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Making Independent Reading Work

By Barbara Moss
 | Feb 18, 2016

"What are your recommendations for independent reading?"

80284960_x300Every child needs a chance to read independently in school. In the frenzy to prepare students for large-scale assessments, some schools are limiting independent reading (IR) time. Yet the Common Core State Standards themselves advocate student independent reading from a multiplicity of genre. In fact, some argue that Common Core materials should “increase regular independent reading of texts that appeal to students' interests while developing both their knowledge base and joy in reading” (Coleman & Pimental, 2012, p. 4).

Now more than ever, research studies provide guidance for creating IR programs that contribute to achievement. The teacher is a central player in these programs, setting the stage and directing the action that makes IR work. Today's IR programs should differ significantly from SSR, DEAR, and earlier iterations of IR.

IR involves the full participation of the teacher. This means the teacher is instructing, scaffolding, and conferring with students (Reutzel, Fawson, & Smith, 2008) during IR time. For example, the teacher educates students in how to select appropriate books, scaffolds student understanding of specific text types, and confers with students to assess their understanding of what they have read.

IR requires an investment of time. Children need time to read—a lot of time. Time spent reading contributes to reading achievement in ways that simply doing worksheets or other activities does not (Allington, 2002; Foorman et al., 2006). Time is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, however. Less proficient readers may benefit from shorter time frames until they build more reading stamina, whereas better readers may read successfully for longer periods of time.

IR requires a broad range of leveled texts. Not too long ago, most classroom libraries were composed of mainly fictional texts—stories, myths, legends, fantasies, and more. Today, however, we know students need to read from many different genres including informational trade books, newspapers, magazines, online resources, primary source documents, plays, poems, graphical texts, and biographies. Most experts recommend that classroom libraries include 50% literary texts and 50% informational texts. Some texts should be leveled so that all students have access to books appropriate to their reading levels. This does not mean that every IR book a student selects must be easy; when students pick harder books that can stretch them, they may need additional teacher scaffolding to ensure success. In addition to access, students need their teachers to teach them to select books. Teachers need to model strategies students can use to carefully select a rich variety of texts for IR.

Talk around texts is an essential component of IR. Earlier forms of IR placed little emphasis upon talk around texts. Today we know that even 10 minutes of talk around texts can enhance achievement (Nystrand, 2006). Both small-group and large-group conversations can contribute to critical thinking, metacognition, and argument construction. Strategies like Instructional Conversations and Questioning the Author let students share what they have learned from texts.

IR requires differentiated instruction. This is especially true for English learners and struggling readers, as IR experiences are even more important for these students than for others. These students need help selecting books, more support during reading, and more strategy instruction. Most important, they need more IR time than other students. Poor readers typically spend less time reading both in and out of school. Their progress depends on reading practice, which they lack. Making IR contingent on work completion is a perfect example of why these students don't get the reading practice they need. Struggling readers seldom complete work early, and miss the reading opportunities they need so much.

Effective IR programs have the potential to not only increase student achievement but also motivate children to discover the love of reading that can last a lifetime.

Barbara Moss, PhD, is a professor of literacy education at San Diego State University, where she teaches classes at the credential, masters, and doctoral levels. She also taught English language arts or reading at every grade level from 3–12 and is the author of numerous journal articles and books about many aspects of literacy learning including close reading, informational texts, and disciplinary literacy. She co-authored (with Debbie Miller) Not This, But That: No More Independent Reading Without Support, published by Heinemann.

The ILA Literacy Research Panel uses this blog to connect ILA members around the world with research relevant to policy and practice. Reader response is welcomed via e-mail.


Allington, R.L. (2002). What I've learned about effective reading instruction from a decade of studying exemplary elementary classroom teachers. Phi Delta Kappan, 83(10): 740-747.

Coleman, D., & Pimentel, S. (2012). Revised publisher's criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and literacy, grades K–2. Retrieved from

Foorman, B., Schatschneider, C., Eakin, M.N., Fletcher, J.M., Moats, L.C., & Francis, D.J. (2006).The impact of instructional practices in grades 1 and 2 on reading and spelling achievement in high poverty schools. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 31(1), 1–29.

Nystrand, M. (2006). Research on the role of classroom discourse as it affects reading comprehension. Research in the Teaching of English, 40(4), 392–412.

Reutzel, D.R., Fawson, P.C., & Smith, J.A. (2008). Reconsidering silent sustained reading: An exploratory study of scaffolded silent reading. Journal of Educational Research, 102(1), 37–50.


Leave a comment
  1. Natasha foster | Feb 13, 2017
    I would recommend to have them read spirit animals or animorphs i even read these books myself i love them. 
  2. Catherine Pleasants | Jan 07, 2017
    To build on the previous comments about school libraries and certified school librarians, consider: Nurturing lifelong readers is the mission of both. There must be collaboration among all educators for their students' benefit. Yes, leveled readers are the most recent panacea for teaching reading skills. No, leveled readers don't do much to motivate a love of reading. Have you seen them? For over 20 years, I've had the joy of watching students in K-4 develop as readers by their access to the school library and the services I give them. Skills, while invaluable, do not singularly motivate desire.
  3. Dorcas Hand | Jan 04, 2017
    Yes, independent reading is important - essential - to support enthusiastic as well as fluent reading of all the things students need to understand in a day of modern life. And  the best place to find the variety of choices that will encourage different ages, abilities, interests would be the LIBRARY. A campus library supported by trained and certified staff, funded from the school budget, and tied to the school mission and currisulum will offer all students a collection that supports both specific curricular goals and a wider range of books for personal pleasure. Even as literate adults, we want to read what we like, to choose what appeals today which is different from yesterday and tomorrow. this is even more true of kids who haven't yet established what they like, what they want to learn more about, what is the right level. Lexiled reading isn't always the best option - kids who had not ever read a long novel grabbed harry Potter and stretched their reading skills to manage it because it was popular - and those kids are young adults today using the creativity they saw in Harry's education to build their own lives. Libraries support independent reading better than any other method because they offer the widest range possible. Please support them in your schools to make your job as reading teachers and literacy coaches easier.
  4. Judi Moreillon | Jan 04, 2017
    School librarians and school libraries are a missing component of making IR work. Many school librarians teach and coteach with classroom teachers in the areas mentioned in this article: teaching/coteaching reading comprehension strategies, providing scaffolding for readers, and conferencing with students. School libraries offer the widest range of texts, genres, and formats for all readers in the school; these resources support differentiation and address student motivation. When classroom teachers collaborate with their school librarian, educators can support one another in making IR work for all students through instruction and access to reading materials.
  5. Deborah Hall | Jan 04, 2017
    How can someone write about Independent Reading and not even mention the words librarian and library? Students who use the library have so much more to choose from than a classroom library could ever provide. Librarians are typically on top of what is new and great in children's and YA literature and can often make great matches between the reader and the right book at the right time.

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