Independent reading in the classroom is an important work time for you and your students, but it can be difficult to monitor and manage. I’m sharing my favorite tips for making the most of student independent reading in 3rd-8th grade classrooms.
By far, the most crucial component to a student’s success with independent reading in the classroom is for you to
1. Notice the signs of a struggling reader
If a student is reading a book far above their level, frustration will surface quickly. Here are some behaviors you may see:
- They may give up without even really trying. This is because the words and/or ideas are too challenging at this point. They don’t understand what they are reading. Chances are that they’re down on themselves for not understanding and either they’ll act out, stop reading, express their dislike fo reading, etc.
- They may continue to “read” thinking that since their eyes are moving across the words it means they are reading. Most often they’ll never finish the book. You may check months later and they’re still trying to read the same book. There’s not much comprehension going on, and what they are defining as reading really isn’t.
- They’ll put the book down and pick up another without recognizing whether the new book is an appropriate level. This cycle will continue on and on unless you step in and teach this student how to find a “just right” book.
- There may be the frequent “I forgot my book.” Keeping track each week helps you notice trends that alert you and that you can point out to the student and family. (Use my Status of the Class form or tracking found here)
Without intervention, these readers will likely never complete a book. The bottom line is that these students will not progress at the same pace as the rest of your class, and the sooner you intervene, the better it will be for the student, your classroom, and you.
Here’s a free Close Reading resource for teachers. Teaching this invaluable skill can improve student reading skills.
2. Determine a student’s reading level & increase independent reading in the classroom
There are several tools to use.
- Have students read to you in a whisper voice. It’s this listening that really cues me in to whether a student struggles. I try to listen to every student read by the end of the first two weeks of school.
- At the beginning of the year, a quick way for me to judge reading levels is to track the books students say they are reading. Each time we read, I write down their page numbers and titles. Perhaps during the first month of school I have students reading independently 2 times each week. Usually by the end of the 2nd reading time, I have a hunch who may be struggling.
- Another way to do a quick check for reading difficulties is to look at a student’s written response to a comprehension question. I’m not focused on spelling and punctuation (although these are sometimes a sign of a struggling reader). I’m looking to see the content of their response. For this reason, I love using Reading Response Logs in my classroom. Each week the reading prompt changes. In fact, I may have two different prompts in one week so that I can see more about what students are understanding about their reading. Here’s a blog post about why I still use reading logs in my classroom.
- Utilize word lists like the good old San Diego Quick. These are leveled word lists categorized by grade level. It takes about 2-3 minutes to have a student quickly read through the lists. The point at which a student begins to struggle identifying words is generally their frustration level.
- Use fluency passages. Find a passage that’s at your grade level. Count the words in each line and put the word number at the end of the lines. Time a student for one minute. Have them read while you have the same passage in front of you. Mark the words missed or stumbled over. Those with lower fluency are often students who struggle with reading. There are many free fluency passages available. Here’s a link to just one.
- Look at comprehension tests on a short story you’ve been reading in class. This may point at low comprehension among other things.
- Look at students’ cum folders for their test scores from last year as well as report cards.
Whatever you use, try to access this information early in the year.
3. Communicate with families & offer support for independent reading
To gain a better understanding of your students as readers, ask families about what they know of their child’s reading history. It’s likely that they’ll give you information you can’t find from a test or cumulative folder. Offer tips to help families establish a positive reading environment at home. Here are tips I offer:
- Create a quiet place for reading
- Let the student see you reading
- Listen to the student read while you cook or clean
- Ask questions about what the child just read
- Notice if your student frequently changes books and encourage completion of one book before going on to another
- Know the reading range that best fits your student
- Take your student to the library or book store to select books in their range
- Read aloud to your student. Read aloud to your student. Read aloud to your student. (It’s just that important!)
- If your student insists on picking a book that’s far above a productive reading level, make it a book you read together
- Switch off reading pages or chapters aloud to one another
- Access audiobooks to go along with the student’s novel
- Use incentives for completing a book: watch a movie together, purchase another book, go out for a treat
- Make reading time special now and then by having a warm drink and a treat while you read together
- Discuss the book at the dinner or breakfast table or in the car
- Make reading important but not a fight
- Have books, magazines, and newspapers around your home
- Find a subject that interests your student and do research together
You can find more information on helping struggling readings at this blog post.
4. Start a classroom library to support independent reading in the classroom
Begin acquiring books for your classroom. Some of my favorite ways that I built my library are listed below:
- At the end of the school year (or at any time, really), ask families if they have books their students no longer read and would consider donating to your classroom.
- Visit yard sales. Let them know you are a teacher building your classroom library and that you might not be able to afford the price marked, but you’d certainly pay___ per book. Let them know you’d be willing to return later in the day to see what’s left and make an offer. Very often, they’ll simply donate the books to you. Frequently, I’ve left paying just .10 cents per book or a bag of free books.
- Put the word out to your friends and family that you’re looking for books for your classroom library.
- Visit your local senior center or public library. Let them know you are trying to build your classroom library and ask that if they are discarding books in a certain range, could these be saved for you.
- Use book orders in your classroom. Earning bonus points and free books is a fabulous way to stock your library.
- Visit your County Office of Education. Ask the librarian there if they’ll be culling their books. I once walked in and found they’d cleaned their “old” books (novel sets they provided to teachers in the county), and I scored!
- Start a Donor’s Choose page to raise funds for buying classroom books.
- See if there’s a room or shelves on your campus for discarded books. It’s shocking to me how many books are thrown out because the covers look dated.
- If there’s a teacher getting ready to retire, inquire about what they’re planning to do with their classroom novels and/or book sets.
5. Be prepared for struggling readers
One of my best tips that has saved me TONS of headaches is I try to have a second copy of the book my struggling readers are reading. There are times when I’ll help readers pick a book that we have two copies of on campus. This way there’s always a copy in the classroom.
Students forgetting their books is one of the most common issues leading to disengagement from the text. If they don’t have frequent exposure to the same book, it’s likely that the student won’t make progress. It becomes a chore to pick it up again because there is no connection to the story. Having that second copy takes 10 seconds to access and students get right to the reading.
6. Sit in front of the classroom for the first 5-10 minutes of independent reading in the classroom
Students will take reading time more seriously if you are in front of the classroom as they begin their reading. If you simply sit and watch, smile at the kiddos, maybe read something as well, you set the tone for the reading time. I’ll then do a “Status of the Class” to jot down titles and page numbers. Find this FREE form that’s part of my Reading Response unit here.
7. Start using literature circles in your classroom
You can give your students a positive reading experience (especially if they can’t get it at home). Running literature circles is a great way to get all students reading. Since I have a small group of students (3-5) reading the same novel, students are accountable to other students. I also invite in members of the community to participate in literature circles. Ideally, I have one adult per group.
Read more about starting literature circles here. I’ve also developed a resource that includes everything you’ll need for using literature circles in the classroom. I wish I had it when I was just starting out. Find the literature circles unit here.
Of course there are other important factors, but these are steps you can take as a classroom teacher to create a productive reading environment for all students. We all wish for 2 or 3 extra adults in the room, and you may be lucky enough to have families who will volunteer during your independent reading times or adult aides to help out, but as teachers we need to take steps to foster growth in reading regardless of available resources.
Here’s to an amazing independent reading time in your classroom!
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