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A Study of Children's Choices of Reading Materials

by Emma B. Grant & Margaret L. White - 1925

In a previous issue1 of the TEACHERS COLLEGE RECORD was published a study of the actual content of fifteen school readers. The present article deals with the actual reading interests of children and compares these interests with the results of the first study.

In a previous issue1 of the TEACHERS COLLEGE RECORD was published a study of the actual content of fifteen school readers. The present article deals with the actual reading interests of children and compares these interests with the results of the first study.

In this study an attempt was made to get children's choices of reading materials, unbiased by school-room influence. Children often choose certain stories because the teacher has especially stressed them. Librarians admit "waves" of choice, for instance, for Robinson Crusoe, Hiawatha, or the Tree Dwellers at a time when these stories are being studied in school. Again, children choose certain books because no others are available. Perhaps the great men of history whose choices as children seem so unusual to us now, made these selections because there were no other books available. They had an easier situation to face than the child who is surrounded by the present wide variety of material, good, bad and indifferent.


Public libraries in New York City proved valuable sources of information. Five lines of investigation were followed here: (1) Conferences with the librarian as to the types of books children ask for and read. (2) An actual count from the library card of the number of times a book had been borrowed for home reading. (3) A tabulation of the popularity or frequency of use of a book, by the condition of the book. More than a thousand books were examined for signs of finger prints, torn pages, soiled backs, etc., since these conditions indicated frequency of use. This suggestion was obtained from every librarian consulted. (4) An actual tabulation of the story, or book, being read by the children in the reading rooms of the libraries. (5) Conversations with children, asking them their preferences in books, and why.

Although the first source of information, namely, conferences with librarians, is based upon opinion and observations rather than upon actual count, we feel that valuable contributions were made by these librarians, most of whom had watched and helped many children in the use of library books. Most of the librarians were unanimous in their opinion that there are certain types of stories for which children will ask.

In the actual count of the frequency of use of books we have more definite data. Even here, however, we realize that children are influenced by the demands made upon them at school, and by the fact that often the book which they want is not available and they have to take a substitute. This tabulation is not printed here, but the data are used in the summary.

We feel that the third line of investigation, based on the condition of the book, has given a fairly good index to the popularity of particular books. First, all the books on the library shelves for children of the first three grades were listed. Then the date of purchase was placed after each book. We examined all of these books first without any regard to age, looking only for indications of use or lack of use. Next, we went through the books which were purchased at the same time and noted the condition of each. It seems significant that twenty-five books which came to a library at the same time were in all stages of use at the end of six months. Some were practically the same as new, others showed some use, while still others indicated much use. In several instances the same books, or types of books, were found in almost the same condition in as many as five different libraries. We found books that had been in the library for several years, but which still showed little wear.

The data from the fourth source were classified by age and sex. This material was tabulated in the same way as the data from the various school rooms. The justification for the seeming duplication, however, is that we feel that the children's choices are apt to be more clearly their own choices. Here they read what they wish to read. We observed the reading of 1,500 children over a period of nine months.

From talks with the children in the reading rooms we gathered some very interesting information. The children were asked the following questions in various forms: (1) Why did you select that book? (2) Do you like it? Why? (3) Have you read others like it? (4) Should you like to read another book like it? (5) What is the most interesting story or book you ever read?

The most valuable information for our purposes was obtained from the answers to question 2. Some of typical answers were: "Because it is funny." "It is about animals." "It tells how to do things." "It is exciting." "I like the pictures." The most frequent answer was "Because it is funny."

To question 1 we got the following answers: "I knew it was about animals." "My brother or sister read it." "I liked the name." "I liked the pictures." "I wanted to find out about kites, birds, engines," etc.

Quite often a child was very frank in saying he did not like a book and he usually could tell why.  "It is silly," was the most frequent answer.


The choices of material were made by children from the South, North, East, West, and Middle West of the United States. The data were obtained from twenty school rooms having a total of six hundred pupils, and in the conclusions were supplemented by data from the six New York libraries; from informal talks with children in the Horace Mann School, New York City; and from conversations with children on the street on their way to and from branch libraries.

In order to secure data from the class rooms, letters were written to teachers living in various parts of the United States, who were known personally to the writers. In the letter, after the purpose of the study had been explained, the following request was made: "Will you please find out from your first, second and third grade children the answers to the following questions: (1) What story, of all you have read and heard, do you like best? (2) What story do you like next or second best?" As a caution to teachers we asked them to obtain answers with as little of the school room situation as possible. We explained that we wanted the child's own free choices, uninfluenced by the remarks of the teacher or emphasis on certain stories. We asked that no particular reference be made to any story that had been recently taught. In this way we hoped to eliminate the factor of recency. We also suggested that the teachers talk informally with the children on the playground, going to and from school, or in the free periods. In some instances, parents reported on the child's favorite story or stories.

When the data were received, they were tabulated by sections of the country, then by grades. Care was taken to choose children from different parts of the United States, both city and country, in order to show that in general children's interests are very much the same regardless of locality.

After this record of children preferences as to types of stories was made, a similar study was carried out in two large cities, which brought the total number of children expressing preferences to five thousand. These data, while not shown here, have all been taken into account in the conclusions stated.

We do not claim that these data, secured from class rooms and libraries, are not influenced to some degree by teachers, librarians, or available materials; but we have tried to get the child's real choice as nearly as possible. While the selections in these representative books may not be the ones from which all these children are choosing, we felt that they show a fairly wide enough choice from materials on the market to-day to justify such a statement as the following: Fifteen readers to-day offer 94 selections of fables. Out of 600 children only 13 first or second choices of fable materials appeared. Similar statements arise from the accompanying table and graph.






Animal. The 271 choices of animal stories where the books offer 63 confirm previous records and all studies of child nature. The interest in animal life in action is a true and predominating interest on which to build new material.

Poetry. The statement has been made by Abbott3 and also by Dunn4 that the interest of children in poetry seems small. We found the interest strong enough to question the conclusion. With more prose than poetry to choose from, we found three out of fifteen boys voluntarily choosing  poetry. In the totals we found 287 poetry selections and 123 choices. Mother Goose is included under poetry.

Informational. In addition to the fact that historical material is also informational, we found 71 choices for the purely informational type of story. If we put the historical and informational together, we have 121 choices; the readers offer 31 selections of these two types. We believe the choice might be even greater if there were more informational material. There is a need for simple travel stories and journey material. There is also evident a desire for stories beginning with "How" or "Why," such as we find in various commercialized children's encyclopedias. In one of these are found such fascinating paragraphs as: Why Does a Match Strike? How the First Men were Puzzled about the Story of the Earth. Why Do Bees Sting? The Wonder of a Piece of Silk. How to Make Box Furniture. Surely lessons such as these could well be included in school books.

Historical. There were 50 choices of historical material. This seemed to be a large number for primary children and is probably due to the interesting factors which are brought in aside from history; for example, the childhood of Lincoln and Washington, children's experiences, together with imitation of the reading done by older brothers and sisters. Much of this material might come under informational material, for children often have a real desire to know facts which they hear older people discuss.

Children's Experiences. There were 45 choices of other children's experiences, which merely confirms former opinions.

Bible. There were seventeen choices here with but one Bible story found in the readers. This seems to show a lack of such material and a need for well-chosen Bible stories. It might be well to be guided by those factors of interest that good secular material contains. This would mean using Bible stories which contain children, animals, action, rhythm.

Nature Stories. Many animal and fairy stories deal with nature material; but in our classification we chose as nature stories only those in which nature was the predominating theme, as “Mother Nature's Work Shop” or “The Wind." There were 12 choices of nature material, while the readers offered 23 nature selections. Are children not interested in nature stories? Or do the books offer too many selections? Or are the selections not of the type that appeals to children? Some of the material seemed rather abstract.

Fables. It is quite possible that the fable has been stressed too much, especially the type designed to teach a moral. Thirteen choices by children in school, when 15 readers have 94 selections, seems rather a small proportion of choices.

Humor. In four out of the five choices pupils chose the story because of its "being funny." While humor is a quality found in many of the animal stories and folk tales rather than a type of story, it seems that we need more such good tales as "Brer Rabbit," "The Laughing Dumpling," etc.

Riddles. Children have not been led to feel that a riddle is a story or that it has a place in their reading. Ten riddles were found in three books; seven of these were in one book. The fact that there was only one choice of riddles is no doubt due to this lack of riddles in reading material. Would it not be well to introduce more good riddles into the readers? Riddles show a clear, concise, crisp way of describing things; they appeal to curiosity and to puzzle-solving, two factors of interest and satisfaction in the psychological meaning.

Myths. There were no choices of myths from the six hundred children and the books offered 7 selections. Perhaps myths have little place in primary reading, and this confirms the statement of a teacher of literature who says that myths are beyond the primary age child.


In the thirty readers studied, which are quite representative of the reading done in schools in America to-day, we find an increasing tendency to give pupils good literature and to make the choice of materials according to the interests of children. In making such a statement we need also to recognize that some such process has been going on since 1880. It is the utter lack of organization, the overlapping, the poor versions, the inartistic mixture of folklore and information, the meager factual material and often the subservience to a special method, that have often multiplied the number of readers published and sacrificed progress in securing higher quality.

As early as 1850, the then popular series known as The McGuffey Readers contained good selections by the best writers. In a revision of 1857 conscious attempts were made to appeal to the interests of children. The compilers of the new edition say: "Such lessons as discriminating practical teachers have found the least interesting have been removed, and others, with large additions, especially of primary matters, have been introduced."

Between 1880 and 1910, the reader containing literary content was being evolved. People had the idea of a literary reader even years before, but they also had the idea of the child as an embryo adult. From their adult heights of what he should read when he had climbed so far, they proceeded to pour down, over, in and around the child, the abstract moral principles, the eternal admonitions of the rewards and punishments in the next world, and the mature selections written by literary masters with no intent of writing for children. They cherished the hope that children would suddenly rise fully equipped with habits and tastes to read literary selections. Many children did thus come forth; but their parents or a nearby library deserve the credit.

Those who stood strongly together for the literary reader made mistakes also. President Eliot said, "The object of reading with children is to convey to them the ideals of the human race." The normal child, by actual and vicarious experiences, may grow to appreciate these ideals, but it is not every sort of literature which will make him care for it deeply enough to "hunger and thirst" for more and more good reading. So President Eliot's Heart of Oak Books, though a worthy attempt, were graded so high, were so difficult and so unattractive in their makeup that they have long since been superseded by material of just as good literary value that the pupils really wish to read. The Heart of Oak Books and their kind are not chosen by children in schools or in the children's room of the library. Yet what a wonderful advance they represented in daring to start the child at once into the open book of good literary material rather than into the "mysteries" of mechanics.

This tendency toward more literary material was largely a matter of opinion. Without more modern scientific attitude we need to base our conclusions on a study of actual books, actual children, and actual children's interests. In checking up actual cases there is a need for more literary material if it is not too far above the child's level of comprehension. There is certainly a desire on the part of children for more informational material, for more good humorous stories, for a different type of historical story, and for more riddles. The right type of Bible story would appeal to children. Nature material needs to be improved by being based on real nature facts—children do not care for "make-believe" nature stories. The study of poetry choices is too meagre to make any recommendations.

1February, 1925, number: "Reading Interests Compared with the Content of School Readers" by the same authors.

2Summarized from a table in part one of this study, which appeared in the February number of this magazine.

3Abbott, A., “Reading of High School Pupils,” School review, 1902, X: 585.

4Dunn, F. W., Interest Factors in Primary Reading Material. Teachers College Contributions to Education, No. 113.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 26 Number 8, 1925, p. 671-678
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 5983, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 6:04:34 PM

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