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Read About Best Practices in Independent Reading

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This module explores the purpose of independent reading and its benefits for students in grades K–2. In this session, teachers will learn the many aspects of Independent Reading, including the purpose of leveled books, how to choose the right leveled book for each student, the value of rereading, the benefits of “reading” a classroom, and the importance of the Reading Response Journal and Reader Log.

What Is Independent Reading?

Independent reading in grades K–2 offers students a daily opportunity to practice reading books that are easy for them to understand.

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 in grades K–2 are required to self-select and read material at their own “easy” reading level, navigate texts, and practice alone or with a partner what they have learned about comprehending text. These students utilize a wide variety of reading materials and benefit in the following three ways:

  1. They independently apply previously learned reading strategies.
  2. They practice fluency through rereading.
  3. They build confidence through rereading.

Determining Each Student’s Easy Reading Level

The value of easy reading is that students are able to practice reading by utilizing material that is at their independent or easy reading level. A student has reached his easy reading level when he is able to read 95-100% of the words in a book without help. In other words, if a book has 100 words, the student should be able to independently read 95-100 of them. If the book has thirty words, he should be able to read twenty-eight to thirty of them without help.

If a teacher wants to determine the reading level of a kindergarten student early in the year, she would ask that student to read a Level A book, because Level A is the level most associated with early kindergarten readers. She discovers that the student is able to read all twenty-five words in the book. The student, therefore, scores 100%. As a result of her findings, the teacher decides to have the student read a Level B book. The Level B book contains forty-five words, but the student can only read forty of them. In other words, the student can only read 88% of the words in that book. The Level B book is too difficult, so the teacher determines that the student needs to read a Level A book during easy reading time.

Organizing for independent reading at the Emergent and Early Levels

During independent reading, students require little or no teacher support. However, a teacher must continue to stimulate her students’ collective desire to read. By considering her students’ wants and needs, the teacher effectively organizes for independent reading. She motivates emergent and early readers by:

  • Utilizing leveled texts
  • Building classroom libraries
  • Teaching them to “read the walls”
  • Creating classroom centers
  • Considering classroom arrangement/environment

Using Leveled Texts

Leveled books for emergent and early readers offer a supportive framework unlike any other texts. While typical publishers of texts for emergent and early readers consider word length, number of words, and controlled vocabulary, creators of leveled books have a better understanding of those readers and, therefore, incorporate more elements into their texts. These additional elements — or characteristics — better support readers at the easy level.

Characteristics of Emergent and Early Texts

Book Level Characteristics
Emergent Text
  • One sentence per page
  • One line of print
  • Simple punctuation
  • Single syllable words
  • One repetitive line/sentence
  • Text on a white background
  • High picture support
  • Written in first person
  • Familiar concepts
  • Large font
  • Large spaces
Early Text
  • Multiple sentences per page
  • Some sentences cross pages
  • Large font
  • Large spaces
  • Two, three, or four lines of print per page
  • Multi-syllabic words
  • Two or three repetitive phrases/sentences
  • Text is in various places on page
  • Picture support lessons
  • Written in present and past tense
  • Somewhat familiar concepts

Classroom Libraries

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. Independent and easy reading levels vary among students, so teachers should make sure each genre encompasses a wide range of reading levels.

During Independent Reading, a student should be able to read and understand most of the text with little or no help. A student’s independent reading level is reached when that student can read 95% of the chosen book accurately. One way to ensure that students are reading on their independent level is to place titles in colored baskets or tubs and instruct students to choose only the titles that correspond to their reading level. For example, all Level A text titles can be placed in a red basket and all Level B titles in a blue basket. Another way is to teach students the “three finger method” of finding just right books. The “three finger method” applies if a student does not know three words on a page. They then must choose another book.

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
  • Discount book stores
  • Scholastic 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.

Read the Wall

During independent reading, all written material in the classroom — including charts and posters that hang on the walls — can be utilized. A favorite activity for students in many primary classrooms is to “read the room.” Students love to read the words and stories that their teacher has posted on the walls! More importantly, they benefit from this exercise. Each time a student rereads a piece of writing, he reads more fluently, noticing the letters, words, and punctuation that will help him read more difficult texts in the future.

A wide variety of texts can be found on the doors and walls of a classroom, including the following:

  • Nursery rhymes
  • Song lyrics
  • Word charts
  • Poetry charts
  • Posters
  • Alphabet and number charts
  • Name charts
  • Interactive Writing stories
  • Story maps


A classroom center or community reading space is a wonderful way to augment unassisted reading. A teacher may consider introducing one or more of the reading tools described below into the center to ensure that students engage in meaningful activities when they are asked to work independently.

Browsing Box

A browsing box can be a box, basket or a magazine rack that is large enough to hold seven to ten books that a student has previously read in small-group reading. Students reread the books while sitting in the center reading area or at their desks when the teacher is otherwise engaged. This activity promotes fluency and automaticity in reading.

Poem Box

A poem box contains poems that the teacher and students have read together during shared reading. During independent reading, a student selects a poem to reread silently or aloud to a partner. Students can make their own poetry folders in which they collect copies of poems that were shared in class, or they can create a large book of poems that belongs to the entire class. Poem puzzles can also be created by first printing poems on large sheets of paper and then cutting the poems apart, line by line. The lines, or “pieces” of the puzzle, can then be spread out on a table for students to “fit” back together. When the puzzle is completed, students can then reread the poem to one another.

Buddy Reading

Students love to read with a partner! During buddy reading, students can read a book to each other, alternating pages if they wish, or they can choral read the text.

Reading Journals and Logs

Reading Response Journals are kept by students and used to record personal responses to texts they have read or will read. Young students (K–1) can draw pictures as a means of reflecting on their reading. Regardless of age or reading level, every student should share his thoughts on paper before, during, and after reading.

A Reading Log is also a valuable independent reading tool. In Reading Logs, students keep a record of what they have read by writing the book title, author, illustrator, genre, and date read.

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. For example, the chart below reminds students how to give 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.

Physical Space

In your classroom layout, you will want to be sure to allot a space for whole group instruction. A carpeted area of the floor is usually the whole group setting in primary classrooms. The teacher will need a comfortable chair and a place to store instructional materials as well as display the books to be read.


You will also want to have a variety of instructional materials on hand. You will need a basket for pointers, highlighter tape, sticky notes in a variety of sizes, wicki sticks, framing cards/paddles, and anything else you find you need for your lessons. You will also want to have a chart or big book stand so your hands can be free to point out things in the text. Depending on your stand, you might want to keep a few clothespins handy to hold the pages in some books.

Instructional Framework for Independent Reading at Transitional and Fluent Levels

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, Reading Response Journal, 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/readers’ workshop. Those teachers may utilize the following framework:

  1. Conduct book talks once or twice a week at the beginning of readers’ workshop
  2. Deliver a mini-lesson at the beginning of small-group reading or readers’ workshop
  3. Guide independent reading and Reading Response Journal writing while conducting small groups
  4. Conference on days when not conducting small groups
  5. Group Share and Evaluate once or twice a week

Instructional Framework for Independent Reading at Transitional and Fluent Levels

Book Talks

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 and is similar to what students might have seen on Reading Rainbow, a popular television show. “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.


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” easy read books, discuss books in small groups, prepare and give a book talk, return books, maintain a Reading Response Journal and Reading 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.

Reading Response Journal

Students respond to text most effectively by writing their thoughts in a personal Reading Response Journal. Notice the salient features of the 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 Reading Response 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 Reading Response Journals for quick reference.

In addition to the Reading Response Journal, the Reading Log is also a valuable management tool a student. In a 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.

At the beginning of the year, teachers may talk more than students during conferences 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 to the procedure. 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. This portion of the overall lesson may last fifteen to twenty minutes or longer, and includes pair, small-group, and whole-group discussions. Group Share and Evaluation 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

Periodically, independent reading time is disrupted. What follows is a procedural lesson to help teachers handle classroom interference during a conference.

  • Say: Yesterday, as I was conferring with John, several students interrupted me to ask a question. Has this ever happened to you when you were conferencing with me?
  • Several students shake their heads yes.
  • Say: John and I were constantly interrupted and could not remember what we were talking about and could not focus on our work. Right John?
  • John nods in agreement.
  • Say: I know you really need to talk to me, but I cannot stop in the middle of a conference. What suggestions do you have for solving this problem? Talk to your neighbors and see what ideas you can come up with.
  • After a few minutes the students decide to create a waiting list.
  • Say: From now on before I begin a conference, I’ll place a white board and a dry erase pen on the chalkboard ledge. If you have questions to ask me, write your name on the board. When I am finished with my conference, I will call your name and you can come up and ask your questions. This way, the person I am conferencing with will have my full attention and you will get your questions answered when we are finished. What do you think about that idea?
  • The students agree that it is a good idea.

That mini-lesson should take approximately ten to fifteen minutes and should be revisited at the end of independent reading time to evaluate its effectiveness. If the new procedure does not work, the teacher should brainstorm with students again to find another solution.