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How to Select Books for Independent Reading

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Teachers, students, and parents recognize the importance of independent reading. No thinking activity better builds content knowledge, improves vocabulary, or exposes the learner to the world and its ideas. The practical question is which reading materials most efficiently help readers access this world of knowledge? Because reading is an interactive process, the abilities and interests of the readers must also be considered to maximize the learning process.

A variety of readability measurements and comprehension assessments have been developed over the years to help match the reading level of texts to the reading level of readers. The Fry’s Readability Graph, Reading Recovery® Levels, Lexile® Levels, and the Fleish-Kincaid Reading Ease® (popularized in Microsoft Word® are just some of readability measurements. These measure all use formula based upon word frequency, syllable counts, and lengths of sentences (among other factors) to determine a numerical reading level equivalent. Reading comprehension assessments include normed tests, such as the Stanford Achievement Test, the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Tests, the Metropolitan Achievement Test, and the SAT I. Criterion referenced tests, such as the plethora of “state standards” reading tests and the DRA generally produce a spectrum of reading achievement relative to the tested standards. Finally, individual reading inventories, such as the John’s Basic Reading Inventory and the Qualitative Reading Inventory are leveled assessments that measure inter-related reading skills and establish reading grade levels.

However, each assessment has its limitations. The variables of reading texts and readers preclude hard and fast diagnoses and limit the practical application of the data. Additionally, the assessments are time-consuming and hard teachers, students, and parents to properly interpret. In fact, trained reading specialists have difficulty making appropriate use of the data.

What reading specialists do know, however, is that word recognition is a quick, easy, and painless way to determine approximate reading level. Word recognition is not to be confused with word identification, which involves phonemic awareness and decoding (phonics). The Slosson Oral Reading Test and the San Diego Quick Assessment have been used for years to match students to grade-level reading through word recognition levels. In these assessments, a reading grade level is assigned, according to the number of correctly read single and multi-syllabic words, i.e., words read with automaticity. However, these assessments still require the other side of the coin, i.e., the reading level of the text, to match texts to readers.

A much more direct approach that applies word recognition to the specific text to determine if the text-reader match is appropriate for the individual learner’s optimal “zone of proximal development” follows. It’s reader-centered and easy to train teachers, students, and parents to use.

How to Select Books that Have the Appropriate Reading Levels

The goal is to match individual readers to text that has about 5% unknown words. A much higher percentage is too hard for the reader; a much lower percentage is too easy for the reader.

How can you pick a book to read that has 5% unknown words? Choose a book of any genre and count the number of words on any complete page found near the beginning of the book and multiply that number by 3. Read a page toward the beginning of the book, counting the number of unknown words. A good guideline would be “if you can’t define it with a synonym, antonym, or example,” it is unknown. Then, read a page near the middle of the book and continue the count. Finally, read a page near the end of the book and finish the count. Divide the total number of unknown words by the total number of words found on the three pages. The result will be the percentage of unknown words. Anything within the 4-6% range is acceptable. For example, a reader counts the number of words on a page and arrives at 225. 225 x 3 = 750. After reading the three pages, the amount of unknown words totals 30. 30.00 divided by 750 = .05, or 5%.

A word about reading content and genre… Reading to learn suggests that reading in the school context should help improve a student’s independent access to and ability to understand text. Reading to learn also suggests that the reader should be exposed to a variety of reading genre. These being said, motivation is also a key factor in reading to learn. Reader interest plays an important role in increasing reading comprehension. Providing a balance between assigned texts and “reader’s choice” makes sense.

Additionally, practice does make perfect when the practice is done correctly. Besides appropriately matching the text to the reader, teachers and parents can students become better independent readers by teaching good silent reading habits, self-questioning reading strategies, context clue strategies, vocabulary, inference strategies, etc. Furthermore, discussion of the reading is essential to reading comprehension. See Reading Homework for an easy-to-follow independent reading program.

How Much Independent Reading is Appropriate?

The English-Language Arts Content Standards for K-12 Public Schools has established the standards of 500,000 words for primary students, 1,000,000 words for middle school students, and 2,000,000 words to be read annually by high school students in order to ensure grade to grade reading growth. This breaks down to 2,400 words per day for primary students, 4,800 words per day for middle school students, and 9,600 words per day for high school students (reading year-round, four days per week, assuming that only a minimal amount of reading is accomplished in school, which unfortunately is the norm). With the average page in a middle school novel consisting of 30 lines of 8 words per line, this means that reading only 20 pages of 240 words per page would meet that standard.

Because each student reads at different reading speeds, each child must be assessed to determine the number of words per minute that the child does read. Like oral fluency timings, silent reading speed is measured as follows.

Determining Individual Silent Reading Speed

  1. Have the students count the number of words on three consecutive full lines of print, for example, 24 words on 3 lines.
  2. Divide this amount (24) by 3, to give average words per line (8).
  3. Have the student read, beginning at the top of page of the text for one minute.
  4. Have the student count the number of lines (not sentences) read during that timing. Tell the student not to count any lines with 3 words or less. Say the student read 25 lines.
  5. Have the student multiply the number of lines read (25) x the number of words per line (8).
  6. The product (200) is the number of words that the student has read in one minute.
  7. Repeat the entire process once more and average the final total to determine the student’s silent reading fluency number.

How Many Minutes Do Students Need to Read Each Day? Or?

If the student reads at a rate of 200 words per minute, as in our example, the student would need to read for 24 minutes to achieve the goal of 4800 daily words (4 days per week, year round) for middle school students. This amount of time assumes a summer reading program or a daily commitment to independent reading during the school day.

However, because students have an amazing ability to daydream or stare at the same page in a text for minutes on end… a better approach is to require pages read per day. Based upon the number of words per page of the text and the student’s reading speed, it would be simple to require our example student to read 24 pages per day. Teachers can thus differentiate instruction and have students read a different amount of pages per day, based upon their silent fluency numbers. Of course, frequent assessment is suggested to adjust to different texts and student improvement.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use—a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instructional levels. Get multiple choice diagnostic reading assessments , formative assessments, blending and syllabication activitiesphonemic awareness, and phonics workshops, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 586 game cards, posters, activities, and games.

Also get the accompanying Sam and Friends Phonics Books. These eight-page decodable take-home books include sight words, word fluency practice, and phonics instruction aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Each book is illustrated by master cartoonist, David Rickert. The cartoons, characters, and plots are designed to be appreciated by both older remedial readers and younger beginning readers. The teenage characters are multi-ethnic and the stories reinforce positive values and character development. Your students (and parents) will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Everything teachers need to teach a diagnostically-based reading intervention program for struggling readers at all reading levels is found in this comprehensive curriculum. Ideal for students reading two or more grade levels below current grade level, English-language learners, and Special Education students. Simple directions and well-crafted activities truly make this an almost no-prep curriculum. Works well as a half-year intensive program or full-year program, with or without paraprofessional assistance.

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies

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