Cultivating a School-Wide Independent Reading Culture

By Sandi Novak and Bonnie Houck, Guest Bloggers

Have you ever walked into a school and felt that independent reading was truly a part of the culture? What did it look like in that school? What did you hear and see inside every classroom?

Educators across the nation know the importance of providing time for students to read books of their choice independently. Yet, it is rare to find every child within a school reading independently in self-selected texts for up to thirty minutes daily.

Literacy leaders’ needs. Since leaders know the importance of independent reading, they need a system to collect and analyze timely information about literacy instructional practices and how students engage in their independent reading.

Literacy Classroom Visits (Houck & Novak, 2016) are brief, frequent, informal, and focused visits to classrooms by observers designed to gather data about literacy practices, identify patterns of strength and need within the school, and engage in follow up. This model looks through a focused lens on literacy, integrating instructional best practices and purposeful student engagement proven to foster student reading development. After determining information about the broad literacy culture of the school or district, the school leadership team can use a more tailored instrument to specifically look at independent reading practices.

Classroom visits in one school. As Stephanie Brant, a school principal in Gaithersburg, MD, conducted Literacy Classroom Visits during the students’ literacy block of instruction, it became readily apparent that students were actively engaged in independent reading. During these visits, she and her literacy coach saw patterns emerge noting an active independent reading environment existed throughout the school and in individual classrooms! A diverse, large collection of books was seen in each classroom; books were organized in multiple ways and it was evident they were being read by students. Anchor charts with strategies along with examples of students’ reading work to support the developing literacy culture were displayed.

Students comprehended authentic text by noting strategies, but few students were talking or writing about their interactions with the books they were reading. Teachers dynamically engaged with students in: 1) whole group instruction through focus lessons around key strategies to help students grow as strategic readers, 2) small groups where they were listening for and coaching the application of strategies in books that were appropriate to their reading level; or in 3) independent reading. The data they collected informed them that 1-on-1 conferences with students was lacking in most classrooms. Teachers needed to confer with students about their book selections to ensure they were reading a variety of genres, assess their comprehension of the text while applying strategies in books they chose to read on their own, and record and use individual data about these conferences to make instructional decisions.

Armed with specific data, Stephanie and her leadership team developed a professional learning plan to enhance instructional practices and students’ engagement with independent reading. While implementing the professional learning, the leadership team continued to visit classroom and collect data about areas of student growth and instructional change. State assessment data informed them that the attention they paid to this improvement effort yielded positive student achievement results. But, there was an added bonus! They also realized students were motivated to read and enjoyed the process! The data patterns observed during these ongoing visits in classrooms within the school accomplished the improvement goals for independent reading: to practice a smoothly operating reading process, to exercise choice, to gain knowledge, to increase the strength and stamina to read, and to develop reading interests.

Research and independent reading. Historically, research on independent reading has produced mixed results (Shanahan, 2006; Manning, Lewis, & Lewis, 2010), but literacy leaders attribute this to models of independent reading that have little or no structure, lack a process to identify specific instructional practices that need development, or do not provide a way to monitor the progress of professional learning opportunities. When teachers provide time for independent reading, teach children how to select books of interest and readability and monitor their developing strategy application through regular conferring with students, positive results occur (Kuhn et al., 2006; Miller & Moss, 2013; Moss & Young, 2010).

Student motivation to read, especially when the text is challenging, is an ongoing concern. Without the strength and stamina to read when the process gets difficult, students’ success when reading content texts often fails. Yet researchers have shown that when students are motivated to engage in independent reading for intrinsic reasons like enjoyment, involvement, curiosity and challenge as opposed to the extrinsic reasons of grades, rewards and competition, their reading comprehension increases (Guthrie, et. al, 2006) resulting in increased reading time, volume, and improved academic achievement (Wang & Guthrie, 2004).

Leadership resource for independent reading. Leaders need tools and resources for visiting literacy classrooms in order to determine patterns of need throughout the school like those found in Literacy Unleashed: Fostering excellent reading instruction through classroom visits (2016).

Benefits. Collecting Literacy Classroom Visit data over time is a valuable investment that can:

  • Establish a body of evidence about the overall literacy culture and instruction;
  • Identify instructional patterns in teacher teams, grade levels, and content areas;
  • Detect professional development and resource needs;
  • Guide professional learning planning and PLC content;
  • Establish common beliefs, practices, and language within the community;
  • Inform a school or district about the implementation of professional learning goals;
  • Ensure that students are learning and mastering grade level standards and expectations.

Literacy Classroom Visits meet the needs of leaders as they collect and analyze accurate information about classroom practices to provide teachers with the support necessary to grow. Continued visits monitor ongoing progress in the developing literacy culture and instruction of a school or district and can ensure that every child is continuously learning and growing as a reader.


Guthrie, J.T., Hoa, L.W., Wigfield, A., Tonks, S.M., & Perencevich, K.C. (2006). “From Spark to Fire: Can Situational Reading Interest Lead to Long-Term Reading Motivation?” Reading Research and Instruction, 45, 91-117.
Houck, B., & Novak, S. (2016). Literacy Unleashed: Fostering excellent reading instruction through classroom visits. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervisors and Curriculum Developers.
Kuhn, M., Schwanenflugel, P.J., Morris, R.D., Morrow, L.M., Woo, D.G., Meisinger, E.B., et al. (2006). “Teaching Children to Become Fluent and Automatic Readers.” Journal of Literacy Research38(4), 357-388.
Manning, M., Lewis, M., & Lewis, M. (2010). Sustained Silent Reading: An Update of the Research. In E.H. Hiebert & D.R. Reutzel (Eds.), Revisiting Silent Reading (pp. 112-128). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Miller, D.  & Moss, B. (2013). No more independent reading without support. Edited by N. Duke & E. Keene. Prtosmough, NH: Heinemann.
Moss, B., & Young, T.A. (2010). Creating Lifelong Readers through Independent Reading. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Shanahan, T. (2006. “Does He Really Think Kids Shouldn’t Read?” Reading Today23(6) 12.
Wang, J.H. & Guthrie, J.T. (2004). “Modeling the Effects of Intrinsic Motivation, Extrinsic Motivation, Amount of Reading, and Past Reading Achievement on Text Comprehension Between U.S. and Chinese Students,” Reading Research Quarterly, 39, 162-186.

 Sandi Novak is a former assistant superintendent, principal, and teacher and now works as an education consultant in Lakeville, MN. She has co-author of Literacy Unleashed as well as other books and articles. She can be reached at or

 Bonnie Houck, Ed.D. is a professor at Bethel University, education consultant and author in Victoria, Minnesota. She is the co-author of Literacy Unleashed and can be reached at or