The main purpose of the article was to provide an authentic contrast to the National Reading Panel’s 2000 findings that suggest that reading models like Sustained Silent Reading provide no notable benefits for the development of students as readers. Without taking a stance on either SSR or Independent Models more similar to a “Reader’s Workshop” model of Independent Reading I was immediately prompted to consider myself as a reader now, as an adult, and look for comparisons to the kind of readers I see on a daily basis in the students I serve.
The first, and most obvious similarity, is autonomy of text selection. In fact, within both SSR and Independent Reading, self selection is essential. Whether it is a novel by Matthew Pearl, a timeless classic like My Antonia, or a recent article in a professional magazine I am pretty picky in what I want to spend my time reading, especially since there is no guarantee how long my eyes will stay open when I sit to read. It is not a rare occurrence for me to table a book within the first chapter if I am not captured or intrigued by some aspect of the text. In the recent, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children I was captured by the immediate connection to the narrator and the intrigue in the story. And as the story became more bizarre and the characters more whimsical I easily turned page upon page until I came to the ending. I also know enough about myself as a reader that I would love a good historical fiction novel, or a good piece of literary nonfiction; such as, Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea.
The first step to help this process is to offer students a way to reflect/uncover/express their reading preferences through reading inventories. I also recommend talking to students during 1 on 1 time or at lunch/class change about the books they like to read and the topics they enjoy. As the classroom teacher the response now becomes, I need to help my students become well read. I have to have choices in abundance. I cannot exclude Blueford High Series books, but I also cannot limit the collection to the series and graphic novels. I must include mysteries, dramas, trade books, biographies, classics and modern works of fiction. The classroom library needs to promote the idea that there are many different readers in the room and they are all valued and appreciated. I think advertising books that I’ve read and showcasing student recommendations through a “Hot Reads” board is an excellent way to promote books that might get overlooked. Even starting a routine, student-driven book talk will help students see themselves as valued readers.
The second area of congruence is a conducive environment. When I read, unless at the dentist office, I prefer to be comfortable, near a lamp, with a cup of tea, coffee or glass of water. I think one of the things we tend to do, especially with older students, is park them in their desks. I don’t know what other locations within a classroom are more comfortable than a desk if spaces aren’t intentionally created. I think bringing in lamps, padded chairs, bean bags, carpets, etc is a must. Though it wont necessarily be for all students, I think it shows a commitment to honoring the reader’s autonomy. I think when anyone walks into the classroom, they should immediately tell reading happens and is enjoyed here.
Third is time. I have not come across a single model in my research in which reading time is completely random. In looking at SSR and Reader’s Workshop, time is specifically scheduled routinely for students to read. This is critical. Based on a 2004 study Journal of Literary Research, Guthrie J.T., “experts typically spend 500% more time engaged in the performance of a skill than novices. Reading is apparently no different…proficient 4th grade readers engage in reading activity on average 2.5 hours per day, while the poorest readers participate with reading for 30 minutes or fewer, a difference of 500%.” If we don’t provide students with adequate time to become “well-read” readers then we are leaving it up to chance that it will happen somewhere else besides our classrooms. There are those few readers, so captured by their novels, they can hardly wait for the second of downtime so they can open up their novel and continue reading. There have been times when I have been able to fight off sleep just to finish a great read. But then there is the contrary, the time when students, and adults, resist reading. Even to this day over a decade later I hate to be told what to read because I had to read 22 novels across 3 courses during 1 semester of college. These are the readers I mostly encounter. They don’t have the time or access to texts outside of school. The year they sit in front of me is not the first school year they did not enjoy or struggle when reading. I must help them see the importance by protecting time in class for reading.
Determining when to read independently is addressed in models like Reading Workshop, Cafe, or SSR. I am not going to attempt to answer the when question, but would encourage you to research and reflect on your own. It is, however, important to consider the implications of when students read in your classroom because the impact can be positive or negative. For example, if independent reading happens like a DEAR approach (drop everything and read) the results are most likely a FART (Forget all you read Today). When there has been no clear purpose for reading set, or no connection between reading and instruction from day to day made, students lose interest in reading. We then, in an attempt to explain their negative reading behaviors, blame the results on the students effort, but in actually we were the cause. On the contrary, when students understand the purpose for their reading, have a nurtured value in that purpose, and can see the connection and relevance between classroom instruction and what they are reading we foster a love for reading and place value in the students as readers.
Lastly, readers need to share their experiences. Anytime I can stomach a conversation with a Harry Potter fan I make sure to recommend a “real book about magic,” Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I love sharing my 10th grade reading experience with students. I was typically bored by what we read in class and seldom found delight in school reading. That is until Ms. Boar’s English class and Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. It is not just students listening to me tell my story, they have to tell their own and hear their peers’. Furthermore, just like the article that got this post started, readers want to immediately share their experiences. While promoting reading we must allow for this to occur at all stages of reading (Before, During, and After). This should happen through many types of activities, including but not limited to, book talks, conferring, Book Recommendations, Literary Circles, class/individual blogs, reading journals etc. It really is about creating a culture where readers and reading are valued. (Notice I made no mention of typical assessment yet students are still held accountable.)
I think the more opportunities students have to be excited about what they read the more likely they will be to read outside of the class- the more likely they will be to seek out texts and authors they like on their own, and read them. We are social creatures. We see movies, watch TV shows or sporting events, we take vacations and then we look forward to sharing and discussing those experiences with others. In some cases it is to share something that may be new to someone else. Other times, it is to find commonality, or even companionship, in the experience. Reading must afford the students the same opportunity in our classes so the discussion will continue outside. Eventually conversations will sprout outside of classrooms naturally, and if that occurs I know that 75% of my job is complete. They still need to be proficient on their end of year assessment (there I said it).
I should briefly mention why I did not include “at their level” as a key feature of independent reading in this post. Students need to have exposure to and opportunity to struggle with challenging texts. We need to be prepared to talk with students about why it is tough and coach them through it. I don’t ever consider reading level when I pick up a book to read. If the culture is in place and, connecting to my previous point about selection autonomy, if students are well-read they will know enough about themselves as readers to make the determination if a book is just-right or not. I need to help them grow as a reader in more ways than just to pass a test or to complete a box and bullet organizer. Helping students to grow as a reader and develop a toolkit of strategies to unlock all texts, including challenging texts, based on their own experiences while reading is my main goal as a reading teacher anyway. I welcome the opportunity.
In conclusion, my point is not to favor one model or program over another. It is to prompt some introspection and reflection about who you are as a reader and how you can enable students to learn about themselves as a reader and grow. I will conclude with questions from the study(Language Arts pg 164) to serve as reflection:
1. What does the term independent reading mean to you?
2. In what ways do you currently use independent reading with your students?
3. What experiences have influenced the decisions you make about independent reading in your classroom?
4. What are some of the pros and cons you see in using independent reading with your students?
5. What impact do you think independent reading has on your students’ reading growth?
6. What is your reasoning for the balance of reading and reading-related activities in your classroom?
7. In what ways do you provide support for your students’ independent reading before, during, and after independent reading episodes?
8. How important is a program (AR, Daily 5, etc) in supporting independent reading in your classroom?
9. What are the characteristics of the program that are important to students’ success with independent reading? Why?
10. What role will student interest surveys and autonomy play in students’ success with independent reading?
ReadWriteThink.org support: Search “support Independent Reading”
Theodore Mueller's professional career is one shaped by motion, from potentiality to actuality. He is continually striving towards becoming a better educator than he was the day before. He received his M.Ed. from Valparaiso University in 2004 and completed his NBPTS certification in 2010. He has taught English/Language Arts for 10 years total in both Chicago and Charlotte. Recently, he has spent two years as a facilitator. His number 1 passion is still the students in the building, though he has grown to find working with adults just as rewarding. The similarity working with both is simple: It is all about the relationships! Hes enjoy the English/Language Arts Content and has enjoyed working with the Humanities Department to write and develop Curriculum and Performance Tasks for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for the past three years. In addition, he has had numerous great experiences delivering PD and working with colleagues. But more importantly, he has learned a great deal and continues to grow daily. He would love to connect with you on Twitter and invites you to be part of his growing PLN.