Sorting Out the Arguments Over "Independent" Reading

  • alphabet Book Buddies
  • 26 August, 2015

Teacher question:

I am confused. You claim that independent reading has almost no benefit, but another article I just read says, "In one of the most extensive studies of independent reading yet conducted, Anderson, Wilson, and Fielding (1988) investigated a broad array of activities and their relationship to reading achievement and growth in reading. They found that the amount of time students spent in independent reading was the best predictor of reading achievement and also the best predictor of the amount of gain in reading achievement made by students between second and fifth grade." Which is correct?
Shanahan's snappy response" 
Oh, that's an easy question. My ideas are correct, of course.
Let me explain. There are different kinds of research. Here the two pertinent kinds of investigation are correlational studies and experimental studies. In the former, the researcher tries to see if there is any relationship between two variables, in this case the relationship of interest is between amount of reading and amount of student literacy learning. In the experimental studies, on the other hand, someone tries to determine if one variable “causes” another or influences another.
Here’s how it plays out in this case. The Anderson, et al., study that you cited above is a correlational study. They tested students’ reading ability and they measured (using diaries) how much reading students did on their own. Despite the quote, they didn’t actually measure how much learning the students were doing (they estimated this based on the original reading scores). In any event, the correlation was quite high… which means the kids who were reading the most had the highest reading scores (and, perhaps, the biggest learning gains). 
That may seem like convincing evidence, but one problem with correlations is that you can’t be certain of their direction. What I mean by that is that no matter how strong a relationship, the analysis can’t reveal whether it is higher reading practice that leads to higher reading achievement or whether it is just that the best readers read more than the other kids. 
But even if the direction of the relationship were clear, you wouldn’t be sure about what was causing it. Maybe the kids with the highest achievement also have the best-educated parents—parents who expect them to read at home. That would mean that parent’s level of education was the determining factor for both learning to read and choosing to read. (Thus, if you made everyone read a lot, it wouldn’t necessarily have the effect you were hoping for because you wouldn’t have those educated parents in all the homes.)
In contrast, experimental studies allow you to attribute causation to a particular variable. An experiment may randomly assign students to a treatment group that would get DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time during their school day, and to a control group that would not be required to do this extra reading. If the DEAR group learned more over the period of the study we would know that the gains were due to the extra reading time since the other variables would have been controlled or randomized.
There is a substantial body of correlational studies showing that better readers read more than other kids; just as that article that you quoted indicated. But the experimental studies of this problem reveal how hard it is to encourage students to read enough to raise their reading achievement (Kim, 2007; NICHD, 2000; Yoon & Won, 2001). In many studies encouraging kids to read more, through actions like independent reading time during the school day, have no impact at all, and the average impact across studies is tiny (so tiny it is of questionable value).
Why is this the case? We don’t really know, but here are some possible explanations. Perhaps the various interventions (DEAR time, SSR time, book floods, etc.) do not actually get kids to read more than they would without the interventions; a basic flaw in this research is that it rarely monitors how much of an increase in reading, if any, was instigated by the intervention. Or maybe these approaches get kids to read more, but not enough to make a difference in learning. Or maybe this kind of reading improves something else like oral vocabulary, world knowledge, or love of reading. Studies of reading to younger children show that those kids end up knowing more vocabulary, so that relationship seems possible, while studies of encouraging reading have usually not found any relationship to attitude. Still another possibility is that independent reading is terrific, but when compared with the reading that kids do under a teacher’s supervision during instruction, it doesn’t come out so well (put it up against skateboarding or playing video games and it would do much better).
Final word: I don’t actually say “independent reading has almost no benefit.” My point is that independent reading time during the school day has little or no impact on reading achievement, so I wouldn’t make setting aside such time a priority in my classroom. Nevertheless, I think independent reading is great and I encourage kids to be independent readers—which means reading on one’s own, not when required to by the teacher. Use your school day to teach kids to read, and then when teachers are not available to the kids let’s hope they will choose to read on their own, too (independently).


See what others have to say about this topic.

Alison Ryan Jun 13, 2017 01:57 AM


This post made me think about the relationship between independent reading and vocabulary acquisition. I've read that a large percentage of vocabulary is acquired through reading.

That said, if time spent reading is important to vocabulary acquisition, isn't it vital that students are given time to read independently at school? We already know that there exists a "word gap" due to income differences. If we bank on students reading independently at home (which we know doesn't happen for many low-income students - as well as for some students at all income levels), aren't we perpetuating this word gap? That has to impact reading achievement and overall school achievement.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 01:58 AM



You're right that a lot of vocabulary learning slowly builds up from reading. But it is also true that someone can learn words faster from direct instruction. It isn't an either/or of course, but if you are giving me the choice between having kids figuring out words slowly on their own or having an available teacher teaching them words (since it is a school day), then there is no contest. When you aren't there, reading on your own is spectacular, when you are... why should a district pay tens of thousands of dollars to have you not teaching children?

Alsion Ryan Jun 13, 2017 01:59 AM


That makes sense, Tim. But what if you ARE teaching children - as in small group or individual instruction? When I was still in the classroom, I never sat back and relaxed while my kids were reading! Independent reading, I think, can be a valuable independent activity when structured appropriately. Especially since we're not going to be teaching kids in a whole group setting all day long.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 01:59 AM



Again, there is nothing wrong with independent reading and kids can always learn information about their world that way... If kids have finished their assignments and there is down time having a book available to dip into is wise... I just wouldn't set aside that 20-30 minute "independent reading time" anymore. (Have kids do lots of reading in your classroom, of course, but with lots of discussion about what is being read and lots of chances for rereading and lots of opportunity to write about what they have read).

Maggie D Jun 13, 2017 02:00 AM


And what about the children who just cannot read well enough for independent reading to be enjoyable o

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 02:01 AM

Fair point, Maggie. Studies suggest that reading on your own has the least payoff for the youngest/lowest readers (I assume because they cannot yet read texts hard enough to stretch their knowledge or their language). Reading alone at school is not particularly helpful for those kids at all.

Barbara Randlett Jun 13, 2017 02:01 AM


Question: Does anyone know the book #, author or actual title of a book published in the earl 1960's that had a title of Your Baby Can Read, Baby Can Read or something like that. It promoted use of simple index cards to label common objects (it was not a "kit" or "program", just a book.

If you know it please send into to barbara@metric insights . com

Many thanks

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 02:02 AM



The book is Glen Doman's How to Teach Your Baby To Read. He was part of the Doman & Delecatto team that had stroke victims, stutterers, and poor readers crawling like lizards to re-pattern their brains (even Joseph P. Kennedy, President Kennedy's father tried this one after his stroke. It didn't do much good, and his approach to teaching babies to read (with really big flashcards) doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Harriet Jun 13, 2017 02:02 AM


This is an excellent piece highlighting the potential shortcomings of correlational research, which has--unfortunately--misguided us in many areas. I think this is especially true when it comes to reading acquisition, which is why I relied more on neuroscientists like Stanislaus Dehaene (Reading in the Brain) and cognitive scientists like Diane McGuinness (Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us About How to Teach Reading) when teaching a kindergarten class last year.


Ben Rogers Jun 13, 2017 02:03 AM


Many thanks for these blogs Tim. I am a science teacher who wants to help my students read science texts better. Would the following be a fair summary?

1. Teach a couple of reading strategies (summarising and questioning the text), but don't spent too much time on it.
2. Actively teach vocabulary in class.
3. Encourage out of class individual reading, but don't spend much lesson time on it.



Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 02:04 AM



I would also argue for some time on disciplinary literacy in a science class--reading and writing like a scientist is a big deal.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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Sorting Out the Arguments Over "Independent" Reading


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