Why Reading Choice Matters: the Research on Independent Reading

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Why Read at All?

The more students read, the better their skills get. Kids who develop a personal reading habit acquire a host of verbal skills that nonreaders do not, including comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary. On this point, federal standards (Common Core Standards in English and Language Arts) and academic experts (Columbia University Teachers College Reading and Writing Project) and teachers' organizations (National Council of Teachers of English) agree: "The more one reads, the better one reads. The more one reads, the more knowledge of words and language one acquires. The more one reads, the more fluent one becomes as a reader. The more one reads, the easier it becomes to sustain the mental effort necessary to comprehend complex texts." Likewise research at Carnegie Mellon concludes that good readers are not “born” but “made."

Reading seems to change the physical wiring of a person’s brain. It’s also a way to build the mental structures that allow us to exercise top-down control over our own attention. See Maryanne Wolfe’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (New York: Harper, 2007) or Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011).  More startlingly, a 2014 Emory University study suggests that a person’s brain increases physical connectivity after reading even a single novel. For more on literacy and changes in the physiology of the brain, see the latest from Scientific American.

Deep reading is an active mental exercise, not a passive one (Washington University study).

Reading, particularly of literary fiction, seems to increase empathy. See The New School studyScience Magazine reports that reading improves Theory of Mind, which is the understanding that other people hold beliefs and desires different from your own, and authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie remind us that stories are a key way of understanding one another’s complicated lives. Maryanne Wolf makes this argument beautifully in her new book Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. When we lose reading, we lose the “cognitive patience” to enter someone else’s world.

Lastly, the budding field of Bibliotherapy maintains that reading is a key factor of mental well-being, that the ability to construct nuanced stories, including our own story, is a part of creating identity, part of creating the self. The American Library Association offers several resources on the topic. Or you can read these overviews from The New Yorker and the BBC (“Can You Read Yourself Happy?”). You can also read this lyrical and compelling article from the fabulist novelist Salman Rushdie. For a more in-depth discussion, see Janet Alsup’s A Case for Teaching Literature in the Secondary School: Why Reading Fiction Matters in an Age of Scientific Objectivity and Standardization (Routledge 2015).

Choice Matters

Kids get hooked on reading by reading books they love. It’s about choice. How do we know?

For the best summary on leisure reading, (also known as recreational reading, pleasure reading, free voluntary reading, and independent reading), see the statement from the National Council of Teachers of English or the 2014 position paper from the International Literacy Association. The key researchers on this topic are the linguist Stephen D. Krashen (University of Southern California) and the educator Richard Allington (University of Tennessee). Dr. Krashen documents the benefits of “junk reading” in Junk Food is Bad for You, But Junk Reading is Good for You and in a plethora of research on his website or in his books Free Voluntary Reading (Libraries Unlimited) and The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research (Libraries Unlimited). Dr. Allington recommends  Six elements of effective reading instruction [that] don’t require much time or money—just educators’ decision to put them in place.

Earlier, in 2000, Bernice E. Cullinan reviewed the available research on independent reading in Independent Reading and School Achievement, commissioned by the US Department of Education.  She concluded that the volume of free reading students do “has consistently been found to relate to achievement in vocabulary, reading comprehension, verbal fluency, and general information. Students’ reading achievement correlates with success in school and the amount of independent reading they do.” A more recent 2015 study of eighth graders reported that when assigned reading was replaced with choice reading, students read more and did better on state tests. 

For more research on the importance of reading for pleasure, see Dr. Allington’s book What Really Matters for Struggling Readers: Designing Research-Based Programs (Allyn and Bacon) or B. Moss’s Creating Lifelong Readers Through Independent Reading, or the classic 1988 study by Anderson, Wilson and Fielding that correlates independent reading with achievement in a startling graph. NCTE authors Wilhelm and Smith share a more recent study about pleasure reading. We also recommend Revisiting Silent Reading: New Directions for Teachers and Researchers (International Reading Association) by E.H. Hiebert and D. R. Reutzel and The Voice of Evidence in Reading Research by P. McCardle and V. Chhabra (Paul Brookes).

In the Classroom

It’s also worth noting that getting high scores on reading tests is not the same as having a personal reading habit. A student's ability to "analyze" passages doesn't mean that the student reads outside school. They may never crack a book after graduation. But there does appear to be cause and effect in the other direction: a personal reading habit has actually been shown to increase students' abilities to "analyze" and also to raise their test scores in almost all subject areas. (See Cullinan’s 2000 study commissioned by the US Department of Education.)

The challenge educators face is twofold: even those students who love reading as children often drop the habit as teenagers. We educators have to ask two questions:  1) how best to create readers and 2) how best to keep them reading. 

Quantity matters as much as choice. Teachers College Reading and Writing Project recommends that students should be reading 35-45 minutes a day. Independent reading helps students become more facile readers and contributes to overall school achievement, especially when schools set aside time for it in class. In one inspiring article, reading expert Penny Kittle suggests that high school students should “inhale books at a rate of 12–25 a semester.” And educators Kylene Beers and Bob Probst show a direct correlation between reading time and class percentile in this startling chart from their new book Disruptive Thinking: Why How We Read Matters. Students of all ages understand the concept of personal practice when it comes to music or sports. The very same principles apply to reading (and writing): if we expect every reading session to be assessed, then our students cannot possibly be doing enough of it. And, as with music and sports, students are most motivated when they find joy in the activity.

Most states' ESSA standards, as well as Common Core before that, do not include a required reading list but instead allow schools and teachers to make their own decisions based upon example texts. Traditional approaches may emphasize reading difficult texts with the close mentorship of teachers, but other experts are advocating for a balance between the books students read with the class and those they read on their own. Teachers College Reading and Writing Project recommends students read books they can understand on their own, “with at least 96% fluency, accuracy, and comprehension.” Reading a book that’s too challenging doesn’t necessarily increase fluency. And an all-out focus on skills can backfire, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins.  Students benefit more from reading books they can understand than they do from being tutored in books that are too hard for them.

Educator and reading maven Donalyn Miller emphasizes four crucial elements for creating successful readers: 1) time to read in school 2) access to books that are intellectually and culturally accessible 3) choice and 4) reading community.

Loose Canon™ is built to facilitate independent reading, book clubs, literature circles, or any other pedagogy in which students discuss their reading with one another, conferring with the teacher individually or together. Reading promotes conversation, and conversation promotes reading. 

For a list of what not to do, here's a short article about the ways in which classrooms can stifle students’ love of reading, from Pernille Ripp. (You'll notice that there's disagreement about mandatory reading logs. One 2012 study reports that such logs can make young kids reading-resistant.) You can also check out Readicide, Kelly Gallagher's now-classic condemnation of whole-class novels as the sole method of teaching reading in secondary school.

NCTE makes a good case for book choice in secondary schools. So does this quick article from Nancy Barile. Here too Heather Wolpert-Gawron  summarizes the case for student choice as effective pedagogy. And, as time passes, more educators like Katie Sluiter advocate for reading choice as a matter of social justice.

Finally, for more about ways to hold students of all ages accountable, see Loose Canon’s page on classroom activities and strategies or the page of assessment ideas. 

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