New Research Shows Why the Freedom to Read Matters

See what the research by Ivey & Johnston suggests about how reading challenging texts affects teens.

Why do we fight for the freedom to read? One basic answer is that we’re both parents and readers. As readers, we remember being introduced to the power of libraries as young people, a power connected to a sense of possibility and the infinite. We remember growing under the trust that adults bestowed upon us, treading unsteadily into books that might have seemed beyond us but that eventually became some of our favorite books, books that we shared with our friends and returned to again and again.

And as parents we want that for our kids.

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But, as parents, we’re also not immune to worry. At the Texas Freedom to Read Project, we’re told to worry. Books we love and give to our kids are called “harmful to minors.” We’re accused of wanting to “push radically sexually explicit material on students.” The attacks against us are insistent, but our memories are only anecdotal.

So it’s nice when solid research backs up our anecdotes. That happened (again) in October, when researchers Gay Ivey and Peter Johnston published Teens Choosing to Read: Fostering Social, Emotional, and Intellectual Growth Through Books, a study that underscores the importance the freedom to read and the value of trusting young people to choose their own reading material–even when that reading material is challenging or seems “disturbing” to some adults.

Teens Choosing to Read focuses on 258 8th-grade students at a middle school where reading scores fell below the state average at the start of the study. As part of the study, teachers built large classroom libraries stocked primarily with high-interest young adult novels, and then jettisoned assigned reading, instead setting aside time for students to read from and discuss choice novels.

The results were impressive. Reading scores grew, and Ivey and Johnston noted that “students in the study became more strategic, with a stronger sense of agency in their reading, and were prepared to actively select and engage challenging texts” (104). But beyond that, parents, teachers and students noted that the young study participants grew as people. Not only did they become more engaged in their schoolwork, they also became “more empathetic, less judgmental, more likely to seek multiple viewpoints, morally stronger, and happier.”

Why is this relevant to the Texas Freedom to Read Project? In Ivey and Johnston’s study, many of the books that teachers made available to their students were precisely the sort that have been removed from districts across Texas. In fact, students regularly read (and raved about) many of the exact books that are currently being removed from schools: Ellen Hopkins’s Identical and Patricia McCormick’s Sold, for example, which were removed this year from Conroe, McKinney, and Plano ISD. In all, at least 15 of the books mentioned by students in Teens Choosing to Read are on this influential list of books to be banned. 

But instead of being “harmful to minors,” these books actually proved to be the opposite, boosting student growth in a number of ways. Rather than rushing them into topics they weren’t ready for, the books “allowed the teenagers to think through life’s decisions about drugs, sex, and other complexities in advance, in slow motion, with assistance from others, reducing the likelihood of subsequent poorly thought-out decisions” (43). And rather than driving a wedge between the study’s teenage participants and their parents, the books facilitated conversations about important life questions, bringing parents and teens closer together. One parent, whose daughter read both Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, said, “The books gave us an excuse, permission to discuss things with her that might be harder to talk about otherwise” (43).

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While people who attack books in schools often conflate depicting a behavior with endorsing it, the teens in the study laughed at the idea that reading about risky behavior would encourage them to engage in it. Even more heartening, “disturbing” books actually made them more receptive to their parents’ perspectives about things like drug use, sexual activity, and violence. One student, after reading Elizabeth Scott’s Living Dead Girl, realized her parents had a reason to check in on her and make sure they knew her whereabouts when she was out with friends. “My parents are like ‘stay where you’re supposed to be,’” she said. “Now I’m like, ‘Yeah, okay, I will.’”

As Ivey and Johnston put it, “The advice students constructed from the narratives of others’ lives was often exactly the kind of advice parents might have offered. However, such advice coming from parents is often unhearable by their adolescent children, who are busily trying to separate themselves from their parents” (62).

In other words: reading the types of books being banned across Texas led students to higher reading scores, deeper engagement in school, reduced propensity for risky behavior, and stronger connections with classmates and family members. Ivey and Johnston’s study reinforces what readers have always known: curtailing the freedom to read doesn’t protect childhood innocence; it limits students’ horizons and takes away tools that can lead to personal growth. 

About Frank Strong

Frank Strong is one of the three co-directors and founders of Texas Freedom to Read Project. Frank is a parent, writer, and English teacher in Austin, Texas. He does this work for his students, for his love of literature, and so that his daughter can have what he got from his Texas schools growing up: teachers and school libraries that opened up worlds for him that he’s still exploring today.

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