Sustained Silent Sitting? Getting the Most Out of Independent Reading Time

Almost every literacy block includes a period of independent silent reading.  This practice was born of good intentions and based on research that suggested that students who read independently for at least 20 minutes per day scored better on test of reading comprehension than their peers who did not.  But there’s a problem.  What we think ig “sustained silent reading” is in too many cases “sustained silent sitting,” during which time students may be holding a book and sitting quietly, but they are not reading.  Here are three ways to get the most out of independent reading time.  


1) Use reading journals.  If you invest 20-40 minutes of precious instructional time in independent reading, then take just five of those minutes to ask students to write in their journals the response to two questions:  What did you read about today?  How is today’s reading similar or different from what you read yesterday?  These journal entries need not be graded.  But the teacher can simply walk around the classroom and notice whether or not students can respond to the questions.  When they cannot, it’s an invitation for the teacher to help the student find a text for the next day that will be more engaging.  


2) Ask for short quiet audible reading.  Just a few sentences is all it takes to reassure the teacher that the student can address the text.  Several times in the past few weeks I’ve asked students to read just one sentence, and it quickly became apparent that they could not read.  They didn’t know their letter sounds, consonant blends, or even the identification of the letters.  Sometimes this happened in 2nd grade, and other times it happened in 6th grade.  In every case, the teachers believed that the students were reading when, in fact, they were simply holding a book.  Just a few seconds of audible reading would have created an opportunity for individual for small group instruction on letter sounds and word attack skills.  


3) Carefully evaluate computer-based texts.  While computer-based texts offer some advantages, such as a wide variety of books directed to student interests, the devices also carry several disadvantages.  For example, some students spend more than half of their independent reading time scrolling through the dozens of choices that they have rather than settling on a book and reading it.  Other students use the “listen” option not as an aid to reading, but as a substitute for reading.  Teachers should differentiate carefully during independent reading time, using computer-based texts only where appropriate and using real books for students who might otherwise use technology as an alternative to reading.  


Every moment of classroom time is precious, particularly when that time is devoted to literacy instruction. Every moment that is wasted because students cannot read the text, are not engaged in the text, or are more focused on technology than on reading, is a moment that can be redirected by skillful teachers toward more effective and enjoyable learning.

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