Making Independent Reading Work
Today’s Independent Reading (IR) programs differ significantly from SSR and DEAR. Effective IR programs require active teacher engagement, time, a broad range of leveled texts, talk around texts, and differentiated instruction. The benefits are well worth it: increased student achievement, motivation, and a love of reading.
Every child needs a chance to read independently in school. In the frenzy to prepare students for large-scale assessments, some schools are limiting independent reading (IR) time. Yet the Common Core State Standards themselves advocate student independent reading from a multiplicity of genre. In fact, some argue that Common Core materials should “increase regular independent reading of texts that appeal to students’ interests while developing both their knowledge base and joy in reading” (Coleman & Pimental, 2012, p. 4).
Now more than ever, research studies provide guidance for creating IR programs that contribute to achievement. The teacher is a central player in these programs, setting the stage and directing the action that makes IR work. Today’s IR programs should differ significantly from Sustained Silent Reading (SSR), Drop Everything and Read (DEAR), and earlier iterations of IR.
Independent reading involves the full participation of the teacher
This means the teacher is instructing, scaffolding, and conferring with students (Reutzel, Fawson, & Smith, 2008) during IR time. For example, the teacher educates students in how to select appropriate books, scaffolds student understanding of specific text types, and confers with students to assess their understanding of what they have read.
Independent reading requires an investment of time
Children need time to read — a lot of time. Time spent reading contributes to reading achievement in ways that simply doing worksheets or other activities does not (Allington, 2002; Foorman et al., 2006). Time is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, however. Less proficient readers may benefit from shorter time frames until they build more reading stamina, whereas better readers may read successfully for longer periods of time.
Independent reading requires a broad range of leveled texts
Not too long ago, most classroom libraries were composed of mainly fictional texts — stories, myths, legends, fantasies, and more. Today, however, we know students need to read from many different genres including informational trade books, newspapers, magazines, online resources, primary source documents, plays, poems, graphical texts, and biographies. Most experts recommend that classroom libraries include 50% literary texts and 50% informational texts. Some texts should be leveled so that all students have access to books appropriate to their reading levels. This does not mean that every IR book a student selects must be easy; when students pick harder books that can stretch them, they may need additional teacher scaffolding to ensure success. In addition to access, students need their teachers to teach them to select books. Teachers need to model strategies students can use to carefully select a rich variety of texts for IR.
Talk around texts is an essential component of Independent reading
Earlier forms of IR placed little emphasis upon talk around texts. Today we know that even 10 minutes of talk around texts can enhance achievement (Nystrand, 2006). Both small-group and large-group conversations can contribute to critical thinking, metacognition, and argument construction. Strategies like Instructional Conversations and Questioning the Author let students share what they have learned from texts.
Independent reading requires differentiated instruction
This is especially true for English learners and struggling readers, as IR experiences are even more important for these students than for others. These students need help selecting books, more support during reading, and more strategy instruction. Most important, they need more IR time than other students. Poor readers typically spend less time reading both in and out of school. Their progress depends on reading practice, which they lack. Making IR contingent on work completion is a perfect example of why these students don’t get the reading practice they need. Struggling readers seldom complete work early, and miss the reading opportunities they need so much.
Effective IR programs have the potential to not only increase student achievement but also motivate children to discover the love of reading that can last a lifetime.
About the author
Barbara Moss, PhD, is a professor of literacy education at San Diego State University, where she teaches classes at the credential, masters, and doctoral levels. She also taught English language arts or reading at every grade level from 3–12 and is the author of numerous journal articles and books about many aspects of literacy learning including close reading, informational texts, and disciplinary literacy. She co-authored (with Debbie Miller) Not This, But That: No More Independent Reading Without Support, published by Heinemann.
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Allington, R.L. (2002). What I’ve learned about effective reading instruction from a decade of studying exemplary elementary classroom teachers. Phi Delta Kappan, 83(10): 740-747.
Coleman, D., & Pimentel, S. (2012). Revised publisher’s criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and literacy, grades K–2. Retrieved from www.corestandards.org/assets/Publishers_Criteria_for_K-2.pdf.
Foorman, B., Schatschneider, C., Eakin, M.N., Fletcher, J.M., Moats, L.C., & Francis, D.J. (2006).The impact of instructional practices in grades 1 and 2 on reading and spelling achievement in high poverty schools. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 31(1), 1–29.
Nystrand, M. (2006). Research on the role of classroom discourse as it affects reading comprehension. Research in the Teaching of English, 40(4), 392–412.
Reutzel, D.R., Fawson, P.C., & Smith, J.A. (2008). Reconsidering silent sustained reading: An exploratory study of scaffolded silent reading. Journal of Educational Research, 102(1), 37–50.