Slaying the Naysayers Part II: What the Research Says

In a wonderfully informative blog post, Russ Walsh documents a number of educational articles and academic research that demonstrate the positive impact that Independent Reading has on literacy and creating life long readers. The papers and studies that he cites prove that Independent Reading, “An instructional strategy which has been around since the 1970s” has met its goals to:

  1. “Provide students with time to practice the reading strategies they have learned through classroom instruction in a real reading situation and, therefore, improve reading achievement.

  2. Promote positive attitudes towards reading in the hopes of making reading a life-long habit for children.”

What I find most helpful is that Russ deconstructs the opposition, notably Tim Shanahan, who claims that there is “a lack of empirical research to support the practice for improving reading achievement” and that “Independent Reading violates what we know about motivational activities and, therefore, will not create lifelong readers.” Many naysayers like Shanahan often cite lack of evidence for their unwillingness to engage students in Independent Reading.  Show me the data, they say, and then we can talk about change.

Russ has sifted through the data, writes his post using a number of valid academic sources,  and reaches the following conclusions:

“The verdict seems clear. A well-planned, well-executed program of Independent Reading is an important part of sound literacy instruction. To be most successful teachers should follow a few guidelines from the research.

  1. Make every effort to ensure student engagement in reading during Independent Reading time. This includes making sure that students are in a book that they can read successfully on their own and monitoring the class during reading time.
  2. Guide student book choice for appropriateness and interest level by working beside them as they make selections.
  3. Confer with individual students regularly. Rather than quizzing their comprehension, start a conversation about the book. What stood out for you? is a good conversation starter.
  4. Provide regular opportunities for students to talk about their reading with other students in partnerships or small groups.
  5. Assist students in making goals for their reading and have them keep track of their progress toward the goals.
  6. Through modeling, teach students how to respond to their reading through a variety of written and oral formats including a response journal,in text post-it notes, letters to the teacher, quick writes, etc.
  7. Rather than set an arbitrary amount of time for Independent Reading from the start, work to build student stamina. Early on in establishing the routine for Independent Reading, stop the reading as soon as students begin to fidget, whether that is in 3 minutes or 15. The next day set a goal for Independent Reading that is a few minutes more than the previous day, until you have built the time spent engaged in reading to your desired length – 20, 30, 40 minutes depending on age and grade.
Shanahan says one of the reasons that Independent Reading fails is that ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him take a bath.’ That may be true, but I think you can lead a child to reading and set up conditions where she is most likely to engage in reading. And if we can get kids reading good books, the research would indicate they will improve their reading and be motivated to continue the reading habit. The best reading motivator is getting lost in a good book that speaks to you in some deeply personal way.”
It’s always good to be able to “prove with cold hard facts” what you are witnessing in your classroom.  I do agree with Shanahan in one regard: that conditions are important. Passionate teachers can and do create a classroom culture that values reading and literacy. 

The articles from Russ’s Works Cited are linked here:
Gambrell, L.B. et al. (2011). The Importance of Independent Reading. In Samuels, S.J. & Farstrup, A. What Research Has to Say about Reading Instruction (4th ed.). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

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