Independent Reading: A Reading Achievement Game-Changer

Independent reading—inviting students to self-select books they want to and can read—is a reading achievement game changer. When students read a wide range of books they choose at school and at home, they enlarge their background knowledge and vocabulary, and develop personal literary tastes as they dip into diverse genres. The Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report found that 91% of kids say their favorite books are the ones they have picked out themselves!

In addition, researchers like Richard Allington, Donalyn Miller, and Steven Krashen point out that the more books students read independently, the more progress they make. Unfortunately, the reality for teachers is that a large number of the students in our classes avoid reading beyond school requirements. This avoidance negatively affects their vocabulary development, background knowledge, understanding, and reading stamina (the ability to focus on texts for at least thirty minutes). If we can help these students want to read—to choose to read at school and at home—then we can boost their reading achievement.

Jenna’s story illustrates how book talks by peers can change attitudes toward reading.

Jenna’s Story

A week before winter holiday, Jenna arrived in my eighth-grade class. During a new student interview, she became angry when I asked her to tell me about her reading life. “I hate reading, and you’ll never get me to read!”

Not wanting to fuel her anger and frustration toward reading, all I said was, “You definitely have strong feelings about reading.” 

Jenna’s comments ignited my teacher’s instinct to help her develop a love of reading. In my heart, though, I knew that at this moment in Jenna’s reading life, I needed to look to her peers for help—the twenty-five students in my class who were avid readers. Luckily, that week, students were presenting book talks on a self-selected book they had read during December. Jenna looked bored and disinterested until Estela discussed a story from Chicken Soup for the Preteen Soul 2.   

“I need to look at that book,” Jenna blurted after Estela finished. “Show me where the story was you talked about.”  I nodded my approval and Estela handed the book to Jenna. Later that morning, during independent reading, Jenna read “Tears in the Bathroom Stall” by John Powel. She checked out the book from our school library, plus Chicken Soup for the Soul:I Can’t Believe My Dog Did That!.  “I want to read them over winter break,” she explained.

Reading these books turned out to be a transformative experience for Jenna. Ideal for a reader who lacked stamina, the stories were short, and linked to issues young adolescents face. During the rest of the school year, Jenna read more Chicken Soup books, and then read several books in the Black Stallion series. She was on her way to developing a personal reading life and continually looked to peers for book recommendations.

At the end of the school year, I do an exit interview with each student and ask them, “What was one great experience this year?” Without hesitating, Jenna said, “I stopped hating reading.”

Research is clear about the benefits of independent reading of self-selected books in elementary, middle, and high school.  So, it seems logical that independent reading would be part of the English Language Arts curriculum in every school in our country. However, too often it is not, and roadblocks persist. Below, I will address some of these roadblocks and discuss solutions.

Roadblock 1: Finding the Time for Independent Reading

“But I don’t have time to let students read self-selected books at school,” and “How can I be sure they’re reading at school and home?” are two concerns I repeatedly hear from teachers. Time and student accountability are two big issues for teachers. The suggestions that follow can help you deal with both.

Try: Scheduling

Scheduling independent reading is frustrating for teachers who have 45 minutes a day to teach reading or reading and writing. If you have 45 minutes for reading, I recommend that you plan in two-week blocks and have independent reading on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and instructional reading the other three days. Over two weeks, students receive six full periods of instructional reading and four for independent reading.

If you have 45 minutes for reading and writing, during the first week schedule instructional reading on three days, writing on one day, and independent reading on one day. Flip the focus for the second week and schedule writing on three days, instructional reading on one day, and independent reading on one day. Play with and adjust this suggested schedule so that it works for you and your students.

Having students consistently read self-selected books at school builds stamina, the ability to concentrate, and can hook them onto reading for pleasure and exploring topics they love.

In addition, invite students to read at home for thirty minutes a night. Avoid asking them to write summaries of their reading or requiring an adult to verify that they did read. Trust your students, and know that some will avoid reading at first. However, like Jenna, they might find a book that brings them to reading via a student book talk, or by hearing a peer talk about a beloved book. I urge you to look at the glass half-full because no one can force a student to read. The desire has to come from a place deep in their hearts—a place that compels them to read.

Roadblock 2: Student Accountability

The need to have students complete a project for each book they’ve read seems to be widespread.  A project for every book read punishes your best readers and saps the desire to read, read, read! Again, independent reading is a matter of trust between adults and students.

Try: Book Talks

To address accountability and harness the power of peer influence, I like to have students present a book talk on their independent reading near the end of each month, and spread these over two to three classes, depending on the number of students. Just imagine the power in monthly book talks: if you have 25 students in a class, then in ten months, everyone will hear about 250 books! This is an ideal way to feature peer-to-peer recommendations.

Introduce Book Talking

Use a completed read aloud text to show students how you plan and deliver a two-to-three minute book talk. Model how you follow the book talk guidelines to take notes on a 3-by-5-inch index card [see sample notes below]. Point out that retelling is not an option, and that you will stop a student who retells the book and help him or her address the guidelines for the book talk.

Notes for Book Talk  

  • Coretta Scott King: I Kept on Marching by Kathleen Krull, Bloomsbuy, 2016
  • Biography
  • Played a key role in civil rights movement besides supporting her husband, Martin Luther King, Jr. A powerful singer, she gave concerts to raise money for the civil rights cause; she marched, she demonstrated. When her husband died, she carried on his work
  • Her husband, Martin Luther King, Jr. influenced her life: inspired her to fight for civil rights—called him her “cosmic companion.” They believed their cause was much greater then themselves.

Have students plan their first book talk during class so you can provide support. Then, invite them to practice presenting the book talk to a partner so they feel comfortable referring to and elaborating on their notes.

Two Book Talk Formats

Below you’ll find two book talk guidelines—one for fiction and one for nonfiction. Notice that the guidelines ask students to select specific information as well as think at high levels.

Book Talk 1: Realistic Fiction

✦   State the title, author and genre.

✦   Identify three narrative elements—such as setting, problems, and conflicts—and explain how each one is realistic.

✦   Choose an event or character that you connected with and explain the connection.

Book Talk 2: Biography, Autobiography, or Memoir

✦   State the title, author, and identify the person the book is about.

✦   Explain what this person did that changed the world, the environment, saved lives, or in some way helped people.

✦   Choose a person or event from your book that shaped this person’s life and explain how.

Grading Book Talks

You can use students’ notes on index cards and their presentation to give a grade. However, I suggest that you don’t grade the first two book talks. Instead use these as trial runs for students. Offer feedback that enables them to improve. After all, the goal is for students to experience success.

Closing Thoughts

Independent reading of self-selected books can ramp up students’ reading achievement and develop their ability to concentrate on reading for more than thirty minutes. When students reading independently at school on a regular basis, they are more likely to read outside of school (Donalyn Miller, 2011). Developing students’ personal reading lives is a lifetime gift that enables them to explore other cultures, learn information, and visit palaces in the past, present, and future that they could never go to in one lifetime.

Photo credit: Laura Robb