Engaged reading is key to growth!

Is Independent Reading Time a Waste of Time?

There is a sad phenomenon going on in schools across the country today. Because of all of the push for mandated, foundational skill curriculum, little time is left for independent reading.  Sometimes, there’s no room at all.  Or kids are handed books they’re “allowed” to read, chosen by the curriculum developers.  No student voice.  No choice.  No independence.  Some are even saying that independent reading time is a waste of time.

Considering that independent reading time is exactly the time when kids authentically practice applying their growing reading skills beyond the controlled experience that teachers provide in small group instruction, this is not a time we should ignore.  In order to become readers, kids must have time to practice actually reading. This is the time to apply all of the skills you are teaching them across the year, as well as to solidify all of the skills they have learned before you.  We learn everything we do by doing it. Wanna learn to play soccer?  Then play soccer. Want to learn calligraphy?  Then you’ll need to practice calligraphy. The obvious problem with not giving kids time for independent reading is that they are not going to gain the practice needed to become stronger readers.  

This is also the time when kids discover who they are as readers, build stamina, and hopefully,  develop a love for reading.  I’ve seen comments from some people on social media who bash independent reading time lately. They say that it doesn’t matter whether kids love it or not–so long as they can do it.

Why wouldn’t we strive for both for our students??  

If kids are not engaged or interested in their reading, they stand little chance of being successful.  This also follows Duke and Cartwright’s Active View of Reading, which expands greatly on the outdated Simple View of Reading (SVR) to include key factors like motivation–a key foundation to becoming agentive, successful readers.  

“Another limitation of the SVR is that it does not take into account the role of self-regulation in reading. Duke and Cartwright point to a large body of research that suggests that skilled readers take an active role in their own reading and that this active role has a significant effect on comprehension. Skilled readers do things like check themselves for understanding, choose strategies to draw upon, and maintain focus and motivation.” 

-Anna Cockerille, Littera Director of Curriculum

In my mind, Independent reading time means choice.  It’s an invitation.  This is not a time where I hand a book to kids that I tell them they must read. That’s an assignment.  To be a true independent reader, students must have agency and choice in what they have in their hands.  Choice is one of the biggest cornerstones of a classroom full of independent, engaged readers. All students should be able to go to the library in your classroom and find things that interest them, spark curiosity, and encourage them to learn. The library needs to reflect your kids.  Will every single child love reading?  No.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t try!


An argument permeating social media lately is that independent reading time is a waste of time. 

And they’re correct:  when the teacher has not set it up to be successful. 

If you were to walk into a classroom during independent reading time that had not been set up well, you’d agree it’s a waste of time.  Some telltale signs?  Kids are getting up a lot–to use the bathroom, get a tissue, go throw it away, get a new book…all of these are purely avoidance behaviors, especially if there’s a domino effect and several kids are doing it.  If you see kids playing with their shoes (or anything within reach), flipping through pages, starting a book and stopping right away to grab a different one,  talking or silently signaling to their friends ten feet away…these too, are all avoidance behaviors.  

But here’s the truth.  It’s not the kids.  It’s the expectations, and this is completely up to us.  Here’s what to consider:

  1. Kids need to be taught how your library functions. We have to show them where to find what they’re looking for.  This is why it’s so important that we curate a strong and supportive classroom library.  Kids need to be taught how to take their time to look at the title, flip the book over to read the blurb, and get a sense of what the book will be about before they choose it. Very often, this time to choose books is tremendously limited. This leads to children just grabbing books and going off to read them with little to no consideration for whether or not they will even like the book. So if this happens across a classroom, automatically,  you’ve got a room full of disengaged children who do not care for what is in their hands. And they will all avoid it. Anyone would.
  1. In an effort to help kids feel relaxed and comfortable, many teachers will quickly allow kids to move all over the room during independent reading time. They may have flexible seats, soft lights, and even music playing. But, there are several problems with this. When done too soon, before kids have truly learned the routines and expectations of independent reading time, nor have built up any stamina, again, the class will be filled with disengaged children.   It may take several weeks longer than the lesson plans say to prepare kids for reading around the room.  It’s also something that will need to be revisited again and again over the course of the year, especially around breaks.  That’s totally ok.  It’s also normal.  And it’s critical.  
  1. Let’s address the  lights and the music. Very often, teachers will turn lights down and add music because they themselves like it. But do your kids?  Consider the vision problems that kids in your room may have. Consider kids who may not have gotten a good night’s sleep, are then supposed to read in a darkened room without falling asleep. Consider your kids who have a hard time focusing as they try to concentrate on words.   Music playing in the background can make it  impossible to do so.  Usually, it’s louder than you think–your proximity to the speaker might be much further away than your kids’–so for them, it can be quite loud.   So much so that they can’t focus on reading.  I’m an excellent reader, but I am one of those people who needs everything to be super quiet if I am able to read. I have to concentrate. Turning the lights down also makes it very difficult to see, and all too easy to fall asleep. There’s no need for all the fluorescent lights to be blaring, but strong lighting is important for students.  And consider this…music playing and lights down makes it much easier for kids to talk to each other.  
  1. Independent reading time can also be a waste of time when teachers start to pull small groups too soon.  Small group work is very important, of course–but when we begin this before kids are ready for it, or when we spend too long on it too soon, kids can quickly become disengaged.  Consider the stamina your kids have, and remember that it will grow over time.  You might really hope to meet with 2 small groups a day, at 20 min each, but at the beginning of the year, your kids may only have the ability to stay focused for 8 minutes.  Guess what happens the other 32 minutes?  To compound this, when teachers work with small groups at a designated table and call kids over to them, that loud interruption breaks the entire classes’ concentration.  And if the teacher remains at that small group table and doesn’t get up to circulate, kids very quickly catch onto this, and learn that no one is paying attention…so neither do they.  This is completely preventable, though.  Instead of calling kids to you, walk around the room and quietly gather the kids you need.  This keeps your noise level down and also helps you keep an eye on all parts of the room–you’ve made your presence known.  It’s also much more respectful to kids, and sends the message that you value their reading time and don’t want to interrupt it.  Even better, spend time meeting kids where they’re reading for 1:1 conferring between small groups, criss-crossing the room a bit.  This again makes your presence known, and allows you a way to gather notes on right-now data that you can use to inform your next teaching steps.  

Independent reading time should never be a waste of time.

It should be a sacred, valued, and very productive time in which kids can practice their developing reading skills and discover the pure enjoyment of reading. It’s up to us to make sure that it is.  

Want to brainstorm ways you can get independent reading time set up successfully so it’s not a waste of time?   I’m here to help! Just reach out for a coaching call.  I’d love to support you!  

For ongoing, quick support, about ALL things literacy,  join my private FB groupIt’s a community of educators just like you to offer support right when you need it.  

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