The Need For Independent Reading
Children and young adults learn to read and write by having meaningful, authentic reading and writing experiences and by getting support from more experienced individuals. In order for students to become expert readers and writers, they must have time to practice and apply what they are learning – reading and writing. Therefore, it is essential that the literacy-centered classroom provide time for students to read independently in self-selected books and to engage in self-initiated writing.
The Effects of Independent Reading on Reading Achievement
Research clearly shows that the reading of meaningful, connected text results in improved reading achievement (Anderson, Wilson, & Fielding, 1988; Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, & Wilkerson, 1985; Elley & Mangubhai, 1983; Ingham, 1981; Taylor, Frye, & Maruyama, 1990).
In one of the most extensive studies of independent reading yet conducted, Anderson, Wilson, and Fielding (1988) investigated a broad array of activities and their relationship to reading achievement and growth in reading. They found that the amount of time students spent in independent reading was the best predictor of reading achievement and also the best predictor of the amount of gain in reading achievement made by students between second and fifth grade.
Among the many benefits of independent reading are the following:
Independent reading builds fluency. There is substantial evidence that unless students can accurately and effortlessly deal with the word-identification demands of reading, difficulties will result in comprehension and overall reading achievement (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974). There is also evidence that unless children read substantial amounts of print, their reading will remain laborious and limited in effectiveness (Allington, 1984; Stanovich, 1991). Finally, evidence exists which shows that when students do read substantial amounts of text, their reading performance improves (Bridge, Winograd, & Haley, 1983; Dowhower, 1987; Herman, 1985).
Independent reading leads to increased vocabulary development. One of the best-established relationships in the field of reading is the very significant relationship between vocabulary development and achievement in reading (Baumann & Kameenui, 1991; Nagy, 1988). There is also evidence that shows that independent reading is probably the major source of vocabulary acquisition beyond the beginning stages of learning to read (Nagy, Anderson, & Herman, 1987; Nagy, Herman, & Anderson, 1985). This same research shows that while the probability of acquiring the meaning of any specific word simply through reading it in the context in which it appears in independent reading materials is not high, students who read widely can learn the meanings of thousands of new words each year.
Independent reading builds background knowledge, or schema. Another extremely well-established research finding is that students’ reading ability is dramatically influenced by the amount of interrelated information (schema) they have about the topic about which they are reading (Anderson & Pearson, 1984; Ausubel & Robinson, 1969; Bartlett, 1932). By reading widely, students are exposed to diverse topics and information which they can then use in future reading.
Out-of-School Independent Reading
Several studies point to the importance of out-of-school reading (Anderson et al., 1988; Greaney, 1980). The Commission on Reading, based on its review of these studies, concluded: “Research also shows that the amount of reading done out of school is consistently related to gains in reading achievement” (Anderson et al., 1985, p. 7). That same review suggested that there was extremely wide variability in the amount of independent reading that students did at home. However, it was determined that most students spent very little time reading at home. About half of the students read for only four minutes or less per day. Clearly there is substantial reason to try to increase the amount of reading that students do outside of school.
Since availability of books is associated with the amount of independent reading students do (Morrow & Weinstein, 1986) and since the availability of a personal library is associated with increased achievement (Crowell & Klein, 1981), parents should be encouraged to take their children to libraries and to purchase books for them if they can afford to do so. Efforts should be made to find ways to send books to the homes of all students, and especially to the homes of students whose families cannot afford to purchase them.
In-School Independent Reading
The studies cited above establish the importance of out-of-school reading. A study by Taylor, Frye, and Maruyama (1990) suggested that the amount of time students are engaged in silent reading in school may be even more important. The importance of in-school independent reading is also supported by major reviews such as Anderson, Hiebert, Scott, and Wilkerson, 1985, and Adams, 1990. Anderson et al. concluded: “Research suggests that the amount of independent, silent reading that children do in school is significantly related to gains in reading achievement” (p. 76). However, these researchers go on to note that most students spend very little school time engaged in silent reading – an average of only about seven minutes a day in the primary grades and about fifteen minutes in the intermediate grades. The obvious conclusion to be drawn is that the amount of time students read independently in school needs to be significantly increased.
Finding the Time
The research reviewed above suggests that time for independent reading is not a “frill” but an essential ingredient in an effective reading program. Scheduling time for independent reading should be a high priority.
Research also suggests that some classroom teachers may be spending considerable amounts of time on activities that do not promote growth in reading. Durkin (1978-1979) found that teachers spent large amounts of time asking questions that had little or no instructional value; that is, questions that tested but did not promote reading comprehension. The amount of time devoted to such questions could productively be reduced.
Anderson et al. (1985) indicated that students spent up to 70% of the time allotted to reading instruction doing “seat work,” which usually involved completing workbook or worksheet exercises – activities that the researchers found were unrelated to growth in reading.
Ford (1991) concludes that many teachers overuse worksheets, which are of questionable value as a way of occupying student time. He suggests that, based on research, independent reading and writing that lead to improved reading achievement could productively replace worksheet activities.
Motivating Students’ Independent Reading
A number of publications outline strategies for moti- vating readers to increase the amount of independent reading they do (Center for the Study of Reading, 1989; Manning & Manning, 1984; Manley & Simon, 1980; Morrow, 1985; Morrow & Weinstein, 1986; Reed, 1977; Rosler, 1979; Spiegel, 1981).
Ways to Motivate Independent Reading
- Scheduling special school events that focus on reading, such as “reading campaigns,” “reading awareness week,” and “reading celebrations.”
- Becoming involved in community and library programs sponsored by federal and state governments, such as Reading Is Fundamental (RIF).
- Distributing reading certificates at awards day ceremonies.
- Ensuring that students have ready access to books through school libraries and class libraries, and by sending books home.
- To ensure access to books, teachers may need to do the following: work with public and school librarians to rotate books into a classroom library; enlist the support of PTA and PTO groups as well as local businesses and corporations so that books can be purchased for school use.
- Scheduling time for sustained periods of silent reading.
- Providing in-school time during which students can choose to read by reducing the amount of time devoted to activities that do not promote reading growth, such as completing worksheets.
- Reading aloud to students. Reading an entire book to students allows them to experience how positive reading can be. Reading part of a book may motivate students to complete the reading of that book.
- Introducing and displaying interesting, engaging texts.
- Getting students “hooked” on favorite authors, topics, or genres (e.g., mysteries, fables, poetry, biography).
Students learn to write by writing and by having writing modeled for them by a more experienced writer, a peer, or an adult. As they are learning to write, students must have time to write about things that are of interest to them; researchers have found that giving students choices in what they are doing leads to more effective learning (Johnston & Allington, 1991).
When students are writing, they are practicing the process of writing: they are practicing phonics and other word-identification skills as they spell; and they are using and practicing the elements involved in grammar and usage.
Self-initiated or independent writing provides students time to experiment and practice with writing in situations that are important to them. When students are writing, they are also reading (Graves, 1984). Therefore, there are reciprocal benefits for reading as students write.
Unlike reading research, writing research does not provide evidence as to the amount of time students should have for self-initiated writing. Researchers do stress the importance of giving students extended time for writing (Anderson, et al., 1985; Hillocks, 1987). Cooper (1993) recommends that self-initiated writing range from twenty to forty-five minutes per day depending on the grade level.
Types of Activities
Self-initiated writing means that students write about whatever they choose. Some students might write in a journal or diary while others are writing stories. Others may be writing jokes, cartoon strips, letters, or reports. Ideally, the teacher would also be writing during this time. Periodically, students should share what they have written if they choose to do so.