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How to Provide Less Structure for Independent Reading

Developing independent readers means nurturing the conditions for passion and independent thinking to flourish.

May 17, 2021
Maria Carluccio / The iSpot

When we limit independent reading to a small range of topics, genres, and reading levels, and routinely assign rote accountability tasks like daily reading logs, we inadvertently send a signal that reading isn't meant to be a joyful, inspiring, self-directed, and even revelatory activity.

“Independent reading is not about a number of minutes or the level of the book. It is not a program,” write literacy experts and middle and high school teachers, Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst in Literacy Today. “It is about creating independent thinkers who think with compassion, logic, and curiosity, and without manipulation from others. They think—and from those thoughts, they become more than they were. They become independent.”

Paired with regular guided reading instruction, independent reading should provide students with the opportunity to read widely, exploring high-interest and diverse texts across genres, bringing to the reading their own unique “perceptions, values, and thoughts,” write Beers and Probst.

Yet nurturing stimulating, immersive independent reading in the classroom—a critical part of developing lifelong readers—requires a willingness to loosen the reins to allow for more organic and unstructured reading time, opting sometimes for low-stakes reflection exercises instead of graded assessments and accountability tasks, and making space for students to exercise some degree of choice and passion.

Here are a few ways to help promote what Beers and Probst describe as the sometimes messy, noisy process of independent reading in the classroom.

Expand Beyond Reading Levels

When students are encouraged to explore texts above and below their reading level, it can liberate them from strict ideas about what they should or should not be reading, freeing them to read more broadly. “In my library, I much prefer the message that all books belong to all readers,” writes Julia Torres, a language arts teacher and librarian. “Often, without realizing it, when we lean too heavily on data pertaining to reading levels and achievement and share this information with students, it can lead to the development of prejudicial ideas about which books belong to which grades and readers.”

Putting this idea into practice, Torres and her colleague Alexander Maughan created “vertically aligned stacks” in the reading app Sora. Each stack includes books from a variety of grade levels, genres, and topics. Students explore the stacks and curate their own selections that correspond to their writing units and motifs, an approach that gives them access to a much broader range of texts compared to being assigned a set list of books.

Make Accountability Social

Reflection exercises, like establishing accountability partners where pairs of students check in regularly to discuss their reading, can help kids process and demonstrate their understanding of a text in fun, engaging ways that don’t feel like a test. Model book chats for students and supply them with a few conversation starters like: “What feelings did this book evoke for you,” or “Which character do you most relate to?”

Or find ways “to leverage students’ social media connectivity to help them see the relevance of their reading and to cultivate lifelong readers,” suggests Lorraine Radice, a director of literacy for Long Beach Public Schools. Encourage students to blog, for example, writing in a relaxed, conversational way about events or ideas that they connect with in their reading. Ask students to record a vlog entry on their phones whenever they encounter something in their reading they’d like to comment on; they can upload recordings onto a Google slide or Flipgrid.

Consider Low-Stakes Assessments

If the goal is to get kids reading—widely and voraciously—then it’s worth considering how to make reading feel less like a chore. Some traditional assessment and accountability tools, like mandatory daily reading logs and compulsory graded essays at the end of every book, can significantly decrease students’ reading motivation, making reading a duty rather than a pleasure.

Yet some form of accountability is necessary so teachers know kids are reading and processing the material.

In Marilyn Pryle’s high school classroom in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, where students get to join book clubs as part of Pryle’s effort to build independent readers, she caps off each five-week book club cycle with two low-stakes assessments. For the first part of the assessment, students write a one-page review of the book they’ve read for Goodreads. For the second part, each group engages in an hour-long discussion of their book. This discussion can happen in one go, be broken into half-hour chunks, or even happen as short chats spread out through the five-week cycle as the students process their books. Students either submit typed minutes from the discussion or upload a recording. In the conversations, Pryle looks for “convincing evidence of a thoughtful, natural 60-minute conversation,” and leaves “comments for improvements.”

Cultivate Open Inquiry

Fostering reading independence “looks like a democracy—it’s messy,” write Beers and Probst. “The goal is for all voices to be heard, which means making sure some voices are not louder or easier to hear than others, and that the other voices aren’t silenced.”

To ensure that each student feels like they have a voice at the table, and that the classroom reflects the rich diversity of people, perspectives, histories, and values that exist across the U.S., it’s important that students can browse and read from a rich selection of diverse texts that provides “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” for students to see themselves in the materials they read.

From there, cultivating the conditions for genuine reflection and open discussion, the authors suggest, involves intentionally guiding students to think deeply about how their reading is changing their thinking, rather than how many pages or minutes they’ve accumulated. Conversations, Beers and Probst write, might now turn to questions like: “What’s in the book? What’s in your head? What’s in your heart? And now, what would you like to do?”

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