Start an Independent Reading Program NOW!

Did you know that by age 3 there is a 30 million word gap between children from higher socioeconomic homes compared to those from lower socioeconomic groups? Yep… read that right: 30 million. This tasty little tidbit is from a study in 2003 by American child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley.

The study is based on the premise that young children come to the education system with barriers to language based on their parents education level, conversations with them and frequency reading to them. Although the study is dated, it caused huge ripples in the educational world in North America; one clear example that hits us close to home would be full day kindergarden here in Ontario.

This phenomenon is commonly referred to as the ‘vocabulary gap’, which coincidentally also becomes a massive ‘learning gap’ since processing language is a necessity in the world of education. In the Ontario secondary school system, we can still see clear evidence of this ‘education gap’: our applied/college and essential level learners often come from lower socioeconomic homes than their academic/university bound counterparts. Moreover, their literacy skills are almost always a significant obstacle to their academic success. Example #1: see Ontario’s EQAO results for the literacy test and compare the results of students from the academic and applied streams:

How can we close the vocabulary/learning/education gap? Well, on this one the researchers are pretty clear: the best way to acquire vocabulary is through reading. Starting an independent reading program in your classroom (yes, any classroom NOT just English) is therefore essential to support our struggling learners at any level. Literacy is a cross-curricular subject. Without adequate literacy skills, students cannot participate effectively in any subject, regardless of their interest level.

How do I start an Independent Reading Program in my classroom?

Really, it’s not as complicated as you think. And the benefits of doing it right will not only increase your students literacy skills, but will enhance your rapport and relationship with them.

I was REALLY skeptical when introduced to this idea by the fabulous Penny Kittle ( at a PD session a couple of years ago, but trying her methods in my classroom have had a massive benefit on my students literacy skills as well as my relationships with them.By reading Penny’s text, Book Love, and tweaking a couple of things to suit my classroom setting and school culture, I think I’ve come up with a delivery that works.

Step 1: Build a classroom library

Classroom libraries are essential to the independent reading program. Books need to be visible, enticing and approachable. Students should be able to browse, select and test out books in the classroom without the time-wasting of traveling to the library, getting a note, signing it out and returning to class. We all know students just seem to get…..lost in that process.

Building a classroom library is actually pretty simple: you need a large shelf, some books and a method of organization to loan books. The issue for most teachers is always the books. Budgets are tight, and teachers wallets are meager, so building a really good classroom library will take some time. Start with hitting up your administration with some good stats on the importance of reading and vocabulary acquisition in tow – EQAO results from previous years would also be a good resource to have. Hopefully, you’ll score a bit of $$ there. If not, beg, borrow and steal from the library leftovers, other teachers dusty bookshelves, garage sales and second-hand bookstores. Start small, and it will grow.

Step 2: Explicitly teach why reading is important

Yeah, I know you think they’d already get this, right? The whole reading = knowledge, vocabulary acquisition and stress relief thing really clicks for us educated adults, but not so much for your average disengaged pre-teen or teenager. You need to make reading matter to them. You need to connect it to their now and their future in a meaningful, authentic way and that takes time and effort. There are literally thousands of images, articles and videos on the importance of reading. Spend some Google time doing careful research and select texts that you feel may appeal to your clientele.

Step 3: Review reading genres/choices

Students often think of ‘reading’ as boring novels their teacher has selected. Not so. Reading can mean a variety of different non-fiction or fiction texts from various time periods and formality levels. Consider organizing books into genres and letting students circulate in a ‘book tasting’ activity (there are a million versions of this activity on pinterest).

Step 4: Conference with students to help them narrow reading selections 

This step is massively important to the success of your program, as well as establishing authentic relationships with your students. It is so simple, yet the impact is magnificent! Sit with each of your students for 5-10 minutes (time investment, I know but totally worth it, I promise) and ask them some very simple questions:

  • What are their current reading habits at home and school?
  • What are their interests outside of school?
  • What is their future story (i.e. long term goals)?
  • How can becoming a better reader impact their future stories?
  • What genres of text are they most drawn to and why?
  • What could a reading goal look like for them throughout this school year: reading a certain number of books, reading to learn about something, reading to increase vocabulary, reading for relaxation, reading for entertainment, etc.

Step 5: Have students set and monitor their own reading goals

At this point, students are ready to make some personal reading goals to suit their individual level, reading interests and current habits. I’ve recently asked students to use the website to create some funky reading goals posters, but they can also use the hand/paper method. Student reading goals should include:

  • 1-3 specific goals
  • their current reading habits and preferred genres
  • titles/images of books they’d like to read throughout the school year/semester

Step 6: Make time for reading EVERY DAY

This is tough for some teachers with tight schedules, but it is essential for your program to be a success. Make a 15-20 minute period of time for students to read in your class EVERY DAY. Not just Fridays when you’re spent or Tuesday mornings so you can prep, but EVERY DAY. I find that starting the class with silent reading works best – it settles and focuses students for the period, and creates a calm introduction to the class. It is also essential that during this time YOU READ AS WELL. I know, this is tough – you need to prep, mark, check your 500 emails!!!!! In this situation, you need to walk the walk – if you are pushing the importance of being a ‘reader’, then you need to show students that you are also a ‘reader’.

Step 7: Conference regularly 

Check in with students regarding their reading goals and next reading selections. Use this time to monitor student progress and let students share what they’ve learned/read/though/experienced with you. You will walk away from these experiences feeling like a REALLY GOOD TEACHER. Here are a couple of comments from some of my recent reading conferences with students:

” This book changed the way I think about the world” (in reference to reading Boy Soldier)

“I’ve only ever read The Outsiders, but I’m ready for something different. I think I can read another book. I want to try that Freedom Writers book you talked about the other day.”

“I’m reading about Simon Girty because he’s a distant family relative and I want to feel proud that I’m related to him some way.”

“I want to start reading at home as well as school, because reading is important for my future.”

“I’ve never wanted to finish reading a book until this one.” ( in reference to The Glass Castle)”

“I’d like to read a classic novel next to challenge my vocabulary, but I want to also find out why books like that are so important.”

Step 8: Book talk

Continually talking about reading and sharing reading experiences is an important part of the classroom reading program. Take some time at least once a week to talk about books you’ve read, various books in the classroom reading library and/or ask students to share their own reading experiences.  These conversations are coined by Penny Kittle as ‘book talks’, and are just that – sharing and talking about books in order to continually interest students in new books to read. A fun twist is to invite guest ‘book talkers’ to your classroom – maybe the principal, basketball coach or a local celebrity!

Step 9: Next lists

Based on your regular classroom book talks by teachers and students, ask students to start a ‘next list’ of books to read on their phones, in their notebooks or on the back of their reading goals posters based on these  book sharing experiences. If students have a ‘next list’ of books to read, the idea is that they will hopefully read them. Good readers do this on their own, but struggling or resistent readers need to be taught this skill.

Step 10: What about assessment?

The goal of the Independent Reading Program is to empower students to become ‘readers’, so this makes the assessment question tough. How can you assess whether or not you’ve created a ‘reader’? Moreover, if students are basing their reading goals and materials on their own comfort level and interest, clearly all students will be reading different texts. In the Ontario English curriculum, we can evaluate ‘metacognition’, so this is a great fit for teachers of elementary language teachers or secondary English teachers. But what if you are a cross-curricular teacher?  That is where you’ll need to be creative – can you somehow evaluate student communication skills via book sharing and/or conferencing? Can you create generic activities that all students can complete based on their reading materials that compliments your curriculum? These are tough questions every teacher needs to weigh carefully.

Share your experiences with Independent Reading Programs!

Do you have an independent reading program in your classroom? How does it work? What benefits have you witnessed in your students literacy skills? Comment and share your experiences!


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