In this week's One Thing You Might Try . . . post, teacher and writer, Pernille Ripp, calls us to stay true to what we know is valuable, despite the mounting pressures that seem to continually demand our instructional time and energy—especially during a pandemic.
“Our first experience with reading influences our perceptions of our intelligence, even as adults . . . If you ask an adult, ‘Do you consider yourself above average, about average, or below average?’ most of them have a clear picture of where they fall on the intelligence spectrum—based on the years when they were learning to read.” (L. Johnston, 2011)
For the past year, I have had the incredible honor of working with educators around the world as they try to reshape and bolster their literacy practices. Being continually immersed in conversations with educators as we try to navigate what pandemic teaching looks like, while also working through it with my own 7th graders, has been incredible. It’s also been a lot of work, because what do we do when what we embraced as the building blocks of our experiences together is no longer feasible? What do we do when the time we have with students is greatly diminished, yet the pressure to continually move them along an imagined skill path is still very much on us.
One of our areas of focus has been the preservation of independent reading, and with good reason, because as timetables have shrunk, COVID regulations took over, and kids moved to even more inequitable teaching and learning experiences, independent reading has been one of the first things to get cut. After all, having kids "just read" doesn't seem like a very good use of our time when we have so much to cover and so little time to do it in.
Yet when we relegate independent reading to kids "just reading" we neglect to see the immense brain development and increase in reading capacity that happens when children sit down with a self-selected text and are supported through their independent reading. We are discounting one of the biggest tools we have at our disposal for not only helping shape kids' reading lives within our educational experience, but also outside of it. As ILA reminds us, “The more students read, the better their background knowledge, comprehension, fluency, vocabulary, self-efficacy as readers, and attitudes toward reading for pleasure becomes.”
So this is my plea to the world to remember the essential role that supported independent reading holds within our instruction, whether it is virtual, hybrid, flipped, or face-to-face. We must resist the urge to cut independent reading as a way to gain more teaching time. Because supported independent reading is also THE teaching. We may not see it as such because we are unaware of the immense amount of work that takes place when a child sits down with a book, or when we are told to flat out dismiss the research and even our own anecdotal knowledge of the gains created through independent reading by those in curricular power. Still independent reading is one of the foundational building blocks we must protect and preserve as we work with children. Even while we teach virtually.
Independent Reading: Good for the Brain, Good for Heart
What do I mean when I say supported independent reading? Exactly what ILA says, "Classroom time to self-select and read a large number of books and variety of text, explicit instruction about what, why, and how readers read, (I would also add who they are as readers here), teacher monitoring and support during the in-class independent reading time, and authentic conversation about what students are reading." It's not "just" handing kids a book and a chunk of time to read. It’s so much more. It is nurturing students’ independent reading identities in ways that lead them to search out books that speak to what they want to read, who they are as people, and that will help them further and understand their reading journey. It is creating a classroom culture that embraces book access and book shopping, that holds up inclusive text experiences as the norm, and that invites every child to be able to answer who they are as readers and how they want to grow.
And yet, I see independent reading cut out of curricular choices now more than ever. When COVID forced us to re-evaluate how we’d spend our instructional time, having kids simply read was quickly dismissed as frivolous or non-essential. It was seen as something we could only include when we had completed all of the other learning tasks we were supposed to do, and then only as an option for some students because we know that some of our more vulnerable readers will never reach a point of completion of task with us.
The irony of cutting out independent reading is, of course, that we cut it to make space for increased skill instruction, for more independent vocabulary work, for a greater emphasis on whole class novels, or more task centered work, overwhelming kids with the work of reading without any of the practice, without any of the pleasure. And we will see the impact of these curricular decisions for years to come. Simply put, cutting out independent reading is a short-sighted solution that will create larger long-term problems not just for us as teachers of reading, but for the very kids we teach.
Yet, it is not just the academic benefits that should make us embrace independent reading as a cornerstone of the work we do, it is also the human benefits. It is the benefits of increasing focusing capacity, of settling into the pages of a book and finding quiet within oneself. It is the benefits of building community through book recommendations and shared stories. It is the benefit of focusing on who we are as readers in ways that only come through trial and error. It is the vital work of what reading about the lives of others means to our development of empathy, world understanding, and cultural embraces. Of tearing down stereotypes and hate through culturally inclusive and relevant books. Of changing the generational scope of what it means to read more broadly and impacting generations to come. But, in order for children to grow as readers, and thus gain all of the researched benefits of better lives that comes with being readers, we must make space for it within our instruction.
Even if that means cutting out other things or re-shifting our priorities.
Prioritizing a Powerful Practice
We cannot just assume that kids will make or find time for independent reading after they leave our classrooms or Zooms, instead, we must connect our beliefs to our actions by giving kids one of our most valuable things; time. We must re-evaluate the components we have packed into our already busy learning day and ask ourselves whether they add to the individual path a child is on as a reader or just fills them with more skills without room to practice. It means we must re-envision our place as the educator in charge and let our role shift to that of coach, of investigator, of discussion starter, and of caretaker of all reading journeys. To allow space for the rejection of reading from those who have not had a positive experience and help them navigate through their emotions. To create an environment where independent reading becomes as certain as our greetings, as sure as the commitment we have to take care of one another, as sure as developing curiosity.
Supported independent reading with a self-selected text may not be flashy. It may not be Instagram or Pinterest worthy. It may not even be given much consideration in certain circles, yet the value of its implementation and practice cannot and should not be dismissed. Independent reading is a powerful moment in our day that plants seeds for future reading through the time it provides for the practice of skills, for building a rich reading identity, for building a community based on joy of reading. And of course, for building the documented benefits it holds for us all. We have to remember that the decisions we make right now, say a lot about the values we hold dear, about the vision we have for the role education can play in the development of children. We are not just educating children, but shaping the very future we will all live in.
And so when our students are all grown up and we ask them how they perceive themselves as readers, what answer are we hoping they will give us? Will they remember that we didn't give them time to read, or will they remember the books they discovered, the truths they uncovered, the very fabric of our world they were able to weave together because they had access to books, access to support, and time to practice.
The answer seems rather obvious when you pull back the educational curtain. Children continue to need time for supported independent reading.
That never changed, even if COVID changed so much.
About the author
Pernille Ripp is a 7th grade teacher, whose passion for student learning and reflective teaching shines through in her multiple books and essays. She is the founder of The Global Read Aloud and blogs regularly about teaching and great books. Get to know Pernille and her work here or follow her social media posts @pernilleripp (Twitter) or @pernillesripp (Facebook and Instagram).