About ESIP     Books & Beyond     Classroom Connections  
Site Map

Student Self-Selection Strategies

by Donna Neutze


Educational systems in the United States grapple with questions relating to how the needs of its students can best be met. Changing demographics in many individual schools and school systems pose the problem of how to teach children whose cultural identity and discourse often conflict with the school discourse. This lack of congruency, and its effects, are evident at the most elementary educational level where the mismatch is compounded by the varying learning styles and multiple intelligences that are represented within any one classroom setting.

Although all aspects of a child’s education are impacted by questions of how she or he might best learn, it could be argued that the most strategic area of learning is literacy learning. Many of the most hotly debated educational issues, such as the phonics versus whole language debate, tracking and ability grouping, trade books versus textbooks and the incorporation of multicultural literature into the curriculum, pertain not only to literacy learning but also to attempts to address differences between and among students. The decisions made in these areas, as well as others relating to literacy learning, are incorporated into what might seem to be ever-changing curricula.

Curricula might seem to be in a constant state of flux, but what does remain constant is the goal of having all students become literate. As mentioned, there are often conflicting ideas about how this might be accomplished. These ideas pertain not only to the method of instruction, but also to the materials that are to be utilized and how those materials are to be selected. Discussion centers on the level of student participation, if any, that should take place in selection, whether for reading inside or outside of the classroom. Discussion also centers on the role that student self-selection of texts play in literacy learning. Many people have been interested in studying student book selections and the strategies that were used to make those selections. (Some of their research is reviewed in the pages that follow.) From the data collected in those studies, researchers seek clues as to how knowledge of students’ independent reading choices, and their selection strategies, might be utilized within the classroom to impact literacy learning.

The intent is, generally, to identify what students read when they are given freedom of choice and to identify the selection strategies that students use in these self-selections of texts. This information is especially important for educators who might capitalize on student interests and strategies by incorporating them into their teaching curriculum with the possible result of improved literacy learning and reading success, enjoyment and appreciation. Specifically, the intent is to ascertain whether or not book attributes, particularly the title and cover, influence and/or guide student self-selection of recreational reading texts.

Review of Related Literature/Theory

Most teachers are not simply satisfied with teaching their students to read. They want their students to become active, engaged, life-time readers. The question is how to accomplish that task and to understand what motivates students to read. First, students have more motivation to read when the books are of their own choosing rather than books that were assigned to them to read (Palmer, Codling, & Gambrell, 1994; Worthy, 1998; Gallo, 1984; Wood & Jones, 1997; Swartz & Hendricks, 2000). Second, students are more engaged with their own book selections which translates to improved reading processes (Palmer, Codling & Gambrell, 1994; Worthy, 1998; Wood & Jones, 1997). Third, the interest in a book which generates its selection frequently enables students to read books that might have been determined to be beyond the students’ readability level (Boulware & Foley, 1998; Kragler & Nolley, 1996). Fourth, the self-selection of books by students is a positive step toward the production of life-time readers (Palmer, Codling & Gambrell, 1994; Wood & Jones, 1997).

The samples in the literature reviewed varied not only in the size of the sample, but also the grades and ages of the students, the location where the data was collected, the reading levels of the students, the type of schools, the locations of the schools and the specific purpose of each study. Researchers focused mainly on students in fifth through eighth grade (Wendelin & Zinck, 1983; Wood & Jones, 1997; Rinehart, Gerlach, Wisell & Walker, 1998; McCullough, 1995; Worthy, 1998) although others collected data from younger students. Webb (1993) and Reutzel & Gali (1998) worked with first grade students while Palmer, Codling & Gambrell (1994) worked with third graders.

The data was collected in various manners and settings. Some of the researchers collected their data via mail (Harkrader & Moore, 1997; Gallo, 1984), some directly from the school setting (Palmer, Codling & Gambrell, 1994; McCullough, 1995; Kragler & Nolley, 1996; Wendelin & Zinck, 1983; Reutzel & Gali, 1998) with others collected their data in a public library (Allison, 1994) and in their own home (Worthy, 1998.) Students in the studies hailed from different locales including Maryland (Palmer, Codling & Gambrell, 1994), Ohio (Harkrader & Moore, 1997; Swartz & Hendricks, 2000), Virginia (Allison, 1994), Indiana (Kragler & Nolley, 1996), and Connecticut (Gallo, 1984). Researchers cited different reasons for undertaking their research. Some were teachers seeking ways to improve classroom strategies and reading curriculum (McCullough, 1995; Kragler & Nolley, 1996). Others were interested in the literature preferences of students (Harkrader & Moore, 1997; Allison, 1994). While still others were interested in learning what students know about books, how they select books and what they value and like in a book (Webb, 1993; Wendelin & Zinck, 1983; Gerlach & Rinehart, 1992; Swartz & Hendricks, 2000; Gallo, 1984; Reutzel & Gali, 1998).

Despite these differences, the method of data collection was remarkably similar. The majority of these studies collected data solely by the questions on a survey (Harkrader & Moore, 1997; McCullough, 1995; Wendelin & Zinck, 1983; Swartz & Hendricks, 2000; Gallo, 1984.) Several researchers followed up the questionnaires with face-to-face interviews (Palmer, Codling & Gambrell, 1994; Allison, 1994). A few used observation strategies but this was usually coupled with one or more of the other methods (Gerlach & Rinehart, 1992; Reutzel & Gali, 1998.)

Researchers found that contrary to what might have once been believed, students do not choose their book selections without thought. Instead, most students have clear preferences, not only in the types of books that they like to read (Worthy, 1998; Harkrader & Moore, 1997; Allison, 1994; McCullough, 1995; Gallo, 1984) but also in the way that those books are selected (Webb, 1993; McCullough, 1995; Kragler & Nolley, 1996; Gerlach & Rinehart, 1992; Swartz & Hendricks, 2000; Gallo, 1984; Reutzel & Gali, 1998). When these preferences and strategies are viewed in smaller size samples, there seems to be quite a large difference between and among these students. However, when these studies are viewed as a whole, it becomes clear that these same preferences and selection strategies can be found to be fairly consistent. Researchers Reutzel and Gali (1998) went so far as to suggest that all students follow a very similar pattern in making their book selections. That pattern is---pull the book, read the title, look at the cover, open the book, flip through the pages, look at the illustrations, look at the pages inside, make judgment to select or reject the book (Reutzel & Gali, 1998).

Research suggests that students’ book selections are influenced by social interactions. These social interactions can be divided into several different types. First, there is the relationship between students and teachers and/or librarians, where modeling and recommendations may inspire students to select a particular read. More often, however, the influencing social interaction is that which takes place between and among students (McCullough, 1995; Kragler & Nolley, 1996; Gallo, 1984.) This is often in the form of peer recommendations or informal book discussions (Palmer, Codling & Gambrell, 1994; Kragler & Nolley, 1996; Wendelin & Zinck, 1983).

It also seems apparent that actual physical attributes of the book are given careful consideration during the selection process and that these attributes may be the determining factor for its rejection or selection. In some instances, the physical attributes are judged by a type of individual student “value system” where the student selects a book because it looks good or pretty or interesting or some other adjective (Allison, 1994; McCullough, 1995). Students are also influenced by the titles, covers, back of book summaries and illustrations (Webb, 1993; McCullough, 1995; Kragler & Nolley, 1996; Wendelin & Zinck, 1983; Gerlach & Rinehart, 1992; Swartz & Hendricks, 2000; Gallo, 1984; Reutzel & Gali, 1998.) In several studies, these were found to be among the top reasons given in student self-selection. Although there are other influencing factors, they seem to bear less importance in the process than do social interactions and the books’ physical traits.

The literature reviewed here was also consistent in that the researchers agreed that much can be learned through the study of selection strategies and reading preferences. This information and its potential value to educators was stressed in almost every study. So, I have found that there are not only implications for further research. Perhaps of most interest to me were the studies which collected data suggesting that students were not only influenced by the books titles and covers, but that there were specific “clues” that the students used to figure out whether or not a specific book was one that they would want to read (Wendelin & Zinck, 1983; Rinehard, Gerlach, Wisell & Walker, 1998; Gerlach & Rinehart, 1992). Although the researchers acknowledge these “clues” they did not identify what the clues were, how the students interpreted them, or if certain “clues” took precedence over others.

Discussion and Conclusions

Knowing what children like to read and how they choose books to read has tremendous import for educators. Given the link between motivation to read, self-selection and increased success in reading, it is important that recreational reading be incorporated into the regular classroom patterns. When teachers are informed about their students’ reading habits and preferences, that knowledge can be utilized when stocking classroom libraries and making reading recommendations. The use of self-selected texts also allows students to take ownership of that process while allowing for differences in reading levels and cultural differences without the stigma often attached to reading groups.

The importance of social interaction should not be overlooked by teachers. To capitalize on students’ interests, teachers should consider the use of literature circles, book clubs, or discussion forums. During these activities, students are given time to share what they know, what they have read, discuss books read in common and recommend new titles. Of course, all these efforts go for naught if the students aren’t given in-class time to read their books.

Some concern has been expressed about the students’ ability to make suitable selections. There is worry that some students choose books that will be too difficult while others choose those that are too easy. Sanacore (1999) writes that teachers need to provide guidelines and suggests the use of Castle’s “six-step plan called How to Pick a Book by Hand” (p. 38). Olson (1984) also questions the self-selection process in terms of readability level and wonders about the effects of consistent choices made below or above reading level (p. 3). Perhaps, as this literature review suggests, teachers should be less concerned about the suitability or fit, as many students are able to read at higher levels because of their interest in the book. As for other strategies that could be used to help guide selection, the successful use of book cover clues by some students could be introduced by the teacher and practiced in the class.

Although it is clear that the literature reviewed here does not represent the sum total of all that has been researched and published about reading preferences and book selection strategies, I am satisfied that it is very representative of what is available. The ease with which I was able to obtain information about reading preferences and the extensive amount of information that was available on that topic seems to indicate that this is an area that has been researched fairly extensively and thoroughly. This was not the case, however, in my search of information relating to book selection strategies and selection influences. While there are a decent number of these studies present in this literature review compared to those relating to the reading preferences, they represent the majority of what I was able to find. While the number of studies pertaining solely to preferences could likely have been multiplied tenfold, such was not my purpose. What these searches seem to suggest is that there has not been an abundance of research dedicated solely to selection strategies and that more would certainly seem to be warranted.

Of those studies that do pertain to the student self-selection strategies, there are several areas which would seem to warrant further research. First, I am concerned by the lack of triangulation in these studies and believe, especially, that studies of self-selection strategies should be designed to allow for triangulation through data collection, and would recommend the use of a combination of surveys, observations and face-to-face interviews. Another area for future research could be studies which also include the element of time. With the exception of Worthy’s study, the remainder did not include follow-ups which allowed for a substantial lapse of time. A longitudinal study of the same students self-selection strategies would provide information as to whether or not selection strategies change over time.

Of most importance, given my particular interest in the use of titles and covers in the self-selection process, is the fact that the studies in this review show that these attributes certainly factor into the process. What the researchers have failed to do, however, is determine the reasons why these attributes influence selection. Studies which seek to establish the ways that covers and titles influence readers would certainly seem to be warranted. Without knowing how the title influences the students, or how the cover is read, the results of these studies are rendered somewhat meaningless.


Allison, L. M. (1994, April 26). What are they reading? Literature preferences of Charlottesville area children. Retrieved from ERIC database (Educational Resources Information Center, No. ED 371 397).

Boulware, B. J., & Foley, C. L. (1998). Recreational reading: Choices of fourth graders. Journal of Reading Education, 23(2). 17-22.

Gallo, D. R. (1984). Reading interests and habits of Connecticut students in grades four through twelve. Retrieved from ERIC database (Educational Resources Information Center, No. 244 223).

Gerlach, J. M. & Rinehart, S. D. (1992, April). Can you tell a book by its cover? Reading Horizons, (32)4. 289-298.

Harkrader, M.A. & Moore, R. (1997). Literature preferences of fourth graders. Reading Research and Instruction, 36(4). 325-339.

Kragler, S. & Nolley, C. (1996). Student choices: Book selection strategies of fourth graders. Reading Horizons, 36(4). 354-365.

McCullough, C. L. (1995). A survey of reasons for book selection of 6th grade students. Retrieved from ERIC database (Educational Resources Information Center. No. ED 385 819).

Olson, A. V. (1984, January 1). Elementary student’s self selection of reading material in school libraries. Reading and Communication Skills. Retrieved from ERIC database (Educational Resources Information Center, No. ED 275 984).

Palmer, B. M., Codling, R. M. & Gambrell, L. B. (1994, October). In their own words: What elementary students have to say about motivation to read. The Reading Teacher, 48(2). 176-178.

Reutzel, D. R. & Gali, K. (1998, January-March). The art of children’s book selection: A labyrinth unexplored. Reading Psychology, 19(1). 3-50.

Rinehart, S. D., Gerlach, J. M., Wisell, D. L., & Walker, W. L. (1998). Would I like to read this book?: Eighth graders’ use of book cover clues to help choose recreational reading. Reading Research and Instruction, 37(4). 263-279.

Sanacore, J. (1999). Encouraging children to make choices about their literacy learning. Intervention in School and Clinic. 35(1). 38-42.

Swartz, M. K. & Hendricks, C. G. (2000, April). Factors that influence the book selection process of students with special needs. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 43(7). 608-618.

Webb, J. A. (1993). The politics of children’s literature. In: Dreams and Dynamics. Selected Papers from the Annual Conference of the International Association of School Librarianship (22nd, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia, September 27-30, 1993). Retrieved from ERIC database (Educational Resources Information Center, No. ED 399 936).

Wendelin, K. H. & Zinck, R. A. (1983). How students make book choices. Reading Horizons, 23. 84-88.

Wood, K. L. D., & Jones, J. P. (1997). When affect informs instruction. Childhood Education, 73(5), 292-296.

Worthy, J. (1998). On every page someone gets killed! Book conversations you don’t hear in school. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 41(7). 508-517.

All materials featured on this site are the property of the Elementary Science Integration Projects (ESIP) and/or their respective authors, and may not be reproduced or distributed in any form, printed or electronic, without express written permission.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 9912078. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.