Sunday, October 16, 2016

Independent Reading: A Research Based Defense

Independent Reading, sometimes called SSR, DEAR or SQUIRT, is an instructional strategy where students are given time in class to read self-selected books. An instructional strategy which has been around since the 1970s, it has two goals:

  1. Provide students with time to practice the reading strategies they have learned through classroom instruction in a real reading situation and, therefore, improve reading achievement.
  2. Promote positive attitudes towards reading in the hopes of making reading a life-long habit for children.

Recently, literacy guru, Tim Shanahan, has reiterated his opposition to Independent Reading (SSR, DEAR) as an in the classroom instructional strategy. You can read his two most recent blogs on the topic here and here. Shanahan's opposition is based on the following:

  1. A lack of empirical research to support the practice for improving reading achievement.
  2. Independent Reading violates what we know about motivational activities and, therefore, will not create lifelong readers.
It is important to note here that Shanahan's opposition to Independent Reading is not new. He was a prominent member of the National Reading Panel(NRP) study, the precursor of the Reading First initiative, that concluded that "even though encouraging students to read more is intuitively appealing, there is still not sufficient research evidence of high methodological quality to support the idea that such efforts reliably increase how much students read or that such programs result in improved reading skills" (NRP, 2000, pp. 12-13).

In truth there has always been a large amount of research evidence that Independent Reading does improve reading performance and motivation to read, including hundreds of correlational research studies, but the NRP study ignored this research because it did not meet their standards of "high methodological quality." Shanahan has explained that correlational studies cannot be used to determine if Independent Reading was the cause of improvement or if other factors were the cause. 

But there is much more to this story. As Garan and DeVoogd (2008) have pointed out, many areas of human endeavor do not lend themselves well to experimental research designs. Correlational studies have long been recognized as a viable and necessary form of human research. As Stanovich (2007) suggests, just because correlational studies have limited value in making causative conclusions does not mean they are not important to guiding understanding. Cunningham (2001) noted that without the evidence from correlational studies we would have not established the link between smoking and cancer. The NRP rejection of these studies skewed their findings on Independent Reading (Krashen, 2001, Cunningham, 2001, Garan and DeVoogd, 2008). 

Shanahan's second concern is that Independent Reading violates what we know about motivation because it is not truly independent. He says that if the teacher chooses the time for reading, guides the text selection and requires some sort of accountability (like writing after reading, reading aloud during a conference), that we cannot argue that we are encouraging lifelong reading, but simply employing another instructional strategy that is neither independent nor motivating.

Shanahan says, "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."

I've read a lot of literature on the topic as well. I know, for instance that limiting choice does not necessarily limit motivation. In fact, helping a child find a book that is personally interesting and that that child is able to read may be more motivating than leaving kids to wander through the shelves with infinite choices in front of them. Having a teacher sit next to you to hold a conference about what you are reading may be an accountability measure, but it can also be motivational for children. Children need to know that someone is interested in what they are reading and what they think about what they are reading. One of the key jobs of the teacher is to set up an environment where kids desire to learn can be unleashed in a productive way. Providing a routine for Independent Reading is one way to unleash learning potential. 

So, in 2016 what can we say about the research support for Independent Reading? Unlike Shanahan, most literacy researchers would argue that Independent Reading is well supported by the research. Here is a sampling of research and conclusions from reviews of the research.

Yoon (2002) - Sustained Silent Reading facilitated the development of positive attitudes towards reading.

Samuels and Wu (2003) - Independent Reading is beneficial to all students. It is important to match books to student's reading ability.

Lewis & Samuels (2003) - SSR has a positive impact on student reading achievement.

Garan & DeVoogd (2008) - There is a convergence of research to support independent reading in schools.

Hiebert & Reutzel (2010) - The stamina of readers can be supported by effective, independent, silent reading practice conditions put in place by well-informed and vigilant teachers.

Guthrie (2004) - Simply having Independent Reading time does not ensure engagement. Engaged reading is key.

Topping, et al. (2007) - The quality of the Independent Reading time matters more than the quantity. 

McRea & Guthrie (2009) - Opportunities to engage in independent reading enhance both reading achievement and intrinsic motivation to read.

Gambrell, et al. (2011) - The research base supports the notion that the reading curriculum should incorporate time and opportunities for students to engage in independent reading.

Allington, Billen and McQuiston (2015) - There is sufficient research evidence to support the notion that reading volume is very important to the reading development of students.

The verdict seems clear. A well-planned, well-executed program of Independent Reading is an important part of sound literacy instruction. To be most successful teachers should follow a few guidelines from the research.

  1. Make every effort to ensure student engagement in reading during Independent Reading time. This includes making sure that students are in a book that they can read successfully on their own and monitoring the class during reading time.
  2. Guide student book choice for appropriateness and interest level by working beside them as they make selections.
  3. Confer with individual students regularly. Rather than quizzing their comprehension, start a conversation about the book. What stood out for you? is a good conversation starter.
  4. Provide regular opportunities for students to talk about their reading with other students in partnerships or small groups.
  5. Assist students in making goals for their reading and have them keep track of their progress toward the goals.
  6. Through modeling, teach students how to respond to their reading through a variety of written and oral formats including a response journal,in text post-it notes, letters to the teacher, quick writes, etc.
  7. Rather than set an arbitrary amount of time for Independent Reading from the start, work to build student stamina. Early on in establishing the routine for Independent Reading, stop the reading as soon as students begin to fidget, whether that is in 3 minutes or 15. The next day set a goal for Independent Reading that is a few minutes more than the previous day, until you have built the time spent engaged in reading to your desired length - 20, 30, 40 minutes depending on age and grade.
Shanahan says one of the reasons that Independent Reading fails is that "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him take a bath." That may be true, but I think you can lead a child to reading and set up conditions where she is most likely to engage in reading. And if we can get kids reading good books, the research would indicate they will improve their reading and be motivated to continue the reading habit. The best reading motivator is getting lost in a good book that speaks to you in some deeply personal way.

Works Cited

Allington, R. Billen, M, & McCuiston, K. (2015) The potential impact of Common Core State Standards on reading volume. In Pearson, P. D. & Hiebert, E. Research-Based Practices for Teaching Common Core Literacy. NY: Teachers College Press

Cunningham, J. W. (2001). The National Reading Panel Report. Reading Research Quarterly., 30(3), 326-335.

Gambrell, L.B. et al. (2011). The Importance of Independent Reading. In Samules, S.J. & Farstrup, A. What Research Has to Say about Reading Instruction (4th ed.). Newrak, DE: International Reading Association.

Garan, E. & Devoogd, G. (2008) The Importance of Sustained Silent Reading: Scientific Research and Common Sense. The Reading Teacher, 62(4), 336-344. Retrieved from http://wendyharp73.wiki.westga.edu/file/view/benefits+of+sustained+silent+reading.pdf

Guthrie, J. (2004) Teaching for Literacy Engagement. Journal of Literacy Research, 36(1), 1-29

Hiebert, E. & Reutzel, D. (eds.) (2010). Revisiting silent reading: New directions for teachers and researchers. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Krashen, S. (2002) More smoke and mirrors: A critique of the National Reading Panel report on fluency. In R. Allington (Ed). Big Brother and the National Reading Curriculum. How Ideology Trumoed Evidence (112-124). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Lewis, M. & Samuels, S.J. (2005). Read more, read better? A meta-analysis of the literature on the relationship between exposure to reading and reading achievement. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.

McRea, A. & Guthrie, J. (2009). Promoting reasons for reading: teacher practices that impact motivation. In E. H. Hiebert (Ed). Reading more, reading better. (55-76). NY: Guilford

National Institute of Child Health and Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel (NIH Publication 00-4769) Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/documents/report.pdf

Samuels, S. & Wu, Y. (2003). How the amount of time spent on independent reading affects reading achievement: A response to the National Reading Panel. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.

Yoon, J. (2002). Three decades of sustained silent reading: A mta-analytic review of the affects of SSRon attitude toward reading. Reading Improvement, 39(4), 186-195.