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How to Get Students to Read at Home

Skills v. Content Reading

Skills v. Content

Teachers and parents recognize the important role of independent reading in developing reading comprehension, vocabulary, and a lifelong love of books. Research is clear that independent reading does help students achieve these desired reading benchmarks.

According to the chapter: “Reading and Writing Habits of Students” in The Condition of Education 1997 (National Center for Education Statistics), “Research has shown that reading ability is positively correlated with the extent to which students read recreationally.”

In fact, students need to “grow” their vocabularies by 2,000-3,000 words each year, just to make grade-level reading progress. And the most efficient method of vocabulary acquisition is via independent reading. By applying context clues, readers who read text at the appropriate reading levels can maximize the amount of new words added to their personal lexicons.

What are the appropriate reading levels for independent reading?

Primary teachers have used the “five-finger method” for years.  Readers select appropriate reading levels by using the fingers of one hand to count down the number of unknown words on a single page. Any more than five unknown words means that the text is at their frustrational level and another book should be selected. To update and refine this technique for older students, reading text that has about 5% of the words that are unknown to the reader is the appropriate independent reading level. Reading this level of text will expose most readers to about 300 unknown words in 30 minutes of reading. Learning 5% of these words from the surrounding context clues of the text is realistic. This means that students will learn about 15 new words during a typical reading session.

How can you pick a book to read that has 5% unknown words?

-Choose a book 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%.

When and where should independent reading take place?

Many educators advocate in-school independent reading time. This school-wide or classroom activity may be called Sustained Silent Reading (SSR), Recreational Reading (RR), Daily Independent Reading Time (DIRT), or Drop Everything and Read (DEAR). Usually, advocates of in-school reading time insist on free-choice reading.

However, too much in-school independent reading time can take away from important instructional time. Also, the ten to twenty minutes per day, usually allocated to independent reading in a crowded classroom is hardly enough time, nor is it the best of environments to achieve the gains desired from independent reading. Additionally, students do not always make wise choices about their free-choice reading materials. Many bright middle-schoolers would prefer reading comic books over challenging novels. So I advocate leaving most of independent reading to homework, with teacher and parent approved novels serving as the sources of that reading. Students can still choose any reading text within the clearly defined parameters described above.

But, what about accountability? How can teachers ensure that students really are reading at home?

The catch to my independent reading homework is that students are graded on their discussion of the daily reading by their reading partners-typically, but not exclusively, parents. This builds relationships, reinforces internal monitoring of comprehension, promotes reading as a dynamic process of conversation between reader and author, and increases motivation. I require thirty minutes of reading and three minutes of discussion, four times per week. I pass out reading strategy bookmarks that that help students frame, but not limit, their book discussions. Check out these discussion starters . Teachers love these SCRIP reading strategies, reinforce them in their classes, and students really do use them. I have the discussion partner, usually a parent, guardian, or grandparent, grade the quality of the daily discussion and sign off on a Reading-Discussion Log each week. I count this homework as about 15% of the student’s overall grade. Do kids or discussion partners cheat on this? Of course. However, not as much as you’d think. Students and parents much prefer this type of homework to grinding out an essay or filling out a few grammar worksheets-tasks that most parents are ill-equipped (and loathe) to supervise.

But, what if the students don’t understand all of the literary nuances of the text? You’re not advocating independent reading of class novels, are you?

As Kelly Gallagher states in his new book, Readicide (How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It), “teachers are drowning books by over-teaching them.” This resonates with my view, as a reading specialist, that students should be accessing independent-level-text independently. I typically offer free-choice reading; however, if we are reading a novel that is comprehensible to the vast majority of my students, I will assign “on your own” chapters. I assign and provide the audio book for students who have independent reading levels below that of the novels. Of course, we follow up in class. I do teach the “literary nuances” and standards. We also re-read portions of the novel that I deem to be “teaching necessities.” And no, I don’t have students read Shakespeare independently. Check out these other articles on independent reading.


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  1. mary
    August 23rd, 2009 at 15:11 | #1

    Sounds silly and complicated. What happened to kids finding books that they like and letting them read them no matter what the level. If a 3rd grader likes picture books on a 1st grade level – who cares as long as they are reading. Given time and when left alone – they will naturally move forward. If you pressure them and force them to select books that you deem are appropriate, they will not want to read at all. Let them be who they are. Let them read what they like. Leave them alone!

  2. August 24th, 2009 at 16:48 | #2


    Students reading below grade level will remain at that level. Reading is not a natural skill; it must be nurtured. There are plenty of choices for students to read at their instructional levels.

    Mark Pennington

  3. September 13th, 2009 at 15:07 | #3


    There’s a difference between “independent reading” and “choice reading.” Choice reading provides gains in comprehension, but primarily it’s an opportunity to model and encourage reading for pleasure. Pushing it out of the classroom implies that it’s not as important as “real reading.” I give my students 10-15 minutes each day. While that’s the only part that I ask them to summarize in their reading log, I’ve noticed gaps in page numbers, and many of the students say they’ve started doing more reading on their own because they get started in class.

    Kelly Gallagher also warns about under-teaching books as well. It’s important to provide access to books that are above the student’s level; it challenges them in different ways.

    I like the idea of at-home reading partners, but I work in a rural community with students are often farther along in their education than any of their family members. Many of my students have parents who are unable to be very involved due to work schedules; some are living on their own. What would you suggest in those situations?

  4. September 14th, 2009 at 19:08 | #4

    Nice post. However, I feel that many teachers promote a false dichotomy between free choice and independent reading level. Students should have free choice, as long as the choice falls within the 5% unknown word recognition level. We all read trash. I’m reading a western right now that is probably at the fifth grade reading level. The difference is that we have the responsibility to teach and there is no arguing the fact that a book with some unknown words is better to read for instructional purposes than a book with no unknown words. Can’t we can have our cake (limited free choice) and eat it, too?

    I have the same issues re: poorly equipped parents and those who simply will not discuss the readings with their own children. I partner up kids, ala book club, to pair share. Works great. That use of class time I would support, but not unfettered free reading.

  5. Kaisa
    October 13th, 2010 at 20:59 | #5


    I seem to have a slightly different problem: my 4th-grader daughter wants to read “difficult” books, but her school won’t let her, sticking to the 5-finger rule. She’s very persistent, and happy to tackle any text, including Shakespeare. We are a bibliophile family, and I can’t see how it can do her any harm. That’s what I did myself, reading Sigmund Freud and Frantz Kafka at the age of 10. This is similar to how you learn a foreign language very quickly: by immersion, so when you are exposed to a new word in a different context, you learn the meaning of it.

    Nobody seems to take into account parts of speech in counting the unfamiliar words. If the head nouns are unknown, the understanding of the text is much more severely affected than if the unknown words are adjectives or adverbs. E.g. “And as in uffish thought he stood,/ The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,/ Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,/ And burbled as it came!” (Lewis Carroll)

    Exposure to a high quantity builds our feeling for the language, and in the end, teaches us new vocabulary. I find it endlessly frustrating having to battle with just-right-book-indoctrinated librarians and teachers over this issue of letting my child challenge herself as much as she wants. She’s always been nervous when she feels that her reading level is tested, so if she’s made to read aloud, she performs really poorly.

    Just yesterday I witnessed the following scene in the library: A new KG1 boy was waiting in line to check out a fabulous, large and colorful Star Wars: How to Draw the Figures book. He looked quite excited and proud of himself. When his turn came, the librarian said: You can’t have this book, it’s not your level. – The boy bravely tried to hold back his tears. The librarians then found a replacement, a small little Star Wars book that had only few words in it.

    I appreciate that kids need help and support in choosing their reading, but surely it would be better to let them choose their own reading, than deflate their confidence.

  6. October 14th, 2010 at 15:54 | #6

    Good point on the parts of speech. I prefer the 5% instructional level, but we certainly don’t want to hamstring readers willing to accept challenges. Our real problem is with capable readers wanting to read text far below their word recognition levels. Make sure that you chat with her about what she is reading.

  7. Donna
    April 27th, 2021 at 06:51 | #7

    I don’t think kids should be reading at a 1st grade level if they are in 3rd grade it won’t help the improve. You need to learn new vocabulary and reading skills that you can’t learn if your reading a off level book. Kids Should read on level to help improve the reading scores on State tests and even just classroom quizzes.

  1. May 16th, 2012 at 14:05 | #1
  2. November 1st, 2014 at 10:54 | #2