Making the Most of Independent Reading

Librarians and ELA teachers can work together to strategize and develop a school-wide culture of independent reading.

I’ve often heard people compare being a new educator to “drinking from a fire hose,” because so much is asked of one person. I know I felt that way. Developing and establishing an independent reading program that works for all students and meets curricular goals can be challenging for new educators, not only because they are busy, but because they are still learning the lay of the land. It’s more typical for mid-career educators to take on the task. Either way, independent reading often becomes an add-on to the curriculum, rather than a strategically designed part of course design.

In many cases, language arts teachers, especially those at the start of their careers, are given a curriculum to teach, rather than space and time to create their own. Librarians who teach classes typically support language arts teachers by implementing lessons that strengthen units of study through the addition of library resources, materials, and databases.

But developing a plan should be a priority for educators at all levels, particularly when librarians and language arts teachers work together to make space for independent reading. They can do so by curating inclusive collections, using a variety of sources to check the temperature of a classroom and school climate regarding attitudes and biases about reading, and developing a school-wide culture of independent reading.

In the best cases, independent reading becomes a year-long pathway to studying authors’ craft and encouraging students, especially those from under-resourced and marginalized communities or populations, to see themselves as creators of content rather than merely consumers. In the worst cases, independent reading is one unit of study when students get to choose books to read for a few weeks—and only after everything else that must be accomplished (to be ready for test-taking time) has been done.

Schools without a building-wide reading culture will have to think about underlying causes. Rather than looking to external sources for help, such as test-prep materials or booklists, they must clearly define what it takes to become a reader in any specific learning community, at every stage of the academic experience and beyond.

Strengthening relationships between language arts teachers and librarians at all stages of their careers is a cultural shift that may take some unlearning and re-imagining from individuals in both fields. Language Arts teachers can, and should be, curators of inclusive and innovative classroom libraries. Librarians can, and should be, instructors who know how to bring out the writer and reader in every student.

Support for independent reading doesn’t happen overnight, but this is where you can begin.



ELA Teachers

Curating Inclusive Collections

Educate students and teachers about tools for auditing classroom library collections and where to look for ideas about diverse texts.

Audit and evaluate the course syllabus together with students to determine the best places for independent reading choices and related assignments.

Evaluating Reading Culture

Develop interactive displays and administer polls to get an idea of how people feel about reading during a given time of year or across different grade levels. Share the results during a staff professional development day.

Make time in class for students to talk honestly and openly about what they like to read vs. what they are assigned to read. Collect responses to reading that are not graded. Encourage students to rate or give feedback on books they have read both for class and for pleasure. Look for ways to bridge the gap between the two types of reading.

Build a School-Wide Culture of Reading

Make READ posters or develop other ways to showcase the community of readers in your building. Connect readers in your community with a wider network, such as the teen advisory board at your local independent bookstore.

Post your class recommended reads on your classroom door or another visible place. Work with administration to develop a building-wide time for independent reading when the whole school is engaged in the activity. Work with educators in other content areas to establish cross-content reading lists or activities.

Independent reading as an afterthought will never result in shifting internal biases about reading, or establishing your learning environment as a place where readers (and writers) flourish. It takes time, intentionality, and sustained commitment to trying new things, seeing if they work, and making adjustments if they don’t.

Educators and librarians at all stages of their careers can work together to build communities where students find joy in the act of reading and feel free to imagine school as more than a place for doing what those in power tell them to. But we have to work with them, seek their input at each stage of implementation, and establish independent reading as more than a skill. In truth, independent reading is as much a habit of those who seek to know more about the world around them, as it is a characteristic of societies that support intellectual freedom, emotional intelligence, and education as a practice of liberation.

Julia E. Torres is a veteran language arts teacher and librarian in Denver, CO. She facilitates teacher development workshops in anti-racist education, equity and access in literacy and librarianship, and education as a practice of liberation. She is the NCTE Secondary Representative-at-large and a 2018-20 Heinemann Fellow and Educator Collaborative Book Ambassador. Twitter: @juliaerin80

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R Luke

Excellent article! You make several good points, specifically about building a school-wide (that includes teachers!) culture of reading, which I believe is the best way to foster the love of reading.

Posted : Mar 10, 2020 03:41



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