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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.

For the Love of Reading: Independent Reading at School

April 9, 2018

The last couple weeks I’ve clarified the definition of “independent reading” and explored the impact of kids doing required reading on their own at school.

Independence is obviously a gradient; the independence teachers often refer to isn’t about whether kids must read or not (it is usually required in these schemes), but it is about who picks the texts and whether there is any accountability for the reading. By “independent reading,” these teachers really are talking about self-selection of the texts.

Given the importance of literacy in our society it is essential that we teach students to read well. With regard to the learning impact of independent reading, the research findings are pretty commonsense: Kids learn something from practicing reading on their own, but they usually learn more when reading under teacher guidance. If kids really learned as much or more from reading on their own as they do from instruction, then we wouldn’t need teachers.

Many teachers say they devote valuable class time to independent reading not to make kids better readers, but to engender a love of reading. Let’s explore that idea.

Is “love of reading” a legitimate education goal?

Love of reading is kind of a slippery concept.

Some teachers, for instance, seem to advance “love” less as a goal, and more as a long-term strategy for improving reading achievement. Their reasoning is that if kids like reading, they’ll practice it more and this will boost learning (an idea shared by many parents, including those who aren’t big readers themselves).

There is a bit of a philosophical morass surrounding this goal, too. In a democratic society should public institutions, like schools, decide what it is that we should like? Centrally determining that everyone is to share our cultural tastes seems a bit authoritarian. If there is doubt that teachers are judging kids on some kind of “love of reading” continuum, I’d suggest reviewing many of the tweets over this issue in the past several weeks.

Not surprisingly no state has adopted “love of reading” as a public education goal (a couple have said kids should be doing independent reading, but with neither definition nor criteria for demonstrating compliance, suggesting their hearts may not have really been in this one).

If love of reading is an educational goal it is a decidedly personal one adopted by individual teachers, which is fine — but one would recommend caution about prioritizing personal ambitions over publicly agreed upon ones. When teachers say it doesn’t matter whether their approaches raise achievement because they are making kids love reading then things have gotten out of whack. Teaching kids to read well ultimately must trump a teacher’s personal desire to get kids to like what the teacher likes; in other words, feel free to try to get kids to enjoy reading as much as I do, but don’t do it at the kids’ learning expense.

My wife tells me teachers always want their students to “like” whatever they are teaching, and that makes sense to me, though it argues for at least an equal emphasis on making kids love science, math, history, literature, the arts, and so on (one admired colleague tells me he doesn’t want his kids to be passionate about reading, but about some subject that they can read about).

Does required self-selected reading at school lead to greater motivation or a lifelong love of reading?

Who knows?

Some proponents of independent reading argue that kids should have an abundance of texts to read, that they should have unfettered free choice as to what to read, and that this reading should not require accountability. Others reign these freedoms in a bit, limiting text choices or requiring that students talk to the teacher about what they’ve read.

The only one of these practices that anyone has bothered to study in terms of motivation or impact on outside of school reading is the sustained silent reading or drop everything and read model). Those studies have not been particularly positive in terms of motivation: in some cases, the self-selected reading times actually reduced kids’ actual independent reading. Not a surprising finding that: if you want kids to enjoy something, requiring them to do it by themselves and then showing no interest in what they are doing as required by SSR/DEAR is not especially inspiring.

But of those more recent practices like conferring one-on-one with kids about what they read, no one has even bothered to evaluate their impact. The assumption has been that since reading is good, any approach that encourages reading must be good too. But just because the goal is affirmative, does not mean the approach to it is necessarily effective.

When teachers tell me that they are having great success with free reading time and conferencing because their students are reading so much more than they used to, I ask “How much were they reading before and how much are they are reading now?” And the response is always the same: I don’t know how much they were reading before, but some parents tell me their kids are reading more.

In other words, they have no idea whether it is helping or not — or who it is helping — or whether they could do it more effectively … (Currently, anyone in education who dares question the effectiveness of these instructional practices is going to be treated as a bad person who must be shouted down; this discourages any kind of careful consideration of whether the favored practices are benefiting kids or not.)

Then we shouldn’t try to motivate kids to read?

No, I’m not saying that. I’m saying that the ways many teachers are trying to get kids to read are unlikely to be effective because they ignore important realities about learning and motivation.

Starting with the obvious: if kids are to love reading, then the better they can read, the greater the chance they’ll find something to read that would be enjoyable and that they could read with ease. Instructional practices that prioritize enjoyment over learning may be as stultifying as helpful. The oft cited statistic that better readers read more suggests that the most powerful enabler of love of reading is effective and efficient reading instruction.

When science or social studies educators try to make kids love their subjects, they seem to aim at improving their teaching practices in powerful ways rather than reducing the teaching (no one has advanced “free science time,” “drop everything and math,” or “social studies conferencing.” Of course, there are experts in reading education with proven records of improving kids’ motivation (John Guthrie), but his approaches don’t fit the Rousseauian philosophy that kids are best served when they receive the least teaching.

Also, it seems evident that you are not going to instill wide reading without the easy availability of texts. Programs that provide texts to kids — especially at home, especially for younger kids — tend to increase the amount of reading (Lindsay, 2010). That’s why classroom libraries, school libraries, and public libraries are so important. That’s why book-providing programs like First Book, Reach Out and Read, and Reading is Fundamental are so important. That’s why book mobiles and other efforts to raise the quantity and quality of books in communities are important.

Choice is important in motivation, too, so proponents of independent reading are definitely on to something there. Theories of motivation have long held that choice matters, and empirical studies show that one can stimulate both better motivation and better achievement through the wise orchestration of choice.

That doesn’t mean that such choice needs to be as wide open as it is in some classrooms. Guthrie and his colleagues set learning goals and raise inquiry questions and then allows kids to freely select the books that will allow them to pursue those questions (which creates a meaningful standard for evaluating the quality of student choices). In other cases, a teacher might have units of study that include a small set of carefully curated texts that students may select among. And, choice within a lesson does not always have to be about which text to read; in many cases, the teacher or curriculum would best determine that, but the kids still can choose the order of the reading, who to read with, how to report out the results of the reading, or even where in the room the reading is to be done. (Those choices are motivational, too.)

Social interactions around text are extremely important, hence my antipathy for approaches that just send kids away to read. Approaches like cooperative learning and “book clubs” where groups of kids work together with varying degrees of supervision to figure out common problems or to pursue socially-determined goals can be both effective in teaching and in arousing student interest and motivation. I think that is the reason for the one-on-one conferencing, a practice that I wouldn’t forbid (it definitely helps kids to make a social connection around reading with the teacher), but I would use it more sparingly because of the obvious efficiency problems inherent in it.

Psychologists have studied the importance of “stimulating tasks” in arousing interest, and I’d pay attention to that. For instance, in science kids might start with hands-on experiments and live observations which raise questions and interest, that then may be pursued through reading. In social studies or literature, the stimulating task might be a social problem that is examined or a video that is observed. This approach assumes that reading itself isn’t the attraction; reading gains its value by allowing us to pursue ideas of interest (thus, “I love dinosaurs so am interested in books about dinosaurs”, rather than “I love reading, so maybe I’ll read these books about dinosaurs”).

What I am saying is that instead of reducing the amount of reading instruction by sending kids off to read on their own — or instead of rendering reading instruction inefficient by conferring with each kid one-on-one about a different book — why not just try to make reading instruction itself more dynamic, interesting, valuable, and social?

But my kids live in poverty communities where they don’t read? What about them?

I object to and disagree with the premise both on personal experience and from studies like those of Denny Taylor’s (“family literacy”). That said, there is no question that in poverty communities, families are less likely to have books available and parent education levels reduce the likelihood that reading will take place frequently in those neighborhoods.

Free reading time at school is not likely to make such kids into lifelong readers. The reason I say that is the problem of transfer. Kids will definitely read when a teacher requires it in class. But when they go home the circumstances are often so different that they are not likely to transfer the behavior across conditions. Pleasure reading becomes something that one does at school not in life.

Instead of writing the community off, why not reach out to parents themselves (Willingham, 2015)? I’ve run successful parent education programs that increased the amount of reading activity in immigrant homes (Project FLAME), other researchers have created programs that pose reading challenges that involve parents in their kids’ out-of-school reading (Colgate, Ginns, & Bagnall, 2017), there are summer reading programs that have had success (e.g., Kim, Allington, McGill-Frantzen). I know of teachers in the Chicago area who do things like have book discussions with kids at lunchtime or who run father-son book clubs outside of the school day.

If you want kids to read beyond the school day, having kids read on their own at school is not the surest way to success.

Requiring kids to read on their own — even if you call it independent reading — is not likely to make kids into lifelong readers. Certainly, some of the practices engaged in by teachers who are going down this road make sense (increased book availability, choice, social connections with teachers), but for the most part their effectiveness and costs (to learning) are unknown. Hedge your bets … make effective instruction motivational instead of assuming that if it’s not instruction then kids will like it. Adopt practices that encourage kids to read on their own — even when you are not requiring it.

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"I'm wondering what to read next." — Matilda, Roald Dahl