions than formal, peer-reviewed journal articles. So it is an area that could use more inquiring minds! 🙂


  2. Leanne Erickson March 4, 2017 / 4:42 am

    Your blog post made me think about my class and their journey in reading this school year. I have worked towards creating a culture of reading in partnership with our school librarian. Thinking about ‘gathering feedback’ and the shift from teacher to student, why would a student want to ‘get better’ at reading? Why would we develop and use new strategies in reading? Perhaps understanding what drives student agency could help us empower our students. I am inspired to interview my students about reading next week. Thank you and hi Sonya!


    • tbondclegg March 4, 2017 / 5:08 am

      Hi Leanne,
      Thanks for your comment. I love your “why” questions! They have forced me to reflect and think a little deeper. I am planning on starting a unit where students inquire into themselves as readers and I think asking those why questions to students could generate some very interesting discussions. Good luck with your student interviews. 🙂


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