Every teacher knows that independent reading is a crucial part of a well-balanced literacy program. Independent reading allows students to practice the skills they have learned during readers’ workshop, or during whole-group reading lessons. It also gives them the opportunity to practice on books that they are interested in.
If it is so important, then how does it so often turn into, well……chaos? Off-task students and an ocean of books all over the classroom has the potential to derail even the best laid plans. Good news!
With a few easy-to-implement tricks, your independent reading time will soon be running like clockwork, freeing you up to see small groups, and conference with individual students.
5 Tips to Manage Independent Reading
1. Let Students Have Choices…
Everyone is most invested when they have choices over what they are doing and how they are doing it. Kids are no exception. Students who are forced to sit at their desks, or read a certain type of book are likely to have a much harder time staying focused and on task.
Consider letting students pick their spots in the room for independent reading. Not only does this allow them to distance themselves from neighbors they may be prone to chatting with, but also allows them to find a place that feels comfortable.
Perhaps they prefer a corner to curl up in, or maybe lying on the rug is most cozy. They are certain to be more engaged when they feel at ease. Consider letting students pick spots for the week on Monday mornings. Each day during independent reading, that will be their spot and no one else can go there. The following week, they can opt to keep their spot, or to try out a new one.
In addition to their spots, independent reading time is a great time for students to pick books they are interested in. You never know what will pique students’ interest. Readers of any age are much more likely to become engrossed in a book they have chosen based on their interests. Teachers are often surprised to see students independently reading books they would have considered too difficult for them. This may be all due to their interest in the text.
The lesson here? Try giving up some control to gain control.
2. … But Not Without Limits
Yes, students can benefit from having some say over what they are reading and where they are reading it. However, there may be times when they need a bit of guidance in this area. While it is important to allow them choices, the choices should never deter from the goal of independent reading.
For example, let students choose where they would like to sit in the room for reading. I don’t mind if they are sitting close to their friends, as long as they are not distracted by each other.
If I see that friend groups are talking or otherwise disturbed by one another, I will give them a reminder that it is their choice to sit near their friend and that they should make another choice if this is not a good one. If they need another reminder, I will help both students select new spots. I will also stress to them that is to help them really focus on their reading.
The same is true for book selection. While children should certainly have selection over most of what they read, you may find students who truly do not know how to pick good fit books. Perhaps they are grabbing several chapter books at a time. Maybe they are consistently selecting books well below their ability level.
While it is okay for students to have some books that are too hard, or too easy, some of their material should be at their instructional level. For these students, book selection would be a great topic to cover as you confer with them. Select a few books at their level, that you think they may be interested in. Help them to see what a just right book feels like, by letting them select from these options. Over time, they will learn to do this independently.
3. Make Your Classroom Library Easy to “SHOP”
Speaking of book selection, an important thing to consider is the ease with which students can find books, and also return them when they are finished. While it can be quite time consuming to set up a classroom library, it will be well worth the time invested if your students can use it independently.
There are multiple ways to set up a library, and there is no “right” way! The key, however, is making materials easily accessible to students. Grouping books in clearly-labeled baskets makes it much easier for students to find books than if they are simply placed spine out on bookshelves.
Baskets can be organized by topic, genre, author, reading level…whatever works for you and your students. For younger students, you may even consider placing pictured labels on each book that match the pictures on the baskets. When it is time to return books, it will be easy for beginning readers to find their homes.
In my classroom, each student has a “browsing box” filled with 8-10 self-selected books, as well as any books I have given them during small group instruction. Each week, they select new books for the week, and return books they no longer want. To ensure that the entire class is not selecting and returning books at the same time (I tried that before- it was a mess!), I have 5 students “book shop” each day. One group shops on Mondays, one on Tuesdays, etc.
4. Create a Peaceful Space
The goal of independent reading time is to get students deeply engrossed in reading. How many times have you stayed up a little too late, lying in bed, reading just one more chapter? How often have you gotten up on the weekends, curled up with a blanket and headed to your favorite chair with a book and a cup of coffee? And all this because you just couldn’t wait to get back to your book?
When you are truly involved in a book, are you imagining yourself sitting in a cold sterile environment or someplace warm and inviting. A coffee shop or perhaps a park?
If you want your students to feel that deep immersion, it may help to build an appealing, pleasant atmosphere. The addition of a few glowing lamps, or soft music can do wonders to transform your classroom into a place where students feel calm and focused.
Try creating a few nooks where students can curl up simply through furniture placement. This doesn’t mean that you have to spend a lot of money, or slave away searching through Pinterest boards. There are many ways to create a friendly space on a budget- houseplants (fake or real), calming fragrances and lighting can all make a big effect on your classroom aesthetic.
5. Teachers on the Move
During independent reading time, teachers may be doing a variety of tasks. They may be conferencing with individual students, seeing groups of students, or taking running records.
To make the most of this time, and also keeping management in mind, moving around the room is key. If you are seeing reading groups, consider seeing them in a central space in the room. If you are conferring with students, or with reading partnerships, take a clip board and travel to them.
Keep a clipboard stocked with blank running records and spaces for note keeping on reading behaviors.
While you may prefer a home base in the form of a reading table, moving around the room during independent reading can have the effect of keeping your readers on task. The added bonus is that if you plan to meet with one student, other students within earshot will also receive the benefit of the conference. Oh yeah- and you will also be sure to get those steps in!
Independent reading is the cornerstone of any literacy program, and with a few simple tweaks, both you and your students will gain a deeper love for reading.
-Written by Nashella Zarek
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