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Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

What Is Independent Reading and Why Does He Say All Those Horrible Things About It?

Recently I posted a tweet challenging the idea that “independent reading” in the classroom was such a good idea. Not surprisingly I found myself the target of all kinds of Trumpian tweets and vilification. It got so bad that multiple major proponents of encouraging reading contacted me in embarrassment over the responses (because some of it was unprofessional, and much of it was just badly reasoned).

Part of the problem is that many teachers believe their actions are deeply moral so if anyone questions their choices, they go off the deep end (there are few small disagreements about reading instruction these days).

But honestly a really big part of the problem is the term “independent reading” itself. The assorted tweets revealed deep disagreements about what these tweeters thought independent reading was—which was interesting since they apparently all thought they were talking about the same thing.

I doubt that it is possible to convince someone who is deeply invested in in-class independent reading that they can do better, but it certainly should be possible to clarify what the practice is and what its implications may be. This one is a two-parter (maybe three). There is a lot of ground to cover here.

Before doing that, let me declare my positions as forthrightly as possible using the definitions and explanations that will follow.

  1. I believe that kids should read a lot in school and out of school.
  2. I believe that most out-of-school reading should be independent.
  3. I believe that most in-school reading should not be independent.

What is independent reading?

According to Wikipedia, “independent reading is a term used in educational settings, where students are involved in choosing and reading material (fiction books, nonfiction, magazines, other media) for their independent consumption and enjoyment.” That sounds good, but then what do we call the reading that kids do on their own away from school?

And, what of all those teachers who explained that they checked on the students’ comprehension regularly and guided their reading in various ways; doesn’t that steer the purpose away from enjoyment towards just another school assignment?

Back in the 1960s, Russell Stauffer wrestled with this problem. He tried to clarify by using the term using “self-selected reading” to refer to the reading assignments kids did at school that allowed them a choice of reading material. That certainly distinguishes that this reading is still under the control of the teacher and that the only thing independent about it is who selects the texts.

The National Assessment people explain independent reading differently than Wikipedia. They don’t seem to think the educational setting is the main thing. Like Stauffer and Wikipedia, NAEP keys in on choice, but for them it is the consequential choice of whether to read or not that determines independence.

Those silly people over at the American Association of School Libraries apparently would reject most if not all of the independent reading views that have been thrown at me over these past weeks. They claim that independent reading is the reading students choose to do on their own, that it involves personal choice of material, as well as of time and place. It is reading that no one assigns, and it requires no reporting or accountability.

I’d love to tell you this confusion is new — and then blame it on Lucy Calkins or Steven Krashen. But that is not the case.

In fact, the term independent reading has been used for more than a hundred years (thanks, Google), and Wikipedia seems to have it right — it seemingly has always been used in relationship to schooling. Think about it. When you talk to your friends about what they are reading … do you talk about reading or independent reading?

“What are you reading independently, Gloria?”

I found sources in the Nineteenth Century that referred to independent reading as the reading one did for homework — it was independent of the school building, but not of the school. And, some Twentieth Century sources refer to independent reading as silent reading; that is, it is the reading the teacher doesn’t listen to you doing.

By the Twentieth Century independent reading had started to accumulate synonyms like “spare time reading,” “recreational reading,” “free reading,” and “reading on their own.” None of these synonyms is entirely satisfactory, but they all suggest that control of the reading has shifted to the kids and away from the teacher.  

In that vein, the Report of the National Committee on Reading (1925) talked about independent reading as reading with little or no assessment (there go those one-on-one teacher conferences). By the 1940s, “independent reading,” whatever they may have meant by it had even become part of the basal reader instruction of the day.

By the time I was teaching, Lyman Hunt had institutionalized the idea of independent reading as “uninterrupted sustained silent reading (USSR).” The teacher was to schedule regular class time for kids to do independent reading. They were to choose the texts they read, and teachers were to stay out of that process. No one was to quiz or question the kids on those books, and teachers were to spend that time reading, too. (The term USSR soon was soon shortened to SSR to distinguish it from the Soviet Union, and later it was replaced by more child-friendly terms like Drop Everything and Read — DEAR time).

SSR was studied quite a bit, and it wasn’t found to do much for kids in terms of either improving their reading or their motivation for reading. Quite appropriately it started to fall out of favor in schools.

Accordingly, various educators started gussying up “independent reading” to make it look more instructional. In some cases, this meant controlling what kids could read (perhaps they could still choose, but now only books at certain levels or ones the teacher had prepared). In other cases, it meant adding mini-lessons to teach reading strategies or weekly conferences, so the teacher could check whether students were actually doing the reading. In other words, they were trying to make independent reading less, well …independent.

This is a mess. We need different terms for these different conceptions of independent reading. Here is my shot at it:

Independent Reading

I’m with the librarians and NAEP on this one … independent reading is the reading that people choose to do on their own — reading that they are not required to do, reading that is not assigned, reading that they will not be tested on or questioned about since it is being done for their own independent or individual purposes (to learn what they want to learn, to enjoy, to fulfill themselves as they conceive of fulfilment). And, of course, independent reading involves a choice of what you read.

Independent reading entails many choices — whether or not to read, why to read, when to read, where to read, and how to read.

Independent reading can and does happen in school. Little Kevin or Bridget get their work done early and pull out their copy of Captain Underpants just because they want to is every bit an example of independent as the kid in the Norman Rockwell painting who is sneaking a read by flashlight under the covers late (too late) at night.

Required or Mandated Self-Selected Reading

The most important choice in independent reading is whether to read or not.

I love reading, but not as much as I love spending time with my grandchildren. When my daughter asks me to babysit, I know it means I’m going to lose out on independent reading time, but I don’t care because I’d rather play with babies.

Most of what teachers call independent reading these days is actually mandated reading.

“You don’t like to read? Too bad … this is reading time.”

“You’d rather do your math or talk to your pal? Too bad … this is reading time.”

“You’re not interested in anything that we have books on? Not my problem, it is your time to read for pleasure.”

That’s a bit overwrought, sure, but I get many letters from parents telling me that’s just how their kids feel — especially if they have learning problems, or if they just don’t sit well for long. (And believe it or not, some kids just don’t enjoy reading).

What’s independent about this kind of thing? It is independent of school purposes (e.g., teaching kids to read, social studies content to be mastered), it is independent of textbooks and teacher choices, it is independent of pedagogy (e.g., oral reading practice, vocabulary instruction), it is independent of assessment (the purpose may be to give kids a chance to practice what they have learned, but no one is going to check up on that).

This category as described is the one most similar to sustained silent reading. Although students have to read (or at least pretend to read), they get to choose what they want to read. Teachers trying to provide this kind of reading experience may offer some guidance when kids are having trouble finding a book, but such choices are not limited and are ultimately up to the kids.

Required/Mandated Limited Selection Reading

This category not only requires that students read, but their reading choices are limited, too — and, it should become obvious that the reading purposes get reshaped a bit as well. The reason for limiting the students’ reading choices is usually aimed at making certain the pedagogical value of the exercise.

In the previous category, a teacher might require independent reading for a general purpose like “teaching students to love reading,” but in this category such blunt pedagogical purposes are sharpened. Not all books will lead to the learning that we want to see, so teachers necessarily constrain student choices.

One popular choice constraint is book leveling. If the book doesn’t have a blue dot you can’t read it independently. That means the kid who is dying to read a book that his friend loved may be out of luck since his buddy is a better or worse reader.

Likewise, many teachers tell me that in the “independent reading” in their classrooms, kids get to choose from restricted sets of books that satisfy certain pedagogical concerns. For example, a teacher might assign five novels by Walter Dean Myers for her three “book clubs” to choose from. Or another might have a set of books that he has developed questioning guides for conferencing, and the kids’ independence has to stay within those bounds.

In this category, kids have to read, but they get some choice of what to read — though these choices are constrained more or less by topic, author, level or some other criterion to increase the chances of good learning outcomes.

Required/Mandated Reading with Accountability

This category is very similar to the preceding one in that it tries to reap pedagogical benefits from supposedly independent reading. In this one, instead of limiting what students can read, teachers insert themselves into the process by monitoring how the reading is going.

This can be done several ways. Accelerated Reader monitors the kids using multiple-choice tests to see if they get points for the reading. For many teachers, conferencing is about checking up to see that the kids are really reading the books or that they are successfully applying their reading skills (be sure to ask a main idea question).

Required Pedagogical Reading

This is just what it sounds like: it is reading that is required by the school. Kids don’t get to choose whether to read the guided reading text or the science book. Teachers assign pages and kids read them. Teachers hold kids accountable for this reading. There is nothing independent about it.

The purposes of the reading are pretty specific, too. The teacher/school/textbook are presenting the content they want kids to learn and texts that will require practice with particular text elements or reading skills. Kids may or may not like this kind of reading, but that isn’t the (main) point.

There might be some latitude in the where and when such reading takes place. For instance, homework reading typically will fit in this category, and even required reading during the school day may take place in a range of classroom and school locales (e.g., at the reading circle, in one’s desk, in the library corner, in the school library).

Obviously, when it comes to independent reading we don’t all see eye-to-eye. The issue it seems to me is has to do with implications of these different conceptions. Which of them are most effective — in building reading achievement and in encouraging kids to love reading? Now that these terms have been clarified, we can start to get at that issue in a forthright (and, I hope, dispassionate) manner.

That’s next.

And, finally, perhaps in another forthcoming entry I’ll have the energy to explore whether schools even have the right to require that anyone love reading. If a teacher loves to read is her duty really to try to make the kids be like her? (Stand clear… brickbats are coming, I’m sure.)

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About the Author

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 (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
March 26, 2018