Independent Reading

Independent reading comes in several different packages, including Sustained Silent Reading (SSR), Drop Everything and Read (DEAR), reading logs, and daily independent reading at home.  Many research studies during the 1980’s and 1990’s indicated that the amount of time a student spent reading independently, at home or at school, correlated highly with scores on reading achievement tests.  Then the National Reading Panel, in 2000, concluded that there was insufficient support from research that Sustained Silent Reading improved reading fluency.  The conclusions of the National Reading Panel have been controversial, and the question is far from settled.

Here is my take on the subject, based on a brief survey of the literature, professional development on the new reading research, and experience evaluating children with reading problems:

  1. Sustained silent reading (SSR) helps the rich get richer, but the poor stay poor.  In other words, time spent on independent reading increases skills for good readers, but does not improve reading skills for struggling readers.  Struggling readers need lots of intensive, direct instruction and guided practice with a well-trained teacher.
  2. SSR is an inefficient use of classroom instructional time, and ineffective for many students.
  3. Many struggling readers chose books above their independent reading level for SSR in class because it’s embarrassing to read books on a lower level in front of classmates.  As a result, many struggling readers “fake read” – a complete waste of time for students who need every available minute of instructional time.
  4. Parents report that required reading logs are detrimental to their children’s love of reading because they turn pleasure reading into a chore.  Counting pages or counting books encourages good readers to read books that do not challenge them.  Parents resent being given responsibility for their children’s homework.  I found lots of discussion about reading logs and reading homework, but not any real research.
  5. It isn’t easy to teach struggling readers – it takes training and expertise.  Parents of struggling readers are asked to help them without being shown how.  The same goes for untrained community volunteers.

What to do instead?  Here are some ideas:

  1. Offer training to any parent or community volunteer who will be working with a struggling reader.  Instructional time is precious, and struggling readers don’t have the time to waste on ineffective interventions.
  2. Reading at home should be on a child’s independent reading level, not his instructional level.  Every school library should have a selection of high interest/low vocabulary books to keep struggling readers engaged with reading.
  3. Reading instruction at school should be research-based!

Tip for Parents: to check and see if a book is at your child’s independent reading level, use the 5 finger test.  Ask your child to put up 5 fingers, and begin reading a page from the book.  Every time a word is too hard, put down a finger.  If all 5 fingers are down before the end of the page, the book is too hard for independent reading.

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