What if there was a learning strategy that boosted student engagement, had many (many!) academic benefits for students, and reduced teacher planning and correcting/grading time? Great news! There is–and it’s a tried and true strategy you have probably been using for years. Independent reading packs a one-two punch as it both benefits students’ learning and teachers’ workload.
A Few (of the Many) Benefits for Students of Independent Reading
Independent reading is perhaps one of the most versatile and powerful teaching and learning strategies out there. In order to be better readers, kids need to read–a lot. This makes sense. If you want to be better at playing the violin or serving a tennis ball, you’d better be ready to practice.
Increase Learning: Not surprisingly, there is strong evidence that reading a lot has a huge impact on reading achievement. High-volume reading leads to better fluency. Independent reading can help students develop a wide range of literacy skills including grammar, spelling, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and even writing style.
Boost Motivation: When kids are reading books they can read and that they want to read, they experience key intrinsic motivators such as autonomy, curiosity, fun, purpose, and competence that can deepen engagement, which leads to deeper learning.
Reduce Screen Time: Many of us are concerned (and rightly so) about the amount of screen time kids are experiencing. Independent reading is a fantastic way to help reduce screen time while also having kids engage in high-impact and joyful learning.
Social-Emotional Learning: Independent reading supports social and emotional skills and needs such as empathy, stress reduction, and open-mindedness through making connections to character experiences and behaviors.
Love of Reading: Finally, through providing the structure, space, and encouragement (read on for tips) for independent reading, we foster a lifelong love of reading in our students–something that will pay dividends for the rest of their lives.
Two Key Benefits for Teachers
Differentiation: When we teach students how to choose good books, ones they can read independently, all kids of all reading levels and abilities can be reading books in their zones of proximal development–that “just-right” zone where great learning happens. They can self-differentiate, nurturing their sense of ownership and agency, while simultaneously lightening the load for teachers. Any time we plan to have all students do the same thing in the same way, we’re probably designing learning that won’t fit anyone very well. After all, our students are varied–their work should be too.
Reduce Teacher Planning and Correcting: When students read for a significant amount of their independent work time, we don’t need to create lots of work for students to do. We also don’t need to correct all of that work we created once students have done it. Instead, our energy is focused on leading rich conversations with students one-on-one about their thoughts, feelings, predictions, and opinions about what they’re reading.
A Benefit for Families
When kids are reading independently–books that they can read and that they want to read, parents don’t feel like they need to micromanage their kids’ learning at home. They don’t need to sit by them to keep them motivated or nag them to get their work done. Let’s remember how challenging and stressful it can be for parents and caregivers to have kids learning from home. Independent reading can take at least a little bit of that stress away.
Set Students Up for Success
So, how do we set students up for success with independent reading? Although this model reduces the amount of student assignments we’re creating and checking, we still have important work to do to help all students be successful.
Help All Students Get High-Quality Reading Materials
Students need access to a wide variety of good books and other resources to read. Can students borrow books from your classroom library to bring home for at-home learning days? How about your school library–can students borrow books for at-home days? I was in a school recently, and as I observed in various classes, the school librarian kept popping in to hand books to students. (“Here you go, Kyle. I know you’ve been waiting for the next one in the series to arrive. I thought you might like it now since you’re about to be home for a few days!”) In many districts, school personnel are delivering materials to homes if kids can’t come to school. Have kids create book wish-lists to help you get good books to them.
In addition to physical books, are ebooks an option? Has your school worked to get devices and Internet access to all students? Chances are, they have also made ebooks and online learning resources available as well, so make sure your students know how to get those. There are many other ways to potentially help students get cool books that they are excited to read. To view a bunch of resources to explore, click here, here, or here.
Also, check with your local public library. Many provide access to their materials for students. For example, the Los Angeles Public Library has made all of their online resources available to all Los Angeles Unified School District students!
Help Students Choose Just-Right Books
Consider offering your students some criteria to guide their book selection–so they pick books that will be fun and support their reading development. Here are three criteria you might use:
- Comprehension: Make sure students choose books that they can understand. Teach them to read a few pages to make sure that what they read makes sense to them.
- Fluency: Students should be able to read smoothly–without struggling over lots of words. Often, kids will tackle books that are a bit too hard, and they might need some coaching to find books that they can read without lots of struggling.
- High-Interest: Help kids find books they actually want to read. This might mean finding books in a series that they like or ones that connect with their interests and passions.
Where and When Will Students Read?
Have students identify some places where they live where they could focus on reading. Is their bedroom a good spot, or would the living room be better? If they are experiencing homelessness or have a busy home, is there a safe place to read outside–perhaps a local park, or a neighbor’s back porch? (You might also suggest that students put in headphones with quiet music playing to help screen out distractions.)
Also help kids pick times of day that will be best for them. Will they have more energy to read in the morning, afternoon, or evening? If they are accompanying parents on errands, could they read in the car? Help students think ahead about this and check in with them to see how they’re doing.
Help Build Skills and Habits of Good Reading
Once kids have books and a plan, you can then think about skills and habits to start teaching. Whether you meet with kids individually in-person, or in a group in class or online, think about what else they might need to be successful as independent readers. Here are just a few suggestions:
- Building reading stamina: Help students build stamina over time, stretching out the amount of time they can read at a time.
- Set reading goals: What goals might students choose for themselves as readers? Do they want to try new books, read longer books, or try new genres? Help kids learn to become more reflective as readers to identify things they might want to work on.
- Keeping track of their thinking: You might encourage students to use sticky notes in books or keep a reading journal handy to jot down questions they have for you or parts of their reading they want to share.
- Varying their reading diets: Just like apples are healthy, but we wouldn’t be healthy if we only ate apples, students need to read a variety of kinds of texts to be healthy readers. Help kids learn to mix things up and try different genres and styles of reading.
Finally, if we want students to be self-motivated and passionate readers, we need to resist the urge to try and motivate them through pizza gift certificates, prizes, or grades. These kinds of motivators often result in a brief burst of extrinsic motivation but do long-term damage to students intrinsic motivation and achievement. (For a fascinating and lively explanation of how extrinsic motivators damage intrinsic motivation and achievement, consider this video by Dan Pink.)
Again, consider some of the benefits of independent reading. Kids learn more. Teachers have less busy-work to create and correct. Families have a little less stress. Once set up, students will experience success in learning and be engaged, and you’ll feel like you are thriving instead of just surviving!
We hope this post has been helpful. If you’d like to read more posts in the “From Surviving to Thriving” series, click here. You might also reach out to either Sarah (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Mike (email@example.com) to see how they can help your school navigate the tricky waters of hybrid and at-home learning.