Back in February of this year, I wrote a Nerdy Book Club post about how teachers can try to incorporate independent reading in their high school classroom. I discussed the importance of the teacher being familiar with YA books, and giving students choice in what they can read, as well as giving them the time to do it in the classroom. I made a strong case for adding IR to every high school classroom, but unfortunately not many teachers are willing to include it.
For one, the huge emphasis on the Common Core Standards, especially in New York, has been a deterrent. So many teachers are being told to add more “rigor” to curriculum, like the Common Core seems to suggest, so they see giving time for IR as unnecessary. When studying the Common Core Standards when they first came out, I saw that one of the anchor standards for reading is, “Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.” Students will not be able to comprehend much of anything independently if they aren’t given some reading material at their own level that they can read and enjoy. We must first turn our students into avid readers, and only then will they be willing to attack a challenging piece of reading they might see on their Common Core Regents exam.
Another reason IR isn’t used is that many teachers just don’t see the value in it. If they are not talking to the students themselves, they feel it’s not teaching. In reality, there is a lot “behind-the-scenes” work/teaching that goes into IR. Yes, students may be reading independently, but during that time the teacher is going around the room to check pages and book titles, recommend new books, and conference with students. In a conference, a teacher is assessing reading comprehension when he/she asks a student to read a page or two out loud and then explain their understanding of it. A teacher can ask questions that require a student to think critically about the text. A teacher can ask the student to make an inference or prediction. A teacher could show a student how the author incorporated a certain literary device to make a point. I can learn a lot more about a student and his/her reading abilities from a conference than from any Accelerated Reader test.
Some teachers also don’t think students are learning anything if they aren’t constantly questioned about a book and “digging deep” into it. (Though, as you can see above, I can do that in my conferences.) However, when a student reads consistently, he/she is improving his her vocabulary, comprehension skills, and phonics on his/her own. As Richard L. Allington said, “Self-teaching is one of those largely ignored but potentially powerful aspects of engaged reading” (“What Really Matters”). When students are allowed to read books at their own level, and thus do not struggle with them, they enjoy reading more. Once they gain confidence in their reading abilities, they will be more willing to accept a difficult challenge. The students that give up on reading are the ones who receive difficult reading activities day in and day out.
So when I start school on Tuesday, I will be introducing the importance of independent reading in my 9th grade English classrooms. All of my students–Honors, Regents, and students with special needs–will be reading independently this year. From day one, I have a year-long mission I aim to complete. Some might call it an impossible one or an unnecessary one, but I don’t think anything is impossible in my classroom. My mission: to create lifelong readers. For some students it will only take one or two book talks, and then they are hooked. For other more reluctant readers, it can take much longer, even months. That’s okay. I keep trying, knowing that my mission is to show that reluctant reader that books can provide as much entertainment as their video games or favorite social media sites. Once our students do start reading, how do we get them to stick with it? How do we help them realize that their first great book wasn’t just a fluke? It takes persistence and patience on my part. IR takes a lot of work, but when done right, students can thrive.
Here are two of my five classes in 2013-2014. I am SO proud of all five of my classes, but for some reason I could not get the other three to upload. They are on my school webpage. All of my students last year read a total of 384, 904 pages! This year, my new students will challenge themselves to read even more.