I love to read. I have a long textual lineage that begins with my father reading Goodnight Moon aloud to me each night, racing to the library every two weeks to retrieve the next Baby-sitters Club chapter book, falling in love with Atticus Finch, fearing Lady Macbeth, and being challenged by Ernest Hemmingway. I also cherish time with the latest and greatest mystery novels and People magazine on airplane rides.
However, when I was a middle and high school language arts teacher, admittedly, I left little or no time to foster the love of reading in my own classroom (outside of the whole-class novel). My ultimate goal as an ELA instructor was for my students to become independent readers, writers, and critical thinkers; yet, I felt pressure to cover all standards and curriculum, design rigorous assignments and assessments, and expose students to the ‘classics.' There wasn’t space for joyful, self-selected reading experiences. As I grew as a teacher and leader, I realized that being a reader was the greatest indicator of literacy achievement, and above all else, I wanted my students to know and love a good book, article, graphic novel, or play. I wanted them to leave my classroom with their own textual lineage.
It is jarring to know and understand the current research around the best practice of independent reading, yet it is still widely rejected in many classrooms, specifically in the secondary space as ELA blocks shorten and become more content focused. In 1977, Richard Allington first published his powerful paper, “If They Don’t Read Much, How They Ever Gonna Get Good?” describing ineffective reading practices that hindered students, and factors to engage all children with reading. Since, many studies have identified independent reading as the single greatest factor in reading achievement (Krashen, 2004). The research and evidence is universal—literacy achievement is improved when reading volume increases. Just sixty minutes of independent reading every day gives students the opportunity to acquire over 4.3 million new vocabulary words every year (Nagy, Anderson, & Herman, 1987).
It is our duty as educators to stay current with research and evidence-based best practices and incorporate them into our literacy routines. As Nancie Atwell (2007) reminds us, “One way we show children that we love them is by looking after them as readers. Only when we invite them to find books that delight them it is likely that they will come to cherish literature and their own literacy.”
So how can we collectively create intentional, built- in, independent reading initiatives that strengthen and encourage independent reading among secondary students and their families while not undercutting rigor?
Provide Time and Space for Independent Reading
Even if you start small, dedicate a block of time for self-selected independent reading every day. For secondary teachers, it is important to consider the critical connections to current events, curriculum, and assessment objectives. Independent reading is a great space to extend learning from whole group instruction. Students are able to expand their lens on a subject, theme, or idea, and create cohesive and authentic responses to what they have learned.
Also, consider creating comfortable spaces for reading. Think about where and how you like to enjoy a good book, and try to recreate spaces that encourage curling up with a good book and reading.
Access and Engagement
Access to high quality, engaging texts of all types is vital to the success of any independent reading initiative. We must provide our students with books they want to read, can read, and see themselves in. Students and families report they want books that make them laugh, that showcase strong characters they relate to and aspire to be like, are diverse, and part of their favorite series (Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report™). Paying attention to independent reading levels and interests will support self-selection, volume, and comprehension. Students’ notice when we listen and pay attention to their individual interests and passions—providing access to a wide variety of texts that includes all genres, magazines, graphic novels, manuals, plays, series, etc. will show students that we support their pursuits and abilities.
Choice and Voice
89% of students report that their favorite books are the ones they picked themselves (Kids and Family Reading Report). Students move through the bulk of the school day being told what to read with little choice and voice. Providing a time for students to invest in their own interests can support their lifelong love of reading. When students have a stake in their own learning, they are more invested and likely to engage with the material. Self-selected reading builds stamina, and stamina supports real-world tasks, skills, and strategies.
Use this space to encourage re-reading of favorite titles, too. Each time a student wants to read about their favorite character, or pick up the same book, encourage them to find something new, or look through a different lens. On average, we lose readers from ages 6-11. Student choice is directly correlated to engagement and we want all our students to experience being engaged with texts they love.
Structure and Accountability
In order to link independent reading to student literacy achievement, time spent reading must be purposeful. The notion of silent sustained reading (where teachers do not know if the books selected are at students' independent reading level, and if students are actually reading and comprehending a text) is not enough. Research shows that independent reading moves the needle if supplemented by intentional instruction and practices such as text talk and conferring. In secondary classrooms, creating meaningful activities aligned with independent reading like blogs, project-based learning, authentic writing in response to reading, and book clubs can support rigor and relevance while allowing room for student choice and expertise.
Be a Reading Role Model
Students shared that teachers and school librarians, and families are the top sources of encouragement to read books for fun. Although teachers are asked and tasked to do more with less time, it is imperative that we are reading role models in the classroom and community. Adolescents read more when they see adults such as teachers and parents reading, too. Role models are a key reference for adolescents; consider creative ways to share with your students what you love to read, and what texts have meant to you. In addition, enlist reading mentors from the community to support your initiative and inspire. Reading role models establish a strong reading culture in classrooms and schools.
Engage All Teachers, Leaders, Families, and Community Stakeholders
To accomplish the ultimate (and research-supported) goal of reading independently for sixty minutes a day, independent reading must happen in and outside of the ELA classroom. For an independent reading initiative to be successful, all stakeholders must be actively engaged. Content area teachers providing opportunities for independent reading beyond the textbook, families and community stakeholders supporting reading when students’ aren’t in school, and building capacity at every level will create a systemic reading initiative and culture of literacy that becomes the norm.
Independent reading helps you open a world of possible for all students. By providing access and time you help your students discover themselves as readers, establish positive reading habits in and out of school, and help them select texts that feed their interests, passions, and preferences. When we build a community of readers in classrooms, schools, districts, and communities we understand that engaging with a good book is the most effective way to learn, grow, and change the world around us. Independent reading is for everyone.
This post is part of an ongoing series on independent reading. Read more:
- How principals can foster independent reading
- Independent reading: nurturing students’ personal reading lives
- Making time for independent reading at school
Photo Julia Graeper