Five years ago, I started to give my students time to independent read.
Ten minutes every day adds up to 50 minutes per week. That’s 30 hours per school year!
What’s more, as students begin to find books they enjoy, they want to read outside of the classroom, as well. And even if they do not, you’ve given students the opportunity to increase their reading endurance, comprehension, and enjoyment more than they would have otherwise.
Reading in High School
I used to think that I valued independent reading. We read every Friday for 20 minutes. You might know this practice by DEAR (drop everything and read) or SSR (silent sustained reading).
What I realized, after several years, is that this practice didn’t result in more student reading.
Students who didn’t have that natural love of reading (the very ones that independent reading is supposed to help) would forget their books or daydream instead of reading. They found it hard to “get into” a book, and I seldom saw students finish books (nor did I talk with students about their reading).
So I reflected.
What was my goal for independent reading?
- Well, my goal for independent reading was to encourage students to become lifelong readers.
- I wanted students to want to read.
- I also wanted students to become better readers.
- Finally, I wanted them to have choice in what they read, choice that a set curriculum doesn’t always give to them.
If these were my goals, then it was time to shift my teaching practice so that these goals could be achieved.
I read Book Love and, later, 180 Days, as I’m sure many of you have. (If not, DEAR these books. ☝️ I’ve linked the titles for you just in case.)
These books showed me that the shift was possible.
In order to achieve my goals, I needed to treat independent reading as a part of the curriculum and classroom routine. I needed to increase the frequency of reading and also to change the function and purpose of independent reading in my classroom.
If I’m being honest, the DEAR / SSR type of independent reading was often not for the students…it was for me. To have an easy sub plan, to have time to catch up with emails or grading, etc. etc.
In addition to being more purposeful in my approach to independent reading, I also needed to:
- Show students that I was a reader.
- Have students keep track of what they were reading.
- Talk to students about their reading.
- Let go of the need to formally assess independent reading. No, students do not need another independent reading project.
Teacher to teacher real talk here… Students do not need an interactive notebook. A Bloom Ball or a cereal box project is not going to make all students actually read their books. Students don’t need you to reinforce the idea that reading is just another hoop to jump through.
Buuuut, they do need to see themselves as a part of a community of readers. Students do need to have the opportunity to unlearn the belief that reading is just for English class or for a grade. They do need to learn more about who they are as readers so that they are able to find books they really want to read.
Independent Reading Made Easy
To show students that reading is important, we have to make time for reading.
Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher advocate for time every day in class for students to read.
At first, 10 minutes seemed like a lot of time to dedicate daily to independent reading.
Interestingly enough, I didn’t find myself lacking in instructional time. We were and are able to accomplish just as much as before in English class.
What’s more, this routine has had a ripple effect. It makes classroom management easier as students enter the class, know what to do, and calm down through reading. I get to know my students more, establishing rapport, as we discuss what we’re reading. It also makes my transition times tighter because I know we have 37 minutes left in the period and I want to make the most of them.
At the end of the semester, I always receive overwhelming responses from my high school students about independent reading. Over 95% of students find the daily reading time enjoyable and beneficial. When asked to share the “best thing” about English class, many students share that they have enjoyed their books. “I don’t have time to read outside of class,” they say. Or, “I like that I get to choose what I read.”
Routines & Expectations
Set yourself up for success with independent reading.
At the beginning of the year (and as needed throughout the year), I give students the chance to “meet and greet” different books. Through this activity, they generate a list of books they would like to read during the semester.
I set clear and firm expectations for the opening 10 minutes of reading. When doing this, you should let students know your why and your goals for their independent reading. Alternatively, ask students to brainstorm their own list of behavior norms that will help them meet their goals. Post these norms clearly in the room so that you can refer back to them as needed.
Before setting norms and expectations, you have to determine what you’re comfortable with:
- Do you want students to listen to music? Whole class ambient music or individual music with AirPods or headphones?
- Do you want students to log their pages each day? Some teachers like to have students write down the page they end on or begin with each day. This way, during reading conferences, you can ask students to reflect on their progress. You can also have them calculate reading rate this way to set a specific goal for themselves.
- Do you want students to have their books out and be reading when the bell rings? If not, how much transition time will you allow?
- Do you want students to be able to visit the LRC or browse for books during independent reading time?
- How long do you want students to “try out” a book before switching?
- What will you do if a student doesn’t have his or her book?
- Will you allow students to keep their books in the classroom?
Reading Conferences with Students
I’ve found that the power of independent reading isn’t in the activities.
Truth bomb: If you’re going to help students to shed the limiting belief that they just aren’t “good readers,” or that they “don’t enjoy reading” (or any number of other beliefs that they’ve internalized and tell themselves about reading), you’re going to have to be different enough in your approach and committed 110% to them as readers that they can have a thought reversal.
I’ve heard teachers say before that they’ll work to find each student a book he or she really loves, but it’s easier said than done when you teach multiple classes.
In order for independent reading to work, you have to commit to reading conferences with students. Over time, you’ll be able to track student progress. You’ll also get to know students as readers. What’s more, because you’ll be talking to students as a reader, you can have a true conversation.
Not sure what to talk about?
- Ask them why they chose the book and how the reading of it compares to their expectation.
- Ask them what’s going on with the characters.
- Ask them what they’re finding interesting, surprising, true, unexpected (fill in the blank with any number of other adjectives.
- Ask them how they connect to / disconnect from the book.
The beauty of the reading conference lies in your sustained interest in a student and his/her reading/book. I find that, through effective follow-up questions, I can challenge students as readers to go beyond surface-level responses. Through this, they also are held accountable.
If you’re looking for a much more comprehensive list of reading conference questions, I’ve got you, boo. My independent reading conference form allows me to keep track of student conferences in terms of questions asked and what was discussed. It’s been a total lifesaver in terms of time and organization, but also allows me to track student data over time.
Click here to check out the reading conference form on my website.
Click here to check it out on TpT.
I know. English teachers collecting data? Yessss!
Before we move on, I should mention that beyond discussing the book, I am seeking, through conferencing, to challenge students as readers. I make book recommendations, share what I’m reading, and if students are not enjoying their books, I ask them “why” and immediately work to get a book in their hands that they can’t wait to read every day.
If a student is stuck, you can suggest some of the titles on these Abraham Lincoln book award master lists. You’ll have to scroll down on the page to the master list for the current year and previous years, but I’ve had great success with the books on these lists from year-to-year because they’re high interest and recommended by students themselves.
Make Independent Reading Fun
If you’re looking for ways to make independent reading fun, beyond the structure and teacher interaction you’ll be providing for students, here are some suggestions.
If you give a student a BINGO sheet, and provide an opportunity for reward(s), extrinsic motivation may be just the push your students need. I use these BINGO cards to help students challenge themselves to read a variety of books, and the descriptors are general enough to apply to any number of different books. If a student is struggling to fulfill a certain descriptor, I’ll let him or her change it.
I’ve found that BINGO is the most effective when you really play it up. You can even create an all-class board to display with your own checkpoints, i.e. when all students have ONE bingo, we’ll mark off this square or every student has his/her book for a week.
I like to celebrate the finishing of each book with a small reward. First, I have students fill out a “thanks for challenging yourself” ticket that they drop into my raffle jar. Then, I let them select a Chromebook sticker or free cookie coupon, etc.
At the end of a quarter or the end of the semester (or just because), I will pull a student name from the raffle jar for a bigger prize. i.e. “coffee on me” or “free book”, etc.
Another idea for bringing some fun into your independent reading routine is to have students go on blind dates with books. All you need are some empty bags and the help of your classroom library (or LRC). Put a book and a bookmark into each bag and label, if you wish, according to genre/interest. Then, if a student wants to, he or she can choose a bag and a mystery book.
You can also have some fun with the boards in your classroom. Take pictures of students with the books they’ve finished and display them. Have students write a two sentence review of their books and post them, along with the book covers. Have students put a sticker on the board when they finish a book or complete a reading goal.
To create a digital student recommendations board (and also extend reading conferences), you can use Padlet or Flipgrid to have students respond to a prompt and then respond back to them. This also helps to create a place where students are creating a library of recommendations for other students.
You may be wondering if this independent reading thing really works. Yes. Yes, it does, but you have to go all-in and be consistent. Happy iReading!
Hey, if you loved this post, I want to be sure you’ve had the chance to grab a FREE copy of my guide to streamlined grading. I know how hard it is to do all the things as an English teacher, so I’m over the moon to be able to share with you some of my best strategies for reducing the grading overwhelm.
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Hello! I was really curious how you structure your remaining class time to allow for 10 minutes at the beginning. I used to teach block schedules, but I’m now at a school with the 45 minute classes instead. I used to do daily reading for block days, but I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around how I would fit content into the other 35 minutes if we read to start class every day. I LOVE the idea, just was curious how it looks in daily practice. Thank you so much for all your thoughts on incorporating this into my classroom — you gave me a lot to think about!
Hi Kelli! I’ve found that my transition time has to be tight, and I have to be creative with how students access the content / skills for the remaining time. I do a lot of inquiry-based lessons, partner and group work, stations, etc. The goal is to keep students moving, discussing, reflecting. 🙂