Wednesday / April 24

How to Make Truly Independent Readers

We want our students to be independent thinkers and readers and we want our students to have ownership of their learning. But our wants and our roles as teachers sometimes conflict. First, we can get clear on what true independence is and then we can begin to look at our moves as teachers to decide whether or not we are supporting or accidentally impeding what we want.

What Is Independence?

For years I confused true independence with mere compliance and mimicking. I would show my students a reading strategy and then expect them to go back and use it. If they were able to go back and mimic my strategy on their own I thought they were independent. There are drawbacks to this view of independence that became more and more evident over the years.

First, when students are simply copying what we do they are not choosing it. Without choice students often lose their motivation to use a strategy in the future and begin to view a strategy as an obstacle to get through so they can get back to enjoying their books. In addition, students who copy our strategies on the days we teach them often begin viewing strategies as assignments rather than tools for reading. They and may end up thinking the purpose for the strategy is to please the teacher. Third, when students get accustomed to someone telling them what strategy to use they are missing the opportunity to learn when to choose a strategy and likely don’t know how to make important choices during out of school reading experiences and testing experiences. Finally, many students begin to dislike reading and do as little as possible to avoid the experience.

As I began to seek a new view of independence, I looked more closely at choices students seemed to have in most reading classrooms. In more and more schools students do have choices about what to read and this is vitally important. But, this is just the starting point towards true independence. Students benefit from many more types of choices beyond book selection. Just like adult readers who have ownership of their reading lives, students can choose how they read–their own process and strategies, how they write about their reading, and how they talk about their reading. Basically, students have true independence only when they are in charge. They decide what to use when and they become the decision makers.

Choices In Truly Independent Reading Classrooms

  • What to read
  • How to read
  • How to write about reading
  • How to talk about reading

Our Teacher Roles

When I reflect on my early teaching days I tended to take on three main roles as a reading teacher. I was an assigner who told students exactly what to do and when to do it. I was also a monitor, going around to check that every student was completing their tasks accurately. My third role was that of a manager, making all the decisions for the twenty-five students in front of me. As the assigner, monitor, and manager I was constantly busy, doing most of the work in the classroom, and I had ownership of my students’ reading lives.

Someone does need to assign, monitor, and manage the learning, but maybe it does not always have to be the teacher. What if the students could begin to learn how to give themselves assignments, monitor their own progress, and make decisions to manage their own reading time? Across a unit of study and across the school year students can take on more of these roles and thus begin to feel much more ownership themselves.

Who owns the learning? The one who assigns, monitors, and manages it. 

As I work in schools to support teachers we discuss ownership along with our shifting role. Inevitably someone asks, “If the students take this on, then what are we supposed to do as teachers?” If we ask students to take charge by taking on new roles, we are left wondering about our own moves as teachers. This is an opportunity for us to take on new roles. My next blog post will explain the four roles I suggest teachers take on so students can be truly independent readers. I call them the 4 M’s: miner, mirror, model, and mentor.

Written by

Gravity Goldberg is coauthor of Conferring with Readers: Supporting Each Students’ Growth and Independence (Heinemann, 2007) and author of many articles about reading, writing, and professional development. She holds a doctorate in education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is a former staff developer at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and an assistant professor at Iona College’s graduate education program. She leads a team of literacy consultants in the New York/New Jersey region. Gravity is the author of Mindsets and Moves: Strategies That Help Readers Take Charge, Grades 1-8.

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