Scholastic, the World's largest publisher and distributor of children's books, asserts that its mission to help "children learn to read and love to read" is based on the belief that independent reading is a critical part of children's learning and growth. Scholastic's research compendium, The Joy and Power of Reading: A Summary of Research and Expert Opinion, summarizes the literature around independent reading.2 While recognizing that the scholarship around language acquisition and literacy is "vast, varied, and vital", Scholastic's compendium highlights the importance of reading volume, access and exposure to print materials and books, reader choice and variety, and reading aloud to learning readers.
It should come as no surprise that the more students read, the better their comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary. What might be surprising is how little time students actually spend reading. About 10 minutes per day on average at home for kids up to age 12. That drops off among older students. Also, the older the students, the smaller the percentage who report reading for pleasure at all.3 That doesn't bode well for reaching higher levels of literacy; levels at which students begin to internalize what they read and develop sophisticated communication and writing ability.
Time to read is key. Two experimental studies, meeting the research standards put forth by the National Reading Panel, published this year show independent reading programs in schools can facilitate increased involvement in reading as well as significant gains in total reading ability, reading comprehension, and scores on state-mandated high-stakes end-of-course exams.
In one study, conducted in a high-poverty school in the southeastern United States, third graders given time to read, along with guided choices about what they read, showed increased involvement in reading as measured by attention to text, affective responses to their reading material, their physical interaction with text, and their interaction with others about what they were reading.4 Another study conducted in a large public high school in the southeastern United States with a majority of students qualifying for free-or-reduced lunch showed that independent reading, with simple accountability measures, could facilitate improved student achievement even after only a few interventions (14 hour long sessions over 5 months). While the control groups gained the equivalent of one grade level for one year in both total reading ability and reading comprehension, the experimental group made gains that were more than twice that of the control group.5
I don't think it's a question of whether independent reading is superior to skill-building with respect to reading instruction. Both are important. Direct instruction, appropriately differentiated, is important for readers who enter school with deficiencies in alphabet knowledge and phonological awareness. But I also think it's important to engage students in reading; to help them recognize and participate in the joys of reading at the same time. Also, considering the little time students spend reading outside of school, it just makes sense that reading in school can both help improve academic achievement and, potentially, help foster a love of reading that extends beyond school; that helps students find their voices and, maybe, realize their dreams.
- Scholastic Media Room (2014). Usher Joins Scholastic to Launch Open a World of Possible Initiative and Celebrate the Power and Joy of Reading. Retrieved from http://mediaroom.scholastic.com/press-release/usher-joins-scholastic-launch-open-world-possible-initiative
- Bridge, L. (2014). The Joy and Power of Reading: A Summary of Research and Expert Opinion. New York: Scholastic
- Rideout, V. (2014). Children, Teens, and Reading: A Common Sense Media Research Brief. Common Sense Media. Retrieved from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/research/children-teens-and-reading
- Hall, K. Hedrick, W. & Williams, L. (2014). Every Day We're Shufflin': Empowering Students During In-School Independent Reading. Childhood Education, 90(2), 91-98.
- Cuevas, J., Irving, M., & Russell, L. (2014). Applied Cognition: Testing the Effects of Independent Silent Reading on Secondary Students' Achievement and Attribution. Reading Psychology, 35(2), 127-159