What is independent reading?

5 Common Mistakes Teachers Make In Independent Reading

Jun 08, 2020

Being a literacy consultant, I get the opportunity to visit lots of schools and observe in lots of classrooms.

I see all types of wonderful teaching practices and I get to constantly compare and contrast the effectiveness of different approaches.

Lately I’ve noticed a few less effective practices when it comes to Independent Reading.

In this post I'm sharing 5 common mistakes teachers can make in their approach to independent Reading:


1. They don’t understand the purpose of Independent Reading

It’s true, reading is proven to be an effective calming technique, but this is NOT the purpose of Independent Reading.

The purpose of (full strength) Independent Reading is to provide students with a supported opportunity to practise all the reading instruction they’ve had up until that point. (This includes instruction on book selection, decoding, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension etc).

To be most effective, explicit reading instruction (in the form of a short explicit teaching session) should precede any Independent Reading. This ensures students are clear on what they should be practicing during their Independent Reading time, as well as what success looks like.

Teachers need to ensure students understand the connection between the explicit teaching part of the lesson and the 'application' part (AKA Independent Reading). The learning intention for the lesson should be evidenced in both.


2. They misinterpret the ‘independent’ part of Independent Reading

Some teachers mistakenly misinterpret the word ‘independent’ to mean ‘unsupported’ or ‘unmonitored.’ When this happens practices such as email checking, daily organising or even roll marking replace much more effective teacher practices such as listening to, talking with and learning about students as readers in this time.

“Independent reading, as practiced by highly effective teachers, contains components such as adult support, embedded instruction, and a student focus that hold real potential for reading growth.”

(Sanden, 2012)

Independent reading time is PRIME time for teachers to learn about their students as readers, so they can better determine their instructional needs. During this time, teachers could be conferring with readers or facilitating small group instruction such as Lit Circles.

Independent Reading time for students is not down time for teachers.

As visible in Fisher and Frey's (2014) Gradual Release of Responsibility framework, the teacher still has some responsibility in the Independent Learning phase of instruction (just as the students do when the teacher is engaged in focused instruction).


3. They don’t provide enough time for Independent Reading

“Kids need to read a lot if they are to become good readers. The evidence on this point is overwhelming…The cornerstone of an effective school organizational plan is allocating sufficient time for lots of reading and writing…”

(Allington, 2012)

There’s no clear answer for just how much class time should be allocated to Independent Reading (Miller and Moss, 2013); it depends on several factors, including student reading stamina (which is always changing).

What IS clear though, is that the time carved out for reading referred to by Allington (2012) and others, is referring to students reading ‘actual’ texts; not doing reading worksheets or reading drills or games disguised as reading.

“All the explicit instruction in the world will not make strong readers unless accompanied by lots of experience applying their knowledge, skills, and strategies during actual reading.”

(Pearson cited in Moss and Young, 2010)

Richard Allington suggests this is especially true for struggling readers:

“We fill struggling readers’ days with tasks that require little reading. If we want to foster reading development, then we must design lessons that provide the opportunities for struggling readers to actually read.” (Allington cited in Harvey and Ward, 2017).


Teaching Implications:

  1. Explicit teaching sessions must be mini! Remember: the person doing the work is doing the learning. Teachers need to quickly get off the stage to give students maximum time to trial and apply the learning from explicit instruction.

  2. Independent Reading time should be protected time. Don't be tempted to eat into the last 5 minutes of Independent Reading time to get students to fill out a worksheet or 'prove' they read the book- especially if you’ve only provided a bare minimum of time for the Independent Reading in the first place.


4. They don’t have a well-stocked classroom library.

“Students in classes with classroom libraries borrow more and read more.”

(Yi et al., 2018; Allington, 2012).

Students need to be surrounded with a wide range of rich and diverse literature to support their reading development. (To learn more about classroom libraries you can read Part 1 and Part 2 of a post I wrote titled “Classroom Libraries: All your questions answered.”)

Essentially, to support effective Independent Reading, teachers should audit their classroom libraries to ensure they contain a diverse range of texts to match the abilities, needs, backgrounds and interests of all students in their classroom.

I won’t repeat the content of my other blog posts, but I will make one important point:

It’s been 30 years since Dr Rudine Bishop first introduced the concept of books being either ‘windows, mirrors or sliding glass doors’ for students. She believed books could be windows to help readers see into someone else’s life, mirrors to reflect the reader’s own life or sliding glass doors to help the reader step into other worlds.

The importance of diversity in texts is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago!

Teachers need to critically reflect on the following questions:

  • How many students can see themselves reflected in the texts in your classroom library?
  • How many texts in your classroom library provide students with a window into someone else’s life, culture, beliefs, experiences?

(Check out your local bookshop or the Oz Lit Teacher mentor text page for suggestions of texts that help promote diversity.)

Also, sign up to the Oz Lit teacher Mailing List to receive a PDF list of recommended mentor texts.

One of my favourite quotes about reading.


5. They don’t have the book knowledge to be a book match-maker

A large part of the support teachers provide to students in Independent Reading in years 3-6 is helping them find suitable books- AKA matching books to kids. 

In Sherry Sanden’s (2012) yearlong study of literacy teachers, she found the most effective teachers employed a variety of scaffolds to support student book choice, including encouraging variety in reading materials and providing reading suggestions.

To provide reading suggestions to students, teachers need to know their students' interests and reading abilities and pair this with a broad knowledge of children’s literature. This means they need to be readers themselves!

“Teachers who do not read are less able to help students select books based on the student’s interests and may not recognise the effect of their methods on student attitudes toward reading.”

(Short and Pierce cited in Moss and Young, 2010)

It’s important to highlight here that teachers reading their own texts during Independent Reading time (in the hope that they’ll inspire students to become engaged lifelong readers) is not considered an effective teaching practice. This used to be promoted in the days of SSR-Sustained Silent Reading, but the thinking around this has since changed. The reasons for this are twofold:

  1. There are far more effective ways of modelling being a passionate, lifelong reader to students- sharing a love of texts through class read-alouds is one example.
  2. Independent Reading is prime time to learn about and support the needs of the students. You can’t do this while engaged in your own reading (as fun as it would be to get paid to read your own book).


Final words...

These 5 common mistakes aren’t the only ones, but in the interests of keeping this post short and sweet I’ll leave it there for today.

As Moss and Young (2010) state, “Independent Reading is a critical component of a quality reading program, but it cannot be the entire reading program…It should not be implemented haphazardly; instead, like every aspect of reading instruction, it should be planned, structured and made a part of students’ daily literacy experiences.”

Implemented effectively, Independent Reading provides the safe training ground for students to road test all the learning they’ve gained from your explicit reading instruction. This protected time for reading can build fluency, improve comprehension, increase vocabulary and create confidence in young readers.

  • How did you go?
  • Are there any parts of your Independent Reading practice that you’d like to strengthen?
  • Have you come across other mistakes with Independent Reading instruction?

Share your thoughts over on the Oz Lit teacher Facebook Group.


Related Blog Posts:




  • Allington, R. (2012). What really matters for struggling readers. 3rd ed. Boston: Pearson.
  • Harvey, S., & Ward, A. (2017). From Striving to Thriving. Scholastic.
  • Moss, B., & Young, T. (2010). Creating lifelong readers through independent reading. International Reading Association.
  • Sanden, S. (2012). Independent Reading: Perspectives and Practices of Highly Effective Teachers. The Reading Teacher66(3), 222-231. https://doi.org/10.1002/trtr.01120
  • Yi, H., Mo, D., Wang, H., Gao, Q., Shi, Y., Wu, P., Abbey, C. and Rozelle, S. (2018). Do Resources Matter? Effects of an In‐Class Library Project on Student Independent Reading Habits in Primary Schools in Rural China. Reading Research Quarterly, 54(3), pp.383-411.


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