Making Independent Reading More Meaningful to Your Students

Upper elementary and secondary teenagers reading

Independent reading can be so tricky for students with a disability. It can be challenging to watch students struggling through reading, shut down because it is difficult, or feel distraught because they cannot read what they want.

Parents would request that I assign it [independent reading] for homework, and I would make excuses as to why this wouldn’t be appropriate…
“They’ll be too confused between what they are reading and what we are reading in class.”
        “It can be hard for them to decode text of books they want to read independently.”
         I felt that I had enough paperwork to grade and didn’t want to add on assignments that I thought would be flubbed because how could I honestly grade an assignment on a book I hadn’t read?
       Then, I found out that I would be teaching 6th grade English language arts. Right away, I was determined to figure out a way to make independent reading work in my classroom, so I began to think about how I could make it more meaningful. 

I started my summer off reading Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. Boy, am I glad I did. 

       To those in the teaching field before the huge emphasis on state testing, much of their ideas aren’t exactly new but more like reminders.

Reminders that when we are reading classroom novels to our students, we need to be reading them. Much of the shift has gone to dissecting.

Tearing apart the text to find evidence for our questions, analyzing the main character ad nauseum, and having lengthy conversations about an author’s purpose for writing. As teachers, we think….

“Awesome, they know this book because they can tell me each and every detail about Salva Dut’s personality in A Long Walk to Water”.

But are these questions really a good indicator of what our students know about the book? Probably not. Our students have gotten used to reading and plucking textual evidence, but do they really understand the big picture? Are they really interested and developing that love of reading that I have, or are they just silently wishing the book was over? One of my favorite quotes from Disrupting Thinking is, 

Give Meaning to Independent Reading Activities

        I want my students to FEEL the book. I know the books that speak to me and that are the most memorable are those that have changed the way I think or make me feel the character’s emotions.
These are also reasons I love to read. I love it when a book can completely capture me and take me away from my pool on Long Island and into that faraway place. That’s what I want to show my students.

3 Ways to Make Independent Reading Have Meaning

To do this, I am changing the way I attack books, both guided and independent, with my students.

First, I am giving them more choices

I give my students two choices for the class novel we will read together. Majority rules on which one we will read.

Next, instead of tearing apart each literary element and quote from the story, we are going to read and enjoy.

Of course, we will stop to clarify information, but I want the conversation to focus more on,

“How does this make you feel?”,

“Did this change the way you think about something?”

instead of

“What time of day did Johnny get hurt?”.

Allowing students to make connections and think about how they are feeling will get them to enjoy reading and think more deeply about the text.

Finally, students will read independently for homework and sometimes during class.

This book opened my eyes to how much a student can grow by reading an extra ten minutes daily

Providing Time for Independent Reading Activities

It is astounding, and I, as an educator, especially in special education, need to push my students to do this to help fill the gap. I will work with the librarian to find authentic reads for my students in whatever subject they wish to ensure they are excited to read.
Furthermore, their assignments will follow the same line of being authentic. Reading calendars that incorporate meaningful questions about any text. It is a 4-week calendar that can be used at any point in time for students to answer questions about their text.
It includes thought-provoking questions to hit home on how students are thinking and feeling about what they are reading. This will help their responses to be genuine and meaty since it is coming from them.
Also, I am not as concerned about whether I know what they read because they will be assessed on their knowledge based responses.  

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