On Independent Reading in the Classroom…

As a special education inclusion middle school teacher, I’ve had the privilege of working with many great general education teachers throughout the years.  I push in to their classrooms and help our students with disabilities navigate the swampy, abstract world of English Language Arts.  For many students, reading is not their number one most favorite activity.  Students with disabilities in my classroom mostly do not enjoy reading and would like to avoid it if at all possible, and that is because it is a total chore.  For them, reading is hard.  So, it’s our job as teachers to promote and encourage reading every day – by talking about books, sharing good literature with students, giving students time to read, and modeling a full reading life.  Most teachers I have met and work with feel this way, as they are readers themselves.

We all know that independent reading time every day is really important for kids – pediatricians, teachers, parents, and other child development experts all agree that giving kids time to read every day can significantly impact their future literacy, brain development, and success in school.  However, in my experience as a middle school teacher and in my conversations with other teachers from elementary through high school, I’ve noticed that students are allowed little to no time to read independently during the school day.  This seems incredibly hypocritical to me – we know as teachers that it’s important, so why aren’t we doing it more often? Two reasons I have personal experience with are a lack of teacher buy-in and lack of administrative support.

Lack of administrative support can kill a classroom practice fast.  A few years ago my school adopted a reading challenge program for students that promoted independent reading. The program involved allowing students and teachers to independently read a book of their choice every day in ELA class for fifteen minutes.  In many cases, this program helped average readers push themselves to excel, and it helped self-proclaimed non-readers to find that they could read many books that they enjoyed.  Then, after a few years of great success in many classrooms, our district administrators came to observe, and it was deemed that allowing independent reading time during the school day was a poor use of instructional time.  They especially didn’t like the teachers modeling the independent reading – what are they getting paid for, anyway, right?  Oh, they didn’t officially get rid of the challenge.  No, students were still expected to complete the reading challenge and teachers were still expected to make students think the challenge was exciting and important.  This was frustrating to the teachers who were already all-in on this program, diligently following the expectations and seeing great results with their readers. For some teachers, though, the district’s negative view of independent reading in the classroom gave them permission to give up on something they already were not doing well, if at all.

Teacher buy-in is also a major roadblock to student success in independent reading.  There were several teachers on my campus who said they just “didn’t have time” to let students read every day. Some didn’t take students to the library at all during the entire school year, which meant students missed out on checking out books to read independently and on the awesome lessons our hardworking librarian puts together that promote reading in our school. Others let students read most days but would spend the reading time in their classrooms taking attendance, organizing their desk, and shuffling the handouts of the day while sighing loudly and looking expectantly at the clock, only to call the reading time short so students could “get to work.”  I know this because as an inclusion teacher, I am in several classrooms a day and have had many opportunities to observe teachers in their classrooms over the years.  I’ve seen reading challenges like this one done well, done very poorly, and sometimes not at all.  I’ve also experienced the varied outcomes of student success in each of those situations.  Teachers who outwardly share a love of reading and good literature in their classrooms have students who are more successful readers at the end of the school year.  The data at my school shows that success, even if our district offices think it’s a waste of time. If teachers don’t value reading time for students, or model for students what a good reader looks like, then how can we expect students to value reading themselves?  The idea is to get students to read independently at home, not just at school.  Sometimes, teachers have to put on the whole song and dance for students at school to boost enthusiasm and participation.  A librarian friend who works at a primary school (K-2) told me recently that the teachers at her school needed incentives to read books to their classes.  If the teachers read twenty books to students from a list of recommended picture books, her school offered the teachers free movie tickets as a reward.  Many teachers took advantage of the incentive, and then told my librarian friend that the students really loved all the books, as if that were surprising.  These are primary school teachers, folks!  Reading picture books to those students should be something that happens every single day.  It’s a shame when incentives have to be given in order to get teachers to share good literature with their students.  Isn’t that what all of us should be doing anyway?

Listen, I know teachers have a lot to cover each day in class.  I KNOW. In my district, as in most these days, the standards teachers are expected to teach students in the span of a school year are vast.  That means teachers must quickly cover concepts that could really use more depth.  However, it is possible to teach all the things AND give students time to read (or take time to read to them).  After all, we’re all here to do what’s best for kids, not what’s convenient for adults, right? RIGHT?

Are you a teacher?  How is reading time provided in your classroom?  How does your district feel about giving students time to read?  I’d love you hear about your experiences!




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