Posted by Nate Dunlevy

As we explore reading deficiency in the United States, we’ve talked a lot about motivation. Among the things that most often go overlooked in the discussion is the power of autonomy for a learner.

Autonomy is a powerful force for good in the life of a child. Consider the topic of goal setting for a moment. To feel in control, students must be able to see a clear path to achieving their goals. This means they can control their accomplishments, rather than relying on luck or chance. Control is also maximized when students set their own goals for themselves—or at least when they agree with and internalize the goals set for them by someone else.

Of course, granting autonomy to students can be difficult or inconvenient for teachers, because doing so makes the learning experience variable between students—and that means harder to monitor and measure for teachers. Additionally, adults often express concern over whether the topics that interest kids will be appropriate or have “educational value.”

But, when it comes to reading development, there is a robust body of research that suggests concerns like those are unfounded. Helping kids develop a sense of autonomy through reading instruction cultivates their abilities to make their own choices. Taking responsibility for their own actions in this way helps move kids toward intrinsic motivation (Fink & Samuels, International Reading Association, 2008). When this occurs, students develop an inherent satisfaction with learning, because they believe they are in control, rather than being controlled.

Wigfield and McCann (The Reading Teacher, 1997) found autonomy to be a crucial element in fostering children’s confidence in their reading abilities. Building upon students’ own interests and curiosity about different topics and immersing them in a variety of related books is a proven way to increase that confidence. Students who believe that they have ownership over their learning are motivated, self-determining, and self-regulated.

Research also shows that letting students select their own books helps to increase interest value and boosts motivation (Wigfield, Self-Regulation of Learning and Performance: Issues and Educational Applications, 1994). A wide variety of texts should be provided that are interesting and appropriate for students’ age range and personally relevant to individuals. Students should be matched to “just right” texts on their reading level that are challenging enough to maintain interest and foster a sense of achievement but not so difficult that they become discouraged. The teacher pushes the student to grow, while still making sure that it is possible for the student to succeed (Gambrell, Palmer, and Codling, Literary Research and Instruction, 1993).

Flowerday, Schraw, and Stevens (The Journal of Experimental Education, 2004) examined the effects of choice, topic interest, and situational interest on reading engagement, attitude, and learning and discovered that when students are able to select their own reading materials they tend to report that they enjoyed the task much more. Therefore, their attitudes improve and they find their tasks to be more valuable.

Rich (“A New assignment: Pick books you like”, New York Times, September 10, 2009) found that students will value reading if they are able to choose their own books. Students who chose a novel for class became engaged with it because they were interacting with it, not just reading to find answers.

Over and over again, the researchers agree that students who have autonomy to explore their keenest interests have more success and lasting engagement with reading. Autonomy doesn’t have to mean a lack of boundaries or supervision. It can simply mean offering a range of appropriate choices and letting students make their own decisions about those choices.

When we allow kids to pursue and explore the topics that most engage and inspire them, we set the stage for self-motivated, lifelong readers and take a major step toward solving the literacy crisis in the process.

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