Independent Reading: Nurturing Identity, Agency, & Culture, part 2

This is the second part of a three-part series in which I’m exploring the importance of Independent Reading in a balanced literacy workshop.

In my last blog post, I wrote about the role reader identities play in successful Independent Reading in my classroom. For this blog, I’ll focus on agency, or the capacity a student has to make choices in Independent Reading.

Learners with strong identities as readers feel empowered and successful in making their own choices. They have agency. For readers who are developing identity, who don’t realize or take advantage of the choices available to them, I am supporting them in claiming their agency. One important next step for me in this arena is to integrate what I’ve learned this summer from Ellin Keene’s book Engaging Children: Igniting a Drive for Deeper Learning. In Engaging Children, Ellin makes the convincing argument that engagement is in the hands of the learner. Engagement is a choice learners make. As a teacher, my role is to teach students what engagement is and the specific strategies they can use to engage or re-engage when interest lags.

Students with developing learner identities are often passive during critical learning opportunities. They have an external locus of control and may not have experienced the satisfaction of deep engagement. During Independent Reading, they wait for a book or a teacher to inspire them to read. Teaching these students strategies for engagement is a step toward helping them claim their agency, teaching them that the responsibility for engagement is always in their hands.

If my goal is to create readers who choose to read, those readers need to know how to make good use of their autonomy. Like with so many other things, getting good at making choices comes with practice. So, during Independent Reading students have CHOICE in what they’re reading. Independent, fluent readers choose freely from the classroom and school libraries. Focusing on the classroom library, how does providing readers choice in a rich classroom library support us in developing successful independent readers? Here’s what I’ve observed:

  • All readers read text at a variety of levels. Sometimes readers choose text that I may think is too easy. Honoring student agency means that before intervening, I will take the time to observe and to listen. Maybe the student is having a hard day, and they need a comfort read. Maybe they want to re-read a familiar text to study it as a writer. Maybe they want to experience its beautiful language again. These are all valid reasons for choosing an “easy” read. Of course, if a student is choosing easy text most of the time, it’s time for us to revisit goals because I know from Ellin Keene that engaged learners are seeking intellectual urgency, they want to challenge their thinking.
  • Sometimes readers choose books that I may think are too hard. Again, if I’m building student agency, before intervening my job is to observe and listen. Although the text may be above their assessed level, perhaps the reader has background knowledge that makes the text accessible? Maybe the student is hungry for a challenge? Maybe the reader will discover this text isn’t a good fit right now and put it back? Part of choice is the opportunity it presents students to engage in productive struggle and figure things out for themselves. Occasionally I may need to help a student make a different choice, but disenfranchising a reader is a difficult decision that should always be handled with care. And it’s a decision I’ll make only after I’ve first established a trusting relationship with the reader.
  • “There is wide and documented research supporting the need for student-selected reading: “Students read more, understand more, and are more likely to continue reading when they have the opportunity to choose what they read. In a 2004 meta-analysis, Guthrie and Humenick found that the two most powerful instructional design factors for improving reading motivation and comprehension were (1) student access to many books and (2) personal choice of what to read“ (Allington and Gabriel 2012 in Mulligan and Landrigan 2017).

Readers also need the flexibility to choose what they’re thinking about while reading. In order to develop as independent readers, they need opportunities to independently select strategies in order to problem solve real issues they encounter while reading.

image-1It is likely that the strategy I taught (during read aloud, shared reading, or guided reading) won’t match what every reader needs that day during Independent Reading. So in the sharing session at the end of workshop instead of asking “How did you use X strategy today during Independent Reading?” Maybe instead my question could be, “Tell us about a strategy you used during Independent Reading today and how that helped you as a reader.”

Shifting away from a role where I, as the teacher, “give” learners choices, I would like to move to a place where we all–students, parents, and I–recognize that the most critical choices–to engage, to read, to learn–always have and always will belong to the learner. And my role is to guide students in making good use of those choices. Helping students to claim their agency is particularly important during Independent Reading.

Author: Tamara Jaimes

Avid learner, NBCT of 5th graders. Mission: Manifest, nurture, and inspire a purpose and a passion for learning. Personal Twitter: @Tamara_Jaimes My classroom Twitter: @msjaimes Instagram: @ms.jaimes

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