The words "independent reading" should bring celebration, right? Somehow, a confluence of amazing events has occurred that has brought a student to a point in life where she is reading! However, indulge me on the topic, and let me draw your attention to a tiny little difference that is worth a column of discussion: independent reading, as an assigned, teacher-directed activity is very different than a child who is an independent reader. A truly independent reader is one who chooses not only what to read, but also which strategies to use, how to respond to the reading, and the autonomy to decide if a particular choice is worthy of continuing. This is opposed to the independent reading, which is done on your own (but frequently with a hovering authority figure nearby).
Most teachers would agree, and research supports, that reading on your own is a part of the journey towards becoming an independent reader. However, by the time many students reach middle school, with years of forged reading logs lying in wake, teaching reading can be a daunting task, and often one that teachers don't feel qualified for, as we are mostly not specifically trained for it. Despite these obstacles, there are several ways to foster independent readers. Here are a few that any teacher can try:
Choice in What to Read
The more choices a student has, the more authentic the reading experience will be. Students should be provided opportunity to choose what they read. If a student wants to read all of the Harry Potter series, far be it from me to stop him. The great benefit of the internet is that a quick Google search of "non-fiction about Harry Potter" yields a wide variety of ideas for exploration and extension on topics such as the science of Harry Potter, witchcraft, boarding school culture, and fashion. Offer students a menu of non-fiction options, but don't necessarily force it on the child. The more interesting and enticing the selections are, the more likely they'll want to delve into them.
Choice in Strategies
Direct instruction of reading strategies, preferably using authentic text that are used across the curriculum, will help students understand that not only are reading strategies portable, but also effective in helping them in all subject areas. Too often, kiddos compartmentalize and only use reading strategies when they are in an ELA class. We should give students as many strategies as possible because all readers aren't the same. I don't enjoy any strategy that artificially disrupts the flow of reading. I personally prefer pre-reading activities like "skim and scan" for unfamiliar words ahead of time. However, this might not be effective for others. Forcing students to use a specific reading strategy, particularly if a student is already a proficient reader, can turn students off to reading altogether. This, in fact, is the number one reason students in my classes say that they no longer enjoy reading.
Choice in How to Respond
This one is always tricky, but unless you are specifically interested in teaching students how to write an essay, that might be the least effective way to engage students in reading. This is not to say that my students don't write literary responses—they do—but it is to suggest that there isn't a necessity to do so. If students want to create a podcast, make a webpage, write a series of poems, or stage a recorded conversation that they then send to me, I encourage them to do so. After all, how many of us take quizzes on our reading to see if we "got it"? Instead, we engage in book clubs, have conversations with our friends, or write fan fiction.
Reading instruction has its place, obviously, but I'm challenging you to look at planning to create independent readers instead of assigning independent reading assignments.
Amber Chandler is an ELA teacher and the ELA department chair at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, New York.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2018.