Setting up Independent Reading

To become good readers, kids need to read.  Instruction is important, but the only way we can turn our students into skilled, passionate readers who wield literacy to accomplish their purposes is by giving them tons of opportunities to practice.  Kids need massive exposure to print to develop their fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, knowledge, thinking skills, and interests.

Teachers know they need to instruct kids in phonics, in comprehension skills, in literary genres, and so on, but one key prerequisite skill often gets overlooked in all the standards-aligned fuss: how to sit down with a book and read.  We need to teach our kids this skill like we would any other.  We need to explain, model, guide practice, and give feedback.

I always tell teachers and students that there are three rules to independent reading.  They are simple and comprehensive:

  1. Stay seated.
  2. Be quiet.
  3. Read the whole time.

That’s it.  These rules cover everything.  They mean no going to the bathroom.  No whispering to your friends.  No getting up to choose new books from the library.  No flipping aimlessly through the pages.  No asking the teacher questions, either (because you’ll be conferencing with students–more on that in another post).  I tell my kids, “You are on a date with your book.  You need to play close attention to it and ignore everything else.”  (This cracks second-graders up.)

First, post the rules and read them to students.  Solicit from students what each rule means, and get them thinking about the implications with questions like, “So according to these rules, can I go to the bathroom during independent reading?  Can I get up and change my books?” (Answers: No and no.)  Also brainstorm what to do if problems arise: “What happens if I finish reading all my books?” (Answer: read them again.)  More common questions and answers at the end of the post.

Second, get kids set up.  Remind them that they must have books at their level that they are interested in reading, and that they must have enough so they don’t run out.  Get them all seated, silent, and holding a book.  Tell them the stamina goal for the day: “We’re going to do independent reading for X minutes today.”  Independent reading doesn’t start until everyone is ready, and then it’s an event.  Hold a timer, and bring my voice to a whisper as you count down to launch: “We’re starting in 3, 2, 1, read!”

Third, monitor: Kids are going to forget the rules.  When you see a kid violating an independent reading rule (out of forgetfulness, not defiance), SILENTLY get their attention (wave, walk up to them, catch their eye) and SILENTLY point to the rule they are not following.  SILENTLY redirect them.  Note the emphasis on SILENCE: you are showing respect for your students’ reading time by maintaining quiet so they can concentrate.  Even the teacher is not above this policy.

Fourth, review: Ensure you have 2-3 minutes at the end of independent reading.  As you regain students’ attention, give them a moment to finish their page or their paragraph (another good reader habit) rather than demand instant attention.  Have everyone put down their books and look up at you.  The class reads Rule 1 chorally, and you ask the reflection question: “Put your thumb up if you followed Rule 1.  Put your finger up if you know you need to do better.”  (Don’t do thumbs down–the finger up emphasizes reflection and improvement.)  Everyone must show a thumb or finger.  Proceed this way through the other two rules.

Continue the review the next day.  Don’t assume that students will follow the rules one day because they followed them the day before.  Review each rule: have students read them, and ask questions again, focusing particularly on scenarios that were problematic the day before (e.g. “What if someone starts talking to you?”)

“At what grade can you start this?” Kindergarten, with pre-reading activities like picture walks.

“How long should independent reading last?”  Day 1 should be no longer than 3 minutes for K-2, and 5 minutes for 3rd+.  Add 1-2 minutes per day as students build stamina.  Aim for:

  • K: 10 min
  • 1st: 15 min
  • 2nd: 20 min
  • 3rd+: 30 min (longer in 4/5 if you have time)

“Can I really expect them to be silent?”  Almost.  Until they read at a rate of 60 words correct per minute, students need to vocalize as they read.  Kids in K-1 and sometimes 2-3 should be permitted to read aloud.  Coach them on reading in a low or whisper voice so as not to distract others.  Beyond the 60 wcpm, students should be silent.  And believe me, they come to love this peaceful, focused time of day.

“When do they choose books?”  Some other time.  I have groups rotate through the class library during centers time.  1-2 groups per day get to change their books, and they know they needed to choose enough to last them during independent reading until the next visit.  Or I have independent reading right after recess, and students can go out to recess as soon as their books are set up.  They can choose to spend a couple minutes picking new books before they go out to play.

“What if it’s a bathroom EMERGENCY?” Whatever the normal procedure for this is in your class.  In mine, it’s miss 5 minutes of recess to make up the reading time.

“Why do they need to read at their assessed levels?  Why can’t they just pick books based on interest?”  More on this in the next post …

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Ingrid O'Brien

I am a literacy consultant, doctoral candidate, and educator living in the San Francisco Bay Area. I specialize in the language and literacy development of bilingual children, particularly ELLs in the Common Core. I coach teachers, design & adapt curricula for ELLs, and organize intervention programs.

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