Tips for Engaged, Independent Readers [Part 2: Classroom Environment]

In the introduction to her book, Passionate Readers (2018), literacy teacher extraordinaire Pernille Ripp shares a big mistake she made as a beginning teacher.  Here are her words:

“I never meant to kill my students’ love of reading; I don’t think any teacher ever does.  Instead, as a new teacher  I followed the guideline …trusting in what the reading programs told me to do.  I thought that if I followed these rules then my students would fall in love with reading because programs were written by experts and all experts must be as concerned with this as I was.” 

-Pernille Ripp

She goes on to say that “unless we make it our mission to create passionate reading environments, then it does not matter what program we use; it will never be enough…”

I don’t know that truer words have ever been spoken.

We get better at anything we do with time and practice.

No sports phenom ever became great at what they do by never practicing by themselves, with the support of a coach.  Nor has any chef, pianist, or teacher.  No one can become really good at anything until that thing is practiced and practiced some more.  We all need to be shown what to do, and we all benefit from time given to hone our skills.  

Independent reading is no different.  It’s key for kids–for anyone–to become strong readers.  No one can get better at reading by just being shown how, or by watching others do it.  Kids have to have plenty of  time and space to practice, and practice some more. 


To grow to love reading, as Pernille Ripp talks about, our kids need to be read to a lot. They must also read a lot for themselves.  They need ample opportunity to give it a go, to apply what we’ve taught.  And along the way, they need our feedback and coaching so that they can take on more and more for themselves.  

Given the fraction of time in our teaching day we have available for independent reading, it’s absolutely critical that we do all that we can to ensure our kids get the most from it.  We have to protect that time carefully.  

However, we can inadvertently stand in the way of the very thing we’re working so hard for.  After 15 years in the classroom myself, and now almost 10 years outside of the classroom looking in, I’ve seen many mistakes we teachers make–mistakes that interrupt kids’ reading and lead to disengagement.  Mistakes we don’t even realize we’re making.  This post is the second in a 4-part series, because there is just so much to share with you, so that you don’t make these same mistakes.  

Where we make mistakes when it comes to encouraging engaged, independent readers

There are four main areas that the mistakes we make tend to fall into:

  • Book support
  • Classroom environment
  • Teacher presence
  • Student accountability

My previous post in this engaged and independent readers series addressed one very common and problematic issue:  not providing students with ample time and support in choosing books that will interest them as well as help them grow.  I really urge you to stop right now to read that post if you haven’t yet–there’s good reason it’s the first thing I discuss in this series.

This post will dig deeper into the actual physical classroom environment.  I share these caveats with you not to point fingers, but to help you think critically about the moves you make when it comes to setting up a classroom environment that’s most conducive to our developing readers.  

Classroom Environment Mistakes 

A while back, I dedicated an entire blog post to caveats when it comes to allowing students to sit in “comfy spots” for independent reading.  This is one of the biggest culprits under the “environment” category that teachers often don’t realize is happening right under their noses…so again, if you allow kids to move around the room to read (which I’m a big fan of), then I encourage you to check out the caveats I share in that post.

Now.  Onto classroom environment mistakes that get in the way of engaged and independent reading.  

And that is:  noises.  This is a big thing to consider when it comes to the environment.  I’m not talking about the noise level of the kids.  I’m talking about the noise level we ourselves tend to contribute to.  Sometimes, it’s all on us.  

One place we really add to the noise level is how we conduct small group work.  Many teachers dedicate a table for this, usually off to one side of the room, or in a back corner.  We of course need to be able to see the whole class at a glance, so table placement isn’t the issue.  

The issue is our volume level.  

Sometimes we are actually quite loud as we work with a group.  It can be hard to remember to tone down our teacher voice!  For our kids reading, teachers conducting a small group in the room is akin to having a t.v. on in the room.  For kids who are closest to the small group area, this can be tremendously disruptive to their concentration, although it can really affect all students.  Simple fix:  lower your voice, and train your students to keep low voices when working in small groups, too. 

The issue is made worse when teachers don’t get up from that table to convene another group.  When teachers call kids to them rather than quietly tapping them on the shoulder to come on over (or some other non-obtrusive signal), it’s a massive interruption.  Maybe this just happens in my house, but I suspect not:  think of a time you were reading something, and someone suddenly says or asks something.  When my husband does this, it’s completely jarring, and I totally lose my place.  Then I have to find my place and reread a bit to get going again.  And I’m a very practiced, skilled reader.  Our students are usually not.  

Another place teachers inadvertently stand in the way of encouraging engaged, independent readers is by using timers.  

First, there’s the noise itself.  When a timer goes off, whether it’s a very visible one posted on the smart board or just on your watch or phone, it’s exactly the same interruption as loudly calling kids over to you.  Huge disruption.


I understand you might need a timer to help you stay on track.  Of course–keeping to a tight schedule is one of the biggest challenges we face every day, and timers are a fantastic tool for helping us do so.  But let it be just for you–set your phone or watch to vibrate.  It doesn’t need to be visible to kids, and I would argue that it shouldn’t be.  It’s our job to watch the clock, not theirs.

When timers are visible to students, you end up with a whole bunch of clock watchers–not readers.  When kids have one eye on the clock, they are not fully attending to their book.  It causes a lack of focus.  A few kids–likely those who are already very strong and avid readers–will be able to ignore it, but many will not.  

Here’s a tip to help you gauge your room’s noise level:

Audio record some independent reading sessions.  Place the recording device in the middle of the room to capture a pretty accurate picture.  Then play it back, and notice all the noise interruptions…and be very honest.  What’s causing them? 

I hope this post gave you some things to consider when it comes to providing an environment that’s conducive to helping students become engaged and independent readers.  While yes, these things are our own doing, it’s not a blame game.  These are things we are often sort of “nose blind” to–”ear blind,” if you will–things we don’t even realize are at play.

But, as the saying goes, when you know better, you do better! 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these simple tips–and would really love to hear the results you see if you try them out!  DM me on Instagram, or better yet, share your results in my private FB group, where you can get MORE simple tips  to strengthen your teaching!

Related Posts:  Reading Logs that Actually Work, The Secret to Setting Up Your Library for Maximum Student Impact, Is Independent Reading Time a Waste of Time?, Engaging the Disengaged [Where to Begin] 

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