To Read or Not To Read? I Need Your Feedback!

Leah Clark Education

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Some days you feel like a rock star teacher. Your lesson goes off without a hitch. Your students ask poignant, critical questions. They submit quality assignments. You think, “I’ve have got this!” But other days you feel like you are banging your head against a wall, repeatedly. Or at least I do.

Let me explain. I try to give my students about 15 minutes every Friday to read their independent novels to support their success. Last Friday was no different. Except that a student confidently bragged she scored 100% on her last reading quiz from reading Sparknotes and not a page of her novel.

Ugh. “Seriously?” I thought. Then my next thought was “You mean you wasted the last nine Friday’s reading time when I could so desperately use that time to teach you and you scored perfectly?”

Therein lies the independent reading conundrum. To read independently or not to read independently?

I know this answer: Yes! Our students should read independently. But that’s where my reading road comes to an end. I have questions and theories but zero answers. I have ideas and loose opinions, but after six years of teaching, I still don’t know how to best tackle the beast known as independent reading.

That’s where you come in. I would love your opinions on my burning reading questions.

Conundrum #1: Reluctant Readers

I believe some kids read without hesitation because they love it; some kids read because it’s a part of their grade, but others don’t or won’t read because they see no value in it. Much like PE, some students want to be athletic and fit, so they excel in running the mile weekly. Some kids understand running the mile is part of their grade and therefore participate in it regardless of their opinion. Other kids hate running and are angry running is part of the class and therefore doddle down the track every week not worried their grade will take a hit when they don’t finish. So the question becomes: Should I worry about the student who won’t read or is this simply par for the reading course?

Conundrum #2: What does “Independent” Really Mean?

The dictionary defines independent as “free from outside control; not depending on another’s authority.” So does independent mean we give kids complete autonomy to select books? This is where I struggle. I believe many students will select books far too easy simply, so they can breeze through them when we give them complete control over their selections. But on the other hand, when I give them lists, aren’t I going against what it means to read independently? I haven’t tried the total choice method. I’ve used thematic and random lists, and I’ve tried lists a 1,000 titles long and lists with as few a four books. None of these seem to impact readers. What’s the best way to give kids choice?

Conundrum #3: Accountability

I have tried three methods for holding kids accountable, and I still don’t know which is the best. I’ve tried book talks, timed writing assignments, and reading comprehension quizzes. I used to think kids couldn’t cheat their way through, but based on last week’s comment, apparently, I stand corrected. What is the best way to hold kids accountable for reading?

Conundrum #4: Purpose

Why are we asking students to read independently? To create lifelong readers? Improve reading comprehension? Provide students with diverse perspectives? Facilitate discussions? Serve as foundational and focused writing assignments? Or simply to read for the sake of reading? I would say yes to all of these purposes, but I struggle to find the time to devote to all of these equally important purposes and the ability to assess them. Last, I grapple with how to create a love of reading in every student regardless of purpose. Are we aiming at too many targets when it comes to reading?

As I sit at my house with a stack of books I am dying to crack open, I wonder what’s the best way to approach such a vital skill? I also wonder if I am fighting a battle I just won’t win, and therefore should I abandon the war? I hope it doesn’t come to that. So how can we tackle independent reading while maintaining our sanity? I ask you, the experts in the field, to weigh in. What are the methods and best practices for inspiring readers and not cheaters?



Leah Clark

Phoenix, Arizona

I joined the teaching profession after spending several years in luxury retail. While the free clothes and handbags were definite job perks, I felt burned out and tired of long hours, weekends and holidays. So, I went back to school to become a teacher and have never looked back. I love my job!
My teaching philosophy is simple: Do what’s best for kids. While it’s not eloquent, this humble phrase directs every decision I make about teaching and students. As a Language Arts teacher at a central Phoenix high school, it’s my honor and passion to create opportunities for students to communicate, collaborate, create and connect with one another and the world around them.
When I am not grading a stack of essays, planning a new lesson, or chaperoning a school dance, I love riding my yellow Huffy bicycle around town, sampling a new restaurant, and traveling to Flagstaff with my husband.

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Comments 17

  1. James King

    What a complex subject!

    It is so difficult to have a correct answer. I think we have to also consider – what is our role in at our level of ELA (or any subject!)?

    What I mean is – is my role as a high school teacher to ignite an unquenchable desire to read books? Is my role more focused on reading comprehension? Is my role to get students to synthesize well crafted responses using support from sources?

    There’s so much on ELA’s plate that I think gaining clarity on our purpose is key to individual success.

    1. Leah Clark

      Yes! I couldn’t agree more. I love being an ELA teacher, but what’s really important to focus on? There are so many tasks and skills to tackle. What should take the drivers’s seat and what gets shoved into the back seat? How can we do it all and be successful?

  2. James King

    Further (I worry I’m going to respond with a blog-length comment),

    One thing that stuck out to me was that you wondered if that students wasted those free reading Fridays… For one, even if she wasted those days – the rest of your students did not. Secondly, I don’t think giving kids dedicated time with minimal distractions can ever be a “waste,” you know?

    I had a student who during free reading every week would get a National Geographic coffee table book with pictures as big as the desk and only 4-5 sentences in a caption.

    But you know what? He would tell kids all the facts he learned every week. So even if it wasn’t sophomore level reading, he got some enjoyment from the book, and he was sharing what he learned with others…. And I wonder if I took that book away and put Gatsby in his hand, would he have smiled as much or share what he had just read with all the other students?

    1. Leah Clark

      Very interesting observations! I know some kids love reading and use the time wisely. But I wonder if I got rid of all of the reading lists, quizzes, etc and simply gave students the opportunity to read anything if that would solve many of my reading issues…

  3. Jen Robinson

    Hi Leah-
    Thanks for sharing. I wonder what your students would think? Does the answer to your question lie in their hands? I’ll be honest, as an adult I read because I want to stay current on research and best practices. For me cracking open a book is doing so in hopes of finding an insight into a diverse learner or a new strategy. Reading is not a love or a passion, it’s a need to know. That said, I wonder how your students really feel? Do we need to expand the meaning of independent or the intent of reading?

    1. Leah Clark

      That’s very interesting you bring up this point. A coworker suggested I survey my students about independent reading. Your ideas echo her sentiment. I may go the students on this one. Their feedback may be invaluable as I evaluate my beliefs and decisions for independent reading. Thank you for commenting!

  4. Amethyst Hinton Sainz

    Yup. I am right there with you and James… pondering. And now I have students who hardly know any English, but we still take trips to the library, and I show them the Guinness Book or the graphic novel section, or the books about sports. This year I haven’t gotten a routine going with our independent reading, but in past years the students could choose any book and change at any time, but they had to actually finish at least one book a quarter and do a project. Then last year I scaled back the project, but we spent time doing “booksnaps” and posting them on their blogs. The booksnaps were very useful in seeing how students were interacting with the text, with the added bonus of being creative and helping students learn new tech skills, but they were time consuming. We are always consuming time.

    Most of the research I have seen seems to come down to one common answer: That unstructured independent or silent reading really doesn’t have much of an impact, but scaffolding and supporting the students as readers can have an important impact. I like James’ point that just because one student decided to cheat doesn’t mean you are wasting everyone’s time. She chose that, not you. Unless you feel it is rampant, don’t change course on something you value because of one cheater. Maybe tell her she will need to have a one-on-one conversation about the book with you next time instead of the quiz?

    1. Leah Clark

      I really want to know more about “booksnaps!” Can you post the activity? I would love to model toward a model of student choice regarding the way they show their understanding with a book. While this isn’t easy to manage, it could be a worthwhile way to get students thinking about books.

      I agree with your comment about scaffolds and supports. I am definitely not doing enough of that. However, how much of that can be done when everyone is reading a different book? Yikes. There’s when I go back to the dilemma of free choice. How much free choice can we give and provide scaffolded support? Again, I struggle to answer these questions. Thank you for your comments. I appreciate the insight and thinking they gave me!

      1. Amethyst Hinton Sainz You can see ideas all over Twitter with the hashtag #booksnaps

        This is an overview. She has students use Snapchat but… there is no way I am doing that. All of our students use Google Apps, so we use Google Drawings. And you can publish to the web and embed them onto our Edublogs blogs. But they could also turn them in on Classroom, share them on a Padlet or you could print them for notebooks.

        I can’t say I have reached my own ideals here, but I keep thinking I can do booksnaps one week where they summarize; another week where they paraphrase; another week where they point out text features; figurative language; characterization; suspense…. pretty much any literary or informational text structure or device, they could booksnap about it. You know why? It’s basically just annotation. Trickkkky, right? Pretty, pretty annotation.

        For my ELL’s, they do a lot of simple things like defining vocabulary, putting emojis on things they react to, and asking questions.

  5. Treva Jenkins

    Leah, I so 100% identify with your blog and all of your issues and concerns surrounding independent reading. As Amethyst said, there is lots of research out there and I’ve done my homework; based on my research, there is some value in independent reading, but how it is being delivered makes all the difference in the world (as already mentioned-structured vs. unstructured).. I teach 7th grade and I do an independent novel study each year where kids pick a non-fiction novel and they read on their own at home. They have the entire quarter to complete this reading project that I call “Get Down and Book it”. Like you, I have reluctant readers, and accountability is always an issue. Every year was hit and miss so I did exactly what Dr. Robinson mentioned in her response: I took the issue to my kiddos and I got their feedback on how to make this project better and honestly it worked. They gave great feedback! Each year it gets better and better because I get feedback from a new set of kiddos and then I implement their ideas. Based on feedback from my kiddos, what has improve the accountability piece is involving parents. This actually came from the kids. I send parents emails about the independent reading project; they get all the paperwork the kids are getting and they are advised to work with their child and sign off on their reading logs. Parent involvement has definitely helped with accountability. To increase engagement, interest and to help my reluctant readers, kids get to choose their own book, and I have added a “talent” portion, where the kids get to pick a particular talent of theirs to show off their book (i.e. and kids great at art, would choose the drawing or crafting option of the project). Kids love it and again this idea came from their feedback. It makes them want to read the book so they can show off their talent. Do I still have kids who still don’t read? Yes, but overall things have gotten better. There was definitely a chat with the kiddos about intent and purpose for the reading and project (my own self reflection as well)…getting buy in was huge. Leah, I would love to chat with you more about this because it has been a bumpy journey for me in regards to independent reading and my purpose for even doing it, but I promise you there is light at the end of the tunnel…it can be successful…send me an email and we can definitely chat more….

    1. Leah Clark

      Thank you so much for your response! You bring up an important point, the kids. I am thinking of giving them an honest, no holds bar, unanimous survey about independent reading. What do they actually want? What’s worked in other classes? How can we show our understanding of our books? And tell me everything you ever wanted to say about the topic, guys! I love your idea of a “talent” portion. This may be a great way to get kids to do something with their books besides just reading it (or not reading it). All great things to think about! Thank you!

  6. Rachel Perugini

    Free reading is my favorite time as a teacher- I get to read, my kids get to read; it’s a win-win.

    To start- I give my kids complete freedom to choose. Some challenge that and bring i n something tiny, but inevitably realize that once they finish that book, they still have to read, so they might as well bring in something they’ll like. As far as level goes, I personally am not reading books at my reading level all the time (I’m a sucker for a good young adult novel), so if they choose something easy, I don’t care. They will finish that book and move on to something different.

    Accountability has always been a tough question for me- I want the kids to read and hope that if they find something they want to read they’ll be engaged, but as a teacher we do have to monitor them. I avoid those pesky comprehension quizzes for just the reasons you mentioned: they can easily be cheated and only really test recall. So, I do a reading check after we read each week, but they’re more abstract than most. I have my students draw a scene they read that day with a short explanation, justify where their character would go on vacation, or pull out quotes they liked and explain them to me. Today my kids had to summarize their book in 5 hashtags. Some days I have them write a boring 3 sentence summary, but every week I get to make sure there is some comprehension of what they’re reading. At the end of the semester they have to do a project with their full book; with the checks along the way, I’m confident they’ve at least read some of their book, even if they didn’t finish.

    1. Leah Clark

      Hi Rachel,
      I love all these ideas. How often and for how long are your kids reading daily? Weekly? This is another part of the struggle. I have become a grammar queen this year, and I feel like I am sacrificing independent reading time for grammar instruction. I want to find balance between both. As I said, i am giving kids 15 minutes every Friday, I don’t think this is enough to truly support their reading. How are you finding balance? Thank you for your comments!

      1. Rachel Perugini

        We do 10 minutes on Wednesday (always) and there is usually one other day I build in time after a quiz or something so they get bonus time. It’s a nice classroom management tool as the kids always have something do when when they finish early or after a test so they’re not trying to talk to their friends.

  7. Tim Ihms

    Hi Leah. Great questions. All from my experience are important to address. I am impressed with your thougtht and that you care. The only thing I might add to all the previous discussions is reading for 15 minutes on a Friday is too little time. The independent reading time is where all my students show their growth. I try to gice 30 to 60 minutes a day for it.

    1. Leah Clark

      Hi Tim,
      Thank you for your comment! I am trying to give my kids 10 minutes each day now. It seems to be working. But It’s so hard to give up 10 minutes of instructional time. Hopefully it pays off!

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