Freedom to Read Foundation – One Teacher’s Fight Against Quiet Censorship

I’ve had the amazing opportunity to write for the Freedom To Read Foundation’s blog!  Check out the post through the link below, and follow FTRF on Facebook and Twitter!  And remember – read freely!

Source: Freedom to Read Foundation

Should Students Be Allowed to Quit Books?



Recently my librarian asked for my opinion on students who quit books.  She was feeling frustrated at the amount of students in our school who kept visiting the library to turn in a book they quit, only to check out another book and then be back the next week having quit that one, too.  The number of students with this habit seemed to be increasing, according to my librarian, and she wondered how she and the teachers could better support these students.  My first reaction was a definitive Yes! Students SHOULD be allowed to quit books!  After more thought, and while observing my students’ book habits and remembering situations with frequent quitters in past years, I realized that the answer to the question “Should students be allowed to quit books” IS yes.  But also, no.

I guess it’s not so definitive, after all.

Reading experts, like Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009) agree that it’s ok for kids to quit books.  I agree with that to some degree – a student’s interest in reading shouldn’t be squelched because they’re forced to stick with a book they don’t like or can’t read.  But what about the kids who choose books they can read, but are frequent quitters?  My librarian had a student return a book after reading 200 pages, saying it got “boring.”  The student only had about 100 pages to go before finishing!  My librarian encouraged that student to keep the book and finish it, and in that case I agree.  Students like this, who are capable of reading the books they choose but are frequent quitters, should be encouraged to stick with a book until the end.  However, in my opinion, there are some exceptions.  Certain factors should be considered if a student is a frequent book quitter.

A Student’s Age

I teach middle school, and there is a huge difference in maturity and academic skill between a 6th grader and an 8th grader.  When I taught 6th grade, if a student wanted to quit a book because it was a little challenging in terms of reading level or topic I thought Ok, we have time to work on that. They’re eleven years old.  Now I teach 8th grade, and some students are choosing the same books at age 14 that they chose at age 11.  When pushed to choose a full length novel, or a book with a higher reading level, they often balk, start the book, then quit the book.  They continue to quit books and keep going back to easier books from back in the day when they were young.  You know, two years ago. The thing is, in 8th grade, high school is right around the corner.  In high school, the expectation for reading level and stamina will go up significantly.  I push kids to choose books that are more challenging and mature in terms of reading level and topic because I want them to be ready for that high school expectation.  Many of the books students are required to read in high school are actually grown-up books, not even YA!  If my students never move past what they read as 6th graders and they continually quit books that are more suited for their age, they won’t be ready to tackle the more difficult readings in high school.

A Student’s Reading Ability

I teach many students with reading disabilities.  In my experience, these students have a hard time choosing books that they can read.  They either choose books that are more suited for elementary students (because the reading level fits), or they have an inflated view of what they’re able to read and they choose books that are much too difficult.  This results in kids who are frequent quitters.  Students who are struggling should be able to quit a book if it’s an inappropriate level, whether the student has a disability, or is an English Language Learner, or is just a developing reader for any reason.  I read somewhere once that a book is just right for a reader if there are no more than five unfamiliar words on any page.  For readers who are on grade level, this is a good rule of thumb.  However, having two unfamiliar words on any given page is a better fit for students who are reading below grade level; after all, five words per page can add up quickly, resulting in frustration, which is followed by quitting.  By sharing the Rule of Two and having students test it out, books that are an inappropriate reading level can be ruled out and the student can be directed to a better choice.  The Rule of Two can also be useful for students who frequently choose books with low reading levels.  Students are comfortable with these books because they know they can read them easily.  By using the Rule of Two, these students can be gently eased out of their comfort zones and into books that are challenging without being so difficult that quitting is a risk. Please don’t mistake this method with the abhorrent practice of only allowing students to read books that are “on their level.”  I believe students should be able to read what they want to read.  If they are developing readers and frequent quitters, however, then a closer look at what they are choosing and a conversation about the book’s difficulty (or not) needs to happen to support these students.

A Student’s Interests

Some students are still figuring out who they are as individuals.  They may have no idea what they like or don’t like.  My middle school offers many activities for students – athletics, band, theater, art club, book clubs, dance groups, garden club – but many students aren’t involved in any of those activities.  For those kids, it may be that they haven’t discovered a passion or interest yet.  Students like this are hard to support in reading because they don’t know what to choose, so they keep choosing wrong and quitting when a book doesn’t fit.  When I encounter a student like this, I ask questions such as “What was the last movie you saw that you liked?”  “Who is your favorite celebrity?” “What do you do at home for fun?”  “What’s your favorite restaurant?”  “Do you have any pets?”  These questions help me know more about the student and can assist me in suggesting books that might be a better fit than what the student has chosen in the past, reducing the chance of quitting.

Serial quitters are a tough group for teachers and librarians to support.  It takes a lot of extra effort from the adults to help these readers find books they can stick with so their reading lives can grow.  Students need teachers who are willing to do the work necessary to help them find books that work for them because many just cannot do it on their own.  We need to know our students and be able to recognize when they’re quitting books just because, or when they’re quitting books for more complicated reasons.  As in many areas of teaching, the answers to questions that start with “Should students be allowed to…” the answer is not a clear yes or no.  The answer starts with “It depends…”  It’s up to teachers and librarians to fill in the rest with options that are best for each individual student so that the most important result is possible – students who keep reading!