In 1847, Hungarian doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis made a remarkable discovery. When doctors washed their hands in a solution of chlorine and water, childbirth fever rates at Vienna General Hospital dropped from 18% to near zero. Offended that Semmelweis implied doctors were killing their own patients, the medical community rejected hand washing as an infection prevention measure, and drove Semmelweis out of medicine and into an insane asylum.
A few years later, Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister made scientific advances that reinforced Semmelwies’s claims about germ theory and infection. Hand washing between patient examinations is considered best practice today.
In spite of all scientific evidence, we still live in a world where hand washing isn’t universal practice. Folklore, tradition, and culture exert powerful influences on human behavior. You can’t convince everyone with research. You might recall that Pasteur invented vaccinations, too.
In 1977, the Journal of Reading (now The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy) published Richard Allington’s landmark paper, “If They Don’t Read Much, How They Ever Gonna Get Good?” Allington described factors that engage children with reading and charged that ineffective reading instruction hindered reading development for many children. Almost 40 years later, many educators remain ignorant of Allington’s findings or reject his observations outright. Multiple studies since 1977 have identified what helps children learn to read well and become lifelong readers, but the general public and many educators remain ignorant of this research.
In 2000, the federally funded National Reading Panel concluded that,
“With regard to the efficacy of having students engage in independent silent reading with minimal guidance or feedback, the Panel was unable to find a positive relationship between programs and instruction that encourage large amounts of independent reading and improvements in reading achievement (p. 12).”
The National Reading Panel Report caused as much damage to reading instruction practices as the standardized testing movement and set independent reading initatives in schools back decades. Instead of considering what necessary “guidance and feedback” teachers must provide students for independent reading to become most effective, many school districts and reading programs threw out independent reading altogether.
Almost immediately after the report was released, the reading research community jumped to disprove the Panel’s dismissal of independent reading. Conducting meta-analysis of over 50 reading research studies, Stephen Krashen found that the single greatest factor in reading achievement (even above socio-economics) was reading volume—how much reading people do. Krashen’s influential book, The Power of Reading, has been in print for 11 years now, but the New York Times still quotes the National Reading Panel from time to time.
I’m frequently asked to substantiate with research my opinions about independent reading. I don’t mind. The research is ubiquitous and it doesn’t take me much time to find it. While I am happy to provide websites, journal articles, and book recommendations for colleagues seeking more information about reading research, I often wonder why people ask for it. Does anyone go to the basketball coach and ask her to provide research to support why players are running plays and practicing shots? Does anyone go to the band director and ask him why musicians are playing their instruments during band class?
Why must English teachers constantly defend the need for students to practice reading and writing in a class dedicated to reading and writing?
Do we really need research proving that kids who read the most outperform kids who don’t read that much? Do we really need research proving that when readers are engaged with what they read they invest more effort in reading? Do we really need research proving that when kids have books in classrooms, libraries, and homes they read more? I suspect many of the research requests I receive are from teachers who need research to convince administrators or parents who question why kids are “just reading” in a reading class.
If you are looking for research about independent reading, here are a few of the research reports, journalistic articles by researchers, and professional books that have shaped my understanding of independent reading and informed my teaching:
“Every Child, Every Day” by Richard Allington and Rachael Gabriel
“Creating Classroom Cultures That Foster Reading Motivation” by Linda Gambrell
The Power of Reading by Stephen Krashen
Classrooms That Work: They Can All Read and Write by Patricia Cunningham and Richard Allington
Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries, and Community by Catherine Sheldrick Ross, Lynne McKechnie, and Paulette Rothbauer
Creating Lifelong Readers Through Independent Reading by Barbara Moss & Terrell Young
No More Independent Reading Without Support by Debbie Miller and Barbara Moss
Engaging Adolescents in Reading edited by John Guthrie
“Farewell to Farewell to Arms: De-Emphasizing the Whole Class Novel” by Douglas Fisher and Gay Ivey
The IRA/CBC/NCTE Position Paper on Leisure Reading
Scholastic’s Kids and Family Reading Report (2014)
You can find more reading research by cross-referencing the bibliographies of my books, and books by Kelly Gallagher, Linda Rief, Laura Robb, Kylene Beers, Penny Kittle, Teri Lesesne, Jeff Wilhelm, Lester Laminack, Janet Allen, Cris Tovani, Franki Sibberson, Nancie Atwell, Lucy Calkins, Irene Fountas and Gay Pinnell, and other teacher practitioners and researchers who have written well-regarded books about reading.
I invite everyone to share in the comments section of this blog post the professional resources that have formulated the research-basis for your teaching methods. We can all learn and share from each other.
You might be saying to yourself, “Oh, you can get research to say anything.” No, you can’t. You cannot find credible research proving that the Sun rotates around the Earth or that bad air causes diseases. You cannot find research proving that test prep improves children’s reading achievement or test performance.
In The Reading Zone, Nancie Atwell reminds us, “A child sitting in a quiet room with a good book isn’t a flashy or marketable teaching method. It just happens to be the only way anyone became a reader.”
Today, any doctor who rejected hand washing as a basic hygiene measure would lose his license. Rejecting foundational research in reading education is teaching malpractice. Pinterest and Teachers-Pay-Teachers aren’t pedagogy. We must become knowledgeable and remain current about research in our field. That’s what professionals do.
The children we serve deserve professional teaching.
Donalyn, Thank you for sharing this important post. Many teachers share your question- “Why must English teachers constantly defend the need for students to practice reading and writing in a class dedicated to reading and writing?” Many will rely on your advice and the research you shared in this post to justify making sure students have time to read in class. Thank you for being an ambassador for change for our students.
I agree w/ this research and liken it to the 10,000 rule: if you want to be good at something, you have to be willing to spend 10,000 hours of practice. P.S. My students improved one whole grade this semester via the STAR reading test. The lower end readers gained 2 years of growth in the semester, all due to independent reading books for enjoyment (20 minutes daily) and read aloud books.
I love this post so much. Passionate and clear in emphasizing the important role that research-backed instruction has on student success. I agree that as educators, we must be knowledgable about research and best practices. Sadly, not everyone does. I’ve just added some of the books you mentioned to my Goodreads.com shelf.
Agree 100%!! I am very glad to be at a school now, that mandates silent reading time. After getting bad evaluations for allowing silent reading in other schools, it’s great to see other embracing reading during reading. It is easily one of my favorite times of the day. I love conferring with my students about their independent reading choices, response journals, and books to read soon. My students know my rotation better than me and count down until it’s their time to confer (nothing like a little student initiated pressure). This 30 minute block has taught me more about my students and built solid relationships with each of them. I have former students that still email me about their books.
Bravo! Like Susan, I especially appreciate this question you ask, “Why must English teachers constantly defend the need for students to practice reading and writing in a class dedicated to reading and writing?” Thank you for this important piece, Donalyn. I’m sharing it with my colleagues.
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Remember “whole language?” That answers your question regarding why people needed to answer why kids were “just reading.” Don’t get me wrong-I agree with you-but we don’t live in a vacuum and those of us who have been around for a while remember that we were told that kids will “just read.” We dropped off phonics instruction and millions of kids paid dearly for it.
That’s why I was careful to direct folks toward resources that look at the instructional pieces of independent reading, not just DEAR. Thanks for commenting.
I agree, there is a lot more to it than just letting kids read. I teach 6th and seventh grade reading. I have the kids for 40 minutes a day and I see 140 kids a day. I just finished your book and I’m not sure how to best get to you to ask, but do you know anyone that has been able to make your approach work with the number of kids and time constraints I face? I’ve read all the books you mentioned at the beginning of Book Whisperer. I’m sold on this being the best way…. But I really struggle with the number of kids I’m accountable for. I’d love to talk to talk to someone that is making it work. Great book and I can’t wait to read more of your blog.
Once again a data less response suggesting that Whole Language was the reason American kids reading proficiency lagged behind. What little actual research we have on the impact of WL instruction paints a very different picture, one showing positive effects when WL was done well. Of course in the US few teachers did WL well and some of the research dummarized on WL effects reviewed few, of any studies of WL outcomes.
As far as the evidence on the effects of including phonics instruction on reading achievement, once again you will find studies by folks such as Barbara Foorman and colleagues demonstrating that neither the quantity nor the quality of decong lessons had any impact on reading achievement once the volume of reading that children did was added to the statistical modeling. Reading volume simply eliminated every other factor as related to reading achievement ( Foorman, et al, 2006, Contempory Educational Pstchology, vol 31, no. 1, pp. 1-29.
Love this post! Thanks, Donalyn, for pulling together all of the research in one blog. I will be sharing with my colleagues as well. One more thought: Kelly Gallahger’s book Readicide should be required reading for every educator.
Agree, Barbara! Did you see that Kelly has a new book coming out soon?
Preordered it on Amazon!
I love this post and agree that having children actually read independently is an awesome practice and let me tell you why…when I was both a first grader and a third grader I had substitute teachers. In fact, in third grade my teacher left and never returned! So instead of quality instruction in reading we sat and completed worksheets.By the time fourth and fifth grade came along, I was behind in reading. I was placed in the “low” class when we switched for reading. I do not remember anything too significant happening during those two school years but then I left for the junior high and grade 6. At that time, we had a class for English and a separate class for reading. In my reading class, we just got to simply read! Whatever we wanted-all class long for the entire semester! So between reading what I wanted (choice) and reading all class long (time) I must have improved because by the time I entered high school I was placed in the advanced (now called AP) language arts classes. Today I am a school administrator and am completing my doctorate in Reading and Literacy Leadership. SO don’t tell me reading independently isn’t research based or is “filling time”-my story proves otherwise.
Thank you for putting the truth about reading out there in the world! What do kids who excel at reading and love reading for life have that others don’t? books, time to read and a more experienced reader as their guide. That’s what true reading workshop offers to ALL students.
I was thinking of the work Marie Clay accomplished in the area of reading. Even for our earliest readers, authentic reading and writing make the difference. It’s connected to meaningful word work so they can progress into independent readers and writers. I use Book Stacks in first grade to make sure they can access the text they are reading. It also allows me to see what they are truly interested in reading, I can look for accessible text. Great, confirming stuff here. Thank you.
I have been teaching grade one for 17 years and can attest that I consider my classroom to be my own little research laboratory. I know first hand that children benefit from two things when learning to read and write: 1) time to practice , 2) regular feedback with set personal goals. I have heard all excuses imaginable not to give students exactly that, I could write an article. Give the children opportunity and feedback and they will learn.
Thank you for this post-isn’t it incredible that so many educators are either not aware of-or refuse to be moved by-this significant body of evidence?
Thank you for writing this and pulling so much research together in one place. Couldn’t agree more and can’t wait to read, re-read and close read this post! 🙂
Reblogged this on Simply Inspired Teaching and commented:
Incredible post from Donalyn Miller attempting to set the record straight on the abundant research and literature to support the practice of independent reading. Read this post. Internalize these arguments. Stand strong in defense of the most important and essential reading act of all – reading!
Thank you, Donalyn. It is very frustrating trying to ‘prove’ common sense teaching practice- if we want kids to be better readers and writers, they need to read and write a lot. That doesn’t happen with one novel and one paper a grading period.
Glad you mentioned Krashen- he is my ‘go to.’ Very glad you mentioned the National Reading Panel. The report they generated was so limiting because of the time constraints they were under and thus the inclusion criteria they used for reports. I believe they only used quantitative reports, but someone correct me if I’m wrong.
Thank you, Donalynn. This has weighed heavily on my heart this year after being moved from the library to teaching a “media tech” class to help students prepare for online testing. I’m going to share this within my district and with my regional cohort of secondary teacher-librarians.
I’m a school librarian in the UK and believe passionately that free voluntary reading, with the right stock and guidance, creates readers. In fact, I have seen these results personally. Unfortunately, our current ethos is that lessons should show learning and progression, and have pace … which means many schools don’t subscribed to library lessons for students.
One of the best books on learning to read, based one really one of the only studies of learning to read out there (rather than studies of teaching reading), is “Inquiry into Meaning” by Ten Chittenden, et al.
I stood up and cheered. Sorry you missed it. :0)
I am so encouraged every time I read your defense of independent reading and reader’s choice, which makes me ask, why require children to choose their reading materials from different genres and categories? That requirement is the one thing I just can’t get behind. Do we think that enthusiastic book talking or reading aloud won’t work? I don’t usually read non-fiction, but I can assure you my spirited recommendations of The Boys in the Boat and Knucklehead have lead many other confirmed fiction readers to pick those books up. Meanwhile my heart goes out to the student whose mother asks him to check out something other than fantasy, “to expand his horizons,” and he dejectedly leaves the library empty handed. Couldn’t she, you, and other horizon-expander advocates read out loud a short story or the first couple chapters of something other than fantasy? I feel that if something is an adult goal, the least the adult can do is expend their own time on it.
I don’t think I understand your question which seems to question reading widely, then advocate for it. I encourage students to sample books from different genres in order to develop strong reading skills with various texts. It’s also my hope that students who try a little of everything will find something that appeals to them. There isn’t any downside for students who don’t read all of their genre requirements. I model reading widely myself and book talk lots of different books. I encourage students to share, too. I think we agree on these ideas, yes?
I did my own independent research in a second grade classroom several years ago after researching how to improve reading levels. This was an informal and highly personal study I conducted. I used STARR testing to prove to myself that if students read for one hour a day independently for six weeks solid over a period of six weeks their reading levels would improve by one grade level. I had students read for a minimum of 30 mins. in class each day and 30 mins. at home, (I had parent conferences and got “buy in” at the onset. Not all students complied but those that did improved by a grade level in most instances and some jumped several grade levels. I don’t need any more proof than this, independent reading is critical. I conduct my own 60 Minute Reading Challenge each spring. Feel free to cite me, lol.
Thank you Donalyn, for sharing the research that bears repeating. I’m all for it. As a principal, I do my very best to schedule thoughtfully and provide funds for classroom libraries so independent reading can take place.
Another interesting anecdote about how slow change can be: Certain ulcers were discovered to be caused by bacteria in the stomach. The solution was a simple antibiotic, instead of an invasive surgery. Guess how long it took for prescribing antibiotics instead of surgery? 20 years!
The interesting thing is this change was fairly simple. The rationale was clear cut, and it still took twenty years. Teaching reading is so much more complex. I hope we can find consensus as a profession on this topic soon.
I agree with Kendra that the work of Marie Clay is among the most important in informing our teaching. She said volume of reading is critical. She called it “massive practice” in reading books that engaged young readers. NCLB and Reading First took literacy education down a very wrong path and we’re still trying to fight our way.
Thanks Donalyn for telling us what we all know. The more children read freely, the more doors open for them. The louder we all proclaim this, the less education will be about compliance to a higher authority and the more it will become a road to freedom in heart and mind. http://barrylane.bandcamp.com/track/little-programs
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My go to professional books on reading are your two, The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild, as well as Igniting a Passion for Reading by Steven Layne.
You are amazing!!! I love reading your thoughts. I find as we continue to revise our scopes, less and less time is devoted to independent reading. As a literacy coach, I try all different ways to express to teachers and administrators alike the power of reading aloud and independent reading time to middle school students. Students must have time to practice their craft. I have a class right now, that I am working with that were proclaimed non-readers. After countless book talks and IRA’s and visits to the library and a Skype visit with Kate Messner….my kids are finding themselves in books. Even my most reluctant reader is reading and engaged and excited. I can’t tell you the power they have found with themselves by becoming readers and believing that they are readers.
Have you read The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease? It really changed my perspective. Also, Reading Magic by Mem Fox is an easy read that’s great to share with parents.
An excellent point, well-made. The analogy between the disgruntled medical community – so quick to dismiss, rather than investigating with care – is a warning to all of us working in the educational arena and, hopefully, to those in positions of leadership in particular. Krashen’s book is seminar in every way – a must read for every teacher! Thanks for this important post, Donalyn.
Thank you for this post. I’m trying to make reading an essential part of my teaching practice and I really appreciate your suggestions on doing research about this important part of language acquisition. Where I live reading is not a common thing, so I hope to become a leader as you are.
It is so surprising that something that seems so obvious needs to be justified to those outside the educational profession. I completely agree that it seems that educators are being asked to prove how giving reading time in class will improve their scores. How could it not? Practice makes perfect in everything, including literacy. Write more to become a better writing and read more to become a better reader. Of course kids who read more, who have more practice at reading, who are allowed to read books that engage/motivate them, and have access to books are going to do better in reading and achieve higher results. They had more practice. How do those who question independent reading not understand that? To me, the most promising passage from your post was that Stephen Krashen found that the single greatest factor in reading achievement was how much reading people do- even more than their socio-economic status. Let’s quit labeling students and instead talk to them to see what interests them and motivates them to read more as a person, not a label or statistic. Instead of creating a new scripted program or rewrite our curriculum that is broad and not tailored to individual needs, let’s provide students with books they actually want to read, and give them time to read in school. Let’s use the books they chose and tailor our lessons to incorporate the skills that need to be taught within the context of what they are reading. Let’s make reading something our students want to do and enjoy.
“Family Scholarly Culture and Educational Success” was a 20-year study in 27 countries that showed children growing up in homes with many books gain three years of education over their bookless peers. I wrote a bit about it on my blog: http://gettingyourkidstoread.com/2015/04/22/can-giving-away-500-books-save-taxpayers-127000/
I started the readers/writers workshop this year in my classroom after reading your books and Nancie Atwell’s books. No one, and I mean no one, is going to tell me that my students haven’t benefitted from it. Do I have data? Yes. I have two gifted 8th grade boys who read 4 books between them last year. They now fight over who gets to book talk the Kwame Alexander book, The Crossover. And they have read 43 books between them just this semester. When one of them asks me if I have ever heard of a book, that’s all the data I need. Do I worry they don’t yet know all the items on the “curriculum map” for my school district? Everyday. But that’s my fault and my responsibility to get that in in an authentic way without sacrificing their reading time. My classroom library is open to all students in the school and I help all students choose the right books for them. I will continue to fight this battle everyday at my school to make other teachers aware that reading is the best learning.
Reblogged this on Ethical ELA and commented:
Such an important blog post here by Donalyn Miller. Teachers, students, and society are living with the implications of NCLB, which all but wiped out independent reading , certainly cultivating in students an association between reading, testing, and accountability rather than reading as seeking understanding of ourselves and our world (or as something enjoyable). We are here now with ESSA. English teachers can lead the way to more ethical reading practices.
I am training Pre-service teachers to train children in becoming lifelong readers which equals lifelong learners. Thank you! Will add my friend Dr. Steven Layne’s Igniting a Passion for Reading to the list.
Yes! Let them read books! After 30+ years of teaching from Basal to whole language to whatever is next…. I believe no reading curriculum or intervention has as much power to improve reading scores and ensure student success as providing students with a well stocked library, teachers and librarians who also love to read, and most importantly TIME to READ whatever they want to read.
This is a fantastic post! You are absolutely correct when you said, “I suspect many of the research requests I receive are from teachers who need research to convince others.” We are busy trying to fit so much into a day and when we provide independent reading, it could appear to others, that little thought went into the planning of that activity. Thank you!
Thank you, unfortunately independent reading is a hot topic and being questioned in our district right now. Many administrators upon seeing the district’s ELA instructional minutes with time designated for independent reading for 25 min where students self select text have questioned it as a best practice.
Many have cited the following Edutopia article as research behind abandoning independent reading.
You mentioned in a reply to one of the comments above about research about instructional pieces in relation to DEAR. What research would you suggest I direct them to that specifically supports this practice even for primary and struggling readers? Many seem to believe it is not appropriate in K-1 and/or for struggling readers fearing non-readers will be non-reading for 20 minutes.
I know Nell Duke’s work and she is the co-editor of the book, No More Independent Reading Without Support. She is not saying that independent reading is an invalid practice. She is saying that independent reading requires instructional support and should not consist of kids parked in the corner during DEAR Time without support from teachers. From the article you mention,”To make independent reading worthy of class time, it must include instruction and coaching from the teacher on text selection and reading strategies, feedback to students on their reading, and text discussion or other post-reading response activities (for example, Kamil, 2008; Reutzel, Fawson, & Smith, 2008; see Miller & Moss, 2013 for extensive guidance on supporting independent reading).” Independent reading requires teacher involvement! I highly recommend Of Primary Importance or Debbie Miller’s books if you need information about primary age children. There are so many studies about the positive effect of independent reading for struggling readers, I am shocked that your administrators are ignorant of these studies. Start with Richard Allington’s What Works for Struggling Readers.
Just a note to say that I appreciate and concur with Donalyn’s interpretation. Thank you, Donalyn! The Edutopia post does not recommend no independent reading of any kind; it recommends no *unsupported* independent reading. There is not compelling evidence for the traditional model, often called “SSR” or “USSR” or “DEAR,” in which there is a block for kids to read whatever they want to, the teacher is reading his/her own book at the same time, and there are no supports, such as instruction in how to make good book choices or opportunities to talk about what was read. Studies in which independent reading has been shown to be effective at actually improving children’s reading do not have the teacher reading during that time. They have the teacher providing supports before, during, and after reading. Research studies reported in Kamil (2008) and Reutzel, Fawson, and Smith (2008) provide detail about such supports. These and other studies are reviewed in section 2 of Miller and Moss’ book No More Unsupported Independent Reading. There is also conversation on this topic going on in the comments section of the Edutopia post. Researchers Barbara Moss and Ray Reutzel have weighed in.
In terms of the part of the reply above regarding children who cannot yet read independently (and even for those who can), practices such as listening to audiobooks and following along, echo reading, and partner reading each have research support.
Thank you for your response. I read the article as you did and noticed the difference consistent with the message in the book No More Independent Reading without support and a number of other professional resources. Yes in bold is says DEAR but then it explains it must be accompanied with active teacher involvement. I guess they skipped the fine print.
I am collecting as much research as I can to share with the powers that be. Thank you for mentioning a resource that speaks to primary. I am familiar with Debbie Miller’s work and will grab Of Primary Importance. If you can think of anything else I can put my hands on please let me know. Thanks again for your help!
Can we get an AMEN??
Great post! I do believe, that we as teachers, have an essential role in convincing them reading is essential. Showing by example is what I do in my classroom. Several times in a week, we have silent reading time. The students choose a spot in the class (one of my students’ favourite spot was a sink) and read for themselves. It is the most peaceful time of a day and I also take out a book and read. The students absolutely love this time of a day, and it gives your non-readers an opportunity they have to read. We don’t always have a lot of influence of what goes on in the life of the students, but the classroom is our terrain where we can teach and encourage children to love reading.
So very true. I’ve followed Stephen Krashen for over 25 years and shown his evidence for promoting reading in reading professional development sessions. Kyleen Beers book, Disrupting Thinking is really a great book for teachers who are interested in incorporating more reading in class.
What a perfect “read” before I embark upon my 25+ parent conferences over the next two days! Thank you for the links to books as well. This is my 30th year of teaching and I’m always looking for new professional reads! The TPT and Pinterest quote is so true!!!! Thanks for shouting it out there!!!
This is perfect! Just like athletes, musicians, artists, and everyone else…. the more you practice, the better you get!
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