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.

About My Blog Name

A loyal heretic is someone who sees a truth that contradicts the conventional wisdom of the organization and remains loyal to both. — Art Kleiner

Unsurprisingly, there are risks inherent in being a loyal heretic. Questioning, challenging, and contradicting can be perceived negatively. Yet loyal heretics are key to organizational growth and transformation, as they are visionaries who challenge accepted practices and common knowledge. Without loyal heretics, organizations fall prey to groupthink.

Years ago, an influential school leader described me as a “loyal heretic” and I’ve held fast to the title ever since. Loyal heretic is not a role I chose, but a disposition, a function of the way I think. I’m forever grateful to this leader for recognizing my value by naming my role. Since that time I always strive to fulfill his exhortation to “keep (my) heretical tactics at play.”