What do you think about independent reading?
By Guest Blogger on May 14th, 2012
Dana Truby is back with a guest post, and a burning question: what are your thoughts on independent reading? Read on!
If you peeked into an elementary classroom and saw the kids sitting on the floor, laying on the rug, and curled up in corners reading novels, would you think they were doing the work they should be doing at school? In one third-grade classroom we know, the kids even curl up in laundry baskets and read. They call it tub time!
A lot of people—teachers included—like the idea of independent reading, or as it is sometimes called, sustained silent reading (SSR). But when they see it in practice— well, it just doesn’t look like learning is supposed to look. Here’s the secret not everyone knows: independent reading is a key component of good teaching. Sure, the classroom may seem quiet, the students relaxed, but important work is going on inside the children’s heads. They are learning how to become good readers.
In our high-pressure culture, a bunch of sneakered students lying on the rug reading paperback novels seems to shout slacker rather than achiever. Some administrators break out in a cold sweat when they see it, and even one teacher told us, “Sitting and reading isn’t the best use of our time; we need to be teaching our students.”
But for Jennifer Serravallo, former teacher and current staff developer at Columbia University’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, the sight of kids engaged in books during school—and shoving a paperback into their backpack to take home—is more than all right. It’s a sign that the classroom teacher is committed to a robust independent reading program—the best way of turning kids who know how to read into readers. And the research backs this up.
Independent reading improves kids’ vocabulary and builds background knowledge. (They build their knowledge—yes—about castles and dinosaurs, the Civil War and orca whales, but also about actions and consequences, friendship, kindness, and what it might be like to be in another person’s shoes.) And, that’s not all. Time spent reading independently increases kids’ reading rate, fluency, and accuracy. Put simply—kids who read more become more successful readers and learners. Makes sense, doesn’t it? (And by the way, research also says they also tend to score higher on all subject area achievement tests.)
What keeps Jen Serravallo up at night, though, is that teachers haven’t had an easy way to really know if each of their students is comprehending their books at high levels. And if they’re not—is the book too hard? What exactly is tripping up the child’s understanding? Jen realized that while teachers are drowning in data that sits in file drawers, they need data on kids’ reading “that wouldn’t collect dust.” Data like friendly information on their understanding of plot, character, theme, and how students were able to accumulate comprehension from chapter to chapter. Data that could easily be flipped into targeted lessons and make sure that no reader, whether struggling or gifted, would fall off the teacher’s radar in the course of the year.
So Jen did some field testing and developed a brand new program for grades 3, 4, and 5 called Independent Reading Assessment: Fiction. Here’s how it works: Independent Reading Assessment comes with two sets of leveled trade books that span a wide range of reading abilities. (These are regular books kids love like Judy Moody and Cam Jansen, and medal-winning authors like Kate DiCamillo and Jerry Spinelli.) The kit also comes with comprehension questions and prompts on durable sticky notes that the teacher can affix to the book pages, so that as each child reads a particular book, she can stop and respond to questions about four literary elements: plot and setting, character, language, and themes. How cool is that!
Plus, a full teachers’ guide and a web-based data management system that helps teachers decide on next steps for each learner. Say a student is struggling with the themes and characters in Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins. This system will help the teacher figure out what skills need to be sharpened and what the perfect next book would be that will help bring this child success.
And if an administrator or a parent or a visitor just peeking in asks, “how come your students are just laying around reading?” That teacher will be able to smile and say, “They are busy becoming successful readers. Come take a look at this report. You won’t believe our results!”