Independent Reading: Nurturing Identity, Agency, & Culture, part 3

This is the third 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 agency, or the capacity a student has to make choices, plays in successful Independent Reading. For this post, I’ll focus on the role classroom climate and culture play in making Independent Reading a success.

Successful Independent Reading time is largely dependent on the reading CULTURE of the classroom, the reading community we’ve created. In The Reading Zone, Nancie Atwell writes, “A child sitting in a quiet room with a good book isn’t a flashy or marketable teaching method. It just happens to be the only way anyone became a reader.” So how do I nurture a culture that values reading and maximizes opportunities to get my students “sitting in a quiet room with a good book”?

  • Establish a predictable structure and routine. My goal is that, in my classroom, every day there is a #classroombookaday picture book. Every day there is a reading lesson, often embedded in the #classroombookaday or the read aloud novel. Every day there is sacred time for Independent Reading. No matter what else gets bumped, we read. Every. Single. Day. When students know they can depend on time to read every day, they plan for it and settle in quickly to read.
  • Set expectations for what Independent Reading looks and sounds like:
    • Readers need to talk to other readers. There are lots of important reasons to talk during Independent Reading. As a reader, I need to share when I come to an exciting part. I need to thank a friend for recommending a great book. I need to ask a friend, “What should I read next?” I need to process heartbreak or rehearse a book talk. I need to giggle together with a friend over a funny part. Yes, it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether this is productive talk. No, it’s not okay for my talk to disrupt other readers. That’s why I need to create a classroom culture that privileges reading. When we all value reading, we will hold one another accountable for holding that time sacred.
    • Readers can get comfortable, but generally, settle and stay in one spot for the duration.
    • Readers sit near friends unless those friends interfere with reading. This is another important CHOICE we need to support students in taking responsibility for.
    • Students return books to the library when they’re on the way somewhere else—to recess, lunch, or on the way home. If they need to go to the library during Independent Reading, it’s because they already have at least one specific title in mind that they’re prepared to check-out, so they can quickly get back to reading.
  • img_1758.jpgModel and explicitly teach the habits of lifelong reading. Readers read daily, both in school and out of school. Avid readers have a book with them at all times so they can squeeze in extra reading “on the edges.” Readers regularly finish books and are ready to talk during a conference about the books they’re reading.
  • Model and then gradually release Book Talks. As a classroom of avid readers, we need the opportunity to share our excitement about great titles with other passionate readers. Daily book talks open up that opportunity and create “book buzz” at the same time.
  • Seek engagement with the wider literary world. We seek out opportunities to interact with readers worldwide whether that is through author visits, author interactions on Twitter, blogging our original book reviews, serving as book ambassadors to other classrooms, or participating in events like the Sibert Smackdown and March Book Madness, which connect us with other classrooms through our shared love of reading.
  • Be the Lead Reader. Share your authentic passion. Talk about book events. Get excited for new releases from favorite authors. The Lead Reader is the ambassador for what Frank Smith once called “The Literacy Club,” which includes all of the readers and authors in a student’s life. It is incumbent on the Lead Reader to make sure this is a club other readers want to join.
  • Don’t ask kids to do reading busy work. During workshop, everything goes through the filter of: Does the Lead Reader choose to do this in her authentic reading life? As the Lead Reader, I don’t create book projects. I do sometimes write to authors on Instagram, Twitter, and via snail mail. I don’t answer comprehension questions. I do write book reviews. I don’t write summaries. I do talk about some of my books with a book club or write essays (journeys of thought) about compelling books. But most importantly, I read.
  • Help students become metacognitive. Readers think about their thinking. Some of the most critical reading strategies we can teach readers require that they think about their own thinking. By modeling this habit, and thinking aloud about our metacognitive processes, we make the abstract visible.
  • Teach readers how to engage and re-engage when attention lags. Engagement is a choice. By teaching students the paths to re-engagement we help students embrace their responsibility in creating meaning in a transactional process with the author of a text.

Often when I read about Independent Reading, the stated goal is something like this: time for students to practice strategies shared during reading instruction. Although in a general sense, I have no argument with that, it’s incomplete. As Kate DiCamillo eloquently stated, “ Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or a duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift.” Independent Reading encompasses so much more than simply practicing strategies as presented. Independent Reading is an opportunity for readers to develop their reading identity, to exercise the agency inherent in owning that identity, and to immerse themselves in the rich reading culture that we have so thoughtfully constructed. 


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.

Independent Reading: Nurturing Identity, Agency, & Culture

It’s an exciting time at my school. Changes too vast and multifaceted to describe here have led us to a place that feels almost like a fresh start. As a result, we’re having great conversations to help us come to common understandings. The topic currently on the table…

Independent Reading

What’s the purpose? What are the parameters? What is it NOT? Where does it fit within the context of a balanced literacy workshop?

One of my most fervent goals each school year is to nurture readers who will read long after our year together; to grow students who not only can read, but who choose to read. That may sound like a “duh,” but let me explain. Every choice I make as a reading teacher goes through several important filters including: “Does this empower, inspire, and challenge readers?“ “What effect will this action have on the reading identities of my students?”

Readers who choose to read share in common a solid sense of themselves as a reader—a reading identity; the agency to make their own choices; and a community in which the culture values and celebrates reading. Keeping identity, agency, and culture at the forefront supports individual readers, while at the same time nurturing the conditions that make the Independent Reading time successful in my classroom, because bottom line, readers want to read.

In a series of three blog posts, I will take a closer look at identity, agency, and culture to clarify for myself what’s most important, before I launch another new school year. First, identity.

Readers who choose to read have a reading IDENTITY. They know their preferences, their strengths, and their growth edges. They have passionate opinions about books, genres, and authors. This healthy sense of reader-self predicts that they’re apt to continue reading beyond elementary school. Not only that, however. Research has shown that independently choosing to read in elementary school correlates to long-term academic success. So how do we help all of our students to develop a strong reader identity?

  • Conferring one-on-one with readers during Independent Reading time helps teachers to personalize reading instruction and supports students in coming to know themselves as readers. Chatting about books with students, listening to their thinking, and supporting them in setting and achieving goals helps us to recognize patterns over time, and notice and name those patterns for readers. Students establish an identity by becoming aware of and articulating their unique characteristics as a reader, asking and answering questions such as: Am I a polygamous reader? Or am I more successful when reading one book at a time? What are my bad habits as a reader? What are my interests and preferences? Where do I need a nudge because I’m in a reading rut?
  • Reflecting in Reader’s Notebooks employs metacognition as a tool to support developing reader identities. Reader’s Notebooks are not just for logging books or pages read, but are the logical place to draft History of a Reader essays (Buckner, 2009) and to write I Used to Think/Now I Think reflections. Periodic guided reflections in the “Me, as a Reader” section of the Reader’s Notebook help readers surface patterns and claim the kind of reader they want to be.
  • Readers make plans. The “Books I Want to Read” section of the Reader’s Notebook provides students a tangible place to imagine a reading future. It makes thinking visible. Students add new releases from authors they love, which gives me the opportunity to suggest other authors who are similar. The list reveals genre preferences and genre holes. It may also subtly reveal whether students are working toward the goals they’ve set.
  • “Research has also linked book access to student reading identity. Students with access to books and the opportunity to choose the books they read develop habits of lifelong learning and curiosity. They’re more likely to go to college and to succeed in the workforce. Choice and independence have also been shown to positively impact strategic learning behaviors.” (Mulligan and Landrigan 2018)

Independent Reading is sacred time. It is the time of day when students have the greatest opportunity to exercise agency over their reading, and in the process, develop their reader identities. One of the challenges of Independent Reading is the INDEPENDENT part. When students are independent, they will sometimes make choices that are not ideal for their growth as a reader. I have to remind myself, in a growth mindset classroom we celebrate choices that didn’t work out (mistakes) as opportunities to learn. Independent Reading is a time when I can step in to help a student process a mistake, and support them in deciding on next steps, whether that mistake is in book choice, solving unknown words, or coming to book club unprepared.

While I can help with processing choices that didn’t work out, to help students build strong reader identities I must leave as much of the decision-making power as possible in the hands of the learner. Although it’s often quicker and easier for me as the teacher to point out the best path to the learner, when I make decisions for students, I am creating DEPENDENT readers. Instead, I want students to see that I trust them. I make decisions with the goal of helping students develop identities as capable, independent problem-solvers, who will continue to grow and thrive as readers all the days of their lives.