Sunday, October 30, 2016

Independent Reading: One Key to Balanced Literacy Instruction

Two weeks ago I posted a research-based response to literacy commentator Tim Shanahan's continuing dismissal of Independent Reading. The post prompted a twitter exchange with Dr. Shanahan in which he questioned the research and I reiterated the broad based support for Independent Reading that I found among literacy experts. The exchange ended with this tweet.

Ignoring for a moment that "fair and balanced" is the slogan of Fox News, I would like to address how Independent Reading is, indeed, a part of a balanced approach to literacy instruction. You can judge who is being fair to kids.

Since its introduction in 1983, Pearson and Gallagher's gradual release of responsibility model has been the gold standard for teaching complex reading strategies. The gradual release model calls for instruction to be organized around four experiences to ensure student learning: explicit description of the strategy, teacher modeling of the strategy, teacher and student collaboration and guided practice in using the strategy, and independent use of the strategy. This model informs much of the current literature on teaching, including Lucy Calkins' "mini-lessons" in reading and writing workshop. Pearson and Fielding (1991) further refined the model specifically for reading comprehension instruction practices that called for read alouds, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading.

In her highly influential book, Becoming Literate (1991), Marie Clay called for a model of instruction where students had daily opportunities to be read to, to be read with and to read on their own. Once again we see an instructional design that includes Independent Reading as a part of the mix for balanced instruction.

So just what does constitute balanced literacy according to the models of Pearson and Clay? Clearly, read aloud, shared reading, guided reading and independent reading all play a role. Let's look at the role of each.

Read Aloud: I have written about the need for read aloud in the past here and here, but for the purposes of this post I would like to address interactive read aloud. An interactive read aloud provides an opportunity for teachers to stop along the way of the reading and model, through a think aloud, problem solving strategies as they are reading. Strategies that can be demonstrated this way include comprehension monitoring (Oops! I didn't understand that.), fix-up strategies (re-reading, adjusting reading rate, activating background knowledge), vocabulary in context strategies, etc. The key to interactive read aloud is to explicitly identify the strategy for the students, explaining why you are using the strategy and then talking aloud to model the problem solving process.

Shared Reading: Teachers often think of shared reading as "big book" reading, where a large format book is placed on the easel and teacher and student read the book interactively, usually with primary grade students. But shared reading can use a wide variety of texts and is effective across the grades. Poetry, short passages from longer texts, even textbook passages can be used for shared reading as long as all students can get eyes on the passage at the same time. Shared reading experiences should include an element of teacher modeling, collaborative predicting and questioning, choral reading, and teacher and student collaboration in word identification and comprehension.

Guided Reading: In guided reading, students and teachers collaborate to read a text that provides a bit of challenge for the reader and that allows the reader to use learned strategies on the fly in real reading situations. It is "guided" by the teacher because the teacher chooses the text, determines the teaching targets, listens in and scaffolds the reading of the text and leads the discussion after reading. Students practice their growing reading abilities in a supportive environment and with a book that asks them to stretch within their own "zone of proximal development."

Independent Reading: The opportunity to sit and read a book of your own choosing and at your own comfort level completes the instructional cycle that is the gradual release of responsibility. Independent Reading is the "reading by" of Clay's model. Independent Reading gives the reader an opportunity to consolidate skills, practice strategies taught in the classroom, and learn that reading can and should be an enjoyable, transporting experience. Independent Reading does not mean "hands-off" teaching, however. Children, because they are children, are not always good at making choices. They need our guidance to make sure that they find something to read of interest and within their reach as a reader. Independent Reading also provides the teacher with an opportunity to listen in to a reader and to to have a conversation with a reader about the reading. It is important that these conversations be a collaborative exchange and not a comprehension quiz. It is also important that readers have a chance to talk about their reading with other students in the class.

Tim Shanahan says that the research does not support Independent Reading as a productive instructional strategy. He bases his position on his reading of "scientific" research. He says that all the research supporting Independent Reading is flawed or unable to make a clear causal relationship between Independent Reading and improved reading achievement. In my post two weeks ago, I tried to show that many other respected researchers and theorists in the literacy field disagree. When we apply models of instruction such as those suggested by Pearson and Clay, we can see yet another reason to support Independent Reading in a balanced approach to literacy instruction.

Works Cited

Clay, M. (1991). Becoming Literate. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Pearson, P.D., & Fielding, L. (1991).Comprehension Instruction. In R. Barr, M.L. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, & P.D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of Reading Research. (Vol.2, pp. 815-860). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Pearson, P.D. & Gallagher, M.C. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 8(3), 317-344.

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