Student choice, combined with agency, results in learning. This is the summation of a 2016 report from the Buck Institute of Education. And the organization isn’t alone in its findings- studies from the 1970s to the present demonstrate that student choice has been linked to increased motivation, performance, comprehension, collaborative skills development, and socio-emotional well-being.
What exactly is student choice?
“Student choice is not just a menu of decisions, but it is about empowering students to establish what they want to learn,” explains second-grade teacher Selena Kiser. “It involves a paradigm shift of inspiring possibilities. It provides students the autonomy to determine the route in which they want to go to learn new skills.”
In her book, Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement, Heather Wolpert-Gawron adds, “Student choice builds ownership in the learning. Student choice allows students to display their learning in the way that they feel best represents their knowledge. Student choice enforces true differentiation.”
This means that student choice can take many shapes. A learner may be empowered to make decisions about which assignment to tackle first, where to sit, how to best demonstrate learning, or which strategies to employ while reading. Opportunities to practice choice-making can be embedded into virtually every grade level and content area of study.
Opportunities to engage with choice lead to agency. Sam Harkness, writing for Skyd Magazine, helps to make sense of these two concepts. “Having a choice means that there are multiple external options available, whether you are aware of them or not. Agency is a person’s independent capacity to make choices.” (Harkness also points out that agency can be limited by social structures and issues of access.) Essentially, choice opens possibility; agency speaks to what we do with it and the tools we have available to aid us in the process.
Integrating Student Choice and Agency into Reading
Literacy is one area where the benefits of student choice are abundantly clear. Studies show that allowing for choice in reading aids in growth and boosts student engagement. A 2017 Action Research report found that “choice is presumably an effective component of improving academic outcomes” and that “children who are given a choice in reading may develop a sense of ownership and may have higher comprehension rates compared to those assigned a reading.”
Choice and agency work in tandem with other best practices for reading instruction. The National Council on Teaching English (NCTE) clarifies: “Effective independent reading practices include time for students to read, access to books that represent a wide range of characters and experiences, and support within a reading community that includes teachers and students. Student choice in text is essential because it motivates, engages, and reaches a wide variety of readers.”
Reading Plus understands how these components work together to grow strong readers. The platform employs adaptive instruction to build cross-content knowledge in ways that are uniquely personalized to each student's interests and academic strengths. Reading Plus offers leveled, age-appropriate texts that provide students with choice, flexibility, and the opportunity to engage with literature that interests them and keeps them motivated.
The student-facing aspects of Reading Plus include a wide range of reading material and robust supports- but agency drives the experience. "When students begin working in Reading Plus, their experience with reading changes almost immediately. By placing students in the driver’s seat, Reading Plus motivates all students to take an active part in their success.” This focus on developing students’ agency- the result of increased choice and supports and fewer barriers to accessibility- is noteworthy. Reading Plus has been shown to significantly improve reading achievement for diverse populations of learners in grades 3-12.
One thing is clear--whether we are inviting students to choose a topic of interest, genre, text, comprehension strategy, or a format for expressing understanding, choice in reading can be a powerful tool for growth and motivation. Returning to second-grade teacher Susan Kaiser, “[Choice] inspires students to want to learn new things. It allows students to show what they know, but to take it so much further. Student choice creates an environment where students discover what they want to learn.”