I am a teacher who believes in reading. I read what my students read, and I read educational research to learn how to better my teaching. I want to do what’s best for my students. Independent reading is what’s best for our students; however, ever since I started devoting class time for it, I have received questions about why. I get it. Take a peak in my classroom during that time, and all one would see is students with their heads in a book. One might wonder, what are they getting out of this? Why waste this kind of time?
Before I go into what’s really happening during this reading time, we first need to dive into the research. Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild, put together an extensive list on her blog of the many reports, professional books, and journal articles that back up the need for independent reading. It’s not a waste of time. If you don’t believe me, take a look. Each one is a credible piece of research. Each one is written by a reading expert. Each one proves the following:
- Volume matters. The more reading students do, the more reading proficiency can improve. Increased volume begins with increased motivation on the part of the teacher and students.
- Choice matters. ALL students are more willing to read what interests them. Struggling readers want books they can comprehend and enjoy. When we have a variety of reading levels in one class, there is no one-size-fits-all novel. We first need our students to fall in love with reading. Only then will they be more willing to venture outside of their comfort zones.
- Time matters. Children need time to read every day, even if it’s only ten minutes. They need time to search through libraries, get recommendations, and share their books with one another. We teachers can tell students to read at home, but that will not start happening on a consistent basis until students find titles they love.
- Access matters. Classroom libraries give students visible proof that reading is important in the eyes of their teachers. Our students cannot find the latest and greatest titles if they walk into a classroom without a library.
- Knowledge matters. If we teachers do not have knowledge about the latest and greatest titles, we cannot recommend books to our students. We need to know a wide variety–all genres and levels–for we have a wide variety of readers. We need to be readers ourselves.
Knowing all of this, I make sure to give my students time to read in class every single day. Like I said above, if someone were to look into my classroom during this time, it may appear that students are simply reading and I, their teacher, am doing nothing. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
What am I doing while students are reading?
I am NOT reading while they read. My book talks and displays in my classroom prove that I read. Students don’t need to see me read to know that I am doing it.
I am collecting data. Each day I write down the titles students are reading, as well as they page they are on. I started out using the form in Penny Kittle’s Book Love, and then modified it to fit my needs. With the help of the technology integrator at my school, I now have a spreadsheet for each class that adds up the amount of pages students read, as well as organizes the notes I keep about each student. (See the image below.) Not only can I collect the amount of pages students read, but I can also find patterns in student behavior (“chronic abandoners” and avoiders, as well as what students love and dislike).
I am conferring with students. From Day 1, I begin to learn about my students as readers. I start with an initial survey about likes and dislikes, and go from there. While they are reading, I confer with students to see how their books are going (see “Comments” column above). This is where I can find out if they are comprehending what they read, whether or not they like their books, and make sure they are not fake reading. All of this takes a lot practice on my part, but I have learned a lot over the years. I know I still have more to learn. Within the first few weeks, many students see that they cannot “fake” these conversations. They do the majority of the talking, so if they are not reading, they have nothing authentic to say. If they tell me they don’t understand what they are reading, I can guide them toward a new title. If “I don’t understand” becomes a pattern, I do some more digging to figure out why.
What happens after students finish reading?
The reading students do at the beginning of my class is vital. Once students fall in love with that first book, they begin to believe that there are other books and stories out there that could interest them. To many, their teacher becomes trustworthy and a go-to source for books. That means when I pick out a harder excerpt to study, many are more willing to read it.
Besides reading, my students write every single day. Reading more helps their writing skills improve. They use their writing notebooks to think about what they read. They practice analyzing texts by thinking about what surprised them, what stood out to them, and how a text impacted them. They study the craft of their favorite writers, along with writers I choose for them, by logging favorite sentences and trying to imitate them (see below). They read mentor texts and use identified writing techniques to improve their own writing. Independent reading is truly the stepping stone in my classroom.
An Important Reminder
I know that independent reading is not in every classroom, and until it is, we teachers that incorporate it will continue to receive questions about it. Please continue to do so! Just like with our students, we need to encourage these questions, for they can lead to understanding. If you don’t believe independent reading is helpful, go read some of the research. If you want to know what is happening in the classroom, go watch a teacher. This is how we learn.
In addition to Donalyn’s invaluable list, here are some professional books that have shaped my thinking about independent reading: