Independent Reading – The Foundation of Lifelong Reading

Successful independent reading is the end result of a well-executed balanced literacy program.  It allows students the chance to “practice” the strategies they’ve learned through guided reading, shared reading, and teacher read alouds – the other components of balanced literacy.  With level appropriate materials, students now have the skills they need to read on their own.  That means they can read confidently and are actually excited about their ability to read.

Why Should Independent Reading Be Encouraged?

When students have a voice in the reading process, they’re learning to contribute to their own knowledge.  Because they can select the books they wish to read, they have greater control over what they want to learn. Students are much more likely to view reading as a priority when they have some ownership in the reading process.

However, this doesn’t mean students can make their reading choices willy-nilly.  There does have to be some structure involved. First of all, the selection must be at their reading level.  No “easy” books during independent reading. “At their reading level” means students should be able to read their selections with 95%-100% accuracy.

Also, students should choose books that don’t need teacher support.  That rather defeats the purpose.  In order to experience improvement in fluency, comprehension and vocabulary, reading needs to be truly independent.

How To Incorporate Independent Reading Into The Classroom

While students have much control over what they choose to read, teachers need to encourage them to choose from different genres. One of the goals of independent reading is to help students feel confident with their ability.  This is accomplished by reading on a level they feel comfortable with.  And when given the opportunities and the right environment, students are much more likely to develop a love for reading.

That’s why independent reading is more than just letting students pick a book and read while the teacher does something else.  Teachers have a responsibility in this as well.  They’re the ones that need to provide the tools students need to be independent, life long readers.  That leads to the four essential elements of independent reading:

Essential Element #1 – Choice

Children are thrilled when they’re given a choice of what to read.  They’re much more motivated.  Who wouldn’t be?  However, since students must make a selection that’s on their reading level, teachers need to have an exceptional classroom library.  That means books on many different levels, topics, as well as genres.  And like any library, classroom books need to be organized so students can easily make a selection.

Element #2 – Strategies

Before students can become proficient independent readers, they must have the tools they need to be successful.  Inside the toolbox are two basic strategies; decoding strategies and comprehension strategies.  Decoding strategies help children move forward when they stumble upon a word they don’t know.  They know what to do to figure it out.

Comprehension strategies guide students to think about what they’re reading – to make connections, use visualization, ask questions, and make inferences… all to synthesize the words they read into something they comprehend.  How do students learn these strategies?  The teacher models them.  Independent reading time is when the students apply them.

Element #3 – Time

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!  How do you get to be a proficient (even prolific) reader? Practice, practice, practice!  As all musicians and athletes know, practice takes time.  That’s why time should be set aside to practice reading as well.  Also, by dedicating long blocks of time to independent reading, students quickly get the idea that reading is important.

Element #4 – Goals

Encourage students to set reading goals but teachers do need to specify what kind of goal.  Otherwise, a student’s goal could be to get to the end of the book.  Because there is already a long period of time set aside for independent reading, the teacher can use this time to conference with the students.  Listen to their reading and see how they apply the strategies. Then help students set a reading goal based on the strategy they need to strengthen.

Independent Reading Activities

If you’re like most people, after reading a really good book you want to tell someone about it – you want to share.  Why not give students the same opportunity?  Here are 5 activities that will engage students in sharing what they read.

  1. Illustrate an important character or event in the story.
  2. Create an advertisement to promote the book.
  3. Have students pick out words they are unfamiliar with and make a word wall.
  4. Make a bookmark that represents the theme or main idea of the book.
  5. Write a question to the author or a character in the book.

Creative as well as analytical students will enjoy these activities.  If all goes well, other students will want to read the books shared, too!

The Big Benefit of Independent Reading

Aside from higher test scores and ensuring that students read something everyday, there is an overarching benefit of independent reading.  And that is the fact that independent reading lays the foundation for becoming enthusiastic lifelong readers, not simply school time readers.