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Read About Best Practices in Independent Reading


Creating independent readers and thinkers is a goal of every teacher. This module explores the purpose of independent reading and its benefits for students in grades 3–8. In this module, teachers will learn the advantages of independent reading over sustained silent reading, how to choose “just right” books, and how to utilize reader response journals and logs.

Independent Reading

In independent reading, the final stage of comprehensive literacy, students take full responsibility for their reading. As the continuum of reading instruction flows from teacher read-alouds to shared reading to guided reading, students learn and practice good reading strategies with various amounts of responsibility. In the early stages of comprehensive literacy, student responsibility was interposed with teacher responsibility. In the independent reading stage however, students are required to self-select and read materials at their own “just right” levels, navigate texts, and practice on their own what they have learned about comprehending text.

By self-selecting books, students take control of what they read and, therefore, become confident, motivated, and enthusiastic about reading. Because students can now choose what they read, the teacher should have many genres available to them. Books can be recommended to students by teachers or by their peers. A short summary of the book and an explanation of why that book is enjoyable should accompany each recommendation.

During independent reading, students keep reading logs and response journals. The teacher is required to review these logs and journals, as well as conference with individual students, to monitor their progress.

Teacher Roles/Student Roles

Though independent reading requires more from students than teachers, teachers continue to play an integral role in their students' development. Independent reading is a two-person process in which both parties benefit; the student's role necessitates the teacher's role. In other words, the student may be more independent, but he still needs guidance. Notice the differences in student and teacher roles at this stage as outlined in the chart below by Fountas and Pinnell (2001).


Independent Reading versus Sustained Silent Reading

Contrary to what many teachers believe, there is a difference between independent reading and Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) or Drop Everything and Read (DEAR). As detailed in the chart above, independent reading places a huge amount of responsibility on students; teachers simply guide them through mini-lessons and conferences. The process is highly constructive in that the students control both it and the final outcome. Students choose “just right” books, read for a certain amount of time, respond to what they have read by sharing their thoughts with one another, and, finally, keep and manage records of what they have read.

Sustained Silent Reading, on the other hand, is more teacher-controlled. It is an exercise in which the entire class participates at the same time. Students do not manage their own reading or respond to texts; they simply read. During SSR, teachers monitors students’ behaviors, but do not conduct conferences.

Organizing for Independent Reading

Teachers need to consider book genres, classroom arrangement/environment, and their students’ needs and desires when organizing for independent reading. Each consideration is detailed below.


Students must learn how to choose a book that fits their needs, interests, and reading strengths. Therefore, they must be offered a variety of books from which to choose. Classroom libraries should contain familiar and unfamiliar fiction and nonfiction titles of various genres. Fiction genres include historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, realistic fiction, traditional stories (folktales, fairy tales), myths, and legends. Nonfiction genres include biography, autobiography, and informational texts that cover social studies, science, and math-related topics. Poetry can be both fiction and nonfiction.

Each student should be able to read and understand most of what is read with little or no help. Independent reading levels vary among students, so teachers should make sure each genre encompasses a wide range of reading levels. To determine a student’s independent reading level, the teacher should lead him in an oral reading by following the steps below.

  1. Choose 100 sequential words from anywhere in a book the student has not read.
  2. Have the student “cold read” the identified text.
  3. Ask a few comprehension questions, including basic recall and inferential questions. The answers to these questions should not be stated in the text.

After, the teacher should record her findings. The desired score for independent reading at a particular level is ninety-five percent oral-read accuracy or higher with zero or one wrong comprehension answer(s). If the student’s oral-read accuracy at that particular level is between ninety and ninety-four percent with one or two wrong answers, this is the student’s instructional level. Oral-read accuracy below eighty-nine percent with two or three wrong comprehension answers at a particular level indicates this is the student’s frustration level.

Some schools provide funding for classroom libraries; some do not. Teachers in schools where funding is unavailable can try one or more of the following ways to obtain books:

  • Monetary donations from community members
  • Book donations* from stores
  • Book donations* from family members (especially those who have youngsters and teens)
  • Discount bookstores
  • Book clubs or other clubs that offer bonus points towards future purchases

*Teachers might want to browse through donated book to make sure the content and language is appropriate for students.

Organizing for Independent Reading

Room Arrangement/Environment

By design, a classroom should stimulate learning. A classroom that’s supportive of independent readers and thinkers includes charts or posters that remind students of various parts of the independent reading process.

Information About Students

Classroom libraries should contain books that students want to read! To choose books that match students’ interests and reading behaviors, teachers should conduct a reading survey. Through this survey, teachers can identify students’ needs, desires, reading strengths and weaknesses, and what they have been reading.

In addition to the books included as a result of the survey, teachers may also add the following to the classroom library:

  • Books for literature study
  • Poetry
  • Picture books
  • Reference books, including a dictionary, an atlas, and a thesaurus
  • Series books such as Dear America or Little House books
  • Award winning books such as Caldecott and Newberry
  • Leveled books for guided, independent, and home reading
  • Short stories
  • Journals, magazines, and newspapers

Instructional Framework for Independent Reading

Regardless of the task, if a student does not have a clear understanding of what he must do, he will be frustrated and misuse his time. For that reason, effective instructional framework for independent reading is not only needed, it’s also critical.

A teacher’s schedule dictates how the framework will be utilized throughout the school year, but the components of the framework (below) should not be changed.

  1. Book Talks (optional)
  2. Mini-lesson
  3. Independent Reading, Reader Response Journals, and Conferencing
  4. Group Share and Evaluation

Most teachers will find it impossible to include all four components in the daily independent reading block of time. So, some may choose to incorporate the components into small group reading/reader’s workshops. Those teachers may utilize the following framework:

  1. Deliver Book Talk and Mini-lesson at the beginning of small-group reading/reader’s workshop.
  2. Guide Independent Reading and Reader Response Journal writing while conducting small groups
  3. Conference on days when not conducting small groups
  4. Group Share and Evaluate once or twice a week

Let’s examine each component of the framework.

Book Talk

Though optional, a book talk is a wonderful way for a teacher to introduce his class to new genres and authors, bestsellers, and books that his students would not choose themselves. A typical book talk lasts five to seven minutes. “Book talk" might be a new term to some teachers, but the activity itself isn’t new. Most teachers have led variations of a book talk before, during, and after a read-aloud.

Note the following book talk discussion points as identified by Fountas and Pinnell (2001):

  • Discuss title and author
  • Show front and back cover
  • Read aloud the lead or interesting/exciting part of the story
  • Connect book with teacher’s/students’ lives
  • Pose questions
  • Offer brief synopsis
  • Connect book with a similar book
  • Tell a little about the plot of a character
  • Share a response

Here are step-by-step instructions on how to conduct a book talk.

How To Give A Book Talk

  1. Look at everyone.
  2. Speak loudly.
  3. Talk about the characters, the problem in the story, or something that was fun in the story.
  4. Get the audience interested in the book. Read a small part or show the book’s cover and illustrations.


Mini-lessons typically fall under three categories — management, strategies and skills, and literary analysis — and can be revisited throughout the year.

Mini-lessons on management include how to manage the craft of independent reading, organize and handle materials, and work with others quietly and with a clear purpose. In these lessons, students learn to care for books, respect others, identify different genres, choose “just right” books, discuss books in small groups, prepare and give a book talk, return books, keep a record of what they have read, maintain a reader response log, and abandon books. Many of these exercises are routine procedures for independent reading and should, therefore, be introduced at the beginning of the school year.

Mini-lessons on strategies and skills include the same metacognitive and comprehension strategies and skills that are supported during small-group reading and then modeled during read-aloud and shared reading. These lessons may include word-solving strategies, comprehension and metacognitive strategies, how to correctly use nonfiction text features (captions, bullets, graphs, etc.), how to properly identify text structures (cause/effect, problem/solution, description, compare/contrast, and steps in a process/sequence), and fluency skill drills. If these lessons are utilized during read-aloud, shared reading, and small-group reading, teachers do not need to conduct a separate mini-lesson at the beginning of the small-group reading/reader’s workshop.

Mini-lessons on literary analysis include discussion of genres and literary elements (character analysis, setting, problem/plot, etc.), and how to respond to a book (how a book makes a reader feel, what the reader thinks about that book, etc.).

An excellent teacher source for the lessons described above is Guiding Readers and Writers Grades 3–6 by Fountas and Pinnell.

Instructional Framework for Independent Reading

Reader Response Journal

One of the differences between independent reading and sustained silent reading is that after independent reading, students respond to the text they have just read. Students respond most effectively by writing their thoughts in a personal Reader Response Journal.

Note the following salient features of the Reader Response Journal:

  • The Journal is used to record personal responses to text before, during, and after reading.
  • The Journal allows the teacher to monitor a student’s reading, check on his comprehension, discuss what he is reading, and make suggestions for his next book.
  • The Journal can be organized in many ways. Spiral notebooks, loose-leaf binders, sheets of lined paper stapled together, etc., all work. Whatever the design, teachers should allow each student input on how his journal looks and functions. It is important for each student to have ownership of his journal.

Some students might find it difficult to pick a topic or begin writing in their journals because they do not yet know how to respond to text. Teachers must do more than simply tell students to write; they must demonstrate proper technique. To help students ease into journal writing, teachers should provide mini-lessons on how to respond to literature. At the beginning of the year, teachers should model several prompts, list them on chart paper, and hang the paper on the wall. As the year progresses, teachers should model ways to generate a personal topic without using a prompt. A list of these methods should be given to students to keep in their journals for quick reference.

In addition to the Reader Response Journal, the Reading Log is also a valuable management tool for students. In the Reading Log, a student keeps a record of what he has read. The log should include the book title, author, illustrator, genre, and date read.

Although writing is very important, the purpose of independent reading is to read. Therefore, the majority of a student’s time should be spent reading. Students must be taught to maintain a balance between reading and writing. Reading Essentials suggests that a ratio of eighty percent reading to twenty percent writing is a good proportion (Routman, 54).


During a reading conference, a teacher discusses with a student what that student has been reading and what he may want to read next. The teacher may also ask the student to retell what has been read and then pose a few comprehension questions. The information gathered may help a teacher decide what to teach in a small group or when to move a student to a different small group.

During conferences (especially at the beginning of the year), teachers may talk more than students simply to draw information from them. After a few months however, students will talk more, perhaps even more than the teacher. Readers who struggle might need more time adjust. Teachers should be patient and provide support during conferences. They should ask questions often and try not to accept yes or no answers.

Finally, every teacher should keep a conference journal. Students and other teachers do not need to see the journal; however, it may be used during school conferences and parent-teacher conferences to support inferences and conclusions drawn about individual students.

Group Share and Evaluation

Independent readers pull together as a community of readers during Group Share and Evaluation. The Share and Evaluation portion of the overall lesson may last fifteen to twenty minutes or longer, and includes pair, small-group, and whole-group discussions. Group Share activities may involve the following:

  • Reading parts of a book and marking the shared text with self-stick notes
  • Sharing responses and lessons learned as readers
  • Reading something that was written before coming to the pair or group discussion
  • A book talk

Sample Management Mini-Lesson for Independent Reading

The following sample mini-lesson incorporates two types of lessons—a management lesson for writing a reader response and a comprehension strategy lesson on making connections (previously modeled during read-aloud and shared reading, and practiced during small-group reading):

Say: Boys and girls, I’ve just read a chapter from Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. I want to show you how to write a good response by letting you know what I’m thinking. Remember how we have been making connections during read-aloud and shared reading? Well, that’s what type of response I’m going to write. Let me reread what I read earlier so you know what’s going on.

Update students on what has happened so far in the story. Read pages 40–55 aloud.

Say: Wow! I need to think about this for a minute. She’s left all alone on that island with no one else. There is nobody to help her. And she’s only twelve or so. I don’t think I could do that. Watch me as I write a reader response that shows you what I’m thinking and how the text connects to my own life.

First I want to make sure I explain some information about what I'm reading. So I'll write the date, the name of the book, and the author's name at the top of the page in my journal.

Write that information clearly, at the top of the chart paper. Then, write the following response on the chart paper underneath the book information.

I wonder how lonely Karana is on the island. She's all by herself! I don't think I could stand being without my parents. I'm so close to them. I didn't even like being away from them when I went to children's camp. I would say that Karana's a lot stronger and braver than I am. She's going to survive. I know that because she talks about making weapons. She's not going to let those dogs get her like they got Ramo.

After writing the response, ask students to read it to themselves. Then ask:

What do you notice about my response? How long is it? Did I worry about spelling or grammar? Have I corrected any of my writing? How many words did I put on a line? Did I skip any lines? Have I gone back and graded it?

Identify Criteria for Quality Response

The answers to the questions above will help students identify criteria for a quality response without the teacher directly stating them. Asking students to think about the response requires them to take ownership of their own responses and, most importantly, demonstrates that they have a say in the criteria.

Using the students’ answers, the teacher can create a criteria chart that may look similar to the chart below. Students should compare their responses against the criteria chart before turning them in.

I will write a good reader response if I . . .

  1. think before I write.
  2. write my response based on the strategy I am learning.
  3. write at least half a page.
  4. write at least four words on each line.
  5. don’t skip lines.
  6. don’t worry about the writing so much; this is just a rough draft of my thoughts.

The entire mini-lesson can be completed in one day, but some teachers might want to teach the mechanics of the response on one day and the criteria for a quality response on the following day.

Component The Student’s Role The Teacher’s Role
• Listen to and participate in lessons
• Listen to and follow directions for reading and for responding in journals
• Select topics based on observations of student needs, interests, and curriculum goals
• Provide mini-lessons on management, literary works, and effective reading strategies, using examples from real texts
• Remind students to apply what they’ve learned during mini-lessons to their independent reading
• Select appropriate books
• Read silently without disturbing others
• Write responses in journals
• Keep records of independent reading
• Provide mini-lessons on choosing “just right” books
• Assist readers in choosing “just right” books
• Monitor and analyze students’ responses and reading logs
• Confer with teacher about different aspects of reading
• Know when a conference is needed
• Sometimes read aloud for teacher observation
• Share and talk about response journals with the teacher
• Have engaging conversations with students
• Assist students with the craft of independent reading
• Sample students’ oral reading, checking often for fluency and phrasing
• Sometimes discuss response journals
Group Sharing
• Share thinking in pairs, small groups, and large groups
• Evaluate personal reading progress and what was learned from personal reading
• Invite students to share
• Reinforce concepts taught during mini-lessons
• Ask the class or a group to summarize what they have learned