Be the change, being a teacher, Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity

What Does Student Independent Reading Look Like? A Whole District Audit

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For a long time, I felt like an oddity within my reading beliefs: provide students with independent reading time every single day, provide a fully-stocked culturally relevant collection of books, remove all of the reading projects that stood in the way of reading joy, focus on reading identity at all turns. But then I discovered others who shared those same beliefs, who had held those beliefs long before I had reached them, who had pioneered the work spreading the word around the globe. The relief and power that finding others provided is one that cannot be underestimated. The strength that comes with working for a district that shares these beliefs is a blessing.

And yet, I know there are many others that have felt and do feel like the oddities in their school. Who constantly have to defend why self-selected independent reading is a cornerstone of their work. Who have to explain why they continue to spend their own money, ask for money, write grants and do anything they can to purchase more books. Who spend so much time trying to keep up with new books, who weed and discard books that do not have a place in their collection. Who feel alone but might not be.

An incredible honor for me is when I am asked to work with a district or school who is on a journey of trying to reach their readers in a more significant way. Who knows they have work to do and who are ready to take the next step. Who are not afraid to reflect and change even when change is hard. When I am asked to do this work, I always have many questions; what does reading look like now? Which experiences are each reader guaranteed as they go through their journey? What are the rights of your readers when it comes to book choice, independent reading, and reading identity? These questions lead to many discussions, many aha moments, and provide a road map for change. Much like we need to give students the space to create their rights a readers within our community, we need to also create our expectations and rights as a district. What are the experiences that each reader is guaranteed at each level of their schooling beyond the curriculum we use? How can we then make curricular and business (because let’s face it part of schools’ direction is determined by the business aspect) decisions that protect and further these rights? How can we offer training and funding to support these rights? Hw can we invite the community into this conversation? How can we embrace antiracist principles and establish an emphasis on the individual’s rights and needs?

In the spirit of this pursuit, I offer up several questions that should be asked at a district level or at the very least, school level, in order for student reading rights to be protected. After all, if our goal is for students to leave our care not only being able to read well but also find an inherent human value within reading then we need to create experiences that safeguard that.

So please start asking…

How much time is each child guaranteed for self-selected independent reading time each day?

Too often we see independent reading get cut due to fewer instructional minutes, particularly as students get older and we bring in more whole class novels or book clubs. We also see it limited for students who are in intervention or have other needs. Yet, if students are not offered up time to independently ready every single day, how can we then support them in their reading?

What are students “allowed” to read?

While the answer should be “anything they want” this is often not the case as choice is often limited due to well-meaning intentions. Students who read below grade level are often given the least amount of choices, in order to help them have more successful reading experiences, yet within the helpful intent of that we can end up doing real damage. Can you imagine always being told what to read and never being able to work through a book of your choosing? What we should be focusing our energy on is how to help students navigate the choices they make as well as develop better book selection habits.

Where and how can students access books?

A well-developed school library with a librarian should be a right for every child, as should a well-stocked culturally relevant classroom collection curated by a teacher who reads. We need books to entice every reader at all turns, so asking this question can open up discussions of inequitable access, culturally insensitive books, gaps in collections, as well as the need for teachers who teach reading to be readers themselves. How is funding appropriated for books? How are collections developed? How are books placed in the hands of kids?

What are students expected to do once they finish a book?

So often, and in my own experiences, we have a lot of work lined up for kids once they finish a book all in the name of accountability. Whether it be forced book talks, book reports, summaries or readers’ responses, reading logs or other tools that involve counting minutes and needing signatures, or having to take a quiz on a computer, we are so busy policing the experience of reading that we forget to look at what we, as adults, want to do when we read a book. These accountability practices can do a lot of damage, particularly if students are exposed and expected to do them year after year. By asking this question, we can start to look at long-term experiences and how that may be impacting reading identity throughout our years together.

What does reading “homework” look like?

While currently in my own classroom, students are expected to try to read at least 2 hours outside of English class every week, this is not how it used to be. I had packets and worksheets lined up for their reading, as well as small summaries, and book talks with friendly adults who had not read the book. This question goes hand in hand with the previous one as it looks at the components we attach to reading, as well as potential inequities within our practices. What are we tying in with the homework being completed or not? Not all kids are in a position to read outside of school, not all kids have access to what they need or are in a place in their journey where they see enough value to dedicate outside class time to reading.

Who are kids expected to read?

While this is a question that speaks to a much larger issue surrounding the canon and who we, as educators, constantly expose students to as literary masterminds, it is also important that we locally audit across grade levels to see who is being shared and more importantly who isn’t. Often we base our read alouds, book clubs, and text selections on our own favorites with little thought to what has come before and what will come after for our students, but since publishing skews heavily white, cisgendered, and heteronormative, this tends to become the reading experience for many students as well, particularly those within white majority districts or taught by mostly white educators. Diving into this questions can and should fundamentally change the canon we present to students year after year.

While there are many other questions to ask, the few shared here will offer up a path way to further investigation into the reading practices embedded within a district. It is definitely a conversation that is needed and should be pursued on an ongoing basis. After all, if we don’t ask the questions and reflect on the journey we place students on, how will we ever change?

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page. If you like what you read here, consider reading my latest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students

1 thought on “What Does Student Independent Reading Look Like? A Whole District Audit”

  1. Hi Pernille,

    First off, I want to thank you for your article. It speaks to my experience, research and knowledge as a Teacher-Librarian. Currently, I am working on my Master of Teacher-Librarianship and one of my assignments is to develop a Literacy Leadership Proposal for my administration. My action plan involves building more of a participatory culture by having a cross-grade group of students survey the school and be in charge of purchasing books, using part of my library budget. The other aspect, is developing a better model for free voluntary reading (also known as, independent reading, sustained silent reading, drop everything and read) for my staff. I am very passionate about this aspect of my proposal, have read lots of research on the topic and truly believe that it would foster a culture of reading at my school. However, today, as I poured through research, I came across many articles and blog posts by Timothy Shanahan (2017) which discourage the practice of free voluntary reading as part of a school day for kids.

    He states, “I think I’ve been very clear about what I’m saying. I would not use school time to have kids reading independently (which I actually defined/explained in detail in the first article–couldn’t be any clearer). There is no question that at least some of those arguing the point are claiming that I’m saying that kids should not read or that there is no benefit to kids reading. I definitely was talking about DEAR and SSR and SQUIRT time, and not to reading within instruction (in which the teacher plays a role in selecting the material–for content and demand level, holds kids accountable through questioning and conversation, has kids writing about the text; none of which is usually typical of reading on one’s own).

    I also disagree about the “spinnability” of the research evidence. There are widely agreed upon rules or principles to summarizing and synthesizing research in the scientific community. You are correct that those principles have not been followed by some of those arguing the point (who either use research on other issues or who try to selectively use the evidence). What I was depending upon were studies that directly attempted to evaluate the practice in question. I wasn’t trying to generalize from studies that focus on what teachers like to do in their classroom, or how much the better readers read. The issue, the only issue, is whether or not there is a learning advantage to just having kids reading on their own during the school day.

    The meta-analyses of that body of research–not just some of the selected studies that may line up with someone’s point of view–show almost no learning payoff (the amount of payoff is usually treated as inconsequential). Some of the better individual studies (like the work of James Kim) do show that it is possible to get a learning payoff from such practices beyond the school day, but even then it isn’t easy to get kids to improve their reading just by reading on their own (and, yes, that is especially hard the lower your reading ability). However, I don’t take a summer study like Kim’s and say that it proves that if you do that during the school day you’ll get that payoff (both because it wasn’t done during the school day when the reading had to compete with instructional reading, and because it is just one study among many. Nor do I look at studies that compare how much good and poor readers read on their own, and conclude that means class time would better be used for free reading than for instruction.

    It comes down to whether you are trying to figure out what works (in which case you want to look at all of the direct evidence) or whether you are just looking for support for what you want to do (in which case you cherry pick any study that even remotely may be interpreted in your favor). I’m definitely interested in what works. Good luck.”

    Shanhan, T. (2017, April 5). Shanhan on literacy. An argument about independent reading time during the school day.

    I would love to know your thoughts on his comment.

    All the best,

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