I instituted Independent Reading in all of my high school English classes for a half hour every Friday. The first semester, many of my students didn’t get it. They thought it was time to sleep, pass notes, text, doodle on the desks, do homework, do their hair, or meet in the library to socialize. My fellow teachers informed me they didn’t have such time to spare in their classrooms, so I understood they were suspicious of my new-teacher methods. I looked lazy. I was gently requested to produce research to back up that independent reading increased test scores, and when I started looking, I became even more convinced that my gut instinct was dead on: kids who read more score better, and the surest way to get teens to read more is to let them choose what they’re reading. Supporting reading with actual time in the classroom was valid pedagogy.
So why wasn’t it working in my classroom?
My students were accustomed to a climate of accountability rather than independence, for one thing, but I thought I had that covered. I had Lit Letter and Book Talk assignments spaced throughout the semester, weekly charts for them to record their total hours read, and another chart for them to keep track of and rate the books they’d read and abandoned. I’d studied my Nancy Atwell. I discovered my students responded well to clear expectations, so I created an assessment for in-class reading on Fridays (see below). Altogether, it still felt like an unsuccessful, task-minded game I was losing.
I persevered. It makes sense that as I improved with all my teaching, I also became better at running Independent Reading. With better classroom management, I became quicker at redirecting off-task behavior, as in noticing a student as soon as she wasn’t reading and pointing politely to my own book. I also built up my in-class library, propping popular books on whiteboard trays, shelves and windowsills. I made a point of talking about Independent Reading on the first day of class, and at Open House night when parents came. I went to the school library with my students during the first week of the semester to let them roam and help them pick out books. We created lists of “If you like this book, try this one,” and we generated book wish lists from browsing Amazon. I invited the school librarian to read to my students and talk up the newest popular books. I invited the public library librarian to come and she issued library cards to my students. I reserved the big blue chairs in the library for us to visit as an entire class occasionally. One of my teacher friends started independent reading in her class, and then another teacher started, too. It became a stealth race to see who would sign up to reserve the big blue chairs first.
Honestly, it took a few semesters for independent reading to take off, but then it really did. It became the norm in other English classes, too, so students were used to the routine year after year. On Fridays, my students came to class prepared with books. We would sit in utter silence for 30 minutes, companionably reading together, all 29 of us. If I tried to short-change the half hour for some other urgent teaching business or an all-school assembly, my students openly protested. We sometimes voted to extend reading another 10 minutes. The related assignments, like Lit Letters and Book Talks, when each student presented a recent read in a 2-3 minute speech at the podium, became pertinent and inspiring. My students swapped books with each other, squealed about books together, and spontaneously started reading whenever they ended any other learning activity early because that’s what they wanted to do. In short, it worked.
I didn’t need any test scores to tell me: my students were readers.