WHY IS INDEPENDENT READING IMPORTANT?
Providing your students with independent reading time in your classroom allows students to develop reading comprehension and practice the strategies necessary to understand the text they are reading. In addition, when reading “just right books”, students can improve their fluency and their vocabulary in an environment that is low stress and enjoyable. Many teachers feel that the benefits of independent reading go beyond improvement of reading skills: the more exposure students have to read, especially when they take part in the book selection process and choose books at their appropriate reading level, the more opportunities they have to discover that reading can be fun and enjoyable.
Choosing an appropriate reading level
When participating in independent reading, students should work from books that are at their “independent” reading level. In other words, they should read books with an accuracy of about 96% or more- or only 4% of errors- and thus can read the book without help. When planning your independent reading block for your classroom, first determine how you will measure your student’s independent reading level. A formal assessment to determine your student’s reading level is important- not only for independent reading time but for your other literacy blocks as well. There are many ways to assess student reading level, and though this article does not discuss how to assess students in detail, you should learn more about assessing reading levels or determine which methods are used in your school. Some common methods of determining reading level are: Fountas and Pinnell Guided Reading Levels, Lexile Levels, ATOS, and DRA. You can also determine an estimate of reading level by student grade level, using a “conversion chart” like our Lexile Conversion Chart, available for download below.
If you are unable to assess students in a formal method, a quick approach to estimating reading ability is the “five finger rule”. Ask students to turn to any page in a book they wish to read. For every word they don’t know, they should hold up a finger. Students should select a book that contains approximately 2-3 words they don’t know in any given page. This ensures that students don’t choose a book where they know all words (too easy) and don’t choose a book where they cannot understand the majority of the text (too hard). Instead they choose a book where they don’t know some words that will allow them success in understanding the text but also allow them to practice comprehension and decoding strategies.
Once you and your students understand their independent reading level, you should make sure students have plenty of access to books at their level that they can choose from. Many teachers invest in their own classroom libraries, including texts of many books at varying reading levels. Other teachers may not have their own libraries but can arrange to take students to the school library to select an appropriate text. If you need help in selecting books at reading levels appropriate for your classroom, you can use a resource like Scholastic’s book wizard to help you find books specific to your grade level or reading level:
Build book selection into your classroom literacy block to allow students an appropriate amount of time to select a book at their level and within their interests to ensure the highest chance of success for each student.
Check in 1: How to Support Comprehension in Your Independent Reading Block
Once students have selected their books and have settled into their independent reading time, begin checking in with students. You should have a plan in place on the students you wish to target first in the block, with additional students if time allows. You can sit or stand close to your student and ask him to read aloud a paragraph to you. Listen for reading errors and correct any errors immediately. Then, ask 1-2 questions about the paragraph to gauge the student’s comprehension. This should be strategic and formulaic: You should have a plan in place for specific comprehension skills you’d like to check on and reinforce. For example, you may ask a question about how the paragraph relates to something in the student’s life, or something from class to allow connections between the text and the real world. You may want to reinforce the idea of tone or author’s purpose and may ask what the student feels the author is trying to convey in the paragraph. Note your student’s answer and whether the student needs additional support so that you can reinforce the ideas later in another literacy activity.
Check in 2: How to Support Vocabulary Development in Your Independent Reading Block
Select a page or a chapter for the student to read and identify a vocabulary word he doesn’t understand. You may ask the student to annotate sentences surrounding the difficult word, or write it down in a graphic organizer or notebook. Assign a specific strategy to the student to help identify the unknown word. For example, you may ask the student to practice a context clue learned in class or use the dictionary to look up the unknown word. You can also ask the student to write down the unknown word’s definition in a running vocabulary log. These practices will reinforce to students the importance of learning new words using a variety of strategies to determine their meaning and will help build their comprehension and fluency over time.
Check in 3: Integrate Teaching and Discussion into Your Independent Reading Block
In a third check in, focus on a targeted teaching point. You may either focus a teaching point on something you addressed in a mini- lesson with the whole class, or you may have identified certain students that are weak in certain areas and need additional assistance. Conference with your students and assign students a task specific to the pages, chapter, or book they have read so far. For example, if a teaching point is reviewing summarizing book details in order, ask students to either write down on composition paper a summary of the book’s chapter or to verbally discuss it with you. During your conference, support the student in areas where he is still struggling and then determine the next day’s teaching discussion- whether you need to focus on that area or move on to another area for practice.
Using a form or checklist to help you quickly plan your independent reading time is a must, and a sample is available for download below. Use this alongside a data collection tracker you use in class to keep records of your student’s progress during independent reading time- whether this is academic progress, or a tracker on how many pages/ books the student has read during independent study, these practices will help motivate students to continue to improve in their reading.
*Note that each check in does not necessarily need to relate to the same page or paragraph and can even be spread over multiple days. Build a plan for yourself-whether you select a small group of students each day to perform all three check ins, completing your rotation of all students by the end of the week, or whether you decide to check in with the entire class each day focusing on one or two check- ins. The key is to determine the plan that will work best for your students and stick to it- showing students you expectations for them when they read, and reinforcing the right strategies to make all students successful.