Yep it’s another academic paper with academic requirements but at the moment I don’t have much time for writing outside of grad school. Know that I do want to stretch my writing skills in the not too distant future.
“Reading empowered me to journey to places with the mind and the imagination. Reading expanded my consciousness. Laying the foundation for a passion for words and ideas, reading made the impossible possible.” bell hooks, 2010
Making the impossible possible is a superpower that teachers can bestow on their students. Unfortunately as top down demands increase and as policy and curricula statements often don’t take into account best practices, teachers must be able to articulate clear and concise literacy goals for their students to keep this dream alive. Regie Routman (Routman, 2003) cautions that the value of free-choice voluntary reading has recently been called into question (p.85). Abundant research shows that when children are given a choice of reading material that is of high interest to them and when they read with intent, they are capable of greater cognitive processing and expression than previously thought possible. Two essential components of effective free-choice voluntary reading are a well stocked and planned out classroom library, and an independent reading program than moves readers towards self-sufficiency.
Vellutino (Vellutino, 2003) states that teachers should encourage extensive and diverse reading, as it’s through reading that one encounters more abstract and more varied forms of language. Students also gain discourse knowledge that is so important for interpreting and organizing the text. Snow and Sweet (Snow & Sweet, 2003) assert that the interaction between the reader, the text, the activity and the context is an essential component of comprehension. This occurs in a sociocultural context and is informed by prior experiences with features of text, content knowledge and motivation, among other factors. Vellutino also addresses the need for critical, logical, and reflective analyses of text, in relation to the reader’s purpose for reading the text. He states that this is one general comprehension strategy that teachers should attempt to foster. Giving students the opportunity to engage in meaningful interactions with text supports a positive view of reading instead of turning students off by requiring meaningless responses.
According to Vellutino, reading difficulties, in most children, are caused by inadequate instruction rather than basic deficits in reading related cognitive abilities. Snow and Sweet affirm that appropriate instruction will foster both long and short-term goals. Snow and Sweet see fluent reading as both an antecedent and a consequence of comprehension. Positive experiences with text scaffold the learner and assist them when reading more difficult texts. The text itself comes with specific features, layout and purpose depending on the genre and purpose of the text. Explicit literacy instruction during independent reading time and ample time to browse, read and spend time with books is vital to the well-being of our students. Learners should have affective and cognitive entry and access points.
An outstanding classroom library is a literacy necessity (Routman p.64), and is particularly beneficial during independent reading time. It must become a top priority if our students are to become thriving, engaged readers. Children’s writing is affected by texts read aloud in the classroom (Samway, 2006). The research cited by Samway serves as a powerful reminder that we must make sure that all literacy materials we present in the classroom are high quality. Inviting students to share material they particularly enjoy is one way of incorporating material that may not be ‘high quality’ but that is of high interest to students. Once profiled this material can stay in the library. It is also important to have a wide range of material in terms of reading difficulty. Teachers should profile material being read by less skilled readers so they see that what they are reading is equally of value. Student produced work should also be part of a classroom library, whether generated individually or as part of a larger group. When students play a role in classroom library set-up and when their suggestions are acted upon, they are much more likely to develop positive attitudes towards reading.
In low poverty areas it can be assumed that students have access to a wide range of books, at home, at school and in the wider community. The same cannot be said for students living in high poverty areas. Teachers may be able to supplement the classroom library with material borrowed from outside and with material from their own collection. Sourcing second hand material and bringing in magazines and newspapers is also a way to supplement a classroom library. Simply bulking up for size, however, without regard for text quality (both in terms of language and physical state) requires reflection and awareness of the pros and cons. All children deserve a wide variety of reading materials that motivate and inspire them to become life-long readers. While it may be more difficult to set up independent reading in schools in high poverty areas it is all the more important this be done.
Key elements to take into account when planning an independent reading program are providing a breadth of materials: there should be a wide range of genres and a wide range of text types on offer; profiling material before releasing it to the class-pick out key points, text features and anything else that makes it stand out; browsing-allow students ample time to explore materials on offer; guided practice-outline a particular comprehension strategy, suggest a particular response to text or a provide a similar prompt to enhance comprehension of text; and independent practice that gives students time to enjoy books on their own, or with friends, and employ comprehension strategies already demonstrated. It is essential that time spent reading takes up the majority of the time. Routman suggests that around 80% of literacy time be spent reading and 20% of the time writing. It’s useful to initially provide explicit demonstration of strategies on their own, such as making a connection, or making a prediction, but it must be stressed that readers use strategies interactively according to need. Routman reminds us that there is a huge difference between strategy instruction and strategic instruction. “Strategies must be ‘invoked’ by the learner if they are to be used to increase understanding.” (p.129)
The Optimal Learning Model (Routman p. 44) outlines four phases of learning: demonstration, shared demonstration, guided practice, independent practice. In terms of independent reading this may look like: teacher profiling materials for students; teacher asking students for input when profiling a select number of books; students browsing with intent and following a teacher prompt that will enhance comprehension (for example writing down a text feature they notice then sharing with class); students reading on their own and self-monitoring while the teacher provides feedback that builds on students’ competencies and strengths. This process ensures students are proud of their ability, are aware of their progress and are involved in setting new learning goals for themselves. The Optimal Learning Model is exactly that: optimal. It is highly likely that not all components will be covered in one independent reading session but by keeping the model in mind a gradual release of responsibility occurs from the teacher to the student.
Teaching and evaluating is an essential part of independent reading. Teachers should always be monitoring and assessing student reading to ensure students are reading a range of material that supports their learning (too hard and they may be turned off reading, too easy and they may be bored); are able to problem solve using a range of strategies; and are setting and working on goals to further improve their reading comprehension. Frequent evaluation of reading comprehension and skill should inform instructional goals and program set-up. Evaluation tools such as individual conferences, informal and formal note taking, and written work produced by students can all be used. Reading, as with all learning, is a socially constructed activity and some children benefit from discussing books with classmates, while others prefer to read on their own. Whether independent reading time is ‘silent’ or not depends on many factors including classroom dynamics and age of students. Partner, or paired reading (Routman p.91) is a great way to encourage self-sufficiency and collaboration. As well as evaluating comprehension and reading skills the teacher can evaluate students’ social and emotional strengths by listening in to the conversations taking place.
In my own teaching practice I employed some of the ideas already mentioned but didn’t expand them enough. I previewed books before they were put into the classroom library; I used ‘silent reading’ time to meet individually with students and to take observational notes and I encouraged paired reading at choice time. I worked in the early elementary grades and while modifications would need to be made to implement an independent reading program in these grades, the overarching theme of gradual release of responsibility is as valid. The notion of ‘reading with intent’ already has me thinking of how I would use it in a classroom. Routman mentions that we should trust ourselves as readers to come up with comprehension techniques that will be effective. An independent reading program that works in one place may not work in another. As teachers we need to plan how the program will initially be set up and have in mind goals for the first couple of weeks but the program is likely to evolve organically. It is essential that we actively reflect on the program as it develops. Written self-evaluations could be very useful, and audio recordings might also be helpful. An independent reading program does not produce reams of written work that can be evaluated at a later time, and neither should it. Our goal is to provide guidance and support so that our students are on their way to becoming autonomous readers and writers.
Routman states that we must teach with urgency (p.41). We must also teach with intent, purpose and clarity, every moment counts. Students deserve to be given the tools that will help them become self-sustaining, thoughtful and independent readers and writers. “A citizen of a democratic society must be able to read critically, listen carefully, evaluate competing claims, weigh evidence, and come to a thoughtful judgment”(Ravitch, 2013). There is no better forum for the development of these skills than a voluntary free-choice reading program. Outstanding classroom libraries paired with constantly evolving independent reading programs are a necessity in all schools. We must stand up and demand this for all the public school children in the country, not just for those who are economically blessed from birth. We truly can make the impossible possible.
Ravitch, D. (2013). Reign of error: the hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America’s public schools. New York: Knopf.
Routman, R. (2003). Reading essentials: the specifics you need to teach reading well. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Samway, K. D. (2006). When English language learners write: connecting research to practice, K-8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Snow, C. E., & Sweet, A. P. (2003). Ch. 1 “Reading for Comprehension.” In C. E. Snow & A. P. Sweet (Eds.), Rethinking Reading Comprehension.
Vellutino, F. R. (2003). Ch. 4 “Individual Differences as Sources of Variability in Reading Comprehension in Elementary School Children.” In C. E. Snow & A. P. Sweet (Eds.), Rethinking Reading Comprehension.
 hooks, b. 2010. Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. New York, NY: Routledge.