Rethinking Independent Reading and “Just Right” Texts: The Continuing Case for Whole-Class Literacy Instruction

“Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?” That the river is everywhere at the same time… and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future” 

The above quote is from Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. I remember learning about the importance of the river in my IB A Level English class back in 2011. As an almost English teacher, naturally some of my fondest memories took place there. While my teachers never explicitly set creating a reader identity as a goal, I nonetheless have what you would call a love of reading. Even so, my reader identity  wasn’t cultivated due to setting aside time for independent reading, but because of the skills and knowledge that I learned and continue to think about to this day. Using the recent work of Jo Westbook and Timothy Shanahan, I argue that instead of having our immediate goal be to instill a love of reading, we should first focus our attention on what we as teachers can directly control: ensuring that students can decode fluently, and reading knowledge-rich texts together.

Independent Reading? Not Really Research-Based 

From the simple view of reading, if a student is reading below grade level, this can be due to a lack of background knowledge, or lagging decoding and fluency skills–in the age of Balanced Literacy, it’s probably a mix of both. As such, for many students that are sent to read independently, reading is a struggle and likely not enjoyable. For this reason, secondary reading methods courses mistakenly suggest using High-Interest Low-Level books instead of remediating a likely source of the apathy: weak decoding skills and background knowledge (neither of which were ever mentioned in my course work).

Using choice, or self-selected texts for reading instruction, is a noble attempt at differentiating for students with varied reading proficiencies and engaging reluctant readers, but is ultimately a flawed approach. While much of Young Adult literature has diverse characters and perspectives (which is an obvious plus) use of these High/Low texts fails to consider that

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Graphic novel adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey

any bad habits formed as a result of multi-cueing, such as guessing or skipping words, still persist when students  read a book at “their level”. The only difference might be that they guess less frequently because the language in their books is not as complex, or they can rely on pictures for meaning. 

Timothy Shanahan, who was a part of the National Reading Panel, recently published a blog on the evidence for and against independent reading. His response, while not advocating for a ban of independent reading, pointed out that the results either show no improvement at all or have very small effects on reading comprehension. Per Shanahan, this doesn’t mean that reading practice can’t improve reading achievement, only that the types of practice evaluated so far haven’t done so.

Choosing books based on lexile or interest can miss the rich language, vocabulary, and knowledge that comes from more complex books, so teaching a reading skill and having students apply it independently to a “just right” book they’ve read in silence may not be the best approach to bridging the gap for our most vulnerable students. This approach also disadvantages higher-performing students who would benefit from teacher-led instruction in pushing them beyond what they could do alone. Luckily, there is promising research that shows that reading together, not individually, will help all students become better readers.

Reading More, Reading Better 

A recent study by Jo Westbook et al (2018) studied the effect of reading at a faster pace between average and poor readers ages 12-13. Over the course of twelve weeks, all students made an average of 8.5 months of progress on standardized tests of reading comprehension, but the poorer readers made 16 months of progress. 16 months in 12 weeks. By reading with your class at a fast pace– not chopping it up, practicing comprehension skills with short passages, filling out worksheets every page, and committing what Kelly Gallagher calls “readicide”– you reposition poorer readers as good readers, and heighten your expectations of their reading ability. 

 When we consider this information in terms of cognitive load– the total amount of mental activity imposed on working memory- the increase in performance makes sense. As the teacher reads aloud and students follow along, student attention can be given to comprehension rather than decoding, and by stopping infrequently at “sticking-points” to check for comprehension, the flow of the story isn’t interrupted, and students can become more engaged with the text. 

In the study, the faster read also impacted the behavior, motivation and engagement of poorer readers, and was characterized by students rushing into their English lessons in excited anticipation (Westbrook et al 2018). The students were excited about the stories and couldn’t wait to keep reading: no choice necessary. 

Raising Expectations

Many of the biggest proponents of independent reading often propose that the students they serve will never read outside of school,  that whole-class “just doesn’t work” for some kids, or perhaps they may even think that students are too far behind for grade level work. The study by Westbrook challenged these notions by confronting the teachers’ assumptions of what all students, especially poor readers, could do. In turn, the teachers’ activities were more cognitively demanding and students rose to the occasion (Westbrook et. al. 2018).  Differentiation shouldn’t mean different sets of texts; we should teach grade level work, and scaffold back accordingly for the students who need it. 

If you don’t want to read To Kill a Mockingbird because it’s “dry”, then fine– just don’t sell students short by choosing a lesser text due to the idea that struggling readers can’t reach grade level.  Everyone– white, black; poor, rich; poor reader, strong reader– benefits from the shared learning experience of reading and discussing a complex, knowledge-rich text. We should challenge ourselves, our students, and our assumptions about the environments we teach in, and provide the required support in reading these texts.

This study and the expert opinion of Timothy Shanahan give us something to reflect on as we consider our pedagogical practices in the day and age of choice. Before focusing our efforts on instilling a love of reading, we should:

  1. Ensure all students can read and decode fluently before setting aside large chunks of time for independent reading (if we do it at all)
  2. Read more full length, high-quality, knowledge-rich books together. 

 Surely, we can agree on that. 

I’m on twitter @MsJasmineMN


Works Cited

1.Just reading’: the impact of a faster pace of reading narratives on the comprehension of poorer adolescent readers in English classrooms Jo Westbrook et al 2018

2. Isn’t Independent Reading a Research-Based Practice? Timothy Shanahan

3. **Readicide by Kelly Gallagher 

**I wouldn’t particularly recommend Gallagher’s book. Read Focus by Mike Schmoker instead– it essentially has the same ideas as Gallagher, but is more grounded in practices that amplify student academic success. 

Further Reading From Prof. Shanahan on Complex Texts

The Instructional Level Concept Revisited: Teaching with Complex Text

Eight Ways to Help Kids to Read Complex Text



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