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Literacy and Language Blog

Fostering Capacity for Self-Sustained, Independent Reading

Blog by Kristi Thaemlitz, PhD
When I began writing this blog, I first put “the Dream” in place of “Capacity,” so the title was Fostering the Dream for Self-sustained, Independent Reading. Then I decided that my mission wasn’t just to hope and dream, but to actually provide helpful and doable tips for building readers who can engage in self-sustained, independent reading. Why did I have this initial thought, that it was all but a dream? I have witnessed my fair share of fake reading and disengaged readers. However, I have also seen students authentically engaged, groaning when time for independent reading is up and the teacher is ready to move on. Students engaging in self-sustained, independent reading can be a reality. How is it possible to foster ludic reading and the intrinsic rewards of self-sustained, independent reading with students? Teachers can provide capacity-building modeling for students to improve not only their willingness to read, but also to improve their enjoyment and satisfaction when reading independently. The value placed on self-sustained, independent reading is demonstrated in our new TEKS. At each grade level, an expectation in Strand 1 emphasizes that students should “self-select text” to “interact independently with text” (grades K-1) or “read independently” (grades 2-12) for “increasing periods of time” (grades K-1) or “sustained period of time” (grades 2-12).
Start with Choice
Choice means choice. Student reading surveys that can be found readily on the internet can help students reflect on the types of book topics and genres that they find most appealing. If finding books is problematic, students are not likely to get very far in their independent reading. Campus librarians can often provide insight into developing classroom collections that ignite enthusiasm and promote curiosity. Allowing readers the freedom to choose what they will independently read can promote rich, enjoyable reading experiences. Some students might need help in understanding how readers choose books. Showing students how a reader might choose a book can be helpful for students who haven’t gained this insight. Showing students how to read a few pages of a book, select a book by topic of interest, glean titles through various book award lists, or seek online recommendations can improve the likelihood that they will enjoy the choices that they make. Teachers can even provide space for book recommendations by students to assist their peers in book selections using either electronic “billboards” or classroom bulletin boards.
Provide Access
This picture from Sarah Weisenbaugh’s sixth grade classroom at Dunbar Middle School in Dickinson ISD shows how a classroom library can provide easy access to books arranged by genres. Students can easily access the genres they are seeking, reducing the amount of time students spend searching for a book. Students are asked to return books to the correct bins, so that the bins remain organized. Teachers can also provide students with sticky notes so that students can add their names and use them as bookmarks before returning them to the bin. Some teachers ask their students to record the page number they stop on each day in a journal. This is also a great way to see how much progress a student is making. If a student isn’t making much progress, that information can be a conversation for a conference, “How is your reading going? Are some parts going more quickly than others? For parts that are a little slower, what is happening in the text?” Access is a critical success factor for independent reading. Books can be arranged alphabetically, by genre, by author, or by series. In some cases, teachers can use multiple methods. If a particular author’s books are very popular with students, that author might have a bin next to the books’ genre.
Consider Teacher Behaviors
What are teachers doing during self-sustained, independent reading time? Sometimes they might read alongside students. Other times they might engage in reading conferences. The better question is this: What are they not doing? They are not taking role, preparing for a lesson, or engaging in other tasks that distract from what is happening with their students. Some teachers worry that they will not be able to read everything that their students are reading, but there is no need to do that. Asking dialogic questions, questions that are not seeking a right, best answer, but a question that allows for discussion often sparks great conference conversations. The prompts below can spark the conversation that you have with students about what they are reading.
  • Has there been an event that surprised you?
  • Has there been a time in your book when you wished that something else had happened?
  • Would you recommend this book to a friend? Why or why not?
  • Choose a page. What was your favorite part? Why?
  • Who is telling the story? How do you feel about this person?
  • What have you learned from your reading so far that you did not know before?
  • What mental images did you have the last time you stopped reading?
Model Skills through Read Alouds
Read alouds provide teachers the opportunity to model the metacognitive skills that deepen comprehension. Read alouds help students understand how to create mental images that deepen understanding, make connections to personal experiences, and synthesize information to create a new understanding. For example, if you are asking students to think about the mental images that a text evokes, read your text, and stop to think out loud while describing the mental images that come to mind. This type of modeling will provide students with opportunities to practice creating mental images in their own, self-selected text. More information regarding read alouds can be found at this link:
Create a Literacy Sanctuary
Creating a space that makes reading inviting is also an important component during opportunities for self-sustained, independent reading. Moving students out of desks into bean bag chairs, or other chairs that allow for a more relaxed position can improve dispositions regarding independent reading. I have seen first-hand the effects of classrooms that consider space as a way to respect readers. In one classroom, I saw inexpensive, canvas, outdoor folding chairs decorated with book characters using chalk paint. Creating a literacy sanctuary could be a time-consuming, pricey endeavor, but it doesn’t have to be. In one of my favorite classroom visits, I saw reading spaces carved out against the walls, away from desks, surrounded by reading affirmations written by students on sticky notes and placed on posters. The teacher explained that the affirmations encouraged students to make progress and sustain their reading over a period of time. Before reading, students would gather four or five notes and place them on pages, so that they would encounter the encouragement as they read. Asking students to provide suggestions on what their literacy sanctuary might include can be helpful. A friend of mine asked her fourth grade students this question, and the students decided that they wanted the opportunity to sit in small groups, even though they were reading different books. At the end of their reading time, they wanted time to debrief their reading with their peers. A literacy sanctuary is one that respects readers and gives them space to discuss and conference. Time for reflection can enrich a reader’s understanding of the text, preparing the reader for the next reading experience. Even young readers need reflection time to sketch or discuss their thoughts about what they have read to re-enforce mental images. Cultivating a literacy sanctuary is an important way to communicate that self-sustained, independent reading is a valuable part of a student’s day.
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