P21LogoHorizontalRGBtmThe following is a guest blog post from CEM partner Partnership for 21st Century Learning’s P21Blogazine

Driving Question: How do teachers improve effectiveness by providing choice in high school literature classes?

“. . . it is our responsibility to make all our students feel like readers, to make our students become readers, and to make our students remain readers long after they have left our schools.” (Gallagher, 2003, p. 3)

It has long been a common concern among secondary English teachers that many students don’t read assigned texts, often relying on SparkNotes to successfully complete assignments and prepare for assessments. Why is this happening? Why aren’t adolescent learners appropriately engrossed in the canon of literature beloved by their instructors?  Can teachers make changes that will better engage students as thoughtful readers?

When asked, students often cite busy schedules or refer to the texts as boring. Probably the more accurate explanation is that these readers lack the stamina to remain engaged in lengthy, complex material and the skills to make meaningful, and thereby engaging, interpretations of ideas and themes.

In truth, high school students are still learning to read; there is an ongoing need for targeted instruction designed to build increasingly sophisticated vocabulary and comprehension skills. However, a downward trend in reading among high school students over the last 25 years (National Endowment for the Arts report, 2007) is further evidence that something isn’t working with current instructional practices.

Looking For Success

Penny Kittle, high school English teacher and K-12 literacy coach in Conway, New Hampshire, is among a group of practitioners who believe that traditional approaches to teaching literature may contribute to this lack of progress in reading at the secondary level. When all students in a given class are asked to read the same book, those who are less capable resist the difficulty and those who are more capable resent the lack of cognitive challenge.

Even though many students appear to be turned off to reading literature, Kittle maintains that “teenagers want to read – if we let them.” (Kittle, p. 1) She advocates for differentiated curriculum design and instructional structures that allow students to take greater control of their own learning.

A Shift to Agency

Recognizing that adolescents still have much to learn about reading and that studying one whole-class novel after another won’t result in a high percentage of truly-engaged or accomplished readers, English teachers at Farmington High School in Connecticut are working to increase their effectiveness by exploring ways to shift to more student-centered learning practices that focus on teaching the student, not the book.

Although the approach of teaching a single book to a full class has not been entirely abandoned, teachers are finding ways to enhance buy-in by alternating these common reading experiences with choice units of study. Common reading experiences are used to establish a community of learners and to build a set of skills and understandings. The subsequent choice units are developed to include greater student agency in the learning process.

The district’s model of effective 21st Century instruction, The Framework for Teaching and Learning, serves as a vision for curriculum and instructional planning. Teachers design day to day lessons with this Framework in mind and are supported in knowing that the district as a whole is aiming to  increase student voice in classrooms at all levels.

 Creating New Curriculum.

In this past year. one team of teachers piloted a curriculum that included several choice units, each of which took place after completion of a whole-class novel study. During these three-week units, students were offered a selection of eight high-interest texts of varied difficulty. All novels related to a single essential question – How does literature help us explore the struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community? Students directed their own learning by establishing a schedule, using class time to read and hold small group discussions, journaling to clarify thinking, and reflecting about personal performance. Daily learning targets that were the focus of brief daily mini-lessons included

  • previewing, selecting, and making a commitment to read a book
  • collaborating with a small group to make a reading plan (see sample calendar below)
  • using close reading strategies (character development, word choice, theme)
  • writing about thinking using a variety of journaling strategies
  • having meaningful discussions about thematic elements
  • using feedback and models to revise a thematic analysis
  • using digital media to collaborate and create a book review
  • completing a self-assessment using a rubric or criteria list


The following table shows how the design of these units reflects district beliefs about how students learn best:

The Framework for Teaching and Learning (Farmington Public Schools)

Students learn best when they:

Choice Literature Unit Design


. . . have a sense of belonging to a positive learning community in which they have regular opportunities to work collaboratively.
  • read and discuss choice texts in small groups or partnerships
  • work in a setting that values multiple perspectives and values reading to learn about big ideas
. . . understand performance expectations and are individually supported in meeting challenging standards.
  • use rubrics and criteria lists to self-assess quality of written responses (journal entries) and final projects
  • receive teacher feedback and coaching based on review of a variety of formative assessments
  • receive and use teacher and peer feedback during text-based small group discussions
  • read texts at a comfortable level of difficulty
. . . see content as meaningful and organized around big ideas and questions and can transfer learning to new contexts.
  • use essential questions from previous units and keys concepts in literature to frame written responses and discussions
  • focus efforts on reading to explore big ideas, not on reading to complete assessment tasks
. . . are actively engaged in authentic learning tasks and given opportunities to construct meaning and develop understanding.
  • prepare for and conduct personal discussions to share insights and analyze texts
  • produce book trailers posted on the library website
. . . make choices about and take responsibility for their own learning goals and progress.
  • choose their own texts and ways to record thinking
  • create a personal schedule for completing the work
  • choose which written responses (journal entries) to submit for evaluation
  • choose a format for final project
  • reflect about quality of their own work and make plans for improvement

Students Appreciate Choice

Students appreciate the choice units.  “With choice comes value,” according to sophomore Meg Sanders. “When students have the freedom to make their own choices in literature, the essential question and the reason behind the unit become so much more important to students.” Senior Shannon Connolly thinks “Choice is the key to being happy, just as the characters in many books discover. . . The characters in The Hunger Games hated being forced to fight in a sport that they didn’t agree with, so they revolted. The same was true for the peasants in A Tale of Two Cities . . . These two books had the same basic plot line, and similar messages, but when was the last time you heard a teen say: “Oooo, The Hunger Games? No way! I want to read A Tale of Two Cities – it’s far more enticing and metaphorical!” Shannon reminds us that teens don’t like to be told what to do, and they particularly hate having to respond to questions and prompts provided by a teacher. They want to be trusted to explore text meaning with fewer constraints.

A Sense of Autonomy

When writing about motivation, Daniel Pink states that a sense of autonomy is important to better performance and personal satisfaction. He defines autonomy as the desire to be self-directed. With the advent of the choice literature units at Farmington High School, English teachers have embraced the professional responsibility to make all students feel like autonomous lifelong readers.


About the Author


Jill Pilon has been a literacy specialist with the Farmington Public Schools for the past 9 years, working with students and teachers in grades K-12. She brings many years of experience as a classroom and special education teacher, intervention coordinator, and professional developer to her role.

You can read added posts from the P21Blogazine on this site or by subscribing to its RSS Feed at www.p21.org for three times per week posts. Monthly themes connect  21st Century Deeper Learning  and the 4Cs theory and practice.

About Marshal Conley

Marshal Conley is a senior technical assistance consultant and Educational Technology and Innovation lead at the American Institutes for Research. His current work focuses on innovative, technology-infused solutions to improve educator professional learning. He is the Project Director for Connected Educator Month and serves in a leadership capacity on several other projects focused on educational technology for K-12 and adult learners.
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