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?

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You lost me at levels and incentives…

A few weeks ago I attended a training session for an online reading product. I arrived open-minded and ready to learn about a new tool to help my students develop their love of reading.

Then words and phrases from the presentation started to buzz around me like pesky bees.

“stars earned for books read”… swat!

“limit their levels”… swat!

“comprehension quiz”… swat!

“pre-made”… swat!

“worksheets”… swat!

“generic lessons”… swat!

Then it started to become worse than buzzing. I was shown how to control what students read, how to restrict how they read and how to send them messages to which they could not reply. Cringe.

Where is the student ownership, voice, agency?

So I began to do a little research on their website:

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Ranking. Control. Practice, practice and more practice. 

Nothing about love, joy or passion. 

The whole time I was listening to the presentation and browsing the website I could not get this poem written by John Locke our of my head:

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I don’t want to do anything that gives my students an aversion to reading or learning. I do not want to make reading a business for them. I want to help them grow their passion as readers.

5 years ago I probably would have jumped on board and signed my students up. I’ve become more discerning since then. I become more informed since then. I’ve become more critical since then. I’ve become more emboldened since then.

Amazing provocateurs like Pernille Ripp, Mark Barnes and Alfie Kohn have challenged my thinking about reading practices like reading logs, levelling, and incentives. They have prompted me to reflect on how the choices I make as a teacher can kill my students’ love of reading. They have forced me to think of myself as a reader when thinking about what I should be asking of students. They have provided me with guidance about how to create a passionate reading environment. They have inspired me to become a reading warrior where I critically think about and advocate against literacy practices and products that negatively impact children. They have inspired me to break the rules.

Yet time remained in this presentation, so I tried to see the potential uses. Here was a website offering thousands of online books. Books… hmmm. I began to wonder about these “books”. So I dug a little deeper.

“professional illustrators who have years of experience illustrating educational material

excerpts and adaptations from literature”

Was this a place where students could access real books or materials for reading instruction?Because those aren’t the same things.

I think my students deserve exposure to good quality literature. I think my students deserve to be free from levelling and ranking. I think my students deserve voice and choice in what they read and how they read. I think my students deserve to develop their love for reading away from prizes, rewards and incentives.

Is there not an app or website where students have access to literature with no levels, no incentives, no restrictions or limitations?

Is so, please tell me about that.