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Independent Reading Time

It seems so crazy to say now, but I remember, that during my first few years of teaching, I did not have time set aside for my students to read independently. GASP! I even remember a veteran teacher and forward-thinker asking me at one point if my students did so, and I said no, thinking "when would they have time to do that!" Looking back, I see how much my teaching style has changed, how much I have learned, and how much education has evolved in a little more than a decade. Perhaps I was one of few teachers in my school who didn't have independent reading time in their class (other than during Read Across America Week!) or perhaps there were still many who did not.

However, even now, a little more than ten years later, I feel that many teachers are wondering how to make the most of independent reading time for their students.

One thing I know for sure is that students needs to read...a lot! They should be voracious readers. They should be taught and encouraged to love reading and be aware of its benefits. In The Vocabulary Book, Learning and Instruction, Michael Graves states that "..over time, wide reading makes the single largest contribution to vocabulary development, much more than listening, discussion, or writing." Time should be set aside EVERY DAY for students to read independently, from Kindergarten on. Also, classrooms should have a wealth of books available in their classroom library from a variety of genres and of a variety of levels.

However, when it comes to WHAT students should be reading, especially in lower elementary grades, there are varying opinions, and many questions arise. Should they be given books to read independently, or should they always choose them? Should the classroom library be leveled by text complexity or category or both? Should students know their instructional or independent reading level?

After using a classroom library effectively (with help from my literacy coach), implementing conferencing with my students for several years, and reading numerous books and professional discussions and opinions on the topic, I have come to believe the following about independent reading in the lower elementary grades:

  • Students should have choice in their books

  • When reading independently, students should be reading texts which are on or very close to their independent reading level

  • Students should be taught how to choose books that are a "good fit" for them

  • Students need "training" on how to read independently as well as in building stamina for reading (and some students need more support or modifications)

The main reasons for my beliefs are:

  1. In order for young students to be engaged in their reading, they must not only be interested in the text, but feel capable of reading it. Students should not feel frustrated or too overwhelmed to read due to the text complexity being too far out of their range of ability, nor should they feel bored due to the text complexity being too far below their ability.

  2. In order to effectively conference with students during independent reading, the text must be within their range of ability. I myself am not sure how to effectively work with them on needed reading strategies if it is not.

As far as the questions as to whether or not student book levels should be easily apparent, or whether students should know their levels, I believe these choices are ones each teacher needs to make for themselves. I feel that if a teacher creates an environment where reading is fun and encouraged, where students are somehow taught to choose books that are right for them, and where student differences as well as growth are valued, then those choices will not "make or break" the success of your reading instruction.

There may be instances when a student has high interest or knowledge in or about a topic, and a book that is somewhat outside of your accepted range of ability may be allowed. There are always exceptions to your rules, and there should always be a bit of flexibility! After all, reading levels are only one aspect of a child's ability, and each and every child is unique!

How is your independent reading time managed? Are your students engaged and reading successfully? If so, you are on the right track:)

Happy Reading!

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