Five Ways to Incorporate Choice for Middle and High School Reading and Writing

May 22, 2019
Donna Scarlett

I’ve noticed a consistent trend in my 20 or so years of teaching high school English and coaching teachers: lack of student choice. That’s not to say that teachers don’t provide any choice—they do—but the overarching structure for teaching reading and writing in these public, private, and charter high school classrooms seems anchored in a fairly traditional approach to teaching reading and writing.

The typical planning scenario goes something like this: department members meet and discuss the texts and structures they plan to teach, and then they collaboratively or individually plan through units and lessons. This approach emphasizes content first and students second. I say this not to dismiss texts or writing structures, for both are indeed important. I also certainly don’t claim that the above scenario is the case for every school. However, it is the consistent thread I observe and experience again and again.  

What if, instead, we anchored ourselves first in questions about the students? We might ask: What do we believe students should know and be able to do? What are the key understandings, knowledge, and skills they need to transfer to the next phase of their learning?

I believe that shifting our questions opens a doorway for incorporating student choice into the curriculum. And when students have a say, research suggests they are much more motivated and engaged. When more engaged, our students are more likely to experience a sense of purpose, get into a flow of reading and writing, and develop key reading and writing skills, perseverance, and creativity.

Here are five ways you can incorporate choice with reading and writing for middle and high school classrooms. If you are already using some (or all) of these strategies with your own students, I’d love to start a collaborative dialogue about how student choice impacts our students!

1. Reading

In Book Love, New Hampshire high school teacher and literacy coach Penny Kittle stresses the importance of placing choice at the center of the curriculum, not as a reward once the hard work is done. And, she says, students need a “vast knowledge of text types… far more than we teach in the traditional English curriculum.” So how do we get there? The ideas below are a few possibilities:

  • Carve out independent reading time where students read books of their own choosing. Even 10 minutes of independent reading time can impact students’ exposure to print dramatically.
  • Rather than teaching the same novel/text to all students, have students select their own. To track the potential 25–30 different texts your students might be reading, Kittle suggest circulating a recording sheet to track where students are and what they are doing.
  • Provide student choice organized around specific themes and genres as a way to help structure reading book talks and discussions centered on those themes and/or genres.
  • Pool together various reading selections from your current course reading list and have students choose which ones they’ll read. For example, I’m currently teaching a Southern Gothic literature unit in my 11th-grade American Literature class. Throughout this unit, we’ll be reading various Southern Gothic stories, so I’ve made a list of the stories I usually cover (plus a few I’ve never taught before) from which they can choose.

2. Writing

Allow students to select their own writing topics and genres. Eighth-grade teacher and education blogger John DePascuale suggests generating a list with your students of various writing topics, ideas, and genres, and then posting this list in the classroom for inspiration and as a way to add new topics and genres as the school year progresses.

Have students use online creative writing prompt generators, such as The Story Shack and Reedsy. With one click, The Story Shack will generate a genre, character, material, story sentence, and bonus (the bonus is usually a plot focus or potential story setting). Here’s one example it created for me:

  • Genre: Adventure
  • Character: An ice cream addict
  • Material: A microscope
  • Sentence: “It’s too warm.”
  • Bonus: Your character is shipwrecked.

At Reedsy, students will find over 200 short story ideas spanning across multiple genres (horror, comedy, science fiction, and drama, to name a few), plus advice on how they can come up with their own story ideas. Yet another option is the The New York Times’ Learning Network, which has a downloadable list of 650 prompts for narrative and personal writing as well as an online list of 301 argumentative writing prompts.

3. Student-driven reading discussions

Guide students in crafting their own reading discussion questions and then decide as a class which ones to discuss collectively or in small groups. One particularly effective way to create lists is by using Google Forms, where students can write and submit their questions anonymously. As the teacher, you can still see what each individual student submits, but you can also opt for a complete list of all submissions, which you can then copy and paste into a Word document for your students. Additionally, I’ve noticed that the anonymity aspect frees up students to ask questions about basic textual understanding/comprehension that they might not feel comfortable asking in front of their peers. It’s also helpful to provide students with some basic guidelines for what constitutes “good” questions and provide some question examples. From there, I tell my students that the only questions they can’t ask are ones with simple yes/no answers. If you don’t use Google Forms or another online platform, however, you can simply have students write out and submit questions to you in class or for homework, from which you can then make a larger, anonymous class list.  

4. Collaborative writing

Provide collaborative writing opportunities in which students co-construct written texts through taking on individual writing roles in generative writing circles. To do this, each student selects one specific technique within a larger collaborative writing frame to explore, and becomes more of a specialist in that student-selected technique. Below is a crafting a poem example created by my sister, Linda Young, a poet and former English education professor.

Assign the following roles:

  • Image Weaver: crafts two concrete images for the poem
  • Language Keeper: provides five exotic/original words to be incorporated into the poem
  • Metaphor Generator: creates two original metaphors or similes for the poem
  • Music Maker: devises a musical quality for the poem

Click here to view detailed instructions and more specifics about each role: http://www.readwritethink.org/files/resources/lesson_images/lesson1074/handout_2.pdf

5. Choice boards

A choice board is a menu of options and provides flexibility for a range of learning goals for reading, writing, and assessment. To make a choice board, develop a number of process and product options for engaging your students in meaningful tasks and expressing their learning. Make sure to set clear criteria first so that each choice (1) accurately reflects your key learning goals/desired outcomes and (2) is assessed in the same way. You can also include a free choice option where the student generates a choice board task.

Need some reading and writng choice board ideas and inspiration? Head to Pinterest or do a Google Images web search to see how other teachers organize choice boards for reading and writing.

Donna Scarlett is a high school English teacher, teacher education professor, and education consultant with over 20 years of English education experience. Her expertise includes high school English teaching and leadership, curriculum development and design, novice teacher mentoring and coaching, and teacher preparation.

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