#AgeOfLiteracy: Want Better Writers? Make More Time for Independent Reading

#AgeOfLiteracy: Want Better Writers? Make More Time for Independent Reading

By Roz Linder (@RozLinder)

The Educator Collaborative was delighted to be invited to share posts for the International Literacy Association’s Leaders for Literacy Day. We’ll be posting all day long! And follow #AgeOfLiteracy to read updates from others throughout the day!

In this post, The Educator Collaborative Network Member Roz Linder discusses the importance of expanding opportunities for independent reading to students.

My first writing teachers were Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. Well—not in the traditional, face-to-face way, but they were no less my teachers. As a young girl, I voraciously read almost every title that both of these women released. I shared Beezus and Ramona’s life experiences and learned all about mean girls from Blume’s Blubber, decades before Lindsey Lohan popularized the term. Through these books, I accidentally taught myself how to punctuate dialogue and use dialogue tags. I learned that dependent clauses make sentences sound complex and rich. I loved how they packed character description right in the middle of a sentence, couched between commas (appositive phrases and descriptive clauses). I didn’t know the name of any of those things, but I had models of them, courtesy of Mrs. Blume and Mrs. Cleary, to teach me. Those rich lessons from those two authors helped me to develop my own writing chops without a writing workshop or even a writing teacher. I was a student with rich literacy resources. What I got from those books was a clear example of how words can work together. My reading experiences provided lots of examples of the kind of moves that writers make.

As a teacher, I noticed that all of my writers who walked in the door, talented and proficient were also book lovers. They had favorite authors and always seemed to have different books with them. They read like writers. They, too, accidentally were met face to face with writing moves from authors that they adored. They unconsciously discovered different moves that writers make.

I noticed that this unconscious acquisition of writing moves was absent with my reluctant and struggling readers. My reluctant readers (not always poor readers) had yet to develop a love and appreciation of the written word. These are students who don’t have the desire to look at text critically and consume books as writers. They haven’t fallen in love with books yet. Sadly, in school they were often forced to read basals, read at specific Lexile or levels. They were often forced to choose from the books that were at level P, R, or Q, even if they cared nothing about those books. Not only had their book love affair not begun, it was actively being snuffed out before it began. This was particularly true for students who did not come from highly literate homes. They missed out on books at home and at school. Again, they were missing the book love.

When do struggling writers get to fall in love with books? When do students with limited access to books get the chance to fall in love? When do they get to meet their versions of Judy Blume or Beverly Cleary?

In today’s faced paced and ever changing educational landscape, most classroom schedules are already on overdrive. Thirty minutes for this subject. Forty minutes for that subject. Watch the clock. Don’t run over. We were constantly trying to ‘cover’ everything and meet demands in multiple areas. When time gets tight, one of the first things to go out of the window is independent reading time. The idea is that those twenty or thirty minutes being used for reading could be put to better use teaching other skills. As a former ELA teacher, I understand the logic and have even been guilty of making that exact decision many times before. Upon reflection, I could not have made a worst choice.

I decided to change this immediately. I created a student interest survey and had all of my students complete one. I carried those surveys to the bookstore, along with all of my spending money for the month, and bought everything I saw that matched their interests. I didn’t care about the reading level, I cared about interests. When I arrived that Monday and spread all my book swag out on a big table, my kids all curiously began investigating the books. I saw glimmers of book love and students began taking the books that spoke to them. What did we do next? We just read. I carved out time, but removing five minutes from every core subject. We got cozy on floors, under desks, against walls and read. The kids were confused that they did not need to journal, answer questions, or complete an assignment. Nope. Let’s just love our books.

Independent reading time, where students get to explore and uncover books, rejecting some books and accepting others, is much needed not just for developing a love of reading, but also for filling students’ minds with wonderful examples of what authors do. We can tell them over and over again what they could do and should do, yet, nothing compares to how it resonates with students when it comes off the pages of books that they adore.

Weeks after carving out space for independent reading, I took my students to the library. Again, I didn’t care about their reading level or Lexile number. Instead, I talked to my students and continued learning about them. Then, I pulled at least ten books that I thought they would love and reintroduced the layout of the library and how to search for things that mattered to them. I begged and pleaded with the media specialist to let them check out three books at a time, instead of just one. My kids all left with a set of books that mattered to them.

After a month of independent reading I linked their newfound book love to writing. When they got started writing, I let them select an author to emulate. Let’s write like Sachar, Spinelli, or Rylant. I told them: Let’s get into the books that you love and try out anything that made you say, wow! The writing became their own, the pencils were moving, and they were transferring their reading love into writing love.  Some students tried out using dashes like they noticed in a Polacco picture book. Others were experimenting with intentional fragments that they noticed in National Geographic books about monster trucks. Other students were using juicy adverbs, like they noticed in Goosebumps books. The strategies were diverse, but one thing was clear—they were excited to be like the authors that they actually enjoyed. On that very day I knew than that independent reading was not just about reading; it was about falling in love with words and carrying those words away into writing.

Years later, when I left the classroom and became an administrator, my first job was to create a space for actual reading. Teachers should not have to ‘shave’ time off of other subjects and try to sneak in moments for kids to fall in love with books. Independent reading is not wasted instructional time, it is at the very heart of growing proficient readers and writers.

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