Independent reading is defined as "children's reading of text — such as books, magazines, and newspapers — on their own, with minimal to no assistance from adults" (Reading Rockets). In addition, it involves reading at school and at home. Independent reading is important because it allows students to take what they have learned in other parts of the reader's workshop, and practicing those skills on their own. Additionally, ReadWriteThink suggests that independent reading allows for choice and increases interest in our students. As a result, it adds to a holistic approach towards developing and implementing a reader's workshop.
During independent reading, many teachers are misguided in believing that independent is just about students being able to read on this own. However, the part that teachers often forget is that we have to empower our students to read on their own, in addition to working on their respective goals to enhance their reading abilities and levels. Reading Rockets clearly explains that the time "spent reading contributes to reading achievement in ways that simply doing worksheets or other activities does not." Therefore, it has to be a space where the teacher supports students in a way that pushes students to become better readers, who actively think about what they are reading.
The "Right" Book
The first thing to teach students about independent reading is how to select a good fit book. One explanation is provided in The Daily 5 book using the I-PICK strategy. It stands for the following:
I - I choose a book
P - Purpose (why do I want to read it)
I - Interest (does it interest me)
C - Comprehension (am I understanding what I am reading)
K -Know (I know almost all of the words).
For the last one, students can use the Five Finger Rule as a way to decide how many words they know. The strategy is super helpful in an elementary classroom, where many students are just starting to learn how to pick out books on their own.
In my classroom, I have sorted all the books by level in our classroom library, and I write the level inside the book so students know where to return the book. The students are all aware of their reading levels, making it easier for them to sort through the shelf. I have found this the most useful way of organizing the classroom library because it saves time for both the students and the teacher. I usually request that the students read the front cover and the back cover to get an idea of the book before committing to it. Then, they can try reading the first one or two pages to see whether the book is easy, just right, or too hard. For more information, Mrs. Ulrich has a chart on her website with a criteria for what makes a book easy or hard. Although most students understand how to select a book once you show them how to do it in a whole class lesson, you may also have to sit with some students individually to show them how to a pick a book for themselves. Remember to always be gentle and remind them why a certain book or certain level makes sense for them. If the student insists on reading a book that is easier or more difficult, let them try it and learn on their own. I have found that they always come back and ask for help for a good fit book because building passionate readers is a journey that is different for each student.
Then the teacher has to spend time modelling to students what he/she has to do when reading independently. I have learned that modelling absolutely everything is the only way to reach our goals. If you give little to no instructions then students come up with all sorts of ways of do things — sometimes that can be productive, but often it can be a concern. As such, for example, you have to teach students how to hold a book, how to look at the front and/or back cover, and how to follow the words in a text.
Moreover, you also have to model how to read a page and how to implement reading strategies from our reading lessons to maintain consistency between the independent reading time and all the other reading lessons of the reader's workshop. For example, if you teach them how to use the picture clues to understand the story, then the students should be doing the same when reading independently. Otherwise, the purpose of teaching these strategies will be lost in translation. Here, an anchor chart is quite useful for students to follow when reading independently. Teachers can also provide students with bookmarks, which provide reminders of what to do when reading on their own.
Spaces for Independent Reading
Independent reading should be a part of the schedule as a set structure. In some classrooms, independent reading happens everyday while other classrooms have it a few times in the week. Regardless of the frequency, the weekly schedule should include some form of independent reading. The approach, however, is really up to the teacher. Here are a few ways to make independent reading happen in the classroom:
1. Drop Everything And Read (D.E.A.R.): This is an excellent space for students to enjoy reading while also creating a space for teachers to touch base with students. On their website, readwritethink explains that the daily reading sessions last 20 to 30 minutes with an additional 15 minutes provided to writing in reading response logs. As Teacher Mom of Three explains that there are several other acronyms for this, but regardless of what we call it, silent reading time is vital for our students.
2. The Reading Zone: This book is highly lauded by many teachers. If you are interested in making reading a part of the classroom experience then the book is a must read. It is written by Nancy Atwell who founded the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), a school where reading is made fun and pleasurable. In the book, the author suggests that frequent reading in a quiet classroom everyday correlates with high levels on standardized tests of reading ability. The importance of a quiet space cannot be stressed enough. In addition, the students cannot have a conversation or discuss the books they are reading when they are essentially in the reading zone. The teacher can circulate and whisper when working with the students. Atwell uses book talks, mini-lessons, an extensive library, and book recommendations as way to get students interested in reading. She also emphasizes individual choice. She uses a survey on the first day of school to get an idea of their interests and collects books accordingly. 3. Daily 5: This framework is all about rotations where reading is one of the facets. There are a total of five rotations/stations: Read to Self, Read to Someone, Work on Writing, Listen to Reading, and Word Work. This framework requires more effort and time. While there many teachers who have started to use the Daily 5 method, I am not particularly fond of it, as compared to other models of independent reading.
Building a Classroom Library
Independent reading is not quite conducive without an extensive library. What are ways to build a successful library?
Step 1: You need to collect as many books as possible for students to select from. An extensive collection also adds to the idea of choice. The more books that are available in the library equates to greater choice students have in their reading. Do not select books randomly, however. Think about what interests the students and what books will actually help them learn. If you are just starting a library, I suggest purchasing a sample set of 30 to 50 books to see how students enjoy them. You can track what students enjoy and do not enjoy over a month period. Then add books based on that hands-on research. You may even find that some books are deemed inappropriate by parents. In such situations, trust the parent and their comfort level. You may want to make that particular parent see your side in regards to a certain genre or book, but that time is better spent elsewhere. For that particular student, you can find books that both the student and the parent find appropriate.
Step 2: Build a physical space in the classroom to maintain the books. You can keep them on a bookshelf, but I recommend putting them into buckets for younger learns. You can organize the buckets in whatever way makes sense. The buckets can be labelled and ordered by level or by the genre/topics (e.g. animals, fairy tales, science, and so on). If the students are more apt at matching books to their level and know how to tell the topic intuitively, then an alphabetical organization is also appropriate (e.g. authors name from A to C in one bucket, authors name from D to F in another, and so on).
Step 3: I learned this the hard way. Where does a book go back when the student returns it? I used to spend so much time taking the books and putting them back myself. Then I started to label all the books. On the first page inside the book, I wrote down the level (that is how I bucketed the books), so students knew where to put the book back when they returned it. You can put the label on the inside or outside. Then teach students how the label helps them sort the books. All the students usually get the hang of this in a week.
Step 4: Once the books are collected and the space is sorted with all the labelled books, you can open the library for business. Before allowing students to take books, remember to teach them how to select books as we discussed previously. Maybe even practice a mock trial around taking out a book and teaching them how to take care of it when taking it home. Despite all of these efforts, be prepared for some books to come back torn or even be lost altogether. Take a deep breath.
As students take books, you have to maintain a tracking system. I maintain a sheet. Students show me the book and I write the date/name/title on it. I check it off once the book is returned. Some teachers use index cards with individual student names on each index card. In the index card system, the students find their respective card and write the date/title of the book. They cross it one once the book is returned and write the new date/title on the next line. This second method requires less work for the teacher.
Step 5: Ensure that there are rules to the library. If students want to remain members of the library, they have to respect the rules. For example, books should be kept in good condition and students have an obligation not to lose books. You can remove a student's membership if these or any other rules in place are not followed by that specific student. The membership can be redeemed after a set period of time. This sounds a bit harsh. In fact, I admit it is harsh, yet necessary. The library is a sacred place for our classroom and so it must be treated with care and respect.