Empower Students through Independent Reading

The heartbeat of a classroom is the books that live on the shelves, and in the hands of children as they turn the pages awaiting the next great adventure. Reading, specifically independent reading, is personal for me as an educator and as a mother. 

Independent reading is the single biggest predictor of student literacy success (Krashen, 2004). And yet, in most classrooms today, students are spending as little as ten to fifteen minutes actually reading (Allington, 2002). 

The benefits of independent reading are bountiful: students develop extensive vocabularies, build stamina, acquire problem-solving skills, and understand how reading works. We can support independent reading initiatives by providing our students, teachers, and families with motivating and engaging authentic text in all content areas; helping our teachers with ideas to provide more time, space, and support for independent reading with a focus on comprehension; and provide strategies for students to engage in rich and rigorous conversations about text. 

If we want students to continue reading, it must be fun. Independent reading should be fun and purposeful. Students self-selecting texts they want to readmakes it fun. Talking about that text, connecting it to other instructional skills and strategies in a meaningful way makes the reading purposeful, and that will impact student achievement. 

How can we support our teachers, schools, and families in creating intentional, built-in independent reading time that instills the power and joy of reading, and supports academic success? 

Maximizing the impact of independent reading 

Independent reading, by definition, is time allotted for students to apply previously learnt reading skills and strategies to a self-selected text. The focus is on students taking charge of their own learning experience: they choose a text that motivates and engages them, read it independently, and work through any challenges with support from their teacher or classmates. 

This means the idea of silent-sustained reading (SSR) is no longer considered a best practice and does not support reading achievement (National Reading Panel, 2000). Access to high-quality, engaging texts—and time to read them—is a strong starting point, but supporting our readers is the differentiator. Reading is most effective if it is supported, and independent reading is no different. Structured and accountable independent reading is how we will impact the reading lives of all of our children. It is imperative that we know our students’ independent reading levels in order to support their growth in reading more complex texts. It is equally important to understand how students comprehend the texts they read independently, so we can be strategic in our instruction. 

Finding time

Independent reading impacts every facet of a students’ literacy journey, yet independent reading minutes are often the first to be discarded as teachers are asked and tasked to do so much with limited time. Research tells us that high-achieving readers read an average of sixty-two minutes a day independently (Anderson, 2006). These minutes cannot all happen in a common ELA block, so we must practice independent reading in all content areas, at home, and in the community. Building capacity in these areas is paramount to the success of an effective and meaningful independent reading initiative. 

Most teachers are aware of the academic impact of independent reading, but struggle to carve out the time to give students the freedom to choose books they love and read the book to completion. Educators are under increased pressures to cover wide-ranging content, and constantly measure student growth and success. 

Although research supports strong gains in reading comprehension through independent reading, it is not an outcome that can be measured weekly. That is why, in addition to independent reading in schools, teachers and families must work in tandem, encouraging students to read more. Families play a critical role to play in supporting independent reading outside of school and creating a reading environment at home. Families can provide access to texts that students want to read- whether books, magazines, comic books, or newspapers. Providing access to books at home and modeling good reading behaviors will link to the learning practices at school, and aide in comprehension, growth, and fluency.

Additionally, independent reading can be embedded throughout the school day, and connected to all components of a balanced literacy model. For example, what the teacher presents and models in whole-group instruction will be scaffolded and supported at the small group table, and then, in order to master those concepts and check for understanding, students practice independently those same skills and strategies.

It is this reflective model and gradual release that can link independent reading to student achievement, and support teachers monitor reading progress. By threading the ‘instructional needle’ throughout all practices and areas of the classroom, independent reading can be the pivotal point in instruction, allowing teachers the confidence to move on and introduce new skills, or give teachers the space to reteach concepts students are struggling with independently. 

Making space

Teachers and families need a well-defined and complete picture of how to understand and implement independent reading in a way that challenges and motivates children. Supporting structured independent reading practices such as access to extensive and well-organized classroom libraries, leveled reading materials so students can access books they want to read at their level, teacher and peer interactions during independent reading time, and purpose and accountability for reading will help focus on student-centered practices and optimal reading growth.

These practices empower students and teachers, as autonomy is key to independent reading implementation. Successful independent reading practices are not supplemental; rather, they are integrated into all literacy instruction and every classroom and home environment. 

Let students find themselves in books

We can show our students every day how much we care about them as readers by offering them texts that reflect their own journey. Every child deserves an opportunity to have a voice and choice in their own reading experience. All students should be provided with access to texts that they see themselves in, that they connect with. Students must be given time to read and talk with others about what they are reading in order to become strong independent readers and thinkers. Only then, will students find the power and joy of reading, and become enthusiastic lifelong readers. 

Photo via MissMessie