Improving independent reading in below-average readers

Independent, sustained, silent reading is commonly used in elementary and middle school classrooms to improve reading achievement. However, many teachers have observed that during independent reading time, some children are not really reading. Although they may be quietly looking at a book, these children are rarely engaged with the print and, therefore, are not benefitting fully from the reading opportunity provided by independent reading sessions. Some of these children have adequate reading skills and simply need instruction in selecting books of interest. More problematic, however, are the below-average readers who, without help, find independent reading unrewarding.

According to Linda Fielding and Cathy Roller, University of Iowa, these children “cannot read the books they want to read and they do not want to read the books they can read.” In other words, these readers have difficulty with grade-level books, but they are embarrassed to read easier (“baby”) books. In addition to the stigma attached to reading easier books, older children find their subject matter uninteresting.

Strategies for improving independent reading

Working with 8 to 10-year-old summer-school students, Fielding and Roller developed several strategies for improving independent reading in below-average readers. Initially, they spent considerable time teaching students how to judge the difficulty level of books by reading jackets and sampling paragraphs. Subsequently, they devoted much of their time trying “to make difficult books accessible and easy books acceptable.”

Although students were encouraged to spend most of their time with books they found easy to read, Fielding and Roller suggest:

1. Students should be allowed time with difficult books. Even though they may not actually read these books, they can increase their content knowledge by looking at them and asking questions of peers or the teacher.

2. Difficult books can be read to students either by the teacher or by a more able student.

3. Students can listen and follow along with tape recordings of books, modeling fluent reading.

4. A difficult book can be made more accessible by preceding it with an easier book on the same topics, thus enabling the student to develop a reading vocabulary and basic knowledge of the subject.

Fielding and Roller found that avoiding ability grouping and competition is helpful in establishing a supportive atmosphere which difnifies the reading of easier books. They state, as well, that children need access to a wide range of topics at all reading levels. Fielding and Roller further suggest that:

1. Children need to be told that most of the reading adults do for pleasure is with books they find easy to read. Modeling the reading of easy books for pleasure removes some of the stigma from easy books. Children should be encouraged to talk about the easy books they like and why – and they should be encouraged to reread them just for fun.

2. Children can practice reading easy books in preparation for reading to younger children. Establishing an oral reading program in which students either read to young children in person or make fluent tapes for their use can be effective.

3. Students needs to be exposed to more non-fiction works. Students are often more willing to read easier non-fiction books because they can choose subjects that are inappropriate for their age.

Fielding and Roller emphasize the importance of expanding the concept of acceptable reading. Students should understand that reading easier books, whether for their own pleasure, for reading to younger children, for learning about a new topic, or simply for improving their own reading skills is okay. Awareness of these possibilities can inspire less able readers to become engaged in independent reading.

The summer reading program was an especially good time to encourage children to spend most of their time with easy (independent level) books. Fielding and Roller report that in this program, reading easy books became acceptable to students. Students were able to articulate why they were reading easy books and they grew to understand and accept that practice with easier books would improve their reading ability.

“Making Difficult Books Accessible and Easy Books Acceptable” The Reading Teacher Volume 45, Number 9, pp. 678-684.

Published in ERN September/October 1992 Volume 5 Number 4

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