Why I give my students time to read

Photo Credit: nSeika

Photo Credit: nSeika

Since last year, I have set aside the first ten minutes of every class I teach as silent reading time. During these ten minutes, students may choose any book they like to read. If a student forgets a book one day or if a student simply wants a new book to read, he or she may choose a book from the nearly 1,000 options on my classroom shelves.  Then everyone reads for ten minutes, after which we start the lesson. To my students and I, these ten minutes have become sacred: I discourage library trips and bathroom visits, and silence does mean silence – no mouthed conversations or noisy interruptions.

I started this practice halfway through last school year after I read Penny Kittle’s newest book, Book Love (Kittle, 2012), over Christmas break. The book details how Penny sets aside time in her class for students to read and process books. She shares practical tips for conferencing and assessment, as well as success stories from her students who have become life-long readers. I have tried implementing some of her tips in my class, including her  individualized goals for reading based on the number of pages read and her conferences with students about their reading.

I immediately started to see improvements in both my students’ attitudes about reading and their reading skills after simply asking them to read for ten minutes per day. Multiple teenagers who had never read a chapter book on their own (Teenagers! Who have never read a book on their own! How much are we failing as teachers if this is happening?) told me that they had read their first book, and asked where they could find more like it. Many others who enjoyed reading told me they loved having time to read in class, because they couldn’t find time at home with sports, church, homework, and everything else. I also began to see a gradual improvement in my students’ writing and mechanics- nothing life shattering, but there was improvement.

Usually, when I mention how I have fallen in love with sustained silent reading to other teachers, I get a few standard reactions. Some teachers roll their eyes and seem to say, “Oh, but you’re a middle school teacher. I haven’t time for such frivolous pursuits in my AP Language classes.”  Other teachers say something like, “I really respect you for caring about reading so much, but in my classes, with x, y, and z to cover this year and all these standards to meet, I don’t really have time to set aside for that.” Unfortunately until now, I haven’t had much ammo in my arsenal to support this practice besides anecdotal proof that it cultivates a love of reading among my students and a gut-level feeling that it is the right thing to do.

However, I recently read an amazing article in English Journal that summarizes the research around silent reading, and the research is astounding. The article, by Stephen Krashen, is titled “Access to Books and Time to Read Versus the Common Core State Standards and Tests” (Krashen, 2013). In the article, Krashen explains that “Students in language […] classes that include time set aside for self-selected reading consistently outperform those in similar classes that do not include self-selected reading time on tests of reading, writing, spelling, vocabulary, and grammar.” Also, he points out that in an international study of reading and literacy, while socioeconomic status was the strongest predictor of literacy achievement, independent reading time and school library size both related positively to literacy achievement. In contrast, time spent in direct instruction actually had a negative (although not quite statistically significant) impact on literacy – likely implying that direct instruction is needed up to a point, but it cannot possibly account for everything students learn in reading and literacy. Krashen explains (and cites a mountain of research) that shows that the time students spend reading accounts for most of their vocabulary mastery, grammar prowess, and even phonics acquisition, and not direct instruction. Mastery of literacy and academic language, he says, happens when students are allowed to read what they want, and when they read a lot. I’ve done a poor job of summarizing his entire article here, but it is an amazing read and not a long one. Go read it and it just might change your outlook on sustained silent reading.

Now, Krashen uses all of this research to make a valid point about the questionable legitimacy of the Common Core State Standards and the instruction that necessarily goes along with them. However, even if you love the standards, there must come a moment when you realize the obvious – students learn to read and to read more complex texts by reading. They do not learn to read by talking about reading, although discussions about texts can help them process their reading. They do not learn to read by being read to, although read alouds can spark a love of books and capture their interest. They do not learn to read by a teacher standing in front of them and telling them what the words mean. They do not learn to read by being assigned reading. Students learn how to read by reading. And, in order to succeed in building a habit of life-long reading, they have to love to read. How else are students going to learn to love reading unless they are given time to read and the permission to read whatever they want? Sure, there is a place for assigned whole-class texts, teacher encouragement and modeling, and direct instruction. But, this does not discount the fact that students need to read, and they likely aren’t going to do it on their own if they imagine reading as slogging through boring books the teacher picks.

Please, make time for your students to read. Sure, it’s not going to work wonders all the time with every student. But by letting my students read for just ten minutes of my class every day, I’ve let go of some of my control in the classroom and given it back to my students. It has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done.

Works Cited:
Kittle, P. (2012). Book love: Developing depth, stamina, and passion in adolescent readers. Heinemann.
Krashen, S. (2013). Access to books and time to read versus the common core state standards and tests. English Journal103(2), 21-29.

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One thought on “Why I give my students time to read

  1. Tyler, I teach 7th grade and The Book Whisperer was an inspirational book for me, too. I have also read Reading in the Wild (love the idea of having an emergency book), and Book Love. In fact, this past April I went to hear Penny Kittle speak. It seems like every year the number of students who enjoy reading for pleasure dwindles, and every summer I rack my brain trying to come up with ways to help them see how enjoyable reading is. I spend my summer immersed in YA literature, waiting to have book talks with them. Honestly, my best year of independent reading was after I read The Book Whisperer, and I had my students create their reading journals. I also began the day with 10 minutes of independent reading. In addition,they wrote letters to me about what they were reading and I would respond. Time consuming? You bet. Instead of lugging all the notebooks home, I would stay late to read them. Every year since, I have tried new things, but the writing and responding seems to have worked the best.
    This past school year I wanted to expose my students to different genres, so I made a huge paper circle and divided it into 8 genres. The students got a scaled down version on card stock. Each quarter they needed to read two books from different genres and turn in two book projects. I won’t do this again, although it did expose some kids to genres (such as graphic novel) that they otherwise would not have entertained. I had kids weasel out of reading something new by using books they read last year. I caught some of them, but I think by having them write about what they are reading, choosing quotes and responding to them, the kids have to be reading to accomplish this. I need to hold them accountable, but I don’t want to turn them off to reading or look at it as a means to an end. I teach in an inner city school with a large ELL population and a high poverty rate. So many of my students were not read to as kids and have not been to the city library or gone to a book store.
    This year it’s all about CHOICE and time in class to read. I am entertaining blogging as well. In addition to independent reading, we also have a whole class novels: Wonder (Q1: Relationships); A Christmas Carol Play (Q2:Priorities); Jefferson’s Sons (Q3 Identity); The Outsiders (Q4 Choices).
    How did I find you? I was reading The Middle Web and came across a book review you wrote. After reading your blog, I made a connection and thought I’d write. Currently, I am reading Reading Ladders.

    Elizabeth Ellis

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