In many classrooms around the country, teachers have given careful consideration to ways and methods of providing their students with time to read independently, and of course, their conceptions differ. Imagine that right now, you and I are going on a professional journey together (paid for in full by our districts, of course). Our quest is to step inside classrooms and observe what’s happening in the name of independent reading so that our vision of the independent reading workshop becomes clear. Okay, grab your notebooks and let’s go.
Our first stop is at my school, P.S. 321 in Brooklyn, where I’ll show you the independent reading workshop in my classroom. My students are gathered in the meeting area, looking at and listening to me as I teach a mini-lesson on a comprehension strategy that proficient readers use. Each day I begin independent reading time with a mini-lesson like this one in which I offer whole-class, direct, explicit reading instruction. I wrap up the mini-lesson (which typically takes less than 10 minutes) by sending the students back to their reading spots for private reading time. It takes a minute or so for the room to settle. The children have their own plastic file holders with several books inside. They are reading a range of texts, from easy books with one line of text on a page to chapter books, because each child is reading a book at his or her independent reading level. I assess the children often so that I can guide them toward the books that match them as readers. As the children read independently, I offer individualized direct instruction during one-on-one conferences with readers. I take notes about each child during these reading conferences.
After 20 minutes I tell the children it’s partner reading time. I briefly remind them of one of the ways we’ve learned to talk well about books. The children quickly move around to meet with their reading partners. The noise level in the classroom has risen slightly as the children begin reading together and talking about their books with their partners. During partner reading time, I confer with some partners and then I gather four children for small-group direct instruction. Today, I’m supporting a small group of readers in a guided reading session because, based on my assessments, they are ready to move to the next level of text.
After about 10 minutes of partner reading time, I stand up and again get the children’s attention. “First graders, I hate to say it, but reading time is over.” There is an audible group sigh, and a couple of children plead, “Just another minute, we have to finish talking about this page!” I smile and tell them to use a sticky note to save their spot so they can continue their conversation tomorrow. Then I say, “Please put the book you’re going to read at home tonight in your take-home bag, and bring your bag and your body to the meeting area for share time.” For the next few minutes the children gather again in the meeting area, and I share some of the great work I observed during reading time today.
During this visit to my classroom, you witnessed instruction throughout the independent reading workshop. The instruction began when I modeled and demonstrated a reading strategy in the whole-class mini-lesson. Then, as children worked independently and with partners, I coached and instructed them during reading conferences. I pulled a small group of children together to offer more assessment-based instruction. Finally, during the teaching share, you saw that I reinforced the day’s lesson by sharing some of the ways children were successful with the strategy I taught.
The next stop on our journey is my old elementary school, where independent reading is known as silent sustained reading or SSR. As we go into a classroom, we listen as the teacher instructs the children to take their SSR books out of their desks. “Remember that this is a quiet time,” she reminds them. As we look around, we notice that the children are reading a huge variety of books, and the room is very quiet. I used to look forward to SSR time when I was a student. We only had it twice a week: on Wednesdays after library time, and on Friday afternoons, and it was exciting because our teacher would let us read any book that we brought in or borrowed from the library.
Let me be honest here: what excited me most about SSR wasn’t necessarily having time to read my own book. What I really looked forward to was the possibility of “getting the call.” My teacher randomly picked children who would get to be her helpers during SSR time. Oh, how I hoped my name would be chosen! I loved to be a helper and do things like use the staple remover to take down the construction paper jack-o’-lanterns with accordion legs in order to make way for cornucopias and five-finger turkeys. I longed to be the one to collate and staple homework packets for the following week.
Unfortunately, during those many SSR times when my name wasn’t picked, I had trouble concentrating on reading my book. I was distracted as I watched my lucky classmates hand masking-tape loops up to our teacher as she stood precariously on bookshelves putting up the maps of the continents we had colored during social studies. During SSR time, the teacher may or may not be teaching reading. My teacher spent SSR time catching up on the other work she needed to do with the help of some eager children. It seems that often SSR time is less an instructional opportunity and more of a management structure that enables teachers to get some other things done while children are quietly looking at books.
Our next stop is a first-grade classroom during literacy center time. The teacher is meeting with a small group of children for guided reading at a cashew-shaped table. The rest of the children are working in small groups around the room. Some are plugged into the tape recorder at the listening center, and others have Big Books and shared reading texts spread out on the floor. A group of children are practicing spelling and making words with magnetic letters. Almost everyone seems busy and engaged. As we continue looking around, we see a group of children sitting at a table with a basket of books in the middle, all reading books from the basket and debating about who has the scariest Halloween costume. This conversation about costumes began when two of the children were looking together at the book Rattlebone Rock.
I ask the children what they are doing at this center. One child looks up and says, “It’s the independent reading center. We’re reading Rattlebone Rock. This is the browsing basket.” Again, like SSR time in the previous classroom, the independent reading time in this classroom is a management structure that enables the teacher to do something else, in this case, to meet with guided reading groups. The teacher is not teaching directly into the children’s independent reading because she is working with one guided reading group after another. When she finishes the second of the three guided reading groups, she transitions the students into another center.
The next school we visit is in a district where independent reading is called DEAR time, or “Drop Everything And Read.” During DEAR time everybody in the school, including the principal, the custodian, and the guidance counselor, stops what they are doing to read something, anything. As we walk around the school, we see adults reading catalogs, professional literature, district memos, magazines, novels, and newspapers. We see children sitting in their seats reading a variety of texts as well. The building is relatively quiet as everyone focuses for a while on his or her own reading.
The obvious power of DEAR time is that a school becomes a community of readers. It’s exciting for children to see grown-ups around them reading, in much the same way as it can be thrilling for children when a teacher joins a game of tag at recess or the principal sits beside them in the cafeteria and eats her lunch. During DEAR time, however, if everyone is dropping everything to read, no explicit reading instruction is going on. Of course, the power of modeling reading is important, but we have to ask, “Is that enough?”
Now, as our journey nears its end, let’s talk about what we observed. In each of the classrooms I’ve described, the children were, in fact, reading self-chosen books independently. One of the main differences, however, between the independent reading workshop in my classroom and independent reading time in the next three examples (SSR, independent reading during literacy centers, and DEAR time) is the absence or presence of direct, explicit instruction. In some classrooms the only instruction children receive during independent reading time is on management and procedures, because the teacher is engaged with other tasks (e.g., her own reading, her to-do list, or guided reading groups). By contrast, during the independent reading workshop, the teacher provides whole-class, individual, and small-group direct, explicit reading instruction to her students. In addition, when children read independently during independent reading workshop, they read just-right books, which are books that match their independent reading levels. Children can read their just-right books with fluency, comprehension, and at least 90–95 percent accuracy (Calkins 2001).