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Independent Reading Homework

I’ve never been a fan of dedicating precious instructional class time to independent reading: SSR (Sustained Silent Reading), DEAR (Drop Everything and Read), FVR (Free Voluntary Reading), etc. Educators may wish to read the research behind my thoughts in a related article: Why Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) Doesn’t Work. However, I have always assigned independent reading as homework. Generally, 25 minutes reading, four days per week.

As an ELA teacher and MA reading specialist, I value independent reading. The qualitative and quantitative research has consistently validated the results of reading in and out of the classroom:

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.

Plus, independent readers are simply better citizens. I wanted an informed electorate going to the polls. To a great extent, democracy necessitates solid literacy skills.

Additionally, independent reading brings joy.

However, as much as I want my students to read because they want to read, I, like all teachers and parents know a bit about human nature. Many students won’t read unless they are coerced to do so.

Making Students Read

Even though coercion seems antithetical to our goal of developing lifelong readers, I’ve found that the converse is true. Being a dad of three boys, I used plenty of teacher and parent tricks and sticks (metaphorically) to get my own kids to read daily. The boys did not like reading, but they now, as adults, appreciate my daily reading requirement and two of three have grown into voracious readers. Similarly, feedback from my students has confirmed the same results: “Mr. Pennington, I never liked reading until you made me read so much this year.”

Reading is like trying a new food or drink. The food or drink can be an acquired taste, but you have to consume it over a period of time to teach your taste buds to like it. Put another way, you’ll never truly appreciate a certain painter’s technique until you’ve looked at a number of paintings, taken an art history class, or tried painting yourself. As John Dewey said long ago, we “learn by doing.”

Or a personal example: As a pre-teen I never listed to the radio. Consequently, I was no familiar with the hit songs and bands of the day. When with friends who did listen to popular music, I felt out of place and ostracized. Not the best reasons to change my behavior, but I began listening each day. As a result, I began enjoying what was now familiar to me; music became a habit; I could talk with friends about it; and I even bought a guitar to play it. The point is, irrespective of how and why one begins to read on a consistent basis, there is measurable benefit to reading.

Accountability: What I’ve Tried in the Past

To hold students accountable for reading at home, I’ve tried an array of accountability measures with upper elementary, middle school, and high school students throughout my teaching career in a number of different schools. Double-entry journals, logs, quizzes, marginal annotations, book reports, and more. Success rate has varied depending upon the school.

At my last 70% AFDC, multi-culture, multi-language, semi-urban middle school, about 50% of my students consistently completed their independent reading assignments with those methods of accountability. The 50% who didn’t read at home? I figured I set the table; it’s up to them to eat.

However, things changed a number of years ago. I read an article by Michael Gerson lamenting the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” I took that one personally. I committed to raising my expectations of my students, parents, and myself and finding new motivators to get all my students to read at home.

Accountability: What I’ve Learned that Works

I developed an independent reading program based upon “reading discussions.” Students read at home and lead a literary discussion with their parent for three-minutes per day, four days per week to offer flexibility to families. I devolved the accountability for these assignments to the student-parent partnership. In other words, parents grade their children on the quality of the discussion and I count the points.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking because I had similar thoughts. Middle school and high school students are not going to talk to their parents about their reading, and parents are not going to take time to discuss “school work” on a consistent basis with their kids. “That’s the school’s job!” Yes, I’ve heard that response from quite a few parents and my principal.

I’ve found these pre-conceptions to be largely unwarranted. As a work-in-progress I have learned a few things about getting students to read at home and earning buy-in from parents:

1. Implementing an independent reading homework plan requires a considerable amount of time, communication, and energy up front. First of all, both students and parents need training and practice in how to select appropriate independent reading level books. I value student choice, but I also demand optimal levels for vocabulary and reading comprehension development. I am an MA reading specialist, so I’m biased. I want my cake and eat it, too.

2. I require parent attendance at Back-to-School Night for a brief training on how to conduct a three minute reading discussion with their child after the child has completed 25 minutes of independent reading. Oh yes, I’ve taken heat for this mandate from parents and my administration. However, I am persistent, kind, and insistent. I let parents know that if they can’t attend, I will arrange subsequent meetings in-person or via ZOOM. Knowing that they will have to eventually attend, parents show up in droves to my class at Back-to-School Night. By the way, I also hold a session at the end of the night for parents unable to get off work early and for parents with two or more children at school who must pick and choose which teacher to visit. I also contact our district and schedule translators for non-primary English speakers. I also rely on students to translate for their parents.

Instead of the traditional Back-to-School Night review of the course syllabus, I use the time to train parents how to discuss reading with their children whether they have read the same book or not. I offer this deal, tongue-in-cheek: If you discuss what your child is reading four days of the week (you and your child pick the days) for three minutes, this will save me the class time I need to complete all essays, reports, grammar, etc. in class, so you don’t have to work on these with your child at home. No parent has ever rejected this deal.

Teachers will want to know what I do with the few hold-outs who won’t attend Back-to-School Night and refuse to attend my parent training. I don’t fight the battle. I let my students do so, and they are so much more effective than I at convincing their parents to attend. Here’s what to do: I don’t allow students to complete reading homework for credit until their parents have been trained. Since my reading homework counts for 15% of their grade, I substitute additional writing, vocabulary, and grammar practice that the individual students need, based upon the results of their diagnostic assessments for the same 15%. Believe me, students would rather read their choice of a book than complete one of my grammar worksheets. Students get their parents to the make-up trainings.

My success rate? In my best year I got 123 of 125 parent, guardian, or grandparent representatives trained and participating in the four times per week, three minute reading discussions with their children.

comprehension cues

SCRIP Comprehension Cue Bookmarks

3. I take time in class to train students in how to lead a three-minute book discussion about what they read that day. I tell students and parents to mutually agree upon which four days of the week will be set aside for reading independent for 25 minutes, followed by a three minute discussion of that day’s reading. To help students lead the discussions, I developed SCRIP (Summary, Connect, Re-read, Interpret, and Predict) reading comprehension cue bookmarks to help students self-monitor as they read and form the basis of their three minute discussion. I do a lot of “think alouds” to model talking to the text and “making a movie” of the text in one’s head to practice the internal reader-author/text interaction, so that students can replicate this interaction in their discussions with their parents.

4. I train parents how to grade the quality of the daily reading discussions, 10 points per session possible according to these criteria:

  • Points are not awarded for reading; they are awarded for discussion. I provide a simple grading rubric for each level of points earned at my parent trainings.
  • The student leads the discussion for the full three minutes and encourage parent response.
  • The student uses the SCRIP reading comprehension cues to analyze, and not just summarize the daily reading.
  • One 25 minute reading per day; one reading discussion per day. No doubling up.

I use a simple weekly recording log which indicates the title of the independent reading, the pages read for each day, the parent score for each discussion (in pen), and the parent signature (with a note if I have any doubts). The log covers two weeks to reduce grade input time for me.

5. After years of assigning this reading homework, I’ve learned the value of replicating this interactive discussion with peer relationships via book clubs, literature circles, and online discussion groups. These interactions provide variety and a bit of respite for parents, but I keep the student-parent discussions as my standard “go-to” procedure.

Results

1. My students read more pages than students in other classes. Beyond what we read together in class, my students are reading 100 minutes per week at home. Contrast that with one of my colleagues who does SSR in class for 10 minutes, three days per week.

2. Parents love this reading homework. It provides 12 minutes (three per four days of reading discussion) of interaction with their children per week. So much more meaningful than the “So how was school today? query with the usual “Same as usual” response! And note that students need their parents to earn points.

3. Some parents will cheat. When I see 10/10 each day, I send home a brief reminder of my discussion criteria. Parents hate being caught, and will reform after a reminder. Of course, I never say they’re cheating:)

4. After the up front investment in time, communication, and energy, absolutely no correction of other means of reading accountability are necessary. I would much rather train parents to provide the accountability than to grade, say, a set of 150 double-entry response journals every few weeks.

5. Students make significant growth in vocabulary acquisition and reading comprehension with this approach to independent reading, as indicated by my own assessments and standardized tests.

This independent reading program at home frees me up to teach other ELA and reading Standards in the classroom. Instead of taking up valuable class time with sustained silent reading… Check out my dialog with Dr. Stephen Krashen for more on independent reading.

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Intervention Program Science of Reading

The Science of Reading Intervention Program

Pennington Publishing provides two reading intervention program options for ages eight–adult. The Teaching Reading Strategies (Intervention Program) is a full-year, 55 minutes per day program which includes both word recognition and language comprehension instructional resources (Google slides and print). The word recognition components feature the easy-to-teach, interactive 5 Daily Google Slide Activities: 1. Phonemic Awareness and Morphology 2. Blending, Segmenting, and Spelling 3. Sounds and Spelling Independent Practice 4. Heart Words Independent Practice 5. The Sam and Friends Phonics Books–decodables 1ith comprehension and word fluency practice for older readers. The program also includes sound boxes and personal sound walls for weekly review.  The language comprehension components feature comprehensive vocabulary, reading fluency, reading comprehension, spelling, writing and syntax, syllabication, reading strategies, and game card lessons, worksheets, and activities. Word Recognition × Language Comprehension = Skillful Reading: The Simple View of Reading and the National Reading Panel Big 5.

If you only have time for a half-year (or 30 minutes per day) program, the The Science of Reading Intervention Program features the 5 Daily Google Slide Activities, plus the sound boxes and personal word walls for an effective word recognition program.

PREVIEW TEACHING READING STRATEGIES and THE SCIENCE OF READING INTERVENTION PROGRAM RESOURCES HERE for detailed product description and sample lessons.

Get the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies FREE Resource:

Get the Diagnostic ELA and Reading Assessments FREE Resource:

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