Staying ahead of the reading curve

Across the grade and skill levels, students who read succeed

What does research reveal about independent reading and overall reading performance?

We’ve known that kids who read the most do the best overall, but we’ve recently learned that students who read 15 or more minutes per day tend to grow at a rate that keeps them on pace with rising expectations and national norms. That seems to be a significant delineating point. Kids who are reading less than 15 minutes per day tend not to keep up with those expectations. Fifteen minutes sounds manageable. At the same time, allocating that time and making sure it’s there every day or built up over the course of a week can be a struggle.

How does reading change as students progress through the grades?

Independent reading is important across the grades, but not all students benefit the same. A transition occurs: At first, we are learning to read and then we are reading to learn. We’re internalizing letter combinations and that’s gained only through reading. Then we transition into a whole new phase, which is acquiring broader and deeper vocabulary and background knowledge while we are reading independently. There’s a lot of emphasis on reading independently in the earlier grades, and it’s a different thing at the upper levels, but it’s just as important that they have that time daily.

How does acquiring vocabulary through reading compare with direct instruction on vocabulary?

If you’re reading at an appropriate reading range, about 2 percent of the words you see will be unfamiliar. You’ll figure out 1 in 20 of those through context clues. If kids are reading 15 minutes or more daily they’re going to learn a lot of words across the year—that cannot be easily provided with direct instruction and is impossible to provide by just saying, “Look up the word in the dictionary.”

How can we motivate students to read more independently?

It comes down to providing a lot of choice and the ability to read at an appropriate level, even if they’re behind. Teachers reading the first chapters of engaging books aloud helps. Young adult literature has had a renaissance; Harry Potter kicked it off, then the Twilight and Hunger Games series. myON, which has recently become a part of the Renaissance family, has pioneered the way in terms of access to digital texts. In a lot of schools, libraries are going away, which is quite concerning. Some schools have myON with 13,000 titles on demand as well as a library, others have myON without libraries, and others have only meager classroom libraries. Our goal should be the most access to text possible; it’s an equity issue.

Is there a difference between students reading short-form selections such as articles and more long-form selections?

There is. It’s pretty significant. The kids who are reading only short things in one form or on one topic show minimal growth. Add more topics and some longer-form texts, and the growth jumps. Short-form is a lot of what’s online now, but there’s a definite need for long-form selections to get the optimal growth. I suggest managing your students but not too rigidly. If a typically unmotivated reader asked me, “Can I read Harry Potter” and it was slightly below or above their optimal reading range, the last thing I would say is “no.” The first thing is to get them reading and then we can work to guide them.

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