Here's how teachers like you are using independent-reading time to help students build literate lives:

Lessons from Great Readers

For several decades, I have been squeezing into crowded author sessions at International Reading Association conferences. How I love learning about writers' habits--that Robert McClosky kept ducks in the bathtub of his Greenwich Village apartment while writing Make Way for Ducklings, for example, and that E. B. White took time away from Charlotte's Web to sit on a hay bale and watch a spider at work on its web.

For literacy educators, these anecdotes are not just cute, they are revolutionary. They have reminded us that writing is not desk work, but life work. It is not a little thing a person does with black marks on the page, but a big thing we do with our whole lives.

The time has come for us to take a similar attitude toward the teaching of reading. How good it would be if we could squeeze into sessions at IRA conferences to hear the stories of great readers. If we did this, our methods of teaching reading would most likely change. I do not think those readers would tell us about making shoe-box dioramas of beloved novels or writing new endings to published stories. They wouldn't talk about sending make-believe letters from one character to another, or about cutting books into sentence strips and reassembling them. Instead, I think that great readers would tell us about weaving reading together with the people and passions of their lives. They would tell us that reading, like writing, is a big thing we do with our whole lives.

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Focusing on Independent Reading

With support from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, Inc., teachers throughout the New York City metropolitan area are putting that idea into action. "What I've come to realize," says Hannah Schneewind, a second-grade teacher at P.S. 321, "is that during independent reading, my children are composing their reading lives in front of me."

She and hundreds of other teachers have made independent reading a priority--the rest of their reading curriculum grows out of needs they identify during that time. "If our efforts to teach reading don't affect what happens during independent reading, they probably don't affect kids' lives as readers," Hannah says. "And my whole goal is to help kids invent richly literate lives for themselves."

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Set the Stage with Mini-Lessons

In our classrooms, reading workshops usually begin with children gathered on the carpet for a mini-lesson. We read a text aloud and then mentor kids in talking, writing, reading, and thinking in ways that skilled readers do. We then encourage students to use those strategies during independent reading. For example, Hannah paused during a reading of The One Hundred Dresses's final chapter--at the moment when Peggy pushes aside her guilt about persecuting Wanda--and looked at her students, silent and expectant. Chris, taking on the role of Peggy, said in a high-pitched voice, "I don't care about Wanda. If it weren't for me, she wouldn't have won the drawing contest at all, so I'm going to forget about her!" Clearly, Chris had been taught that skilled readers walk in the shoes of a book's characters.

That comment piqued other students' curiosity about the characters. Sylvia went on to say, "I think Mattie changes because she feels bad about teasing Wanda, but Peggy never changes."

David concurred. "I don't think Peggy is a main character because she stays the same the whole time. Wanda and Mattie are the main characters because they go through things and change."

"How could Wanda be the main character?" asked Kath. "After they tease her, she moves away. She's not in the whole last half of the book."

For a moment, students sat silent, turning Kath's idea over in their minds. Then Chris said, "But in Narnia, Aslam is hardly ever there but he's a main character."

After a while, Hannah spoke up. "I'm going to write these big questions on sticky notes because tomorrow, when we finish the book, I have a feeling we'll want to talk more about who really changes and about the issue of main characters. Meanwhile, today, before independent reading, will you have a talk in your mind or with your partner about these issues in the book you're reading? How are the characters changing? Who are the main characters and why?"

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Create Social Supports for Reading

We figure out what work readers need to do and then create social supports for that work. For several weeks last fall, Katherine Bomer's fourth and fifth graders at P.S. 11 studied ways to not have lonely reading lives. How could they find reading friends? They interviewed Katherine about her reading friends, and discussed their own from the past. While gathered on the carpet, and later during reading workshop, children talked in partnership about the read-aloud book, their self-chosen books, and their histories and hopes as readers.

Together, the class talked about how reading friends sometimes look back through a book together, retelling poignant, funny, or important parts. They discussed how readers read with their friends in mind, marking places to share. Sometimes reading friends decide to try books by a particular author so they can talk about his or her style and quirks. Sometimes reading friends follow a theme in books, as when two girls begin to wonder if mothers always leave in Patricia MacLachlan's books.

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Make Independent Reading Central and Collaborative

For teachers like Katherine and Hannah, independent reading is not independent. It is collaborative and central to their curriculum. Students create partnerships that provide a structure for whatever scaffolding they need. Hannah's second graders, for instance, sit side by side, arms almost entwined, pointing together at each printed word. They may read chorally or by taking turns. Either way, they work together through the sentences of their book. These children often take an initial "picture walk" through books and talk over what will probably happen before homing in on the print to confirm or alter their guesses. They have strategies for dealing with tough sections, such as "turning your mind on higher" by rereading to find and hold onto the sense of the story.

Other students in Hannah's classroom need support for comprehension. Sometimes these children can recite words on a page but the story escapes them, so Hannah devises ways of helping them. In one partnership, for example, children meet daily to add to a timeline of main events in their book. Another group regularly uses sticky notes to identify "the big things" in their books and begin each reading workshop by summarizing those things to one another. A group of mystery readers meets to compare how their different detective characters solve cases.

The social fabric that supports independent reading in Hannah's classroom is also a part of Katherine's. Her students exchange book reviews and beloved poems. Together, they go to book signings, have poetry play dates, and visit the public library, among other activities.

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Focus on What's Working

A lot of our teaching involves naming what is already working in our students' reading lives and making those things even bigger. In Katherine's class, for example, Tamika looked up one day from a long stretch of reading to find that Sonia was eager to talk. Leaning back against a pile of pillows, they started thinking together about their books. Tamika opened her novel to an illustrated page depicting several characters. "I wish they didn't have this page," she said. "I had pictured the people in my own way. This wrecked my picture totally." Her reaction spawned a discussion between the children about how they often "make movies" in their minds while reading.

After listening to this conversation, Katherine gathered the class together and said, "Today I'm wondering if we could all try something that Tamika and Sonia do in their reading lives." Soon, during read-aloud, the children were whispering, "What I'm picturing is...." Later, when it was time for independent reading, Katherine reminded the children that they could borrow Tamika and Sonia's strategy of pausing to envision texts as they read.

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Reverse What's Not Working

Because we coach according to what children are doing, we are in the perfect position to recognize and suggest ways to outgrow unnecessary reading habits. For example, in Hannah's class recently, two children finished a book, snapped it shut, and ran to the shelves for another. "I'm so surprised by what you guys do when you get to the end of a book," Hannah said. "For me, reading the end of a book is like reaching the top of a mountain. I don't usually run right back down. Instead, I linger and look back over the trail I've taken."

Soon this pair, and eventually the whole class, was charting things readers could do when they finish a book: They could reread favorite passages and rethink them in light of the whole book; reread to notice how and when characters change; think about how the book relates to other books they've read; go back to difficult passages and talk about strategies they used to figure them out; and so on.

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Make Time for Sustained, Solitary Reading

Talk is important in these classrooms, but so is time for sustained, solitary reading. We provide explicit and direct support for this kind of reading.

  • Some children use two bookmarks--one for the page they're reading and one for the page they're reading toward.
  • Other children leave sticky notes in books to mark the end of each day's reading, and then teachers join them in looking back over their journey through the book.
  • Many children have found that by choosing more than one book at a time, they create a pile for their bedside table, which helps them to maintain momentum between books.
  • Children also spend time in school inquiring about how to create places for reading. In Hannah's class, children use sticky notes to claim spots to sit in and try those spots out to see whether they truly support deep, long-lasting engagements with books. Meanwhile, they also make reading nooks for themselves at home.

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Get the Most from Teacher-Student Conferences

During reading workshop, we move among children, conferring with them individually as they read. Usually, we initiate these conferences after observing the child discreetly. When Katherine noticed Virginia hovering near the classroom library, searching again for a new book, she asked, "What happened to yesterday's book?" Virginia explained that she'd abandoned the book because it had been boring, like the ones before it. Within a few minutes, Katherine had gathered together a few other children who, like Virginia, gave up on books easily. "Let's see if we can help each other to invent ways to stick with books even when they seem a bit boring," Katherine said. Rachel shared her strategy of stopping at a cliffhanger, usually two pages before the end of a chapter. "I learned this from reading Nancy Drew," she explained. "Every chapter ends in a way that forces you to read on. So I want to always start my reading at ends of chapters; they're usually good hooks."

The important thing, of course, is not this particular strategy for sustaining interest in a book; Virginia could have found it helpful instead to have someone read a bit of the book aloud, or to speed through the text until she got hooked on a plot line. What is important, however, is that Katherine watches the children for challenges they encounter as they compose lives as readers, and goes on to encourage habits that work for them. In this way, Katherine Bomer and other teachers in the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project create a reading curriculum that helps children do the very real work of inventing and living inside their own literate lives.

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Lucy McCormick Calkins is founding director of the renowned Teachers College Writing Project, a national coalition of teachers, teacher-educators, professors, and writers. She also directs the Teachers College Reading Project. Lucy is the author of The Art of Teaching Writing, New Edition (Heinemann, 1995) and a new book for parents, Raising Lifelong Learners, which will be available this August from Addison-Wesley Longman. She will soon begin writing The Art of Teaching Reading.

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