Guest blog by Caty Dearing, ESC Region 11, Secondary Literacy Instructional Content Coach @catydear
Walking into a bookstore is somewhat of a spiritual experience for me. I love it all—the smell of coffee and paper, the comfy chairs arranged in various nooks around the building, the tall shelves full of story after story, awaiting my perusal. When I walk into a Barnes and Noble, I’m home.
Reflecting on my student experience, I ask myself where this love of reading originated. I’m taken back to my elementary days, reading in bean bag chairs and at my desk, devouring text after text from my teachers’ classroom libraries. However, as the memories progress to middle/high school, most of my textual memories occur at home or on my own time. As a secondary educator, I ask myself: what happened? Why was independent, self-sustained reading not a part of my education as an adolescent?
I’ve heard many answers to this question from fellow secondary educators. There’s not enough time for independent reading. There’s no way to monitor or control the books students are selecting when reading. At the same time, secondary educators are facing classrooms of struggling readers with no desire or motivation to read. Meeting the needs of high school readers who are on a 4th-5th grade reading level seems an almost impossible task. As I’ve turned to the works of Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Donalyn Miller, and many other literary “gurus” of today, I consistently find the same consensus: let students read. According to current research, a major component of creating lifelong readers is simply to let students choose books to read while simultaneously providing responsive instruction. Though not cumulative nor an “end all, be all” to the conversation, the following points somewhat encapsulate my thoughts as a former educator, now instructional coach, on secondary independent reading.
Independent reading is not an addition to instruction. It is the meat of instruction!
Many teachers see independent reading as a time to grade papers. If viewed in this light, I can see how finding time for IR seems like a waste of instructional minutes. However, if teachers can use this time to confer with individual students, help students set individual growth for goals, and work with strategy groups, independent reading time can be the most productive time of the day! Any end of year assessment, whether it be STAAR, SAT/ACT, or other mandated reading test, requires students to possess reading stamina and the ability to comprehend complex text. I don’t mean to oversimplify the process, but wouldn’t the best approach in increasing student performance be to help struggling readers improve their overall reading skills? A person running a marathon does not study the course repeatedly to prepare to run 26.2 miles. They don’t google ways to run, talk to others about running. They run, daily, starting with a small amount of distance and increasing as their stamina builds. As students become engaged in the reading process, they will be more and more willing to challenge themselves with each new self-selected text. Independent reading provides a designated time and means for effective responsive instruction. I can conference with individual readers, help them keep track of how much they can read and understand in a given chunk of time, meet with groups to teach reading strategies, and much more. I can’t speak for anyone else, but what I’ve just described sounds like more “teaching” than a typical 45 minute block often does!
Independent reading provides students with opportunities to choose, to have control over their own learning.
Adolescent students struggle to find areas of control in the world. No longer compliant for the sake of compliance, many teens lack control over their financial situations, physical well-being, family culture, etc. Providing an opportunity within the safety of the classroom to allow students control over their reading lives is a step forward in fostering a love for reading. Many teachers have commented over the years that the most difficult thing about teaching middle school/high school students is “the power struggle.” I find that oftentimes, teens just want to be seen and heard. Allowing student choice during independent reading is a way to build trust and rapport from student to teacher. If we can help them find books that they love, and give them time to read them, then maybe, just maybe, students will continue on the literacy journey with us, trusting that we might just have their best interests in mind.
Independent reading can shape a student’s identity.
Books often play the role of mirror in our lives. We crave to identify with the characters within the covers of the texts we read. I remember reading The Babysitter’s Club as a kid, seeing myself in Kristy, a quirky girl who dealt with her parents’ divorce as well as many friendship conflicts and struggles. However, as a classroom teacher, I do not have the time to teach texts to a whole group of students reflecting each individual’s culture, gender, personality, faith, etc. We would be reading hundreds of texts together! By curating a classroom library that is reflective of the students on our rosters, we both enable students to discover themselves in their reading, but allow for opportunities for books to serve as windows into the lives of others. I remember a student’s response to The Kite Runner–he brought the book to my desk and tearfully stated, “This is the first time I’ve ever read a book that had a character with the same name as me. Reading this feels like home.” If we desire students to discover a love of learning, they must have the opportunity to try on books like they try on clothes—eventually one will fit.
As a teacher, I wasn’t perfect by any means. I often tried lessons, tools, ideas with my students that did not go as planned. However, I never regret allowing students to read in class. So often, we fear what we do not know, where we lack familiarity. What if I let students read and it doesn’t go according to plan? I believe we owe it to our students to try new and scary things.
Their reading lives depend on it.