What is Independent Reading and Why Does He Say All Those Horrible Things About It?

  • Book Buddies
  • 18 March, 2018

Recently I posted a tweet challenging the idea that “independent reading” in the classroom was such a good idea. Not surprisingly I found myself the target of all kinds of Trumpian tweets and vilification. It got so bad that multiple major proponents of encouraging reading contacted me in embarrassment over the responses (because some of it was unprofessional, and much of it was just badly reasoned).

Part of the problem is that many teachers believe their actions are deeply moral so if anyone questions their choices, they go off the deep end (there are few small disagreements about reading instruction these days).

But honestly a really big part of the problem is the term “independent reading” itself. The assorted tweets revealed deep disagreements about what these tweeters thought independent reading was—which was interesting since they apparently all thought they were talking about the same thing.

I doubt that it is possible to convince someone who is deeply invested in in-class independent reading that they can do better, but it certainly should be possible to clarify what the practice is and what its implications may be. This one is a two-parter (maybe three). There is a lot of ground to cover here.

Before doing that, let me declare my positions as forthrightly as possible using the definitions and explanations that will follow.

  1. I believe that kids should read a lot in school and out of school.
  2. I believe that most out of school reading should be independent.
  3. I believe that most in school reading should not be independent.

What is independent reading?

According to Wikipedia, “independent reading is a term used in educational settings, where students are involved in choosing and reading material (fiction books, nonfiction, magazines, other media) for their independent consumption and enjoyment.” That sounds good, but then what do we call the reading that kids do on their own away from school?

And, what of all those teachers who explained that they checked on the students’ comprehension regularly and guided their reading in various ways; doesn’t that steer the purpose away from enjoyment towards just another school assignment?

Back in the 1960s, Russell Stauffer wrestled with this problem. He tried to clarify by using the term using “self-selected reading” to refer to the reading assignments kids did at school that allowed them a choice of reading material. That certainly distinguishes that this reading is still under the control of the teacher and that the only thing independent about it is who selects the texts.

The National Assessment people explain independent reading differently than Wikipedia. They don’t seem to think the educational setting is the main thing. Like Stauffer and Wikipedia, NAEP keys in on choice, but for them it is the consequential choice of whether to read or not that determines independence.

Those silly people over at the American Association of School Libraries apparently would reject most if not all of the independent reading views that have been thrown at me over these past weeks. They claim that independent reading is the reading students choose to do on their own, that it involves personal choice of material, as well as of time and place. It is reading that no one assigns, and it requires no reporting or accountability.

I’d love to tell you this confusion is new—and then blame it on Lucy Calkins or Steven Krashen. But that is not the case.

In fact, the term independent reading has been used for more than a hundred years (thanks, Google), and Wikipedia seems to have it right—it seemingly has always been used in relationship to schooling. Think about it. When you talk to your friends about what they are reading… do you talk about reading or independent reading?

“What are you reading independently, Gloria?”

I found sources in the Nineteenth Century that referred to independent reading as the reading one did for homework—it was independent of the school building, but not of the school. And, some Twentieth Century sources refer to independent reading as silent reading; that is, it is the reading the teacher doesn't listen to you doing.

By the Twentieth Century independent reading had started to accumulate synonyms like “spare time reading,” “recreational reading,” “free reading,” and “reading on their own.” None of these synonyms is entirely satisfactory, but they all suggest that control of the reading has shifted to the kids and away from the teacher.  

In that vein, the Report of the National Committee on Reading (1925) talked about independent reading as reading with little or no assessment (there go those one-on-one teacher conferences). By the 1940s, “independent reading,” whatever they may have meant by it had even become part of the basal reader instruction of the day.

By the time I was teaching, Lyman Hunt had institutionalized the idea of independent reading as “uninterrupted sustained silent reading (USSR).” The teacher was to schedule regular class time for kids to do independent reading. They were to choose the texts they read, and teachers were to stay out of that process. No one was to quiz or question the kids on those books, and teachers were to spend that time reading, too. (The term USSR soon was soon shortened to SSR to distinguish it from the Soviet Union, and later it was replaced by more child-friendly terms like Drop Everything and Read—DEAR time).

SSR was studied quite a bit, and it wasn’t found to do much for kids in terms of either improving their reading or their motivation for reading. Quite appropriately it started to fall out of favor in schools.

Accordingly, various educators started gussying up “independent reading” to make it look more instructional. In some cases, this meant controlling what kids could read (perhaps they could still choose, but now only books at certain levels or ones the teacher had prepared). In other cases, it meant adding mini-lessons to teach reading strategies or weekly conferences, so the teacher could check whether students were actually doing the reading. In other words, they were trying to make independent reading less, well…independent.

This is a mess. We need different terms for these different conceptions of independent reading. Here is my shot at it:

Independent Reading

I’m with the librarians and NAEP on this one… independent reading is the reading that people choose to do on their own—reading that they are not required to do, reading that is not assigned, reading that they will not be tested on or questioned about since it is being done for their own independent or individual purposes (to learn what they want to learn, to enjoy, to fulfill themselves as they conceive of fulfilment). And, of course, independent reading involves a choice of what you read.

Independent reading entails many choices-- whether or not to read, why to read, when to read, where to read, and how to read.

Independent reading can and does happen in school. Little Kevin or Bridget get their work done early and pull out their copy of Captain Underpants just because they want to is every bit an example of independent as the kid in the Norman Rockwell painting who is sneaking a read by flashlight under the covers late (too late) at night.

Required or Mandated Self-Selected Reading

The most important choice in independent reading is whether to read or not.

I love reading, but not as much as I love spending time with my grandchildren. When my daughter asks me to babysit, I know it means I’m going to lose out on independent reading time, but I don't care because I’d rather play with babies.

Most of what teachers call independent reading these days is actually mandated reading.

"You don’t like to read? Too bad… this is reading time."

"You’d rather do your math or talk to your pal? Too bad… this is reading time."

"You’re not interested in anything that we have books on? Not my problem, it is your time to read for pleasure."

That’s a bit overwrought, sure, but I get many letters from parents telling me that’s just how their kids feel—especially if they have learning problems, or if they just don’t sit well for long. (And believe it or not, some kids just don’t enjoy reading).

What’s independent about this kind of thing? It is independent of school purposes (e.g., teaching kids to read, social studies content to be mastered), it is independent of textbooks and teacher choices, it is independent of pedagogy (e.g., oral reading practice, vocabulary instruction), it is independent of assessment (the purpose may be to give kids a chance to practice what they have learned, but no one is going to check up on that).

This category as described is the one most similar to sustained silent reading. Although students have to read (or at least pretend to read), they get to choose what they want to read. Teachers trying to provide this kind of reading experience may offer some guidance when kids are having trouble finding a book, but such choices are not limited and are ultimately up to the kids.

Required/Mandated Limited Selection Reading

This category not only requires that students read, but their reading choices are limited, too—and, it should become obvious that the reading purposes get reshaped a bit as well. The reason for limiting the students’ reading choices is usually aimed at making certain the pedagogical value of the exercise.

In the previous category, a teacher might require independent reading for a general purpose like “teaching students to love reading,” but in this category such blunt pedagogical purposes are sharpened. Not all books will lead to the learning that we want to see, so teachers necessarily constrain student choices.

One popular choice constraint is book leveling. If the book doesn’t have a blue dot you can’t read it independently. That means the kid who is dying to read a book that his friend loved may be out of luck since his buddy is a better or worse reader.

Likewise, many teachers tell me that in the “independent reading” in their classrooms, kids get to choose from restricted sets of books that satisfy certain pedagogical concerns. For example, a teacher might assign five novels by Walter Dean Myers for her three “book clubs” to choose from. Or another might have a set of books that he has developed questioning guides for conferencing, and the kids’ independence has to stay within those bounds.

In this category, kids have to read, but they get some choice of what to read—though these choices are constrained more or less by topic, author, level or some other criterion to increase the chances of good learning outcomes.

Required/Mandated Reading with Accountability

This category is very similar to the preceding one in that it tries to reap pedagogical benefits from supposedly independent reading. In this one, instead of limiting what students can read, teachers insert themselves into the process by monitoring how the reading is going.

This can be done several ways. Accelerated Reader monitors the kids using multiple-choice tests to see if they get points for the reading. For many teachers, conferencing is about checking up to see that the kids are really reading the books or that they are successfully applying their reading skills (be sure to ask a main idea question).

Required Pedagogical Reading

This is just what it sounds like: it is reading that is required by the school. Kids don’t get to choose whether to read the guided reading text or the science book. Teachers assign pages and kids read them. Teachers hold kids accountable for this reading. There is nothing independent about it.

The purposes of the reading are pretty specific, too. The teacher/school/textbook are presenting the content they want kids to learn and texts that will require practice with particular text elements or reading skills. Kids may or may not like this kind of reading, but that isn’t the (main) point.

There might be some latitude in the where and when such reading takes place. For instance, homework reading typically will fit in this category, and even required reading during the school day may take place in a range of classroom and school locales (e.g., at the reading circle, in one’s desk, in the library corner, in the school library).

Obviously, when it comes to independent reading we don't all see eye-to-eye. The issue it seems to me is has to do with implications of these different conceptions. Which of them are most effective—in building reading achievement and in encouraging kids to love reading? Now that these terms have been clarified, we can start to get at that issue in a forthright (and, I hope, dispassionate) manner.

That’s next.

And, finally, perhaps in another forthcoming entry I’ll have the energy to explore whether schools even have the right to require that anyone love reading. If a teacher loves to read is her duty really to try to make the kids be like her? (Stand clear… brickbats are coming, I’m sure.)


See what others have to say about this topic.

Tricia Reiser Mar 18, 2018 07:54 PM

I have been intrigued with reading the “Twitter Reading War” over Independent reading. I’ve also been bothered by the tone in some tweets. Some have issues with cognitive dissonance but overall I’ve learned a lot about teacher’s viewpoints on independent reading. I appreciate your insight and am very glad to see this blog post. Thank you for the information. I look forward to reading #2 on Independent reading. Thank you for your service to our profession. Your expertise is greatly appreciated.

Liz Orr Mar 18, 2018 08:49 PM

I've also been fascinated by this revealing debate. The personal jabs are disheartening. You'd hope that we as teachers could do better at debating with respect, logic and reason, not attacks. That said we are emotional creatures so I still admire the work and thinking of both sides, despite this misgiving.
I've loved the logical, thoughtful reasoning. I found myself enjoying and feeling stretched in great ways from seeing both sides. My concern is the research. I'd like to see clear research that shows SSR is not effective. I believe (pure, unguided, lengthy, compelled) SSR is not as effective as deft instruction, but I'd love to see studies. They may not exist, yet. I've seen Krashen's work and argued the studies he listed (thank you for listing them!) themselves do not hold to the same high rigor as i.e. Torgesson. One person cited effect sizes, but when I dug into and actually read those studies, it again became clear that the research was not strong. We cite research too loosely, on both sides. We can't just put a name in ( ) and say that is research, even if it refers to a study. That study itself needs to show strong, empirical effect sizes and be fairly recent. We as a profession have improved enormously in past decade so old research may not reflect current, stronger teaching prevalent today. Sharon Vaughn found the effect sizes we get today are half what they were 15 yrs ago. This means the 'controls' are getting better, which means our profession is improving.
Krashen posts a great list of studies (though old), and most of his studies are posted right there or easy to pull up. When you do pull them up and read them, you see how weak the methodology is - no Randomize Controlled Trials - not outcomes that would stand up to needed statistical power either.
I think we need both research and reasoning, since we just don't have enough research yet. On the reasoning side, I'm seeing good arguments on both sides, but find I'm swayed overall more by Dr. Shanahan - though my mind is broadened and better for it by reading the other side.
I hope the conversation will continue with deliberate reasoning, not emotional tweets. The tweets shut down and distract. One person actually tweeted that 'all dissent should be shut down'. Such tweets do not seem consistent with the goals of a reasoned democracy. Like Dr. Shanahan, I also found myself viciously, personally attacked when I posted to the debate, so I stopped. The attackers did not critique my ideas, but went after me personally.
We have the wonderful internet to connect us, broaden our thinking and help us be deliberate, careful and knowledgeable in how best to serve the kids we all love. Rather than attacking people personally, making up then attacking straw men (basals? a loaded code word aimed to insult as no one in this debate recommends them; anti-choice? I don't see reasoned people in this debate promoting entirely anti-chance stances). I hope we can all continue to really listen, weigh and consider what smart, caring people post and use it to good ends.

Jennifer Hall Mar 18, 2018 09:46 PM

I'd love to know your thoughts on middle school teachers reading fiction aloud to the students. Is this a good idea or not?

Rebecca Mikes Mar 19, 2018 12:42 AM

I can’t for the rest of this series!

Thomas DeVere Wolsey Mar 19, 2018 02:12 AM

Jennifer, middle school kids love to hear their teachers read fiction (in general), and they can benefit from that practice. It is important not to mistake listening to someone read for students doing their own reading.

Thomas DeVere Wolsey Mar 19, 2018 02:12 AM

Jennifer, middle school kids love to hear their teachers read fiction (in general), and they can benefit from that practice. It is important not to mistake listening to someone read for students doing their own reading.

Joni smith Mar 19, 2018 03:08 AM

Anxiously awaiting part 2

Timothy Shanahan Mar 19, 2018 01:20 PM

Liz— you are correct that the research has been weak on Ssr, though since the 2000 National Reading Panel researchers have looked more closely at impacts of encouraging kids to read... what they have found basically is that it is possible to get small effects, but that it is difficult to do so (so it often just doesn’t payoff or takes a big investment to payoff). Of course, the self selected reading with a weekly conference that is so widely touted as essential has never been studied allowing proponents to claim anything. I plan to explore the data, but my hunch is this one will require a lot of logical reasoning based on what is known.

D. Corvelo Mar 19, 2018 04:53 PM

So I am a bit confused. All the research I have read says that the amount of time that students have their eyes on print is the only thing that has proven to be effective in improve reading ability. Is my research outdated? If none of these "independent" reading systems work - then what?

Timothy Shanahan Mar 20, 2018 02:00 AM

That claim is made about the amount of reading...but research? Not really. That’s a real problem in our field... people say such things for effect, to try to win arguments, to use hyperbole, etc... but not because research actually finds that... as you’ll see there is learning to be done from reading alone, but not anything like what you’ve heard in results and people who are really good readers do tend to read more than people who can’t read very well (but that doesn’t mean that reading or reading alone makes you a good reader).

sandra wilde Mar 20, 2018 10:38 PM

As far as children reading independently outside of school, what if they don’t have access to books? http://teacher.scholastic.com/products/face/pdf/research-compendium/access-to-books.pdf

Timothy Shanahan Mar 21, 2018 02:49 AM

There are a lot of things we can do to make books available to kids outside of school...bookmobiles, libraries, book gifts, Reading is fundamental, etc.

Shayla Morgan Mar 21, 2018 04:51 AM

"Which of them are most effective—in building reading achievement and in encouraging kids to love reading?"

Key Word: And

I agree, time spent on reading (shared, close, independent, required, recreational, sustained, guided, teacher-led...etc. X1000) is the most effective way to build reading achievement. However, I don't believe there is a strong correlation between reading achievement and a general "love for reading." As hard it may be for some educators to admit: There are people out there that just don't love to read (insert long, dramatic gasp).

Julianne Mar 21, 2018 05:22 AM

As a former public children's librarian, I have always wanted kids to read whatever they wanted to read: magazine, non-fiction, higher level, lower level, following along with audiobooks, etc... My colleagues and I would cringe and lament when a kid would really want to check out a certain book, but wasn't permitted to do so because he “couldn’t take an AR quiz on it!” Or when a 2nd grader had to find books at a 5.0 – 6.0 level because she needed to be challenged. I could go on…

As a newly certificated elementary school teacher, I know I will have to pay attention to the "Complexity, Quality, & Range of Student Reading." I am only substitute teaching now, so developing and solidifying my ideas about reading for my future students will be helpful. I appreciate the discussion and ideas!

Timothy Shanahan Mar 21, 2018 01:18 PM

Shayla- you are correct that many people who can read well do not enjoy it or prefer to spend their time otherwise. However, it is the rare person who reads badly but who loves to read. Making people good readers is a necessary but insufficient condition for creating a love of reading. But is there any reason to believe that requiring kids to read on their own changes that equation?

Nazera Chartouni Mar 22, 2018 06:24 PM

I LOVE this debate! I am learning so very much! I am greatly looking forward to the rest of this series!
Nazera Chartouni

Rachel Mar 24, 2018 07:08 PM

The question Tim poses at the end that asks if teachers are responsible for teach kids to read or to also teach them to love reading is a question I pose to my teaching interns at the beginning of their first reading methods course, and we revisit it throughout the term. Funnily enough, I juxtapose a quote from Lucy Calkins (The Art of Teaching Reading) and one from Victoria Purcell-Gates (Other People’s Words) to spark these ideas. It’s always a lively debate!

Sarah Apr 02, 2018 11:44 PM

My school system (definitely at the elementary level, I’m not sure how it’s handled in middle and high school levels) has “independent reading” that is not at all independent reading. It was essentially everything that was described. Students are choosing books from certain ZPDs (based on a score given from a computerized reading test) and then they read these books, take comprehension tests and earn points. This is the Accelerated Reading program. In grade 1, it’s “for fun” because the kids are just learning the program. In grade 2, students have goals (point goal and average percentage correct goal, which is 85%) and if they meet the goals, they get to attend end of grading period “parties”. In grades 3-5, students also have the same goals as second grade but, they are a part of the students’ Language Arts grade. How is this independent reading? Students have to read and participate in the program in order to maintain a desirable average in language arts. There is nothing “independent” about this practice other than what book they choose and, I’ve known some colleagues to put restriction on book choice. I see this practice driving away students’ want to read. By the time they meet their goals, they just want a break; not to pick up a book for “fun”.

susan russell Apr 03, 2018 04:08 PM

Growing up in the “Accelerated Reader BOOM” my thought of independent reading was having time in class to read a book but making sure that book would give me enough AR points. Then in high school I was given list of books and told to pick one to read independently. I love the definition you gave of the American Association of School Libraries “independent reading is the reading students choose to do on their own, that it involves personal choice of material, as well as of time and place. It is reading that no one assigns, and it requires no reporting or accountability”. I wish that when I was in school someone would have shown me this definition so that as an adult I would be more open to independent reading. I have always been a good reader and have always enjoyed it, I however have always been stubborn and when being told what to read I have opened every book with a negative attitude. I have been learning about young adolescent literature with a focus on teaching young adult books. This article really has gotten me thinking about different ways to teach YA fiction. Most articles I have found on teaching this topic include ways to incorporate independent readings, now of course I am wondering what independent reading means to my class. I would never want to force a student to read a book that could actually be helpful and relatable and have them push away because of that “I’m making you read it idea”. I think giving students reading list with room to add to the list may be a happy medium to this problem. Thank you for such an interesting article that really got me thinking about how to be a more effective teacher.

Candace Loudermilk Apr 08, 2018 10:28 PM

Independent reading seems to truly be a hot topic within the education world. I teach at a high school in a few different math and science classes, and can honestly say that I was very unaware of this major debate. I have never had much experience with reading instruction or even reading within the classroom. There is very little reading in my math classes other than definitions, and we mostly do group reading in my science classes. I was very unaware until the past two months that independent reading was such an issue. I love that you laid the information out so well for those of us that are somewhat ignorant on this subject. I really do appreciate it. After reading a few articles and pulling from my class experience, we simply need to get our students to read more whether it is independent, guided or mandated reading with accountability. Many of my students are in the ninth grade and are on third or fourth grade levels. This is a major challenge for me, but I still feel the major need to push them to read more simply to help them for the future. I know that it is not the most desirable activity for many of them, but I know it is an activity that can truly help them to prepare for the job market to come and life.

What Are your thoughts?

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

Comment *

What is Independent Reading and Why Does He Say All Those Horrible Things About It?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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