Why don’t you like independent reading? It only makes sense for students to practice reading if they’re going to get good at it. My students live in poverty. They won’t read at home, so I provide 20 minutes a day for them to just read. Practice makes perfect, you know.
You’re right about the importance of practice. Practice has value in the development of any skilled activity.
I have no doubt that reading practice plays a role in making kids better readers.
I don’t oppose encouraging students to practice their reading. However, as a but I do believe in making instructional time as productive as possible. Just sending kids off to read is not likely to pay off as the other alternatives.
There has been a lot of research into the kinds of practice that improves performance.
We now have a pretty good idea on what effective practice looks like (Ericcson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993).
Unfortunately, your 20 minutes of daily independent reading doesn’t resemble that picture to any degree.
Effective practice, for instance, is purposeful, intentional, or deliberate. It doesn't include just aimless engagement in an activity. Effective practice focuses on what it is the student is trying to improve.
My wife is a pianist. She practices a lot. By that I don’t mean she sits around playing the piano all day. No, she works on certain pieces of music – or even parts of those compositions. She selects music that places certain demands on her and then works on them over again and again to master their intricacies.
Similar examples can be drawn from athletics. The most effective hitters in baseball don’t just “take batting practice.” They practice trying to hit the fast ball up and in or the curve down and away. Much is made about how many swings some hitters take. Pete Rose reputedly took 500 swings per day. But amount of practice may distract from the purposefulness of the effort. Rose didn’t just swing – he took the swings that could improve his hitting in a particular way.
Free reading, independent reading, sustained silent reading, drop everything and read time… all emphasize the idea that kids should be reading. There is some doubt about how much students really read during these periods (Stahl, 2004), but even if they are reading, there is nothing deliberate about it. What are they working on? What is it that they are trying to learn? Which texts have they chosen that will allow them to work on whatever that may be?
Let’s face it. There is nothing purposeful or deliberate about free reading. There is nothing wrong with that, unless the reason for the practice is to make the students better readers.
There are other features of productive practice, too.
Perhaps, your approach reflects some of those.
For instance, it helps if the skill to be practiced is broken into manageable parts. That allows a lot of repetition of key features or especially difficult parts of the skill.
That seems logical for improving a skill, but it isn’t an accurate description of the kind of practice that free reading provides.
Another important feature of effective practice is feedback in the moment. Errors creep into any skilled performance, so having a knowledgeable coach or partner who can monitor the practice and provide guidance in how to improve makes a big difference.
But, again, the classroom practice that you ask about is notable because of its independence of that kind of teacher involvement. At best, a teacher might speak briefly to a child several minutes (or even days) after the practice. If the child is self-aware enough to recognize what he/she is struggling with, and open enough to share it with the teacher, and articulate enough that the teacher understands what happened, then possibly some productive feedback can be provided. That's unlikely, however.
When I look at the average effect size of various instructional routines for teaching decoding, fluency, and comprehension (National Reading Panel, 2000), I come up with .40 approximately. The same kind of exercise within classroom independent reading is .05-.10 (Yoon, 2003). That means that the payoff from teaching is 400-800% better than the payoff from having kids go it alone.
Similar imbalances exist between practice in music or athletics and practice in educational tasks like reading or math. The educational payoffs tend to be relatively tiny; about 4-5 times less effective than in those other activities (Macnamara, Hambrick, & Oswald, 2014). (Evidently, we need be careful of those kinds of sports or music analogies since the nature of what needs to be practiced is so different).
What’s interesting is that those practice routines that research has identified as being powerful look a whole lot more like good reading instruction than free reading. Think about the kinds of reading that students engage in during guided/directed reading or repeated reading. There are clear purposes for the reading, the text is chosen for its appropriateness to those purposes, the reading takes place in relatively brief segments, the teacher monitors student success and provides feedback.
In those teaching contexts, a good deal of reading should take place. Not only in the reading class, but in social studies, science, and other subjects, too. Students should be reading at school throughout their day, week, and year. A 30-minute reading comprehension lesson should involve at least 15 minutes of reading; maybe more.
By all means, encourage your students to read for pleasure, too. Help them find books they might be interested in. Give them opportunities to share their reading experiences with other kids in class. Provide guidance to parents to support home reading. Offer advice on home reading routines (the wheres, the whens, the whys, the hows).
But cherish and protect your students’ instructional time. There isn’t enough of it. School is a good place to make kids stronger readers.
Don’t make the students’ independent reading part of your daily classroom schedule. Teach and guide your students so that it becomes part of theirs.
(Oh, and I don’t buy the idea that kids from low-income families won’t read. They will with the right guidance and support and if they can become proficient readers, which is why their instructional time is so precious. The argument that these kids will do better if you reduce their opportunities to learn just doesn’t bear scrutiny.)
Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363–406. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.100.3.363
Macnamara, B.N., Hambrick, D.Z., Oswald, F.L. (2014). Deliberate practice and performance in music, games, sports, education, and professions: A meta-analysis. Psychological Science, 25(8), 1608-1618. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614535810
Stahl, S.A. (2004). What do we know about fluency? Findings of the National Reading Panel. In P. McCardle & V. Chhabra (Eds.), The voice of evidence in reading research (pp. 187–211). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
Yoon, J. (2003). What a meta analytic review of three decades of SSR says about reading comprehension. Journal of Curriculum & Evaluation, 6(2), 171-186.
It is possible to provide "assisted reading practice" for students around gr. 3 or 4. In Michal's study, children made substantial progress in reading comprehension from 16 weeks of tape or live assisted reading (30 min. per day). This was done with children reading at a first grade level when the intervention began.
I drive a carpool of kids to a private school dedicated to teaching students using evidence-based instruction. On several occasions this year the kids joked and laughed about their independent reading time when they attended a public elementary school. The kids readily admit that they pretended to read. One even giggled while claiming he "pretended to read the entire third grade."
My data is anecdotal, not scientific. I wish I had recorded it. These children know better than anyone that practice of independent "free reading" is a waste of time. Thank you for your piece addressing another pervasive, misguided instructional practice.
So, taking it one step further, I have seen districts spend thousands and thousands of dollars to upgrade classroom libraries in each room to supplement what were adequate but not extensive classroom libraries and a very nice school library.
Is there any evidence that stuffing more leveled books into a classroom that already has plenty to choose from will increase the amount time they read? And if there is, am I correct in saying the educational benefit (or effect size) is minimal?
When I taught Grade 2, I often gave my class 'free time' and it came with boundaries. For example, students could read on their own, with a partner, with a reader's theatre group. The individuals and partners could read the room (poems, daily whole class writing, and other) or books of their choice; they knew they may have to read to me and/or talk about what they were reading. The reader's theatre groups had to practice until their voices were fluent and had expression to match the tone/action of the text and then they had to read to me before they could read to the class. So, the 'free time' gave them choices and they were accountable.
Students were told to sound out new words from first letter to the last letter. When it didn't make sense, I had them read to the end of the sentence and return to the word to see. For example 'read' could sound like 'reed' or 'red' and by the end of the sentence they could usually correct; e.g., I read a lot yesterday -- getting to 'yesterday' would tell them that 'reed' needed to sound like 'red'.
Phonemic awareness - phonics - word study were daily activities. I agree that these must be explicitly taught and given time to learn, work with and apply in reading and writing/spelling.
And at times, I did give free reading time where I did not assess. Those were when I needed a break. Sometimes, I just needed a break. And sometimes my students did too.
I need to comment on this because I have noticed a monumental shift in independent reading time since changing my leveled books to decodables this year. I only give students books that I know they can successfully decode: cvc, then with digraphs, then with blends. Now my k-1 students sit quietly decoding and independently engaged in their books so that they don't need to be reminded to "read." Their skills and confidence are growing at lightening speed. Reading is easier to teach now because it makes sense to me and to my students!
How would you respond to those who insist that freedom of choice in reading practice is essential to create a lifelong love of independent reading? I'm thinking of "Free Voluntary Reading" by Dr. Stephen Krashen, for example.
How would one know if their practices were having a lifelong effect on students? Unprovable claims aren't particularly useful.
However, longitudinal research, across elementary and high school, finds that the development of reading ability has a bigger impact on whether people like reading than the opposite.
That is a very popular thing to do and research would say it has a rather modest impact on learning. I have no doubt that book availability matters (kids have to have texts to read) but only up to a point and that it is a rather small part of the equation in most American schools. (I have been in schools without libraries and have recommended that libraries be available but that is a rather unusual circumstance).
I agree, students pretend to read during free reading. Struggling readers book choice too often are graphic novels or chapter books.
I have yet to see anything that changes the at home reading habits of low income families and EL learners. This isn’t due to bad parenting but the challenges these families face. The practice for many students is what they get at school.
I have avid readers in my dual credit English class. They read all the time, which is great. BUT in my college class, the material they read is difficult — research articles, for example. They really, really struggle initially because they have not been taught how to navigate complex texts. They can read their young adult choice books with zero problems, but in my mind, they have not experienced real growth as readers. Am I right to assume that the volume of their reading does not equate to improving reading comprehension?
According to the research, you are largely right (kids can figure out some things about reading on their own and they sometimes do, but rarely enough that the payoff is small). If I spend my time reading texts I can navigate well independently, i don't confront the rarer vocabulary, complex grammar, subtle cohesive ties, sophisticated literary devices, or the challenging text structures that I would with more academic texts. You don't learn to interpret those text features unless you confront them.
Message sent to the author of our current reading program:
Because the majority of our 1st and 2nd grade students are in the "red" according to our BOY screeners in DIBELS, would additional word study practice during small groups not be more suitable than "independent reading," especially when the majority of our student population aren't readers? Guidelines in the manual state that during independent, small group time students should Read the Room, do SSR, and many teachers have added in listening to eBooks in Epic and/or have students take AR tests during this time rather than planning additional fundamental skills practice that our student population is in desperate need of. For example, our teachers are using the word study words for weekly spelling tests, by design, and they all send a word list home each week for students to memorize (which I'm not sure why when memorization doesn't indicate enduring understanding of the spelling patterns). Is additional word study practice during DRI groups not advised?
The response: “I do not think it is realistic to spend additional time planning differentiated centers, and the payoff as students work independently just is not predictable.”
The accumulated time spent independently reading, per the guidelines of this program, seems concerning. Unfortunately, the powers to be are looking for this program to be “taught with fidelity” and that means a great deal of time is being spent “independently” reading. Your article validates my initial thoughts regarding this practice, but the program guidelines/manual and the admin expectations do not agree. It’s extremely frustrating to feel so helpless in trying to develop even a small shift towards best practices, and I know that this very scenario is the reality for many.
What will it take to create awareness in hopes to bring about change, because even the data isn’t driving informed decisions nor the instruction in this case, and I feel as though we’re continuing to repeat the same process over and over, yet expecting different outcomes.
Tim, this is a very helpful blog especially for teachers who are using programs that encourage daily independent reading. I’m wondering about situations where it somewhat more nuanced…
Independent reading would seem to me to be an example of “you do” in the gradual release of responsibility model. When students are reading widely, couldn’t we refer to their independent reading as wide reading? This has been shown to be a major way that people learn words (Anderson, Wilson, & Fielding, 1988; Nagy & Herman, 1985). So this would be a good reason for a teacher to monitor the independent reading that is going on and even to provide some time for it in school wouldn’t it?
Also, shouldn’t we note that time for reading for pleasure is also linked to confidence and motivation? Guthrie & Wigfield’s engagement model of reading picks up on this. Isn’t this another reason to give over some time during the week to independent reading if it has knock on effects for motivation and engagement?
And how about other approaches to reading instruction, like Readers Workshop, that try to make this independent reading more accountable by asking students to practice the skill or strategy demonstrated in the mini-lesson? Students are encouraged to put post-it notes in their books as evidence of them practising the strategy. Then at the end of the lesson students are asked to share with one another or to the whole class about what they did. So rather than just being “you do” this is more like “you do, after seeing me do”. Or is this only beneficial to younger students (up to a grade 2 level) who need to be reading books that are at their independent reading level as they are still developing their decoding and fluency skills?
And couldn’t one argue that the above model is further improved if the teacher then meets with one or two small groups during this time?
Finally, would it make a bigger difference if we used some of the independent reading time as “You do - but instead of reading your own text, read the one that I have provided you.” That way, we are using the gradual release of responsibility model and are able to follow up by asing students in groups or whole class or individually to engage with this that we as teachers have already read and know well.
You never gave an alternative for independent reading in the classroom. What do you use? Online readings, worksheets with questions?
I am a reading RtI teacher. My question is not necessarily related to SSR time, but how my students should be exploring reading during our time together. I am working from a specific phonics program with most groups that requires a reading of passages within each skill. Students are asked to highlight the particular letter/sound pattern they are studying and then read the passage silently. I don’t like having them read silently because I need to know if they are reading accurately, and I can’t do that if they are not reading aloud. However, if we take turns reading aloud, I’m worried about the Round Robin implications and the fact that they are only reading a few sentences and not the entire passage. (They are supposed to follow along as others read, but, in all honesty, few do). I have also tried having them read silently and then I listen in on a sentence or two. But in the end, the sentences they read to me are the only sentences they read. Suggestions as to what method would be best to promote best learning?
Question: What can I do to make the most out of my student's unguided reading practice.
I run a middle school reading intervention class. The program I'm required to run has lots of independent reading practice. Students are supposed to focus on specific "power goals" to improve in reading. I don't agree with it but it's what I have to teach with. It's from the American Reading Company.
Kay — there are lots of articles on this blog that answer the question of how to reach reading comprehension and even how to carry over those lessons into independent reading. Not sure if you have had the chance to peruse the website, so I wanted to point that out.
That would certainly depend on the grade level... my preferences to that include writing, more distant guided reading (prepping a group and following up with teach led group discussion), and, these days, indeed, there are some computer programs that provide productive lessons. Vocabulary work can be valuable. It is possible to organize cooperative groups to work on projects.
I'm a big fan of teacher supervised partner reading. You can have 15 pairs all reading at the same time (one student reading, the other monitoring). The teacher moves from pair to pair, engaging in observation, feedback to the reader or the partner, etc.
I have no recommendations for unguided reading practice, since I discourage that. Basically, the more you can make it like instructional reading, the better chance you have of raising reading achievement.
I noticed that there were no current studies in those you shared. Any updates on research that is from the last 5 years?
What does the evidence say about silent reading practice in the secondary grades? My district's junior high and high school have set aside time each week for silent reading of student selected books. I'm wondering if this is an effective use of this time.
Practice makes permanent, not perfect. If students are practicing errors then that activity is worse than just not being productive, it is actually damaging. I wonder if this is a case of misinterpretation of the research? I have heard presenters and bloggers and other state that students who read more are better readers, and therefore have decided that if we allow or encourage struggling readers to read more then they will somehow morph into good readers. I do not believe that this holds water. Good readers probably read more because they like to read because they are good at it. Simply handing a book or basket of books to students does not guarantee that they will self-improve simply be reading.
I was required to do 60 minutes daily Sustained Silent Reading with my West Texas second-grade class back in the late 1990s. They basically read library books and took Accelerated Readers tests. I was fortunate to be a Bilingual Teacher. My parents were vitally interested in their children's success in school. During that hour each day, I had mothers, aunts, grandparents, and friends of the students come to my classroom to listen to each student reading. Actually it turned out to be "Sustained Quiet-Oral Reading," not silent reading, but the kids got the necessary feedback to make enormous strides in their reading. Without their help, it would not have been nearly as profitable for the students.
Pretty much the same thing. There is an interesting large study of SSR with middle schoolers that found providing free reading time during the school day reduced the amount of out-of-school reading that the students engaged in. If the idea is that scheduling self selected reading during the school day will make kids like reading more -- the evidence just isn't there.
You raise an interesting point, the English learners. There isn't a lot of study of the issue with them, but the pattern is provocative. Having Spanish-speaking students doing free reading with Spanish texts had no impact on these children's reading ability in Spanish. However, free reading with English texts did have a positive impact on their English reading. These were students who had little exposure to English except during lessons. The tentative conclusion I draw from that is that free reading would have a bigger impact on learning if it was the sole exposure to the language. However, most children watch television, play games on tablets, hear radio, talk to friends and family, etc. -- all in their own language (adding a small amount of text to that just doesn't have much opportunity to facilitate that kind of learning). There might be a value to such exposure -- in English -- with second language students (need for more research on that issue).
There are, but this wasn't meant to be a comprehensive literature review on the topic. I selected studies that were relevant to the points that I was making. However, when it comes to science the age of a study is not what matters (its quality does).
Just to be clear, is their benefit to independent reading if teachers are conferencing with students about their books and listening to them read parts of the book? We are using a portion of our 4th and 5th grade 75 minute reading block to promote the love of reading. Many times the books we are using in our curriculum may or may not be interesting to all students. Helping students find books they love and share these books with other students could in fact foster the love of reading, build background, and possibly build stamina for those long boring text required with state testing. Do you see benefit in this practice considering some studies say there is a limit to the benefit from teaching reading strategies like finding the main idea or making inferences?
This is certainly better than just having the kids read on their own totally. However, conferencing is only beneficial if the teacher knows the books (and that often is not the case with independent reading), and a short 2-4 minute conference per child provides very little depth of thought for the student. I think this is incredibly inefficient. Would make much more sense to have a group or class reading a text together under the supervision of a teacher who has read the text and thought about it (and was using her questioning, etc., to get the kids to think more deeply about what they were reading, rather than being satisfied with such a superficial read (the fact is, kids could do almost as well if they stayed home and read a bit on their own). This approach means the kids lose most of the benefit of having a teacher.
So does this mean that the guided release of responsibility for reading instruction should focus on the "i do" and "we do" and leave the "you do" for students to read at home or at school but outside of reading instruction time?
No, it means that the teacher adds some distance to the process but monitors it by working with a group or class on a particular text that the group can come back together and explore together. If everybody is just reading whatever they want to, then the teacher can't tell how much the strategy actually helped, (teacher needs to know the book and monitor learning -- just less closely than during the we). it is not uncommon, that the you step doesn't work the first time and the teacher goes back to more we for awhile. In my classrooms, i would have the students keeping track of information and strategy use throughout a text when they were on their own. For example, if we were working on predicting, i wanted to know what predictions they made and where they made them. They would write that down and then I'd bring the group back to talk through what was most useful, etc.
I'm curious how this topic looks in high school. I see a lot of research about this that focuses on elementary grade levels, particularly K-3. This makes a lot of sense since this is when foundational skills are developed. I am just curious if any research exists about this topic for secondary schools, particularly the high school level. What does the research say about using a portion of daily class time for independent reading at the secondary levels? Is it as ineffective at that level as it is in the lower grades? What makes it effective or ineffective at that higher level?
what alternatives do you suggest that can replace independent reading? I believe independent practice benefit the student for example if the students are asked questions about it at the end of a chapter/book. As teachers we can see if students read and were able to comprehend the reading. We can also see if the students are engaged in the reading when they ask questions/ answer questions and if not we can find an alternative such as magazines or even newspapers, as long as they are engaged.
I think part of the issue here has to do with the term "independent reading." Some teachers think it means silent reading (since when they do guided lessons they have kids read aloud a la round robin, or that it means they give students a reading assignment at their seats away from the teacher (with the teacher selecting the text, setting the purpose, requiring some kind of writing response or pulling kids back to the group after reading to discuss it en groupe). Neither of those are what I mean by silent reading. Having kids read under teacher supervision and guidance (whether they sit together for the whole time or not) is not independent reading. There are many ways that teachers can have students reading silently and separate from the teacher that would count as instructional reading rather than free or independent reading.
Erica- I don't know of any high school research on the topic. The one large middle school study found that it reduced the amount that students read on their own (as students apparently read less on their own as a result). The National Council of Teachers of English issued a statement supporting independent reading at all grades but cited no research at these levels (and cited no research at all that examined the impact of the practice on the goals they set for it). This is a case when you have to generalize from the existing research (and, of course, such generalization can be in err).
Thank you for this! I have many third grader that are at a kindergarten/ first grade reading level for various reasons (language based learning disabilities, newcomers/ hadn’t learned to read yet before covid and remote learning wasn’t effective for them, etc) and I dread the independent reading time we’re expected to do in our workshop. The small groups are essential for teaching/ practicing phonics and then I give decodables to my beginning readers for independent practice while I work with other groups. They would benefit so much more from working with teachers the whole time. Our ESL teacher has switched to coming in for reading and I’m so relieved because our students need so much direct instruction.
The phrase "independent reading" is used in quite a few different ways. Here are uses that I'm familiar with:
????Each student reads a different text (the class is not reading together and each student reads independently)
????Each student has chosen a text to read (independently-selected individual reading)
????Students read the same assigned text, but silently to themselves (as opposed to taking turns reading aloud, choral reading, or being read to)
????Students read, but the activity is not connected to other instruction or activities.
It seems like this post is about the last meaning. I'm curious about your thoughts on the other meanings.
I strongly encourage silent reading for comprehension (at least by 2nd grade), and it can make great sense to have kids do at least some of their reading away from the teacher (freeing her up to work with kids). I encourage children to choose their own books for real independent reading (when students are actually choosing to read). The benefit of having kids read the same books in instruction is that it allows the teacher to question deeply.
"(Oh, and I don’t buy the idea that kids from low-income families won’t read. They will with the right guidance and support and if they can become proficient readers, which is why their instructional time is so precious. The argument that these kids will do better if you reduce their opportunities to learn just doesn’t bear scrutiny.)"
THANK YOU!!!!! PLEASE SAY IT AGAIN FOR THE PEOPLE IN THE BACK OF THE ROOM!!!
I have found it very beneficial to read not only your post, but to follow the comments that stemmed from it. Thank you to everyone for your insightful thoughts and questions. I understand the importance of the role of the teacher in reading instruction, as you highlighted, as opposed to thinking students will improve their reading skills through independent practice.
My question is: If you are already implementing fairly extensive reading instruction through small group literature circles and other methods requiring discussion to think on a deeper level, do you feel it is advisable to provide some independent reading time during class to students to provide them ownership over their reading choices and promote a joy of reading?
I'd greatly appreciate hearing your thoughts. Thank you.
I'm not a big fan of independent reading time in class. That, to me, isn't the point of schooling, and doing the kinds of things that you describe are so much more beneficial for kids, that I just wouldn't make that a regular thing. Definitely encourage kids to make that a part of their lives, but making their personal reading a part of your classroom life doesn't seem to be a great investment.
My principal has stated on more than one occasion that I should consider teaching students to write or complete another activity, ie worksheet, during independent reading to be held accountable for what they are reading. I teach first graders. They normally read for up to 30 minutes during independent reading while I teach leveled groups. I disagree that this is best practice and want them to read until I call them for their group. I also feel like it will take away from their reading time and that introducing another activity will take away from the precious time I have with my groups because of disruptions that will occur. Please give me your thoughts.
This opinion contradicts the research of Richard Allington who strongly encouraged providing students with time to read during school hours. I did my graduate research project on the effects of choice and autonomy on motivation to read and the correlation was clear. Motivation is a key factor that leads to improvement and achieving goals in any area of life, including reading. Only being exposed to teacher-selected reading materials and only for the purpose of skill and strategy instruction would not accomplish the long-range goal of producing lifelong readers who not only can read, but choose to to do.
You are correct that the correlations are frequently there, but the studies in which they adopt those practices and evaluate their effectiveness have not ended in positive results. (Studies that have encouraged out of school reading -- including Dick Allington's -- have found positive, though small, effects). Not a good use of school time.
Studies have found few positive effects for the activity that you describe. The best I can provide in support of what you are doing is for the top students (those kids who have already mastered their decoding skills). Such students can obtain benefits from group projects, cooperative activities, and even some independent reading. Those same studies find that the rest of the kids need more explicit teaching, more time with the teacher engaged in teacher directed activities. I'm with your principal on this one.
Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!
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