Isn't Independent Reading a Research-Based Practice?

  • 22 June, 2019

Teacher question:

Dr. Shanahan, I know that you don’t support independent reading at school. However, in my graduate program we are learning that research evidence shows that kids who read the most become the best readers. I don’t get why you don’t support this research-based practice.

Shanahan responds:

In grad school my statistics professor had us analyze some research data. It revealed a close connection between the number of school library books and kids’ reading achievement. Makes sense, right? The greater the availability of books, the better the students would read.

Unfortunately, what the data showed was that the more books available, the lower the kids’ reading ability.

There’s a rousing headline for you: Cut school library budgets so kids can learn to read!

Beware of correlations.

Your professor shows you the relationship between amount of student reading and how well students read, and you assume one of the variables must cause the other.

But correlation does not mean causation.

Go to the Buzz Feed website and you can see how increases in ice cream consumption lead to murder, something about which we should all be concerned. Obviously, that’s silly. I eat ice cream all the time and I’ve never killed anyone.

That odd correlation results because ice cream sales and murder are both related to a third variable, outdoor temperatures. As weather gets hotter, people eat more frozen custard and get more violent (the latter two variables have nothing to do with each other, in spite of the high correlation between them).

In my library book data, the weird connection resulted—not because book availability injures reading—but because school libraries at that time were funded on the basis of reading achievement. The poorer a school scored in reading, the more library funding it received.

Poor reading caused library books!

Correlations don’t tell us about causation or about the directions of relationship.

Your professors are absolutely correct that there are a lot of correlational studies showing that the best readers read the most. That’s a fact.

But there are several possible interpretations of this correlation.

  1. The more reading practice kids get the more their reading comprehension improves.
  2. The kids who can read best will choose to read more than the struggling readers do.
  3. Both amount of reading and reading achievement are attributable to some third variable.
  4. The relationship is reciprocal—some of the correlation is due to reading ability leading to reading practice, and some results from practice leading to reading ability.

Scientists have long been aware of specious correlation and have worked out ways for sorting out this kind of thing.

The most obvious fix is to test the patterns experimentally. One can, for instance, try to get kids to read more and measure the changes, if any, in their reading comprehension. Or, conversely, we can improve kids’ reading ability, and monitor what happens to the amount of independent reading.

Mostly investigations have usually explored the impact of practice on comprehension outcomes and have not been terribly successful. The results have ranged from no improvement to extremely modest gains (NICHD, 2000).

That doesn’t mean that reading practice can’t improve reading achievement, only that the types of practice evaluated so far haven’t done so. Most such studies have looked at “sustained silent reading" (SSR), the practice of setting aside class time for kids to read self-selected books.

A major flaw in these studies has been a lack of measurement of amount of reading. Schools may provide free reading time, but that doesn’t necessarily increase the amount of reading kids engage in. We may just be trading of one kind of reading for another, and in at least one study, the assigned free reading time apparently discourage kids from reading on their own (Summers & McClelland, 1982).

We not only don’t know if increasing kids’ reading practice leads to more learning, we don’t really know if our methods for increasing kids’ reading practice leads them to practice more.

Increased practice may improve achievement, but it is not clear that we know how to increase practice.

Teachers and publishers often tell me that they have improved on SSR (e.g., by adding reading conferences, quizzes). So far, no one has conducted a study showing, unambiguously, that we can increase kids’ amount of reading, and that those increases, consequently, lead to higher reading comprehension.

Experimental research in other realms suggest that not all practice is equal (Ericsson, 1993). "Deliberate practice" seems to be particularly profitable. That is practice that is purposeful and systematic, requiring focused attention and that is conducted with a specific goal of improving performance. Practicing under the auspices of a coach seems to matter, too.

These sound less like free reading and more like the reading that a teacher assigns.  

Another way to figure this out is to conduct longitudinal studies in which amount of reading practice and reading achievement are each measured multiple times. Instead of correlating those two things with kids at a single time, we can track the influence of each across development. It is possible, for instance, to connect the amount of reading practice fourth-graders engage in with their gains in reading achievement between fourth- and fifth-grade.

Such studies, however, have failed to show a clear connection between earlier reading practice and reading comprehension gains (Aarnoutse & van Leeuwe, 1998). For instance, one of these studies concluded: “Reading achievement at age 10 significantly predicted independent reading at age 11. The alternative path, from independent reading at age 10 to reading achievement at age 11, was not significant.” (Harlaar, Deater- Deckard, Thompson, DeThorne, et al., 2011, p. 2123).

That study was able to attribute differences in both reading achievement and reading practice to genetic influences.

Another of these longitudinal correlational studies concluded that, “the results show that it is children’s reading skills that contribute to their subsequent out-of-school reading habits rather than vice versa: the more competent the children were in sentence comprehension, text reading, and word recognition at the end of first grade, the higher the amount of book and magazine reading.” (Leppanen, Aunola, & Nurmi, 2005, p. 395).

This study did find that reading practice was related to later improvements in word recognition but not enough to affect the kids’ reading comprehension.

Similarly, with older students, Cain and Oakhill (2011) reported that reading practice had positive impacts on vocabulary, but not comprehension, and that practice was more attributable to attainment than the opposite.

An interesting idea from these studies is that practice effects may be exerted through two separate mechanisms: one is the amount of words processed (a true practice effect) and the other is through the exertion of the students’ choice to read (a motivation effect—the aspect of practice thought to be genetically heritable).

If practice effects are divisible in that way, it would mean that it can’t be captured entirely by requiring additional reading at home or school.

My conclusions from all of this?

Increasing students amount of reading may have positive impacts on at least some aspects of reading (e.g., word recognition, fluency, vocabulary). And, over a long enough period of time, it is possible that those foundational improvements would result in improved reading comprehension—though neither experimental nor longitudinal correlational studies have yet found such a connection.

The practice effects that have been found are pretty small, so if they do eventually result in better comprehension, that would likely take a long time, and those effects would probably be even smaller.

The more certain affect, according to these longitudinal correlational studies, is that reading achievement influences desire to read. We still lack experimental evidence of that, however.

Increased practice could lead to some small achievement gains, but that doesn’t mean we know how best to get kids to read more. Swapping one form of school reading for another probably isn’t the answer, especially given that kids exercise no reading choice in that scenario (and given how hard it has been to generate learning from independent reading during the summer when no school reading must be sacrificed to allow it; see Jimmy Kim’s research, for instance).

Bottom line?

Independent reading at school is not a research-based practice.

Use school time to raise reading achievement and find ways to encourage kids to choose to read on their own.

Doug Fisher has had great success in getting inner-city kids to read at home by making texts available, allowing students to choose what they want to read, influencing those choices through teacher book talks, and providing opportunities for kids to share socialy their home reading at school (e.g., book clubs).

That approach, though not yet proven to work by experimental study, intrigues me because it has the possibility of both increasing amount of student reading while encouraging students to choose to read on their own (according to the research, that dual approach should be a real plus).

And, it would be doing this while preserving the maximum amount of teaching; an approach more consistent with research findings that show achievement to have a bigger impact on practice, than the opposite.

Doug estimates that his students get 15 extra days of teaching each year this way (e.g., since 30 minutes of free reading per day across a 180-day school year displaces that much instruction or deliberate practice).

Now please let me enjoy my ice cream in peace.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Betsy MacDermott Duffy Jun 22, 2019 08:05 PM

My question always remains - why are we paying teachers to watch children read silently?

Audrey Jun 22, 2019 08:33 PM

Independent reading (when students are supported through conferring, goal setting and coaching) builds success in students and l a culture and love for reading. As I once heard from Donalyn Miller, no child ever gets off the bus after school and says they can’t wait to read if they haven’t already built a habit and love of reading during the school day. (Keynote Address, Literacy for All Conference, Oct. 2019)

Kelly Smith Jun 22, 2019 09:00 PM

Hi Dr. Shanahan--- I am a great supporter of your work, and I do believe we have met while you were in Baltimore. You presented for my ELA teachers.

In reaction to Ms. Duffy---I wish we could see little thought bubbles over students' heads as they are reading so that we know what they are thinking as they navigate text. My hope is that teachers are giving students the strategies to navigate text independently. I am an assistant principal in a high school and I work with professional development. Much of my work involves literacy. This past year, we have focused on teachers developing engaging reading lessons aligned to the standards...with a compelling purpose for reading, vocabulary development, and of course--pre, during, and post reading activities.

We have also been working on teacher modeling and Think Alouds so that students can hear what their teachers are thinking about as they move through text. Next year--we are going to introduce Reader's Theatre to involve students and teachers in planned readings.

I know that Ms. Duffy wonders why we pay teachers to watch students read independently--my hope is that reading instruction helped students successfully navigate text independently. My other hope is that the teacher wasn't just sitting their watching the students...perhaps the teacher was also reading and modeling for the students---the very expectations that she has for her students.

Victor Jun 23, 2019 12:04 AM

While students are reading, teachers can intervene in the process by asking individual students questions about their reading. Both reading and writing are and should be social activities. Students can ask teachers questions about words or sentences. They can offer summaries of what they are reading. They can be writing journal entries that teachers can be perusing, etc. Teachers can be holding individual conferences with students. They are not, I hope, staring at kids while they are reading.

Tim Shanahan Jun 23, 2019 02:05 AM

Audrey— those are good claims...,why don’t the data ever support them?

Tim Shanahan Jun 23, 2019 02:09 AM

Victor— no evidence that those brief one on one conferences make any difference better to provide kids with what we know to be beneficial to them rather than just hoping you’re right,

Miriam Giskin Jun 23, 2019 12:02 PM

The practices of Doug Fisher that you mention can be supported by allowing reading time to occur at school AND at home. Many of our students do not have homes where this can occur, or homes at all for some. A crowded motel room with the TV on or a noisy homeless shelter is not conducive to reading. Students appreciate the quiet time, the cozy corner and the permission, encouragement and support that the classroom setting provides. For the kid with hours to spend in their treehouse lost in a book sure it doesn't need to happen at school but for many school is the only place it can happen. Also every student doesn't need to being doing it at once as past practices might be causing us to imagine. Some students might be independently reading books of their choice while others are engaged in quite different assignments and lessons.

Tim Shanahan Jun 23, 2019 12:25 PM

I think your expectations for what most kids can do are too low.


Harriett Jun 23, 2019 03:43 PM

It seems counterintuitive that giving kids time to read in class doesn't impact reading, but having followed your blog and also reading Daniel Willingham's articles connecting reading comprehension to increased background knowledge and encouraging more reading of non-fiction texts (along with all the research on deliberate practice), I know that I need to structure my reading activities very carefully to maximize my time with students. And then try to motivate them to read on their own by sending home high interest books, etc.

Sara Jun 24, 2019 02:04 AM

It's worrying to me to see thoughts such as Audrey's that "no child ever gets off the bus after school and says they can’t wait to read if they haven’t already built a habit and love of reading during the school day." This, to me, is so obviously untrue that I worry, if Audrey is a teacher. She apparently believes it, because someone (in this case Donalyn Miller) said it during a Keynote Address (which hasn't yet occurred, apparently, as it'll be in October this year). Could we please start exercising some critical thinking? Someone having been chosen to speak does NOT prove that what they have to say is true.

Tim Shanahan Jun 24, 2019 12:16 PM

Harriet— the research shows that learning how to read is much more likely to increase the amount of student independent reading than independent reading practice has on improving reading ability. It is not that no learning comes from independent reading, just less than is possible through the reading support and guidance provided by a teacher.


Catlin M Goodrow Jun 24, 2019 03:31 PM

Thanks so much for this thoughtful blog post! My grad school classes in literacy consisted almost entirely of learning how to structure independent reading and conferring. I had to learn critical aspects of literacy teaching as I was in the classroom (with the help of awesome coaches and mentors). So many literacy practices that are popular don't really seem to improve students' reading, and I wish more university programs focused on what we know works.

Nancy Butt Packard Jun 24, 2019 07:28 PM

What assumptions are we making as teachers when we assign independent reading? We usually look at it with a best-case scenario (rose colored glasses), in my opinion. Sometimes we assume the kids can read the words, but often they cannot. We assume they are comprehending the book, but they often cannot tell you the basics of the story. We assume they understand the grammar or key words that signal sentence construction (and comprehension), and they do not! We assume the kids get the vocabulary to make the book meaningful, but their vocabulary is shallow. So I am superbly wary of the benefit of independent reading when I see my ESL kids sitting in their home room class. I am trying to learn how to use my English lessons as highly supported and structured. We try to do everything: spelling, vocabulary from the stories, sentence level study, sentence skits, verb watching, rereading grade level text for fluency, etc...How can I help further accelerate the language competence for my students with writing and what type of homework is appropriate for ESL kids, grades 3-5?

Deb Jun 29, 2019 02:07 AM

As the Literacy Coordinator in a K-12 school for 16 years I would like to share that in my experience, anecdotally, students receiving active and responsive daily reading instruction are the ones I see improving in reading the most. Sadly, during classroom SSR I see far too many students spending inordinate amounts of time getting comfortable, looking for books, distracted by others and engaging in any number of other behaviors that take them away from actual reading. This is due, in part, to inadequate teaching of "how" to read silently and independently, and in part to students not reading with metacognition - both of which can cause a student to lose focus. Focused instruction and feedback have been, in my experience, the most effective ways to develop reading growth. With that growth comes increased motivation to read. Increased motivation and interest leads to students choosing to read during their own time.

This may be simplifying things too much, but I think we can liken this experience to any other type of activity a child does - soccer, piano, knitting, or any number of things. If the child is not receiving effective coaching/teaching, they can practice their activity for hours on end but see minimal improvement because they have not learned the requisite skills or received responsive instruction which brings them to the next level of proficiency. We can kick a soccer ball ineffectively for 1 hour or 100 hours, but if we are doing it ineffectively we likely won't improve. Eventually we may not want to keep playing soccer. What fun is it to do something on our own time when we don't see any improvement, or we don't ever fully understand how to do it well?

Michele Lawson Aug 06, 2019 07:30 AM

Thank you so very much for your blog. I am learning so much, even now in my 21st year of teaching.

In response to Ms. Duffy... Are you a teacher or have you ever been a teacher? Maybe I am looking through rose colored glasses, but I believe most teachers are not just sitting on their butts watching kids read. If they are, they were probably told that students needed SSR. They are not sitting at their desks "taking a break." Negative generalizations like your's should not be made about teachers. And, to insinuatiate that teachers aren't earning their "pay" is ludicrous. Teachers work for "peanuts," but give 110% because they truly love teaching and care about what's best for our students. If you're 'paying" teachers, you should be sure to give an hourly wage. I am one of many teachers reading professional blogs like this to better aide my students.

Gayle Nov 05, 2019 02:20 AM

The International Reading Association has a great statement on independent reading. It is called Creating Passionate Readers Through Independent Reading. You should check it out! There is more to, "Just letting students read." If you are just watching your students read, there is a problem!

Betsy MacDermott Duffy Nov 12, 2019 01:19 AM

Oh my, I looked back to capture Tim’s wise words about the lack of research behind independent reading and found so many negative comments. I have been teaching reading for thirty years and would never disparage anyone. My teachers simply follow research based strategies and my colleagues always follow those practices. They teach reading actively! Directly! And use research strategies - that’s all. Love All teachers - Betsy Duffy

Karl Androes Aug 24, 2021 03:01 PM

Tim, you kill me. But that might just be the ice cream talking!

cathy caton Aug 27, 2023 01:38 PM

Especially this: "“Reading achievement at age 10 significantly predicted independent reading at age 11. The alternative path, from independent reading at age 10 to reading achievement at age 11, was not significant.” This flies in the face of giving kids in K-3 leveled readers and sending them off to bean bag chairs to read silently, often using the taught three cueing method and word memorization. Two elephants in the room on this are dyslexia (of course) and DLD (Developmental Language Disorder, at ) the latter of which is associated with a risk for dyslexia and is five times more prevalent than autism yet rarely recognized by schools - conceivably since speech language services are more expensive than "box" reading software programs and schools often "teach by telling" - kids who don't talk are simply "quiet". So independent reading cements bad habits (read by word memorization and guessing, which significantly slows rate, to the point a child's working memory can't manage it all - so they read with "strategies" instead (like re-reading). Who would want to read like that? Even kids without learning differences - the way reading is taught in most schools now simply isn't the best, based in science - that we've known for years - approach.

Hats off to Ms. Schlessinger, my sixth grade teacher, who had students read independently each Friday, but called each student up to her desk while they did so, and asked pointed questions about the text they had read so far. She also monitored and approved each child's book choice during school library visits, to ensure choices were a challenging level for each student. Nothing like one on one interaction to ensure each child gets what he/she needs - but children so rarely get that these days, despite even some wealthy counties contributing to education funding per student (an additional $20,000 each in my district for special ed (Fed + state + county) on top of gen ed funds per student).

Brian Aug 28, 2023 04:29 PM

As a parent, I believe the public schools are filled by cargo cult educational practices built on a broader belief that by emulating, simulating, and visualizing you can transform reality. This worldview, is, in turn, based on a distinctive philosophical view of the world.

What Are your thoughts?

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Isn't Independent Reading a Research-Based Practice?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.