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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Does Independent Reading Time During the School Day Create Lifelong Readers?

October 5, 2016

Teacher question:

You have attacked DEAR time [Drop Everything and Read] because you say it does little to raise reading achievement. But what about having kids read on their own as a way to motivate them to be readers? As a teacher I want my kids to be lifelong readers so I provide 20 minutes of daily independent reading time. What do you think?

Shanahan's response: 

As you remind me, the effects of DEAR, SSR, SQUIRT or any of the other “independent reading time” schemes are tiny when it comes to reading achievement. Many of those studies have not been particularly well done, but even when they have been the learning payoffs have been rather small.

Surprising to me is that it has even been true with that kind of summer reading program — when the reading clearly isn’t replacing other academic procedures. James Kim has studied that kind of thing a lot and while he concludes that some very small learning benefits can be derived from such programs, he has had a lot of difficulty obtaining even that result from study to study.

Unfortunately, the motivational impact of such procedures has been studied less — and with even less payoff. In my experience, the better readers enjoy the free reading time — so they continue to like reading even within the DEAR time framework — but the other kids don't enjoy it much since they don’t read very well. Yikes!

I definitely understand the logic that you are working with — I shared it when I was a classroom teacher. The idea that kids practicing independent reading would make them want to be independent readers in the future is compelling. But when you think deeply about the practice, its problems become more evident.

How do kids interpret our approach? What determines whether reading is independent — as opposed to just being another classroom assignment?

1. Whether the reading is going to be done or not.

If the teacher makes me read for the next half hour, that doesn’t seem very “independent.” She might let me choose the text I read, but what if I’d rather not read at all or would prefer reading during math? Now that would be independent. Required reading time — even when it does not include teaching or other teacher involvement — is not inherently motivational. Making somebody do something may accomplish compliance, but it won’t make him/her like it. (As they say, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him take a bath.)

2. Whether the reader picks the text.

This one is a bit easier. In fact, many experts talk about “self selected” reading rather than independent reading, since that is usually the only real choice students are allowed in these routines. Lots of times the unmotivated kids still can’t find anything they want to read, and, of course, there are complications. Many teachers/schools constrain these “free choices,” like only allowing students to read books at particular levels (a la Accelerated Reader). If I can choose only books with blue dots, then I’m not really choosing; and if I’m not particularly interested in reading about any topic, then choice is not a motivator. (Someone I know is fascinated with tennis. I once bought him a book about tennis sure he’d love it. Instead he was a real pill: “I love playing tennis, not reading about it.” There is an important motivational lesson there.)   

3. How accountable is the reading? Do I have to answer the teachers’ questions? Or write a summary to be evaluated? Or read a segment aloud so the teacher can check on my fluency? Or discuss this with the book club group and not look like an idiot?

As it became obvious and research accumulated showing the lack of learning from unaccountable reading (e.g., DEAR, SSR), teachers started adopting procedures for conferencing with kids about their books. In other words, we try to make independent reading more like reading lessons — we’ll set the level of the text and you have to prove you read the material and understood it; not exactly how free choice activity works. My point isn’t that this kind of accountability is bad — I suspect it makes “independent reading” more like instructional reading in its payoff, but let’s face it, it is no longer the independent motivational choice that we started with.

Given all of that, the initial logic doesn’t seem as smart as it did on first blush. What motivates someone? I’ve read a lot of that literature and being required to do something is rarely a powerful stimulator of lifelong desire. But neither is being sent off on one’s own to do something on their own. Nor is doing something that doesn’t give us any sense of accomplishment or fulfillment. If you are a low reader or a beginning reader, how would you get success out of such activity?

If you want kids to love reading, set up opportunities for kids to work together and with you around books. If you want them to be lifelong readers, work with them to encourage them to build reading into their daily life when away from school. If you want them to care about books, give them a chance to take on books that might be too hard for them. Give them ways to gain social rewards for using the knowledge that they gain from such reading.

If you don’t want kids to love reading, then sacrifice their instructional time to focus on motivation rather than learning. Or, use reading to isolate kids. Or, treat instructional methodology (asking kids questions in individual conferences instead of in group or class) as a motivator.

Sadly, research doesn’t provide us with methods proven to increase the likelihood kids will become lifelong readers. But it does give us insights into what does motivate people. SSR and DEAR do not match well with those insights.

I appreciate how much you evidently care for your students. I hope you care so much that you’ll be willing to alter your methods to actually meet your very appropriate goals for them.

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"Today a reader, tomorrow a leader." — Margaret Fuller