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.
- Model 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.