In Defense of Independent Reading

In the entire history of stupid school tricks, there may be none dumber than the practice of banning independent reading from classrooms. Not only does the research not support such a drastic measure, but administrators who take such action should have their brains scanned to see if common sense has somehow slipped out their ears.

While there is vigorous debate about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, no one claims that practice isn’t vitally important. You can’t become proficient at playing the piano, cooking gourmet meals, shooting a basketball, cross-stitch, writing novels, or carpentry by watching others do it, listening to them talk about how they do it, and completing worksheets about it. You actually have to do those things. Why would the skill of reading be any different?

Reasons for Independent Reading

Two goals of independent reading in the classroom that teachers regularly cite are to promote positive attitudes about reading and to provide students the opportunity to practice reading to achieve proficiency (Allington, 1977, 2009, Gambrell, 2009).

To these reasons I would add a third, more logistical reason: teachers have students read independently because many districts require progress monitoring and intervention time with identified students. While the teacher’s attention is with the at-risk learner(s), the other students must be engaged in an independent activity that is both beneficial and requires no teacher assistance or monitoring so that she may concentrate her efforts on the at-risk learner(s). Many teachers feel that independent reading is a more effective use of students’ time than other independent activities. In this belief they are supported by reading researcher Richard Allington, who says that time spent reading contributes to reading achievement in ways that simply doing worksheets or other activities does not (Allington, 2002; Foorman et al., 2006).

Does Independent Reading Increase Achievement?

Much of the criticism about independent reading is because of a report by the National Reading Panel. It states:

With regard to the efficacy of having students engage in independent silent reading with minimal guidance or feedback, the Panel was unable to find a positive relationship between programs and instruction that encourage large amounts of independent reading and improvements in reading achievement, including fluency. In other words, even though encouraging students to read more is intuitively appealing, there is still not sufficient research evidence obtained from studies of high methodological quality to support the idea that such efforts reliably increase how much students read or that such programs result in improved reading skills. Given the extensive use of these techniques, it is important that such research be conducted.

Unfortunately, this statement is often misinterpreted. The above is not a finding that independent reading is ineffective, but rather that there have not been enough quality research studies to make any conclusion about its effectiveness.

The Panel clarified (my emphasis):

It should be made clear that these findings do not negate the positive influence that independent silent reading may have on reading fluency, nor do the findings negate the possibility that wide independent reading significantly influences vocabulary development and reading comprehension. Rather, there are simply not sufficient data from well-designed studies capable of testing questions of causation to substantiate causal claims. The available data do suggest that independent silent reading is not an effective practice when used as the only type of reading instruction to develop fluency and other reading skills, particularly with students who have not yet developed critical alphabetic and word reading skills. In sum, methodologically rigorous research designed to assess the specific influences that independent silent reading practices have on reading fluency and other reading skills and the motivation to read has not yet been conducted.

Stepping up to that challenge, Wu and Samuels (2004) investigated the optimal amount of independent reading time per day. In their study, some third and fifth grade classes had students read independently for 40 minutes per day. In the comparison classes, students had a combination of 15 minutes per day of independent reading and 25 minutes of the teacher reading aloud to the students. In both sets of classes, this reading activity was in addition to core reading instruction. In general, poor readers had superior literacy outcomes in the 15 minutes per day of independent reading condition, and skilled readers performed better in the 40 minutes per day condition. This held true across all reading skills measured, “including reading rate and accuracy, comprehension, and word recognition.

A meta-analysis of 49 studies found a positive relationship between the volume of student reading and reading achievement (Allington, 2009, citing Lewis & Samuels, n.d.). Lewis and Samuels also reported on a more focused meta-analysis of studies that provided causal evidence that students who have in-school independent reading time, in addition to regular reading instruction, do significantly better on measures of reading achievement than peers who have not had reading time (an effect size of d = 0.42). (Allington, 2009, p. 32, citing Lewis & Samuels, n.d.) Allington notes that this effect size for in-school independent reading time was similar to the effect size for systematic phonics (d = 0.44) found by the National Reading Panel.

Based on another meta-analysis of 29 studies on sustained silent reading (SSR), Manning et al. (2010) came to the conclusion that “SSR is a valuable intervention that makes a worthwhile difference in developing students’ vocabulary and reading comprehension” (Gambrell et al., 2011, p. 148, citing Manning et al., 2010).

Achievement Isn’t Everything

While it’s important that students increase their reading skills, it may be more important that they develop a love of reading. Our job as a teacher is not simply to prepare students to pass state reading tests, but to inspire students to become lifelong readers so they can thrive as adults. Research shows that lifelong readers are more intelligent, more culturally aware, show more empathy, are better communicators, and are less stressed.

Scholars from a variety of disciplines have studied the amount of time students choose to read. In a series of studies involving hundreds of students, Morrow and Weinstein (1986) found that very few preschool and primary grade children chose to look at books during free-choice time at school. Greaney (1980) found that fifth-grade students spent only 5.4 percent of their out-of-school free time engaged in reading, and 23 percent of them chose not to read at all. Anderson, Fielding, and Wilson (1988) found that students spend less than 2 percent of their free time reading. Furthermore, as students get older, the amount of reading they do decreases. Clearly, schools are failing to create lifelong readers. We must do better.

The science is clear on how to increase students’ motivation to read. Gambrell states that “Motivation to read and reading achievement are higher when the classroom environment is rich in reading materials and includes books from an array of genres and text types, magazines, the Internet, resource materials, and real-life documents.”

Research also suggests that students’ motivation to read strengthens when they have opportunities to socially interact with others about reading. Gambrell et al. (2011) cite evidence that social interaction among students “promotes achievement, higher-level cognition, and intrinsic desire to read” (pp. 153-154, citing Almasi, 1995; Ames, 1984; Deci & Ryan, 1991; Guthrie et al., 1995; Manning & Manning, 1984; see also McRae & Guthrie, 2009).

Other factors that increase student motivation include choice in reading material, relevance of the reading material, and sustained periods to engage in reading.

If districts are still unconvinced of the importance of in-class independent reading, they should know that the practice is specifically endorsed in the Publisher’s Criteria for the Common Core State Standards. These criteria “concentrate on the most significant elements of the Common Core State Standards and lay out their implications for aligning materials with the standards.” Two of the standard’s lead authors, David Coleman and Susan Pimentel, write in section I.1.E:

Additional materials aim to increase regular independent reading of texts that appeal to students’ interests while developing both their knowledge base and joy in reading. These materials should ensure that all students have daily opportunities to read texts of their choice on their own during and outside of the school day. Students need access to a wide range of materials on a variety of topics and genres both in their classrooms and in their school libraries to ensure that they have opportunities to independently read broadly and widely to build their knowledge, experience, and joy in reading. Materials will need to include texts at students’ own reading level as well as texts with complexity levels that will challenge and motivate students. Texts should also vary in length and density, requiring students to slow down or read more quickly depending on their purpose for reading. In alignment with the standards and to acknowledge the range of students’ interests, these materials should include informational texts and literary nonfiction as well as literature. A variety of formats can also engage a wider range of students, such as high-quality newspaper and magazine articles as well as information-rich websites.

The question, then, that districts should ask is not whether classroom teachers should set aside time for students to engage in reading self-selected reading material, but in how the practice can be implemented most effectively.

Experts on independent reading agree that effective independent reading experience requires that texts be matched to students’ reading abilities so they can experience success (Allington, 2009; Gambrell, 2011; Gaskins, 2008; Hiebert & Martin, 2009).

Teachers should also provide a balance of “explicit teacher-directed instruction . . . [,] teacher-directed reading practice, teacher-assigned self-directed reading practice, and . . . [free voluntary reading]” (Allington, 2009, p. 48).

Classroom libraries should be large, varied, and contain books of many different reading levels and complexities. To achieve this, Allington recommends eliminating spending on workbooks and test prep materials, as there is no research to support their use.

More skilled readers need to be provided with large amounts of time, while those with weaker skills need less time and more instruction (Wu and Samuels, 2004).

Students should be provided with opportunities to interact socially around their reading (Almasi, 1995; Ames, 1984; Deci & Ryan, 1991; Guthrie et al., 1995; Manning & Manning, 1984; see also McRae & Guthrie, 2009).

And teachers should instruct students on text selection, scaffold student understanding of different types of text, and confer with students about their reading (Reutzel, Fawson, & Smith, 2008)

It is my hope that school districts recognize the importance of providing students with independent reading time in the classroom and support its teachers in doing so by providing relevant research and professional development on how best to implement the practice. Schools should follow both the research and common sense to do what’s best for students to develop both their reading skills and a lifelong love of the written word.


For more information, check out the following excellent books:

What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction

No More Independent Reading Without Support

What Really Matters for Struggling Readers

2 Replies to “In Defense of Independent Reading”

  1. I think the most important part of this is developing the love of reading. Reading has personally been more beneficial to me than any form of higher education that I have taken. If you teach a student how to read and to love it, you create a life long learner.

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