Turning Independent Reading Obstacles Into Opportunities

By Jennifer Serravallo, guest blogger

You may have heard this one: independent reading can make a world of difference. Countless studies by researchers such as Krashen, Cunningham, Stanovich, Allington, Pressley, Taylor, Miller, Moss and more have shown time and again that students who read independently become better readers, score higher on achievement tests in all subject areas, and have greater content knowledge than those who do not.

I meet many educators every week who are trying to create classrooms in which independent reading is a daily occurrence, but face challenges such as those listed below. What can we do to turn these obstacles into opportunities?

We don’t have enough books. Volume of reading matters, so you’re wise to have an eye on the quantity of books you have at your disposal. You’ll need a lot – I try to encourage schools to invest in gathering about 1,000 books per classroom library at a minimum. That will be enough to sustain a year’s worth of independent reading for a class of 25 kids. There are lots of opportunities to build up your library if it’s a little thin. You can survey your students to find out more about their interests and order books that will be most enticing to them. You can also utilize the important library resources in your school and town by making sure all the kids have their library cards. On field trips, you can offer students lessons in how to find their “best-fit” books from amongst the tens of thousands of books in the library’s collection, and you can ask your librarian to talk up some new popular favorites. One strategy to help students to find books that will click with them is to ask them to reflect on their past reading histories, both positive and negative, as they plan for their reading future. 

My kids won’t read unless I’m right on top of them.  Here is an opportunity to learn what your students are currently able to do with regard to independence and work on building from there. If they can currently read for five minutes, great—let’s try for seven! Stamina is something that can be taught and it needs to be practiced. For example, you may offer students strategies for setting shorter-term goals for themselves, perhaps by placing sticky notes in their books every five pages. Or, perhaps students need to learn how to better monitor their own focus and attention and learn strategies for refocusing, such as re-reading when they find their mind has wandered.

We don’t have time in the day. I have so many needs in my classroom and my administrator thinks I should be teaching, not just letting kids read. I agree with Miller and Moss (2013) who recently advised us all to take a critical look at our daily schedules to see what we can cut. Believe me, it will feel as good as time spent spring cleaning your garage! Ask yourself what you are currently doing that isn’t research-based, engaging for kids, or fostering joy. Then cut it. Replace it with real reading of real books and the opportunity to have one-on-one and small-group conversations with students supporting their individual interests, strengths, and needs. Allow every student to have a focused goal based on your formative assessment of what they need most, and then support them with strategies that connect to that goal. You can equip each student with a tool such as this bookmark that serves as a reminder for their individualized work and the strategies you’ve taught that connect to it.

My kids always want to pick books that are way too hard for them. Levels can be a helpful tool to help you guide students toward books that they are likely to be able to read more easily. But it’s important to not let levels overtake the conversation. Consider arranging your library in bins by interest topics (check the interest inventory you may have had students complete to find out what topics would be most enticing) and put the book’s level somewhere on the book. This will help student think first about the type of reader they are and the interest(s) they have, and secondarily about what level(s) they should be reading. I firmly believe it is not fun to be confused, and reading books that are way too hard sets kids up for frustration, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t challenge themselves if they’re interested in a certain topic.  

Kids want to talk during independent reading. Yes, of course they do! Tap into this natural need for readers to share the funny parts, the shocking parts, and the heart-wrenching parts by supporting your students in book clubs. Teach children how to set page goals together, how to make productive use of their time by introducing talk prompts, and how to help each other stay accountable to the text and to each other. 

I feel like I don’t know what’s going on when they’re reading independently, and I don’t know if they’re even really reading. I can understand how independent reading can sometimes unsettle teachers – it’s also quiet. There’s a natural need for us to feel like we’re making the best use of every second, and we want to ensure that kids are being really productive with every precious moment of school time. One way that I’ve found to make students more accountable for their independent reading is to have them focus on specific goals, and to use my conferring time to introduce strategies to support those goals. For example, a student who is focusing on understanding the plot of her story might learn a strategy for summarizing during a conference or small group. She can then be expected to be ready to summarize the next time I confer with her a few days later, and/or to summarize what she read when she meets with her partner at the end of independent reading.

For independent reading to be most effective, I believe teacher guidance is essential. The teacher plays an important role in helping students choose books they’ll be successful with, and in equipping them with strategies in support of carefully chosen goals. With these ingredients, independent reading can be a time of great joy and deep engagement for both children and teachers!

Adapted from The Reading Strategies Book: Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Readers by Jennifer Serravallo. Copyright © 2015 by Jennifer Serravallo. Published by Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH. Used by permission of the publisher.

About Jennifer:
Jennifer Serravallo was a teacher in Title I Schools in NYC and a Senior Staff Developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. She is now a national consultant and speaker and the author of numerous books and resources on the teaching of reading and writing. You can find strategies to support your readers such as the ones in this post (plus almost 300 more!) in her latest book, The Reading Strategies Book (Heinemann, 2015) and in her resources, Independent Reading Assessment: Fiction and Nonfiction (Scholastic, 2013).