Saturday, January 12, 2013

Independent Reading in Primary Grades: The Why and How

Currently I hear considerable confusion by administrators and teachers at schools concerning independent reading with regard to its value as an in-school practice and the types of text that can be used by children to practice reading independently. In this post I clarify:
  1. why independent reading at school is a very valuable practice
  2. why beginning readers need familiar text that is easy to read
  3. why teachers need to manage the book selection process for beginning readers and provide managed choice and why older children need to enjoy lots and lots of choice
  4. how much time is recommended for independent reading 

I. Why Independent Reading at School is Valuable

When the National Reading Panel published its findings in 2000, it indicated
With regard to the efficacy of having students engage in independent silent reading with minimal guidance or feedback, the Panel was unable to find a positive relationship between programs and instruction that encourage large amounts of independent reading and improvements in reading achievement, including fluency. 
Many stopped reading at this paragraph and concluded that independent reading was not a practice to be encouraged at school. Had they read on a bit, the Report clarified that it was not the practice, but the acceptable research (only experimental and quasi experimental research was considered) it reviewed that was problematic:
It should be made clear that these findings do not negate the positive influence that independent silent reading may have on reading fluency, nor do the findings negate the possibility that wide independent reading significantly influences vocabulary development and reading comprehension. Rather, there are simply not sufficient data from well-designed studies capable of testing questions of causation to substantiate causal claims. 
Stephen Krashen responded to the NRP by writing:
"The NRP report missed a number of important studies. In The Power of Reading, I found a total of 41 studies of the value of sustained silent reading in school. In 38 out of the 41 comparisons, readers in sustained silent reading did as well or better on tests of reading than children who spent an equivalent amount of time in traditional instruction. I found nine studies which lasted longer than one year; sustained silent reading was a winner in eight of them, and in one there was no difference. The NRP did not cite any of these studies, even though some appeared in very important, widely read journals. Some spectacular omissions include Elley andMangubhai's Fiji study, published in the Reading Research Quarterly (1983), and Elley's Singapore study, in Language Learning (1991). The latter contains a review of several other successful SSR studies that the NRP failed to mention."
Independent reading has been researched and does show that more reading results in better reading comprehension and related literacy skills (see Bernice Cullinan, 1998-2000 for a great summary of research and Dick Allington's (2009) "If They Don't Read Much: 30 Years Later" in Reading More, Reading Better).  In Allington's chapter he cites the estimated annual reading volume of fifth-grade students by reading volume percentile rank from Anderson, Wilson, and Fielding (1988):

It seems hard to argue with the value of reading when you look at the correlation between reading performance by percentile and the number of read words.

II. How Hard Should the Text Be?

Another query I hear more frequently these days concerns the use of easy and hard books for independent reading.  Some educators have learned at CCSS workshops that children should only be reading within the prescribed lexile band as determined via the CCSS.  Beginning readers must be able to actually read the text with ease in order to practice the critical skills.

Marie Clay (1991) described the practice of independent reading for young children in this manner:
When readers are allowed to reread familiar material, they are being allowed to learn to be readers, to read in ways which draw on all their language resources and knowledge of the world, to put this very complex recall and sequencing behavior into a fluent rendering of the text. The orchestration of these complex behaviors cannot be achieved on a hard book (p.184).
Independent reading choices for beginning readers ought to include materials that the children have already read such as the texts children read during guided instruction. Linda Dorn and Tammy Jones (2012) state that the rereading of familiar texts allow the beginning reader to:

  • make meaningful predictions that can be checked against visual information
  • practice effective strategies on easy material
  • read with fluency and expression
  • experience the pleasure of revisiting favorite stories
  • become more knowledgeable about story structure and vocabulary, and
  • problem-solve independently (p. 36).

Independent Book Boxes  from The Teacher Wife "Book Boxes" 
Teachers play an important role in independent reading time for beginning readers. Teachers must  oversee the text-selection process for beginning readers so that they can ensure that the children select books they can actually read. Leaving book selection to chance is a faulty method.  Lindsey who blogs at The Teacher Wife says that she purchased the independent book boxes pictured above from IKEA (5 boxes for $1.99).  Using cut cereal boxes is a less expensive way to provide independent reading collections.  Some teachers use large plastic bags.  The purpose of the book box is to offer beginning readers managed choice by putting in 8 to 10 reading selections that you know the child can read.

As children learn how to match appropriate texts to their interest, the book box can be transformed into common tubs of books and eventually into a library that is organized by the teacher and the students. At this point children need to exercise choice over what they read. The relationship between choice and motivation is strong.

III. Methods

Affording children choices when it comes to independent reading is important.  In addition to text choice, how one reads also needs to be opened to choice. In addition to unassisted reading (reading alone), the following assisted methods can be employed:

  • partner or paired reading
  • reading along to an audio recording
  • reading an interactive text on an iPad
  • echo reading (see video example above)

Guidelines for Paired or Partner Reading from Regie Routman (2002, p. 91)
  • The reader holds the book.
  • Sit close enough so both partners can see the words.
  • Take turns reading.
  • Go back and reread if you don't understand.
  • Turn and talk. (Tell your partner what happened. Both partners should talk).
  • Problem solve with your partner.
  • If you partner is stuck on a word:
  • Give your partner time to think (wait time).
  • Go back and reread.
  • Read past the tricky word and come back to it.
  • Slide through it.
  • Put in what makes sense.
  • Sound it out with our partner.
  • Cover part of the word and ask, 'What does it say?"
  • Ask, 'Would you like me to help you?'
  • Tell your partner what the word is.
  • Enjoy reading.
IV. Time

Kindergarten: 10 minutes at the start of the year and 20 minutes by the midyear
Regie Routman (2002) writes:
In kindergarten, much of the daily independent 'reading' is really time spent looking at books. Students gain confidence as readers by browsing, interacting with and enjoying reading materials they choose to 'look' at. Often these are familiar books, poems, charts, and texts that have been previously read during shared reading or reading aloud or created during shared writing. Many of these texts are predictable and have a rhythm and/or rhyme that supports developing readers' growing phonemic awareness, word competency, and fluency. Independent reading in kindergarten should increase from about ten minutes at the start of the school year to about twenty minutes by midyear (p.89).  
1st Grade and 2nd Grade: 20 minutes at start of the year and 30+ minutes by midyear. I appreciate this blog post, "Rockin' Reading Workshop" and the high expectation for sustained reading by children in 65 minutes. Here is the teacher's 3rd grade schedule:

9:05-9:15 Attendance, lunch count, homework/assignment notebooks check-inWhile I am doing this, the students may read ANY book at ANY level (I learned this from Sharon Taberski's book, On Solid Ground)9:15-Reading Workshop begins with a mini-lesson9:25-Independent Reading TimeStudents are practicing the mini-lesson during private and partner reading. During this time, I meet with three guided reading groups. (2-3 groups for 15-20 minutes and individual reading conferences). The students may also be meeting in literature groups or reading with partners.10:30-Word study/grammar/spelling10:45-Writing Workshop (Mini-lesson, writing process, writing conferences)12:05 Lunch/Recess12:40 Word study/ grammar/spelling12:50-1:20 Planning Period1:20 Bathroom Break1:30 Guided Math2:30 Science/Social Studies/Health2:55 Get ready to go3:05 First Bell3:15 Last Bell 


  1. Thanks for posting Mary Ann. I shared with colleagues.

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