Why Reading Choice Matters: the Research on Independent Reading

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 the latest federal standards (Common Core Standards in English and Language Arts) and academic experts (Columbia University Teachers College Reading and Writing Project) agree. Likewise research at Carnegie Mellon concludes that good readers are not “born” but “made.” Students become readers by practicing.

Reading may 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 study or this compelling summary from Signature Magazine. Science 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?”) 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?

The key current 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.”

For more research on the importance of reading choice, 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. In another 2001 survey, middle school students themselves say that they’re motivated by choice (Just plain reading: A survey of what makes students want to read in middle schools). 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

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 state’s 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 communally 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. Students benefit more from reading books they can understand than they do from being tutored in books that are too hard for them.

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. The answer to both questions may not be the same.

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™ advocates a workshop approach for students of all ages, in which students discuss their reading in small groups, conferring with the teacher individually or together, as in Lit Circles and Book Clubs. Reading promotes conversation, and conversation promotes reading. For more on this pedagogy, see our video.

For a list of what not to do, here are a couple of short articles about the ways in which classrooms can stifle students’ love of reading, one from Pernille Ripp and one from Mark Barnes. (You’ll note that there’s discussion among elementary school teachers about the role of reading logs.) Or see Kelly Gallagher’s more book Readicide.

Nancy Barile makes a quick case for reading choice in secondary schools. So does this article from NCTE.  Here 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. Or read Berit Gordon’s new book No More Fake Reading: Merging the Classics With Independent Reading to Create Joyful Lifelong Readers.