more time reading = stronger readers

we like to share these statistics with parents during back to school night:

taken from overcoming dyslexia by sally shaywitz, m.d.

looking at the correlation between time spent reading and tests scores, it’s pretty convincing that spending time reading is vital to becoming a strong reader. too often, recently, we’ve heard about and seen reading classrooms where there is not a lot of reading going on during the literacy block. some reading curriculums are exposing students to complex texts (think a 1200 lexile level in 4th grade) that the students are asked to closely read. can students come up with the gist of a text that’s not only far above their grade level, but very likely even higher above their independent level? maybe. but we don’t think that reading the same paragraph over and over is the work that grows readers.

on the one hand, we think it’s important for students to have opportunities to practice the strategies and skills they’ve worked on as a whole class in a complex text. but on the other hand, there is research that backs up the statistics on the graph above; time spent reading text at an independent level grows readers.

in an independent text, students are able to read fluently and accurately and talk about what they’ve read, which leaves room for complex thinking. so how can we make sure that independent reading is a non-negotiable, must-have for our students?

if you feel like your reading block is full because your curriculum requires you to teach a reading program that takes up much of the block, leaving little time for independent reading of texts at students’ independent reading levels, you may need to get creative.

first, work on finding time in your schedule:

  • speak with your administrators and bring some research to help make your point convincing. assure them that any time dedicated to independent reading would include teacher conferring to help students apply strategies as they read.
  • look at your schedule and think about when you could find a chunk of time that can be used for independent reading time. ideally, it will be a chunk of time that’s about 30 minutes so that students learn to settle into books for long stretches of time. but, if your schedule doesn’t allow for one long chunk of time, three 10 minute chunks are better than nothing.

then, be sure you’re using the time well:

1) we teach and model strategies for choosing independent level texts (often called “just right books”). if we know that volume of reading is important and we want students to read a lot, we need to make sure that they are reading in books that feel good to read. we teach and chart strategies like counting miscues on a page (the 3 finger rule), retelling at the end of page, and making sure you have a movie of what you’re reading playing in your mind. don’t assume that your students know which books are just right for them; this is something that has to be taught explicitly.

sometimes kids feel a lot of pressure to read the same books their peers are reading even when the books are far above their independent reading level. (in our fourth grade classroom, we’ve seen a whole class gravitate toward series like twilight, harry potter, and percy jackson, all of which are far above what’s considered grade-level for fourth grade, at least until the very end of the year.) when this happens, kids will usually engage in “pretend reading” or  abandon the book after a time. we’ve found that sometimes a quick conference with a student who has picked up a book that we know will be frustrating for him and having him do a “just right” check with us is  enough to steer the student toward more appropriate books as he realizes that this particular book isn’t just right for them, yet. yet is important here, as it is often when we talk to kids. it means that we recognize, and the students recognize, too, that they’re always growing as learners. so, while this book may not be just right now, it will be just right at some point.

sometimes, students insist on reading a book that’s above their just right level. this can be a really delicate subject because the goal is to have the student realize on his own that it’s not just right, without discouraging him or turning him off of reading. research says, though, that reading a just right book is essential for reading growth, so we can’t just let it go. some things we’ve tried with students in these situations:

  • suggest that they choose a different (i.e. easier) book that they read each day. this book should make reading feel good; in other words, it should be just right. then suggest that the students keep the more challenging book as a second read to read after they’ve spent time with their just right book. this can be a win-win because students are getting the reading work they need to build their reading muscles (in the just right book), and still get to read the book that their peers are all reading.
  • enlist some parent support. parents can support these situations by offering to use these kinds of books as read alouds or provide heavy support by reading the same book and having a mini book club. students and parents can stop to discuss at set points so parents can engage in discussions about the book and possibly correct misconceptions.
  • look at the students’ reading log with them. often the log will surface patterns of very low reading volume or inconsistent reading. sometimes discussing the log with the student will help them to recognize that the book isn’t just right.

sometimes, none of these work. when this happens, the student may either choose to abandon the book themselves after some time or they may try to slog through the whole thing. our hope in these situations is that the student recognizes that this wasn’t a positive reading experience. our role here is to make sure that they know that the next read can be a positive experience with the right book, so we’ll continue to reach out by offering suggestions of books that we think the student would like for their next read. (often, asking a peer to make a recommendation for the book we’re trying to sell makes it more appealing than we ever could.)

2) we teach and practice expectations for independent reading time. we model and chart expectations. these vary according to grade level, but basically outline what students should be doing during independent reading time, and might include read the whole time, read quietly, stay in one spot. it should include the student behaviors that will make your independent reading time a successful one for all. putting these expectations on a chart isn’t enough, though; they need to be modeled and practiced as well.

3) we build stamina gradually. since we’re runners, we often use training for a race as an analogy when teaching students about gradually building their reading stamina. if our typical run is 3 miles, we tell our students, we don’t go out and run 10 miles on the first day of our half marathon training. instead, we run three miles a few days a week, and then next week make our long run four miles. the following week, our long run becomes five miles. this continues, adding one mile to our long run each week until we’re ready for our race.

on the first day of school, our independent reading time lasts just a few minutes, as in like three. (or maybe even less if our students are off task before then. we tend to stop when the first students get off task.) we gather the class together, tell them how long they read for, chart our stamina, and ask them to think about what a goal for tomorrow could be for the class. inevitably, they’ll say things like, “twenty minutes!” or “an hour!” because, you know, a teacher’s asking and more reading time pleases the teacher. we remind them about our running analogy, and then discuss what this means for our reading. our hope is that the next day we’re able to read for one or two minutes more than we did as a class the day before. after a few weeks of charting and growing our reading stamina, our class is able to sustain a thirty-minute reading period, and we’ve outgrown the need to chart stamina. for now, at least; it can always be revisited at times when we get off track as a class.

after the first few weeks of school, we introduced goal sheets for our students to track and grow their home reading. we’re not believers in assigning an amount of reading time for homework for a few reasons. one is that we think many students will feel pressure to say they read, even if they didn’t, because it’s homework and you have to do the homework. a second reason is that, if we say to read for 20 minutes, a good chunk of our class will be compliant and read for 20 minutes, but many will rush through their reading, their focus being more on getting to the end of the 20 minutes rather than really thinking about and enjoying what they’re reading. so, instead, we require that students read nightly, but it’s individualized for our students.

we ask students to study their reading logs that they’ve been keeping for home and school for a few weeks and to notice some patterns in their home reading. it’s pretty typical for our students to be reading between 5 and 10 pages at home at this point. they use this as their starting goal for the first night. we give them a special post-it to mark the page they’re working to get to.

the next morning, they check to see if they met their goal. if they met or passed their goal, they raise it by one or two pages for the night coming up. (remember, we’re gradually growing our stamina!) if they didn’t meet their goal, they try the same goal or drop it back a page or two. we’ve found this to be a really effective way at helping students to grow their reading stamina at home. think: if on a monday night a student sets a goal for 5 pages, and consistently meets his goal for two school weeks, by the end of that second week, he’s grown to read 14 pages each night. that’s a difference of 45 pages a week!

at some point, students also need to think about leveling out their goal; it doesn’t make sense to raise it forever, and this is usually something we address with those students in a small group.

4) we plan to meet with students in conferences or small groups during this time.  we’ve been told that the majority of our planning time should be spent on planning the small groups and conferring we’ll do with students because it’s here that our teaching will make the most impact. and, it’s true, that it’s in these times that our teaching is most tailored and individualized to the needs of our students. because this time is such precious teaching time, it’s absolutely essential that your kids are able to sustain independent reading, that they’ve been taught how to do this. otherwise, you’ll have to continually stop your teaching during a conference or small group to redirect the rest of the class.

while there are endless possibilities for the focus of our teaching during this time, we suggest using performance assessments and your knowledge of the students’ independent reading levels as a starting point. we also keep anecdotal notes about all of our conferences and small groups, and include not only what we taught, but also the dates so that we’re sure everyone is seen at least once within a week.


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