How Effective is Independent Reading in Teaching Reading?

  • Book Buddies
  • 25 March, 2018

Last week I explained the concept of “independent reading.” Reviewing various documents from across the past 150 years—research studies, government reports, encyclopedia entries, pronouncements of august organizations, teacher blogs, methods guides--revealed that we educators have been pretty sloppy in our use of that term.

Of course, if everybody says independent reading, but no one means the same thing, there is a communications problem.

I proposed reserving the term independent reading for situations that are truly independent: in which readers choose to read, choose what they want to read, and are accountable to no one for what they read.

I said that I’d use “required self-selected reading” for those instances when teachers insist that kids read but allow them to choose the texts, and “required limited-choice reading” when the students have text choices, but ones are regulated by the teacher in some way. Finally, “required reading with accountability” would be reserved for those cases in which students are required to do self-selected reading that is to be monitored in some way (e.g., assignments, conferences).

With those terms, at least we can be sure that we are talking about the same thing.

Is reading valuable—that is, does it matter if kids read?

This one seems like a no brainer. Practice is important if someone is going to get good at a skill. I know one can learn from reading—new vocabulary words, the information about the world that an author shares—because I’m a reader. Recently, I read a book on relativity theory by Albert Einstein. I had not understood relativity my entire life until I read that book and I read it without the assistance of a teacher. We can learn from reading!

Logical analyses (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998; Nagy & Anderson, 1984) of children’s vocabulary development make a pretty good case for text reading as an important source of vocabulary growth. We can incidentally gain new vocabulary from conversation and media too, but some words are only likely to come from reading. Descriptive analyses of brain activation during reading (Nestor, 2012) also underscore the value of reading practice in the activation and paring of neural network responses to words (practice makes us faster decoders).

No question about it. Reading can lead to learning and that is true if the reading takes place independently, socially, or under the supervision of a teacher. It is true whether the reading is oral or silent, self-selected or assigned, done at home or at school. It is a good idea to require children to read. It is a good idea to encourage children to read on their own.

Does that mean that all reading practice is equal in terms of learning?

No, I’m not saying all reading practice is equal. I’m just saying that all reading practice has some potential for stimulating some amount of learning. In fact, I think it’s fair to conclude that some forms of reading practice are likely to be more supportive of learning than others. That’s why these distinctions among different kinds of reading are so important: some kinds of reading practice are more effective in benefitting kids. That’s the real issue.

How effective is independent reading?

Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to provide sound estimates of that from existing experimental studies. We only have correlational data about independent reading, and these studies are not very thorough.

Think about it. If we’re really talking about the impact of freely chosen, voluntary reading (as opposed to required reading) then we can’t simply assign kids to an independent reading condition or the research assignment itself becomes an externally imposed reading requirement. Under those circumstances the reading would no longer be independent.

Correlational studies consistently reveal a positive relationship between the amount of independent reading and reading proficiency. Simply put, the best readers tend to read the most.

The problem is that correlations can be read either way: it could be that the kids who practice the most become better readers, but it is just as likely that the best readers enjoy reading more than the kids who struggle to read. And, of course, both of these variables are related to socioeconomic status and that could explain all or a big part of the correlation.

What about the effectiveness of required self-selected reading?

While there is a dearth of experiments on independent reading, there are a slew of such studies on required self-selected reading. I’ve been critical of the quality of such studies in the past, though recent ones have been more rigorous and better reported (though their results haven’t been that different).

Meta-analyses have examined the average impact on reading achievement of summer reading programs (in which kids are encouraged to read on their own during the summer) and sustained silent reading programs (in which kids are encouraged to read on their own during the school day). They have found positive impacts on reading achievement, though the average effect sizes have been pretty low (.14 and .05, respectively—Kim & Quinn, 2013; Yoon, 2002), meaning that such reading leads to learning but not to very much learning.

In contrast, when one looks at instructional interventions in reading—interventions in which kids are taught skills like phonics or fluency or reading comprehension strategies—the average effects tend to be in the .40s (three to eight times higher than the impact of mandated self- selected reading). Reading on one’s own leads to reading improvement, but not to as much reading improvement as usually results when kids read with a teacher.

These are averages. Some teachers may do a lot better than reading alone does, while others might not add as much advantage. Kids differ too. Some are likely to be better learners when left to their own devices, while others might lack the same degree of focus or ability.  

Why is teacher-led reading usually more effective than reading independently?

There are several possible reasons why teacher-led reading is more effective than these more independent forms of reading. It may have to do with text choice or with what happens before, during, and after reading.

Not surprisingly, some books stimulate learning more than others. Some may present information that society judges to be of greater value (that’s why we assign texts on science, but not about sticker collections or Boss Baby).

Some texts are likely to be more supportive of reading development, too. Maybe they use words with particular spelling patterns, academic language, or organizational schemes. Those kinds of texts allow teachers to draw kids’ attention to particular features and to show them how to negotiate them effectively.

When it comes to learning the content of the texts, one usually does better reading with social support than on one’s own, and that advantage is heightened when the texts are more difficult, the content less familiar, or an individual’s internal motivation is attenuated.

Social interactions about texts tend to sharpen our game: having someone to talk to about a book improves comprehension (whether those others are book club buddies, or a teacher hired for that purpose). Social partners can push a reader to reflect more deeply or more thoroughly about ideas, or to notice things that may have escaped them if left to their own devices.

Basically, kids definitely can learn on their own, but we put them in schools and provide them with teachers to try to do better than what the children could do for themselves.

Can required self-selected reading be made more effective?

That was one of the interesting things about those Twitter arguments. Many of the instructional practices that teachers described as “independent reading,” didn’t sound independent at all.

Their descriptions sounded like they were arguing for required self-selected reading or required limited-choice reading, sometimes even required limited-choice reading with accountability. In other words, they were touting the importance of independent reading in their classrooms but not actually providing it.

I suspect that their claims (or their actual practices) leaned hard away from independent reading and towards more instructionally advantaged approaches for a reason, and I think their hunch is right.

The more “independent reading” practices are like effective reading instruction the more powerful they are likely to be. The teacher who said his students were selecting their texts from a teacher-curated collection is likely to be more effective than those who give the kids free reign to read whatever they want during class time.

His approach both increases the chance that the reading will provide an opportunity to learn (if he chooses well) and improves the possibility the teacher will know enough about a text to provide useful reading guidance or to question deeply.

The same can be said for the reading leader who’d provided questioning guides for the approved text choices. Reading conferences based on those guides would probably be better than the shallow improvised ones that I often observe in the laissez-faire classes.

Research is supportive of instructional techniques that encourage students to read texts deeply and thoroughly and intensively (Fisher, Fry, & Hattie, 2016). The question is whether having a student read a self-selected text on his or her own with a brief weekly reading conference (3-5 minutes) with the teacher is enough to inculcate that kind of deep, thorough, intensive reading. Despite the popularity of that conference approach, there are still no research studies supporting its effectiveness.

My personal observations of those one-on-one conferences is that they tend to be pretty shallow and repetitive; more like the teacher is checking to make sure the students read the text or that they could answer a certain kind of question (supposedly practicing a reading skill) rather than trying to take them to a deeper level of interpretation or to identify what text feature may be blocking their understanding.

My point isn’t that one-on-one conferences couldn't possibly lead kids to the type of depth they need to aspire to, only that they usually don’t, and that they tend to be so brief that they rarely will work that way—except perhaps for the best readers. I know that can happen in group reading discussions, too, but the difference in those cases is that the less able readers are included in the discussion and get to observe what the better readers accomplished.  

The conferencing approach to reading is just too inefficient compared to something like a Great Books discussion group or an analytical or synthetic essay written about a text.

If the point is to help kids become better readers, everyone agrees it is important that they read. The only issue is whether kids should be reading on their own when they have a skilled teacher available to guide them to read better. Research, and common sense, suggest keeping teachers more deeply engaged in the instructional process and every reading lesson (and most science and social studies lessons as well) should involve kids in reading texts for substantial amounts of time.

Next Week

That leaves us with one more issue: what about the role of these different kinds of reading in teaching kids to love reading? Does requiring kids to read on their own at school create lifetime readers? Does it encourage them to read more away from school? That’s for next week.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Wendy Bartell Mar 25, 2018 12:44 PM

I am not sure how I feel about the word parsing you are doing here...if your entire point is knowing the practice of independent reading inside and out, I accept that it is very important to have a deep understanding of what is actually is. I could write a blog and defend the term independent as a part of gradual release, and I could cite research as evidence. As for conferring, I would like you to see a conferring toolkit I use when working with teachers and students. I've seen numerous intentional conferences that are very effective. One of my favorite practices is to debrief our professional learning labs with the students and allow teachers to hear from the students how reading workshop components have impacted their learning...students always say something like, you helped me know how to...". I really don't care what University professors call the practice, but it is powerful in classrooms.

Timothy Shanahan Mar 25, 2018 01:19 PM

If you can’t give it an unambiguous name then you can’t claim that it is effective, since no one can know what you are talking about. Putting “independence” under the control of teachers is Orwellian at best. I’ll take my freedom straight up, thank you.

Nell Cunningham Mar 25, 2018 02:24 PM

Thank you for this post. I teach 8th grade English and my K-8 school district in is currently engaged in an ELA curriculum review. Independent reading is a bit under fire, especially at the middle school. Teachers tend to like it: We have an excellent librarian who introduces kids to books each week during library time. (Yes, we are fortunate enough to have a librarian and set library time for each grade level each week.) As a result, students think it's "cool" to read and many teachers value the culture that's been created around reading. The person leading our curriculum review, however, has challenged the idea of independent reading. I sense that there is some desire to sacrifice what we call independent reading for direct instruction/teaching that will maximize standard test scores (heavy sigh). As you've noted in your post, though, I think we have a bit of a communications problem. Required self-selected reading, required limited choice reading, and required reading with accountability are all things that I currently practice in my 8th grade classroom yet I lump them into the category of independent reading. (This means I've got some thinking to do, then, about what I really mean when I say "independent reading.")

Also, the research you've cited here is helpful. As you've noted: "some kinds of reading practice are more effective in benefitting kids," so maybe this is at the heart of what our curriculum coordinator is after. I think the tug--and the bigger conversation that I need to have with my curriculum coordinator--is: In a time where test scores have taken on immense importance, is there still time for teachers to curate a love of reading? Is there room for us to keep our current set up of library time, self-selected reading, and DEAR/SSR time. Can we get comfortable with allowing kids to read (at least for some small slice of time) without assessing them? I see that next week's blog post will address the issue of helping kids love reading and helping them develop habits that will (hopefully) lead to them becoming lifelong readers so I look forward to it. Thanks for your work here.

Nancy Rotella Mar 25, 2018 02:24 PM

I totally agree with you saying that not all reading practice is equal. I also believe that children will not become skilled readers without a good instructor, whether it be a teacher, parent, sibling , someone who is meaningful in their lives. Sometimes I fear independent reading is a tool used to fill in time or even as a form of "quiet time" and children are not gaining a true appreciation of books and the joy of reading. There lies the key, loving books, loving to read, loving to learn.

Sue Goode Mar 25, 2018 04:53 PM

These articles will be enlightening for those who continually seek improvements with their reading instruction. It seems that educators continually need reminders to clarify their terminology (and beliefs). I can't image how confused our students must be each time a new instructor enters their lives, and the expectations and criteria are assumed or unknown. Common language of instruction is critical, especially for our vulnerable students.

Ultimately, we teach kids to read to have the competence and confidence to choose to read independently for whichever purpose they need or decide. And we hope they love to read along the way. How do we get there? I look forward to your next article...

Timothy Shanahan Mar 25, 2018 11:48 PM

Nell— you also might consider trying to get kids to make reading part of their lives outside of school.


Karen Burrows Mar 26, 2018 12:59 AM

Purely anecdotal comment here...I find that kids enjoy books they have studied in a class more than those they have read independently. When asked to name a favorite book, almost all of my students will name a book they read as a class assignment with lots of support, discussion, and analysis. I suspect that when teachers guide kids to read a text more deeply, they actually enjoy the text more.

Jim Mar 26, 2018 10:13 AM

Karen - I've had the same experience in my school with children often reporting a studied book as their favourite. As well as guidance from the teacher, I think the quality of text is probably a key factor. Carefully chosen texts that lend themselves to deeper exploration in lessons are more likely to be engaging, well-written and thought-provoking than the average independent choice. If "memory is the residue of thought" as Willingham tells us, then these books are more likely to be memorable as children have thought more, and more deeply, about them.

Sam Bommarito Mar 28, 2018 02:04 PM

Concerning your observation "My personal observations of those one-on-one conferences is that they tend to be pretty shallow and repetitive;..." my experience is quite different. In the early 2000's I was a "push-in" staff developer in a Title 1 building. The building qualified based on having over 90% free lunch. Part of my job was to teach staff how to scaffold students into in-depth conversations around text. The content of the training was grounded in the work of Carl Anderson and Lucy Calkins. This was done over a period of 4 years. By the end of that time I've saw students as young as first grade taking part in in-depth conversations about text. I called it "talking big about little books". The building test scores were more than 1 SD above the norm for Title 1 programs. So I do see an important role for conferences and a likely positive effect on student achievement. One on one conferences around text can be an effective tool.

Chandra Shaw Mar 29, 2018 05:27 PM

As usual, Dr. Shanahan says it like it is! I agree that what most people count as "independent reading" really isn't, and it usually falls under one of the more specific term umbrellas you've used here. However, what I'm concerned with is the trend for well intended educators who have totally bought into the idea of totally idependent reading as the best way for every single student to learn reading. What I see as a consultant when I go into some Title I schools is children who are struggling to read on grade level being expected to read "independently" (in this case it is pretty much free choice) for 30 to 45 min without any assistance. Of course, little Johnny who can't really read well is just crawling around the room during his read to self time, or at best, just pretending to read. The next step is to usually refer him to the RTI committee or worse to Sped. The truth is, Johnny just hasn't had a fair chance at reading instruction with a teacher who knows how to help him. I am glad to hear your common sense approach sense to reading instruction, what works for some won't work for all and the best instruction in that which looks at the students you have and determine what is really going to work for them. Therefore, teachers need to be equipped with the skills to actually teach students which includes having a working knowledge of phonemic awareness and phonics instruction and how these skills contribute to students' overall reading development.

Ginger Mar 31, 2018 11:31 PM

Most schools in which I have taught used some sort of independent reading practice: self-selected reading from the Four Blocks, Drop Everything And Read (DEAR), and reading workshop with reading conferences. All of the circumstances surrounding these independent reading times vary as well as the effectiveness of each practice. I have taught kindergarten or first grade for the majority of my career so my ideas of independent reading may be different from those of upper-elementary, middle school, and secondary teachers.
Independent reading in my classroom is truly self-selected (limited only by the reading materials we have available) and has no assignments attached. On most days, the students are given independent reading as an option during homeroom, the independent activity of our small group reading instruction time, and at rest time. They can read fiction books, nonfiction books, big books and read aloud books from my collection, magazines, books on CD, and any other print they can find. My goal is to immerse them in a variety of literature and provide an opportunity for them to read. An extra benefit is hearing the excitement and joy in their voices when they see a word they know or want to share an interesting picture with their friends. If I can make reading fun and help the students feel successful, I have done my job as a kindergarten teacher!
If you are not already using some form of independent reading in your classroom, try it. You may be surprised how many students enjoy reading when they have a little freedom in selecting the literature and do not have the pressure of an assignment attached to the reading.

Lori DiGisi Apr 01, 2018 12:49 PM

I appreciate that you are diving deeper into the topic of independent reading. I'm wondering about middle school students who range from developing readers to skilled readers. What are your thoughts on the impact of providing to young adolescents in-school time to read self-selected books ? We hope that the majority of their in-school time is spent engaging with informational and literary texts, numbers, collaborative discussions, labs, projects and media (video, simulations, sometimes creating media). Does providing time for young adolescents to engage in reading at their own pace and to discuss books with peers and teachers support their development into adults who read for pleasure? I know that the middle school teacher's role is to instruct students how to read complex text and to think critically about those texts, but I'd like for you to weigh in on intentionally devoting time to reading for pleasure at the middle school level.

Deb Rice Apr 04, 2018 12:05 PM

Tim - I'd also like to hear your response to Lori D. above. I teach middle school reading, and do 10 minutes of self-selected required reading before we start in with direct instruction. I also model my own reading at this time. But if it is not doing much for the kids then I shouldn't be doing it.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 04, 2018 03:04 PM

I’m much more impressed with the teachers who try to guide kids to make reading part of their lives rather than teachers taking on this responsibility of doing this for them. One reason these practices tend not to transfer beyond the classroom is because the student is not trying to find ways to fit reading into their lives (in terms of their schedules and so on). Our middle school levels of reading ability haven’t improved in almost 50 years—taking away instructional time doesn’t seem like a good idea. I know a teacher who was running a middle school book club for boys...the boys, teacher, and the fathers met monthly in the evening for discussions. That kind of thing makes more sense to me.

Tianna Apr 08, 2018 06:06 PM

I will definitely take this article back to my PLC. We have had several conversations about a grade level wide implementation of reading logs versus using AR tests. I posed the question what is the purpose? What is the goal? What do we want students to learn? Some teachers said we want them to be held accountable for reading. Some said we want students to be reading at home. Others said we are addressing the “wide reading” standard. I argued that the use of a reading log doesn’t really hold them accountable because anyway can write down pages or minutes. If we take the logs at face value than we can accept the students' word. I was also vehemently against AR tests as they measure comprehension (at least what the creators of the test deem essential to understanding the specific book). Nowhere was comprehension mentioned. If we want kids to be readers especially at the middle school level, we have to take the adults out of it. Developmentally they crave freedom and independence so this may be a battle teacher should stay out of. Everyone is not going to love reading the way many of us (especially ELA) teachers do and that is ok. What we can do is expose students to books that match their interests, engage in guided reading and literature circles, and have required reading that teaches skills to be successful. It is our duty to teach students how to read, to read for understanding, and to read critically.

Tara Apr 09, 2018 12:10 AM

Dr. Shanahan,
I agree with your definition of independent reading and would venture to say that there is not much independent reading going on in most classrooms today. The reason for this would simply be that reading as a pastime has fallen to the bottom of the list of exciting/interesting things to do for most of our youth today. Technology and its inventions have stolen valuable time away from reading, through various means such as gaming and social media. In today’s society teachers are challenged daily with finding ways to make reading as fun and exciting as video gaming and chatting with friends on Facebook, because this is what the majority of our youth want to do with all of their spare time. This is why true independent reading is falling to the wayside, and educators are using more instances of required self-selected reading, required limited-choice reading, and required reading with accountability. Teacher’s of the past could just pull any book out of a stack and the whole class would be enthralled by whatever the subject matter was. Teacher’s today do not have that luxury. We have to get to know our students, understand their likes and dislikes, know their reading level and their interests. Then, we have to place them in groups according to the things we know about their reading level and their interests. Finally, we can research and choose a book that we hope they will be interested in enough to learn something from because this is our ultimate goal.

V.J. Oct 25, 2018 12:39 PM

What is the effect/impact of SSR on average, above average, and struggling reading students in grades K-2.

I work in a school that is investigating the use of American Reading Company's curriculum. This curriculum relies heavily on SSR with students choosing books that are in their independent levels (95-100% accuracy). However, I cannot find any research to substantiate the benefits for struggling students, in lower elementary grades, benefitting from this approach to SSR. Most research seems to focus on grade 3 and higher. And, this research varies dramatically!

Dr. Shanahan, what are your thoughts about struggling students spending 15-30 minutes daily participating in this type of SSR in grades K-3?

Amanda Duley Nov 18, 2019 03:12 PM

Hi Tim,
I'm working on a research paper about the effectiveness of silent reading on reading comprehension and fluency.
What is your source for this information you stated:
"In contrast, when one looks at instructional interventions in reading—interventions in which kids are taught skills like phonics or fluency or reading comprehension strategies—the average effects tend to be in the .40s"
I'd like to find the research that supports this statement. Thanks,

Bunty Apr 02, 2023 09:56 AM

It all circles back to reading with the purpose of bettering your grades. There is much to be said about joyful reading, without an agenda, which is not priority in the current education system.

Timothy Shanahan Apr 02, 2023 04:06 PM


Nor should it be.


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How Effective is Independent Reading in Teaching Reading?


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