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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

How Effective Is Independent Reading in Teaching Reading?

April 2, 2018

Last week I explained the concept of “independent reading.” Reviewing various documents from across the past 150 years — research studies, government reports, encyclopedia entries, pronouncements of august organizations, teacher blogs, methods guides — revealed that we educators have been pretty sloppy in our use of that term.

Of course, if everybody says independent reading, but no one means the same thing, there is a communications problem.

I proposed reserving the term independent reading for situations that are truly independent: in which readers choose to read, choose what they want to read, and are accountable to no one for what they read.

I said that I’d use “required self-selected reading” for those instances when teachers insist that kids read but allow them to choose the texts, and “required limited-choice reading” when the students have text choices, but ones are regulated by the teacher in some way. Finally, “required reading with accountability” would be reserved for those cases in which students are required to do self-selected reading that is to be monitored in some way (e.g., assignments, conferences).

With those terms, at least we can be sure that we are talking about the same thing.

Is reading valuable — that is, does it matter if kids read?

This one seems like a no brainer. Practice is important if someone is going to get good at a skill. I know one can learn from reading — new vocabulary words, the information about the world that an author shares — because I’m a reader. Recently, I read a book on relativity theory by Albert Einstein. I had not understood relativity my entire life until I read that book and I read it without the assistance of a teacher. We can learn from reading!

Logical analyses (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998; Nagy & Anderson, 1984) of children’s vocabulary development make a pretty good case for text reading as an important source of vocabulary growth. We can incidentally gain new vocabulary from conversation and media too, but some words are only likely to come from reading. Descriptive analyses of brain activation during reading (Nestor, 2012) also underscore the value of reading practice in the activation and paring of neural network responses to words (practice makes us faster decoders).

No question about it. Reading can lead to learning and that is true if the reading takes place independently, socially, or under the supervision of a teacher. It is true whether the reading is oral or silent, self-selected or assigned, done at home or at school. It is a good idea to require children to read. It is a good idea to encourage children to read on their own.

Does that mean that all reading practice is equal in terms of learning?

No, I’m not saying all reading practice is equal. I’m just saying that all reading practice has some potential for stimulating some amount of learning. In fact, I think it’s fair to conclude that some forms of reading practice are likely to be more supportive of learning than others. That’s why these distinctions among different kinds of reading are so important: some kinds of reading practice are more effective in benefitting kids. That’s the real issue.

How effective is independent reading?

Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to provide sound estimates of that from existing experimental studies. We only have correlational data about independent reading, and these studies are not very thorough.

Think about it. If we’re really talking about the impact of freely chosen, voluntary reading (as opposed to required reading) then we can’t simply assign kids to an independent reading condition or the research assignment itself becomes an externally imposed reading requirement. Under those circumstances the reading would no longer be independent.

Correlational studies consistently reveal a positive relationship between the amount of independent reading and reading proficiency. Simply put, the best readers tend to read the most.

The problem is that correlations can be read either way: it could be that the kids who practice the most become better readers, but it is just as likely that the best readers enjoy reading more than the kids who struggle to read. And, of course, both of these variables are related to socioeconomic status and that could explain all or a big part of the correlation.

What about the effectiveness of required self-selected reading?

While there is a dearth of experiments on independent reading, there are a slew of such studies on required self-selected reading. I’ve been critical of the quality of such studies in the past, though recent ones have been more rigorous and better reported (though their results haven’t been that different).

Meta-analyses have examined the average impact on reading achievement of summer reading programs (in which kids are encouraged to read on their own during the summer) and sustained silent reading programs (in which kids are encouraged to read on their own during the school day). They have found positive impacts on reading achievement, though the average effect sizes have been pretty low (.14 and .05, respectively — Kim & Quinn, 2013; Yoon, 2002), meaning that such reading leads to learning but not to very much learning.

In contrast, when one looks at instructional interventions in reading — interventions in which kids are taught skills like phonics or fluency or reading comprehension strategies — the average effects tend to be in the .40s (three to eight times higher than the impact of mandated self- selected reading). Reading on one’s own leads to reading improvement, but not to as much reading improvement as usually results when kids read with a teacher.

These are averages. Some teachers may do a lot better than reading alone does, while others might not add as much advantage. Kids differ too. Some are likely to be better learners when left to their own devices, while others might lack the same degree of focus or ability.  

Why is teacher-led reading usually more effective than reading independently?

There are several possible reasons why teacher-led reading is more effective than these more independent forms of reading. It may have to do with text choice or with what happens before, during, and after reading.

Not surprisingly, some books stimulate learning more than others. Some may present information that society judges to be of greater value (that’s why we assign texts on science, but not about sticker collections or Boss Baby).

Some texts are likely to be more supportive of reading development, too. Maybe they use words with particular spelling patterns, academic language, or organizational schemes. Those kinds of texts allow teachers to draw kids’ attention to particular features and to show them how to negotiate them effectively.

When it comes to learning the content of the texts, one usually does better reading with social support than on one’s own, and that advantage is heightened when the texts are more difficult, the content less familiar, or an individual’s internal motivation is attenuated.

Social interactions about texts tend to sharpen our game: having someone to talk to about a book improves comprehension (whether those others are book club buddies, or a teacher hired for that purpose). Social partners can push a reader to reflect more deeply or more thoroughly about ideas, or to notice things that may have escaped them if left to their own devices.

Basically, kids definitely can learn on their own, but we put them in schools and provide them with teachers to try to do better than what the children could do for themselves.

Can required self-selected reading be made more effective?

That was one of the interesting things about those Twitter arguments. Many of the instructional practices that teachers described as “independent reading,” didn’t sound independent at all.

Their descriptions sounded like they were arguing for required self-selected reading or required limited-choice reading, sometimes even required limited-choice reading with accountability. In other words, they were touting the importance of independent reading in their classrooms but not actually providing it.

I suspect that their claims (or their actual practices) leaned hard away from independent reading and towards more instructionally advantaged approaches for a reason, and I think their hunch is right.

The more “independent reading” practices are like effective reading instruction the more powerful they are likely to be. The teacher who said his students were selecting their texts from a teacher-curated collection is likely to be more effective than those who give the kids free reign to read whatever they want during class time.

His approach both increases the chance that the reading will provide an opportunity to learn (if he chooses well) and improves the possibility the teacher will know enough about a text to provide useful reading guidance or to question deeply.

The same can be said for the reading leader who’d provided questioning guides for the approved text choices. Reading conferences based on those guides would probably be better than the shallow improvised ones that I often observe in the laissez-faire classes.

Research is supportive of instructional techniques that encourage students to read texts deeply and thoroughly and intensively (Fisher, Fry, & Hattie, 2016). The question is whether having a student read a self-selected text on his or her own with a brief weekly reading conference (3-5 minutes) with the teacher is enough to inculcate that kind of deep, thorough, intensive reading. Despite the popularity of that conference approach, there are still no research studies supporting its effectiveness.

My personal observations of those one-on-one conferences is that they tend to be pretty shallow and repetitive; more like the teacher is checking to make sure the students read the text or that they could answer a certain kind of question (supposedly practicing a reading skill) rather than trying to take them to a deeper level of interpretation or to identify what text feature may be blocking their understanding.

My point isn’t that one-on-one conferences couldn't possibly lead kids to the type of depth they need to aspire to, only that they usually don’t, and that they tend to be so brief that they rarely will work that way—except perhaps for the best readers. I know that can happen in group reading discussions, too, but the difference in those cases is that the less able readers are included in the discussion and get to observe what the better readers accomplished.  

The conferencing approach to reading is just too inefficient compared to something like a Great Books discussion group or an analytical or synthetic essay written about a text.

If the point is to help kids become better readers, everyone agrees it is important that they read. The only issue is whether kids should be reading on their own when they have a skilled teacher available to guide them to read better. Research, and common sense, suggest keeping teachers more deeply engaged in the instructional process and every reading lesson (and most science and social studies lessons as well) should involve kids in reading texts for substantial amounts of time.

Next week

That leaves us with one more issue: what about the role of these different kinds of reading in teaching kids to love reading? Does requiring kids to read on their own at school create lifetime readers? Does it encourage them to read more away from school? That’s for next week.


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"The things I want to know are in books. My best friend is the man who'll get me a book I [haven't] read." — Abraham Lincoln