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Independent Reading in the Secondary Classroom

    independent reading strategies in the secondary classroom

    Are you considering implementing independent reading in the secondary classroom? Maybe you’re wondering how to get started—or if it’s even worth doing. Either way, you’ve come to the right place.

    At first glance, it might seem that there’s no room for independent reading in the secondary classroom. Between covering an extensive curriculum, teaching for standardized tests, pulling from a specific literary canon, and planning rigorous—yet engaging—activities and assessments, who has time for independent reading?

    Yet, I’d go as far as to argue that independent reading in the secondary classroom is needed now more than ever.

    As the focus continues to shift toward teaching reading skills, our students are losing something of equal value—developing the desire to read. For many students, reading has become a chore in the ELA classroom—and if that doesn’t break your ELA teacher heart, I don’t know what will.

    Luckily, independent reading might be the key to making reading cool—and enjoyable—again.

    What is Independent Reading?

    Independent reading is precisely that—reading students do independently.

    Now, a successful independent reading program in the secondary classroom isn’t simply a reading free-for-all. While it includes student choice, it also includes designated reading time, access to a diverse selection of books, and the teacher’s guidance and support. Without those components, independent reading in the secondary classroom wouldn’t be very successful.

    Why is Independent Reading in the Secondary Classroom Important?

    I always hated when students claimed they disliked reading because they’d “never read a book [they] liked.” It was easy to assume they were lazy or simply taking the easy way out. However, the more I thought about it, the more I wondered, what if they were speaking the truth?  Maybe the books they’d been assigned were too boring, too easy, or, worse, too hard.

    Have they ever had the chance to choose what they would read?

    Many ELA teachers love to read—or at least see the value in doing so. Yet, ironically, we often leave little to no time for our students to foster a similar love and appreciation for reading. Instead, we simply fall into a rhythm of teaching skills, assigning texts, and analyzing meaning. However, teaching reading skills and analyzing texts is not the same as reading for the love of reading.

    But that’s where independent reading comes into play. The main goal of independent reading is to inspire students’ enjoyment of reading for what it is—rather than with the purpose (and pressure) of analyzing the text, answering questions, or writing an essay.

    The (Many) Benefits of Independent Reading

    I can’t be the only one who notices students’ dwindling reading interest (and often skills) as they move through the secondary grades, right? While it might seem like making time for independent reading in the secondary classroom takes away from valuable instruction, that isn’t quite the case. Independent reading is actually the perfect complement to all the reading skills and strategies we take the time to teach.

    In fact, when students have the opportunity to choose books that align with both their abilities and interests, magical things happen.

    For starters, when students read something of interest to them, they’re more engaged and motivated to read. Therefore, they’re likely to read more. In simplest terms, the more one reads, the better one reads.

    As students read high-interest books, they’ll naturally practice the literacy skills (and maybe even subtle analysis skills) we teach them. The more they practice these skills, the more confidence they will build and the improvement they’ll experience in their reading comprehension and fluency. And if that doesn’t convince you, know that the studies have spoken—there is a correlation between reading time and reading achievement.

    Even More Benefits

    And the benefits don’t stop there. Independent reading naturally increases student vocabulary. The more they read, the more words they are exposed to. In turn, this leads to a stronger overall understanding of how language works. So, with every book, students gain a new understanding of how words can convey explicit and implicit meaning.

    Overall, independent reading builds students’ reading skills and stamina, paving the path to tackle more complex texts in the future. Implementing independent reading now will empower students for success in later grades, college, and life beyond any educational institution. And, hey, they might just continue reading for the pure joy of it—and wouldn’t that be something!

    How to Implement Independent Reading in the Secondary Classroom

    While independent reading encourages student autonomy, there should be some teacher guidance along the way. The following seven tips can help you establish an independent reading routine in your secondary classroom.

    1. Collaborate with your librarian.

    If the idea of researching book titles and planning an independent reading program makes your head spin, reach out to the school librarian for help. Ask your librarian for book recommendations based on age, ability, genre, or interest. This is a great starting point for any teacher looking to implement independent reading in the secondary classroom.

    Additionally, consider partnering with your librarian for a “library field trip” at the start of the year. The librarian can showcase popular books and direct students here to find certain genres. Alternatively, you can invite your students to explore the shelves, glance through books, and note anything they might consider reading during the year. Don’t be afraid to ask your librarian to come into your classroom for book talks throughout the year, either!

    2.  Start with student booklists.

    Stay ahead of the popular “I don’t know what to read” excuse by starting the year with students creating a book wish list. There are several ways to expose students to books of potential interest. Host a series of book talks, have students share their summer reading titles, or even take a field trip to the library. The goal is to encourage students to keep a running list of books they may want to read over the year.

    However, don’t assume students will always continue to explore new titles on their own. Act as their guide by providing opportunities to build interest in new books all year long. From book talks and First Chapter Fridays to Book Tastings and personalized recommendations, there are plenty of ways to keep students adding to their reading wish lists.

    3. Schedule dedicated independent reading time.

    For independent reading to succeed and lead to the many benefits mentioned above, it has to become a priority. Therefore, it’s your job to make independent reading a routine in your classroom. Showing students that you prioritize this time in the class schedule promotes a positive association with the practice. While the exact times may vary daily and from classroom to classroom, find what works best for you and your students—and stick to it.

    By providing students with consistent opportunities to read for uninterrupted blocks of time, you help them build positive reading habits and skills. Strive to set aside 10 to 20 minutes each day  for protected reading time. If every day sounds impossible, start with every other or even just one day a week, like Free Reading Fridays.

    4. Expose students to an extensive and diverse reading library.

    Students are more likely to read if the choices they have to choose from actually appeal to them. Therefore, you want to fill your classroom library with a wide range of genres, authors, and topics. You also want books with various reading levels and lengths to ensure options of interest and accessibility for each student.

    Whether your department has a heft book budget or you search for second-hand deals and donations, strive to build your reading library throughout the year. Consider new releases, popular titles, and books that connect to your student’s interests, backgrounds, and experiences. This ever-growing selection means your students have access to quality books they want to read all year. However, it’s also important to encourage students to explore and expand their reading pallets. I recommend you rotate various “featured” books each month or quarter. This is a great way to expose students to different types of literature they may not have considered before.

    5. Allow for autonomy over reading choices.

    Giving students the freedom of choice encourages them to select books that match their interests, abilities, and reading preferences. If you’re worried about parent concerns over suggestive reading material—because, unfortunately, that’s the world we live in—offset your concerns by sending home a “permission slip” at the start of the year that outlines the independent reading program expectations, including the bit about student choice over reading material. At the end of the day, this autonomy is vital to increasing student engagement in the moment and interest in reading in the long run.

    However, some students will have no idea where to start. Some may even claim they “aren’t interested in any books”—but don’t let them off the hook that easily. Instead, struggling and reluctant readers may simply need more guidance as they navigate the plethora of potential titles to read. Make a deal with them that they must give a book an honest try (one week, 25 pages, two chapters, etc.) before returning to the drawing board.

    6. Set clear expectations for reading time.

    Like most aspects of the classroom, students need clear expectations to thrive during independent reading. When introducing the independent reading program, take time to review your expectations for your students. While having too many rules might take away from the excitement, having a few essential ones in place is important.

    For example, what should students be doing during this time? Can they read on their devices? Can they listen to music? Can they use the time to find a new book? Work with your students to set expectations that make the most sense for your classroom.

    7. Connect to student learning—sometimes.

    Instead of always dictating which texts students use to showcase a new skill, consider letting them have more autonomy over the context. For example, if you teach a new grammar lesson, have them complete a grammar scavenger hunt in their free reading book. If you are talking about plot or character development, have them apply the skill using the plot or characters from their book versus a text you’ve assigned.

    However, I recommend having an applicable short story on hand for reluctant readers, students who claim they “can’t find anything” in their book, or even students who simply need a little more support. Additionally, you never want the application to overshadow the main goal of independent reading: to inspire students to enjoy and appreciate reading in its purest form.

    More Tips for Independent Reading

    • Read with your students. Using independent reading time to plan lessons, grade assignments, or respond to emails can be tempting. However, reading with your students is the perfect way to model your expectations for independent reading time. So, grab that novel you’ve been dying to read, sit back, and enjoy.
    • Create a cozy reading space in the classroom. If you’re able, give students a few fun and cozy spots for reading. From bean bags to a simple rug and pillow combo, students will look forward to the cozy option. Before you know it, they’ll be eager to grab their seat and dive into their books.
    • Showcase what students have read. Make an effort to celebrate the books your students read over the year. Dedicate one of your walls with pictures of books (printed or student-drawn) students have read. Another idea? Decorate around your bookshelves with “Tweets” or “Google reviews” students write once they’ve finished an independent reading book. This might help other students figure out their next book to read.

    Should You Grade Independent Reading?

    I get it—it’s easy to feel as though you have to assign everything a value to make it “worthwhile”, especially with the increased emphasis on student data these days. However, remember why you’re implementing independent reading in your classroom in the first place. The moment you turn independent reading into another graded assignment, it will begin to feel like just that—another graded assignment—and take away some of the magic and genuine student enjoyment.

    However, if you need to feel like you’re grading something, simply grade students on a small scale of participation. Alternatively, you can assign an independent reading activity or two each quarter to hold students accountable. Maybe students get points for hosting a book talk, designing their own book jacket, or writing a character analysis. Regardless, remember that you don’t want any graded assignment associated with independent reading to outweigh the value you hope students get from the freedom itself.

    Whether you’ve been on the fence about independent reading in your secondary classroom or just looking for tips to get started, I hope this post helped. And if you’ve had success with independent reading with your secondary students, I’d love to hear your best tips too! Leave a comment below to spread the love and share your success story.

    Happy (independent) reading!

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