March 22, Instructional plan/framework for independent reading


Benefits of Independent Reading and factors that affect independent reading

Students need to read in order to become better at it, if students do not practice and read daily, they fail to thrive and flourish in their reading skills.  Stanovich has created a term for this called the Matthew effect, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and in this case speaking of reading skills.   According to the 2001 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), a study conducted assessing the reading habits and comprehension of 4th grade students in 35 countries discovered the following (Moss & Young, 2010)

  • Only 35% of U.S. fourth graders read for fun daily compared to 40% internationally.
  • 32% of U.S. fourth graders never read for fun outside of school compared to 18% internationally.

Independent reading alone will not improve a student’s reading ability.  Independent reading has to be a part of quality reading program, intertwined with teacher directed and guided reading to help students learn reading strategies and how to apply these strategies when they read material on their reading level.  As a student reads, they increase their base knowledge on a subject, which increases vocabulary, which allows them improve reading skills with quick word recognition, which in turn makes reading less of a chore and more enjoyable for them (Moss & Young, 2010) Students are more willing to engage in deep reading, both in and out of school, because of these acquired literacy skills.

Independent reading should not be considered wasted time of students aimlessly wandering around bookshelves thumbing then skimming through various books, wasting time until the period is over.  It should not be the time when students go to the library to get the books they would like to read.  When carried out properly, independent reading allows student an opportunity to select a book on their interest and reading level through recreational reading.  Recreational reading is a type of independent reading where the reader is able to decode and comprehend the majority of the words read (Palumbo & Willcutt, 2007). Students have to read text that is just right for them, which is the Goldilocks theory (Moss & Young, 2010).  When student are consistently reading text too difficult they become frustrated and if they always reading text that is too easy, they never grow in their reading ability.

In order for independent reading to be successful, it requires planning and structure on behalf of a classroom teacher.  Independent reading requires a school wide involvement which carries over into the community outside of school and involves the parents, public library and other community members.   With planning and structure, independent reading allows the students to be able to practice skills that have been previously taught.  It also allows students to explore and read a variety of material such as magazines, newspapers, etc.

According to Young & Terrell there are five benefits of students participating in independent reading: improved vocabulary, increased background knowledge, increase fluency and comprehension, increase reading achievement and help create and interest and motivation to read.

Improved vocabulary.   In order to be on track, students must learn 32,000 words between 1st and 12th grade, which averages out to be about 3,000 words per year.  Most vocabulary instruction only teaches an average of 700 words per year.  The remaining words must be learned through incidental reading (Nagy & Anderson, 1984, Moss & Young, 2010).  Independent reading allows for students to participate in this type of incidental reading in order to gain exposure to a variety of text.  This type of reading provides vocabulary instruction that teachers cannot give through standard classroom, vocabulary instruction.

Increase of background knowledge: When students are allowed to explore various topics it helps to develop their background knowledge which helps students create schemata that helps them develop reading skills that help them later on in upper grades.  The more students read, the more background knowledge they acquire.  This word knowledge allows readers to read with ease and this ease creates reading stamina (Block & Mangieri, 1996, Moss & Young, 2010).  It is this stamina that allows deep reading to become completely absorbed in a story.

Increased reading fluency and comprehension:  The amount of time students spend reading improves reading comprehension skills in both low and high achieving readers (Moss & Young, 2010).   Wide reading is a predictor of reading comprehension that outweighs intelligence, gender and socioeconomic status (Reutzel & Hollingsworth, 1991).  Wide reading through independent reading helps increase reading comprehension for all readers, on grade level, struggling readers, as well as ELL students (Moss & Young, 2010).

Increase reading achievement:  Many studies have shown that increased reading through independent reading helps improve reading achievement on literacy test scores as well as in other areas.  Studies have been shown that students who were able to participate in summer reading programs helped the students make gains in their reading comprehension skills, increases were demonstrated through literacy tests (Moss & Young, 2010).  Guthrie (2002) makes the recommendation that 40% of time be given to guided reading instruction, 20% to strategy instruction, 10% to motivation and 10% to test teaching formats.  While some strategies need to be directly taught, students also have to be allowed to practice these skills.  Independent reading allows for this type of practice.

Increase of interest and motivation to read:  Students have to have interesting material on their level in order to fuel their desire to read more.  Students are more likely to comprehend material that they are interested in because they may already have schemata that helps pull them through new and unknown words.  Independent reading allows students to both pick out their own material as well choose material on their level.  This freedom gives students the motivation to read.

Factors that affect independent reading:

It is no surprise that higher achieving students come from schools that allow for more reading and writing time.  An increase of reading skills is not an isolated event that only happens just at school or just at home.  Everyone working together plays an important role in teaching children to read as well as fostering their love of reading.  Teachers play a crucial role for laying the foundations of reading that carries over into other aspects of a student’s reading career.  Teachers should provide a scaffolded technique of independent reading that includes making sure students are reading books on their level, creating activities that motivates students to read, monitor students when they are reading, hold students accountable for their reading success  and give feedback to the students when needed (Moss & Young, 2010).  Other important factor teachers have to provide in order for their students to succeed in a well stocked and set up classroom library.  Research has shown that students that have access to a wide variety of reading material through the classroom library, not only perform better on standardized tests, but creates motivation and interest in reading.  A classroom library can be particularly beneficial for low income students who may not otherwise be exposed to this plethora of information.

Knowledgeable librarians along with a well stocked, organized school library with a large collection of various materials, that include not only books, but other items such as videos, magazines, reference materials, and alternate library hours help facilitate and encourage independent reading.  This type of library also encourages reading outside of the classroom by allowing parents alternate hours that they may be able to access the school library and provide assistance in book selection with their child, especially during summer months when reading skills can deteriorate.

Parents and the community outside of school plays a vital role in students not only learning to read, but fostering the motivation and love for reading.  When students are read to at a young age, literacy skills begin to develop that help them to become early readers, and often better readers.  Community sources outside of the home such as public libraries and literacy programs also help promote independent reading.

Designing the space

One of the most difficult circumstances of being a special education teacher is that sometimes I feel like an island separated from the continent of school.  It is not the fault of administration or staff that I feel this way, but because my schedule and classroom set up is much different than an average classroom.  My students are pulled into my classroom into 30-45 minutes chunks throughout the day and vary in grades from kindergarten to third grade, not to mention the various reading abilities that are in my group of students.  I do not have a set independent reading time for my students because that is something that they participate in their regular classroom activities.

Regardless, I do have a library and a reading area in my classrooms.  This year I have two physical classrooms that I have set up to help cut down on travel time for my students.  I have a K-1 classroom on that hallway and a 2nd– 3rd grade classroom on that hallway.  Both classrooms have a variety of books, labeled and placed in bins sorted according to A.R. reading level.  In my K-1 classroom, I have leveled books beginning at a 1-2 level up to 9-10, along with books that go up to about a second grade level.  In my 2nd-3rd grade classroom I have books that range from kindergarten level and go up to 6th grade reading levels.

My library space would be created by placing foam squares down on the floor next to a back wall to define the space.  To help with boundaries I would enclose the squares with a train bookshelf that I have on one side and a smaller two self bookcase on the other side to form a U-shaped area.  In the library I have two big pillows my students could lounge on as they read.  In the other classroom I would create a similar library.  On the walls in the space I would hang plastic guttering attached to the wall to allow books to be displayed so the students can see the front of the book instead of the spine only. Students can also view the books that I have in the sorted in leveled tubs this way also.  I will have a checkout system for my students so we both can keep up with that has what books checked out.  I will have library pockets with cards in my books where they pull out the card and place the card in a wall pocket chart with their name on it.  When they bring the book back, they take the card out of the wall pocket chart with their name on it, put the card back in the book, then put the book back on the shelf or bin for the next student.

Creating a collection

I have given some thought to how I could possibly incorporate independent reading with my students.  I do not know if it could be done daily, but I feel that I could at least begin to work it in at least one day a week.  I could begin with teaching a specific skill during the guided reading time I have with them, and set aside 20 minutes once a week for starters to explore other books that I pull for them on their level to work on that skill.  I do think about how many of my students not only struggle to read, but also they lack motivation to read because they have only experienced failure with reading. Who wants to continue to do something that makes you feel dumb and unsuccessful?  There are times when I get frustrated by paper work and IEPs because there are things I can’t write goals for (or if I did it would be impossible to track).  The things that I am talking about are things like self confidence in themselves by making them better readers and feeling like successful, important students that add value to our school.  Education needs to go beyond what can be measured through IEP goals and standardized testing.

Being able to hone in on student’s reading interest and provide books based on their interest can make a difference in creating life-long learners through reading or turn them off from reading by having the students consider it another mundane task done only in school where it is a requirement, and a “have to task” instead of a “want to task”.   Based on my 2nd and 3rd grade student’s inventories, they like all kinds of genres, from fantasies to non- fiction to poetry.  We recently did a short unit on poetry with my third graders and I was surprised how much they really enjoyed that, perhaps my biased is getting in the way, because I am not a big poetry fan.  Now if I give them a few minutes to explore my classroom library, they will go straight for the poetry books to look at and read through.

Another type of book that I notice my third graders will grab is fact books like the Guinness Book of World Records.  They like the photographs and quick reading of facts.  Another series they tend to gravitate towards are Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  The one thing that I would like to add to my classroom library is some e-readers.  My biggest concern with getting e-readers is getting the funds to buy books to put on them.   Another area that I feel my classroom library needs is high interest, low reading level books in all genres.

Just when I think my classroom library has a decent variety of genres, I explore the websites and realize that my students have only sampled and explored traditional book genres.  After exploring the posted websites, I realize that I have very few multicultural books.  I do not have any ELL students at the time, but that is no excuse for not having multicultural books in my library.  The Paper tiger website lists many books that touch on various issues that would be appropriate for young readers.  These books give students exposure to learn about cultures all over the world that they may never see until they visit through books. Another area where I have few books, especially on a lower reading level is graphic novels.  I would also encourage my students to visit websites such as Toonbooks to explore graphic novels further.

   Incorporating Key Components into Independent reading program and linking literacy instruction with content areas:

If I incorporated independent reading into my classroom, I would have to modify it to meet the time I had available and to meet my student’s needs.   I do not have the luxury of flexibility that a classroom teacher has with my students, such as an after lunch period or early morning home room time.  I know some classroom teachers will say they do not have flexibility either, but they do so more than I do juggling four grades in 30-45 minutes increments.

My plan for independent reading will look like this.  When I begin my plan for independent reading, I am going to focus on my third graders.  I am well aware that all grade levels could benefit from some type of independent reading, but I would have to focus in on one grade and as I work out kinks and glitches, add other grades.  Right now I serve the most students in third grade for reading.  I only have one second grader.  My first graders are becoming more able to handle independent type activities, but still need some direct guidance in reading skills that I give them.  My kindergartners do not have independent skills to work on their own and some are barely beyond letter/sound recognition.

I serve my third graders during guided reading time and give them instruction on their reading level during this time.  In order to incorporate independent reading during this time, I will set aside a day, probably a Friday, for about 20 minutes.  I choose Friday so that when they explore the books, they will focus on practicing the skill that has been taught to them during guided reading that week.  One activity that I would like to incorporate into the independent reading is the genre wheels or the genre passport.  I would also let them use these in the regular classroom as incentives to explore other genres outside of my classroom.  Each SIRT would begin with a book talk.  This technique would have to be modeled by me first to help them understand what is expected.  It is not necessarily a summary of a book, but more like a commercial to get their peers interested in reading the book. Other activities that I may use as I introduce reading materials throughout the week would be a grab bag and ten questions on different books that I may introduce throughout the week to help them be thinking about what book they would like to choose to read by Friday’s SIRT.  After they students have had a chance to share, there would be time for them to read.  For students in this group, some of the students could read the entire 30 minutes on their own, while others would do best if pair with another reader to whisper read to each other.    While the students are reading, I would have student-teacher conferences to hold the students accountable for their reading and to help them understand this is not a time to goof off and it is to be taken seriously.  This will also allow me to assess my students progress towards mastery of skills taught and keep me informed of what their interests are and what they may need to continue to learn and genres they need exposure to.

Other reading strategies that I would focus on teaching during guided reading time would be comprehension skills, (such as building background knowledge, making connections, visualizing), teaching vocabulary, teaching story elements, text features for informational text, and navigational devices (such as table of contents, index, glossary, guide words and headings and subheadings.  I would focus my conference based on the skills that they have been taught for that week.

The selection of books my students have will depend on the lessons that I have taught that week or maybe incorporated with something they are doing in the regular classroom with science and/or social studies or a book that we have read during the guided reading time.  In order for students to master content area materials three areas must be mastered:  1) background knowledge of an area, 2) learning the vocabulary, both how to read the word and what it means 3) understanding the text features and being able to write for a specific subject, such as the scientific method in science (Moss & Young, 2010). Since I do not teach science or social studies, I would use the Integrated Model where independent reading time is incorporated into the language arts time.  I would incorporate the integrated model when it was appropriate based on guided reading activities or science/social studies areas.


Block, C.C. & Mangieri, J.N. (1996). Reason to read: Thinking strategies for life through   learning. Meno Park, CA: Innovative Learning.

Guthrie, J.T. (2002). Preparing the students for high-stakes testing in reading. In A.E. Farstrup &             S.J. Samuels (Eds.), What research has to say about reading instruction (3rd ed., pp. 370-          391). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Moss, Barabara and Young, Terrell A.(2010). Creating Lifelong Readers Through Independent     Reading. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Nagy, W.E., & Anderson, R.C. (1984).  How many words are there in printed school English?     Reading Research Quarterly, 19(3), 304-330. doi 10.2307/747823

Palumbo, T.J., & Willlcutt, J.R. (2007).  Perspectives on fluency: English-language learners and    students with dyslexia.  In S.J. Samuels & A.E. Farstrup (Eds.) What research has to say             about fluency instruction (pp 159-178). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Ruetzel, D.R., & Hollingsworth, P.m. (1991). Reading time in school:  Effect on fourth graders’ performance on a criterion-reference  comprehension test.  The Journal of Educational            Research, 84(3), 170-176


3 responses »

  1. Lori,

    You definitely have a tight schedule to work with. I couldn’t imagine juggling four grade levels within 30-45 minutes. Your plan for independent reading sounds well thought out. Trying it out with your third graders first to see what can be adjusted in order to benefit all of your students is a great idea. Reading conferences have been helpful for students in my classroom, they enjoy the one on one attention and it is informative for the teacher. As you stated, student-teacher conferences also hold students accountable for actually reading during independent reading time, not just pretending to read or playing.

    -Stacy Durham

  2. Lori,
    I agree with Stacy that it is very impressive how you are trying to incorporate this program into your classroom when you only are able to meet with your students for short periods of time. Starting with one grade level seems to be a logical decision to figure out how the implementation will actually play out. I like that you have a wide variety of leveled books available to your students when they come to your classroom, and I think it’s great that you have set up a system that enables them to check those books out. I was wondering…do you find that most of your students rely on you to get books appropriate for their reading level? Are there also books at the appropriate level in their classrooms?

    I admire your plan to carry out independent reading in your classroom. While there are many long-term measurable benefits, I’m sure you’re under pressure to produce immediate measurable outcomes. Like you said, it’s impossible to measure the degree of motivation to read and include it in an IEP goal. Nevertheless, you are striving to include this program in your classroom, and I think that’s very admirable. Your students will reap the benefits.

    • Thanks Andrea,

      I really love books and reading. I think I am book junkie. Having to deal with 4 grades and a wide variety of reading levels is a good excuse to buy all kinds and genres of books. There are several of my students who depend on me to get books on their level, especially by the time they get to third grade and are still reading on a 1st grade level. They often quickly exhaust the classroom supply if they are lower level readers. I think they have some books on their level, but my books are “new” to them and gives them another variety to choose from, which is fine with me. We will see how the implementing independent reading goes, especially as crazy as this time of year can be for all of us.

      Lori Vestal

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