The best book a kid will ever read is the one he or she has chosen to read. Damn the Lexile. If a kid reads it, loves it, returns to it, learns from it, gets lost in it, and perhaps even finds a bit of himself in it, it is the right level. It is the right book. Wantability is always more important than readability.

--Kylene Beers

I recently ran across this quote in a "This I Believe" list on Beers' blog, and it made me question our collective faith in Lexile and other measures of readability.

On one hand, I acknowledge the importance of guiding students to read texts that are quantitatively "just right" according to some mysterious algorithm. But on the other hand, I have witnessed first-hand the power of choice in enhancing a developing reader's capacity and stamina for reading challenging texts. There is a lot of truth in what Beers says: a student's earnest desire to read a book may be the most important variable in choosing the "right book" for that student.

My seventh grade daughter has yet to read a book as a communal undertaking with her entire English class. She reads the books her friends suggest, maybe the ones her teacher suggests, and sometimes the books suggests, based on the preferences she enters on the site. In essence, she has developed pretty adult reading habits from her middle school ELA experience, far from my foggy seventh grade memories of turning in unison to page 46 of A Separate Peace or Flowers for Algernon.

This Self-Selected Reading model makes many parents uncomfortable. They are anxious for their children to begin reading the classics and are disconcerted when their kids return home each week with yet another book they don't recognize, with yet another cover clearly designed to appeal to teens. Furthermore, parents also want to be assured that their children are not missing out on the classic English classroom experience of being steered through a book to analyze the evolution of plot, characterization, and theme — the stuff of high school and college literature essays.

You may wonder why I'm bringing this up here — on a Vocabulary web site. It's because I think the resistance to self-selected reading goes hand in hand with the resistance to giving students the power to be in charge of their own vocabulary enrichment. In both cases, the resistance is a result of the faulty assumption that if a teacher is not in charge of the learning, then it must not be taking place.

When I recently reached out to Dorene Jorgensen, a middle school teacher in Midlothian, VA, on this topic, she responded by saying,

We want kids to read what they want - we are working on instilling a love of reading. We have them read a book of their choice and take a reading comprehension test on it each month, plus we have them practice the reading strategies we teach in class with their self-selected book. And this year, for the first time, we are requiring them to make a list of at least ten words from each book they read.

Go, Dorene! One of the reasons people resist this student-centered approach to reading is that they fear that students will miss out on the vocabulary enrichment, literary analysis, and rich discussion that we associate with whole-class reading instruction. But, as Dorene's experience shows us, all of those components can go on, they just might not be as visible to a class visitor.

If you are teaching in an environment where students are selecting their own reading material, send them to the list library to learn the words from the text they have selected. We work hard to supply readers with high interest YA titles such as The Fault in Our Stars or Twilight, as well as the classics that are still filling the ELA bookrooms across the country — such as The Outsiders or The Giver. And, if students can't find vocabulary support for the books they are reading, encourage them to create their own lists with VocabGrabber.

I still don't know if I would go so far as to say "damn the Lexile," but I am willing to say there is a time and place for self-selected reading, and middle school may just be that time and place. There will be plenty of time for whole-class lit discussions like the scenes you may romanticize from Dead Poets Society or from your own past. But, along with those memories, I bet you also remember that first time you picked a challenging book on your own to read and relished it for that very reason.