What Works? Independent Reading Works!

Written by Gen

Along with my colleague, Rhonda, I joined an online book club in my district for the text, No More Independent Reading Without Support, by Debbie Miller and Barbara Moss. This book is one of many from the “Not This, But That” series. When I saw the offering, it was a no-brainer. As if Miller’s and Moss’ credentials weren’t enough, this series of books is edited by Nell K. Duke and Ellin Oliver Keene. With the books in this series, Duke and Keene help teachers replace ineffective teaching practices with those that are supported by research. If you are a teacher of literacy, what other evidence do you need to know that this is a book for you? Well, I wasn’t disappointed. This book pulls together the research behind independent reading (IR) and clears up the misconceptions about its effectiveness.

What’s the Difference?

The first step in understanding how IR works is to understand what makes it different from other forms of reading that often happen in classrooms. It is not Sustained Silent Reading (SSR). During SSR, the entire class, including the teacher, reads for a prescribed amount of time, and, as the name implies, they do it silently. Well, Miller and Moss (2013) give us a few insights on why this isn’t ideal:

  • Students gather virtually no information from watching their teacher read.
  • Teachers gather virtually no information from reading while their students read silently.
  • There is an absence of direct instruction to set the purpose for reading and to emphasize growth.
  • Teachers are unaware of what students are reading, leading to the possibility that students are choosing books that are too hard, too easy, or always in the same genre.
  • Teachers are also unaware of what, if any, growth is occurring.

During IR teachers are active and students are learning and growing under the careful and responsive support of their teacher. Miller and Moss have this to say, “…for IR to succeed, the teacher must be an active participant. She cannot sit on the sidelines and just watch what is going on… she must bring all her teaching talents to bear during IR just as during any other instructional activity” (p. 39).

  • Independent reading starts with a mini-lesson. The teacher provides students with explicit instruction about reading, comprehending, or text selection.
  • The teacher engages with individuals and small groups for a conference. Students engage in reading self-selected books. This allows the teacher to gather information to help drive upcoming mini-lessons and to provide a moment of teaching that the student needs right at that moment with that text in order to grow as a reader.
  • Independent reading ends with reflection. This includes goal-setting, as well. Students are provided with different ways to track and respond to their reading in order to see their own growth over time. Miller and Moss say, “This is really all about student ownership of learning.”
  • Assessment is involved. Students’ reflections are not busy work. They help students see their own progress, but teachers can make teaching decisions after analyzing students’ responses (and their conference notes!) to find out how well students can:
    • ask important questions
    • explain their understandings
    • set appropriate reading goals
    • think deeply about a topic

The Art of the Conference

Conferring with students is the heart of IR. It drives the explicit instruction, allows the teacher to respond to individual students’ needs, and serves as a formative assessment. It is the ultimate source of differentiation! Here are a few things you need to know about conferring, according to Miller and Moss:

#1: Research supports it! Miller and Moss cite a study by Block et al. (2009) in which one of the experimental groups engaged in Individual Schema-Based Learning where students were given individualized instruction when they encountered a problem when reading (i.e. a reading conference!). Results showed, “At every grade level for all ability groups, individual schema-based learning…produced the highest comprehension scores. Situated practice, workbook practice, and basal reader groups produced the lowest scores” (p. 32).

#2: Short on time? Brief or group conferences can still be helpful! Even a brief interaction with a student is valuable. If you find yourself talking about the same types of things with multiple students, bring them together for a group conference.

#3: Don’t forget to listen to the student read. It’s important to remember that a conference is meant to support the student at that particular moment in time with what the student needs at that moment. The classroom is a bustling place and it can be easy to jump in with a bunch of questions, but an ulterior motive or curriculum is not what drives this interaction. Therefore, make sure you start by listening to the child read so that you can evaluate and then decide on a direction for your conference.

#4: Keep the conversation authentic. Moss and Miller suggest we ask ourselves these questions regarding our teaching intentions:

  • Does what I’m thinking about asking children to do happen in the world?
  • Is this something do outside of school?

If you can answer “yes” to these questions, proceed! If not, rethink your direction!

#5: Take notes! Your notes are how you will remember what teaching directions you took with each student. You will use these to discover patterns, determine mini-lesson topics, and evaluate student progress, and notice change over time in your students’ reading and thinking. Don’t forget to write it all down!

It Only Works if You Work

You will find a lot of rhetoric out there around the topic of independent reading. There are many skeptics who will insist that it is ineffective and a waste of perfectly good instructional time. This is because many people assume that the term “independent reading” is a description of the task: students reading out there in the classroom by themselves. The term is actually a description of what the teacher is supposed to be teaching. During IR time, the teacher is actively teaching students how to read independently through explicit instruction, individualized conferring, offering ways to respond to reading, and scaffolding student goal setting and reflection. Research is clear that when students spend time in school reading self-selected books with a teacher who is working hard providing direct and individualized instruction, results are impressive. So, in essence, IR is the perfect use of instructional time!

Want to know more about the book, No More Independent Reading Without Support? Check out Rhonda’s recent posts! 

Independent Reading: The Basics

Independent Reading: The Necessities

Upcoming post topic from Gen:

Reading Recovery: Is it the Right Choice for Dyslexic Students? 

Sources From This Post:

Miller, D. & Moss, B. (2013). No More Independent Reading Without Support. N.K. Duke & E.O. Keene (Ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Block, Cathy Collins, Cinnamon S. Whiteley, Sherri R. Paris, Kelly L. Reed, and Maggie D. Cleaveland. 2009. “Instructional Approaches That Significantly Increase Reading Comprehension.” Journal of Educational Psychology 101 (2): 262-81.

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3 thoughts on “What Works? Independent Reading Works!

  1. This is just outstanding. It weaves together ideas around independent reading in a way most of us have never thought of before. ALSO- thanks for reminding me of the value of the This Not That Series. It is a great source of ideas for teacher trying to improve their practices in literacy instruction. Overall I just have to say WELL DONE!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Learning to have authentic conversations around various kinds of text: One road that can lead to improving comprehension By Dr. Sam Bommarito | doctorsam7

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