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Does self-selected reading have a place in a comprehension program?

Posted by Freddy Hiebert on 20 July 2006

It’s the last Tuesday before the Institute and I still have lots of questions. One question deals with the role of writing in reading comprehension. It’s been some time since I reviewed the research on the reading-writing connection but, at least based on my own experience as a writer-reader, I’m confident that the more one writes the better one comprehends the texts of others. I’ve also been thinking about the nature of assessments that capture students’ thinking with text. A particular question that I have has to do with tests of background knowledge. Should an assessment capture students’ ability to think about different topics? Or should a comprehension assessment actually measure students’ thinking about particular topics? I need to engage in a substantial amount of thinking, reading, and listening before I can write on the assessment topic. I’m eager to hear Steve Graham and Karen Harris at the Institute talk about their work on writing and comprehension.

One topic on which I’ve also been reflecting but on which I have some background knowledge is the role of self-selected reading in developing high levels of comprehension. The interest generated around Tim Shanahan’s first column as IRA president in Reading Today has gotten me thinking about what I didn’t address in the June 27th “Frankly Freddy” on silent reading. Tim wrote about interpretations of the conclusions about sustained silent reading in the National Reading Panel’s report. Tim made several distinctions in his column but, at least according to my interpretation as a reader, he was concluding that there is no research to justify devoting chunks of instructional time to independent reading of self-selected text.

To engage in a discussion of independent, silent, or self-selected reading, it is important to define the terms and, in particular, describe the contexts in which these kinds of reading occur.

Silent reading: Silent reading is reading without overt vocalization. Silent reading can—and should—occur as part of teacher-directed lessons. To be responsible for one’s own reading, even in the early stages of reading, is important. Teachers can ask a question that requires students to read a portion of a text silently, followed by students’ responses to the question. A choral reading by a small group of students can be followed by a silent reading of the text, with the aim of reading the text smoothly and quickly, while identifying additional information from the text.

Independent reading: Students are reading on their own, without a more proficient reader reading along or aloud. Independent reading can occur as part of instructional venues as, for example, when students do a follow-up reading of a section of a textbook passage that has been discussed or in preparation for a class or small group discussion. Independent reading is silent reading, although my experience as a second-grade teacher tells me that first and second graders aren’t all that silent when they are reading independently.

Self-selected reading: Self-selected reading is independent and typically silent (although it does not have to be silent; students could self-select texts and read it aloud to a peer). What distinguishes self-selected reading is the choice that students have in what they read. Self-selected reading has been a hallmark of sustained silent reading.

Little attention has been paid in the pedagogical or empirical literature to the skills or strategies of book selection. It seems that good book selection strategies are assumed. In none of the studies in the National Reading Panel examination of “effects of encouraging students to read” (Appendix E, p. 3-43) have I been able to find any instruction in the experimental treatments for students who weren’t already avid readers. Students in the experimental groups were never taught how to select books for their needs or reading levels nor were they taught how to manage one’s reading in an independent setting (e.g., recording questions about meaning in a journal; identifying unknown words).

Self-selected independent reading involves a set of strategies that are learned. Development of these strategies should be one of the primary goals of a reading/language arts program. However, the skills of self-selected reading do not develop by simply offering students the books of a library and asking them to pick books. Even offering students the opportunity to choose from the books in a classroom library or those related to a computerized reading program will not develop the skills of self-selected reading.

Students who read avidly—especially young students—have been taught how to select books that interest them. Avid readers have a repertoire of strategies and skills, including (although not limited to):

  • a familiarity with topics, genres, and authors (and, in the case of young readers, illustrators) and an understanding of how their interests match to particular topics, genres, authors, etc.
  • ideas about which texts they want to read next (derived from, e.g., conversations with other readers, sources such as a newspaper or a radio program, recommendations by librarians or booksellers);
  • an interest in sharing information when they’ve read a good book;

Research shows that young avid readers typically come from homes where their choices are supported by recommendations from parents, family friends, librarians, and booksellers. I’m watching the development of an avid reader unfold in my extended family (a picture of this avid reader in development follows).

Madeline, age one year

This picture shows Madeline on her first birthday, amidst the bustle of a family gathering. It happens that the book isn’t the greatest literature (another thing to remember in the development of avid readers—they also read a great deal of “popular” literature). However, she has a grand-aunt (me) who knows a great deal about choosing books for toddlers and a grandmother who was the director of a preschool. Between the two of us (and her very knowledgeable parents and other grandparents), she gets books about Big Bird, lots of books with flaps (a favorite of hers), and books by Bill Martin, Eric Carle, and other writer/illustrator who create great books for toddlers. She already has favorite books that she wants read over and over again.

But what about the children who don’t come from communities and homes such as Madeline’s? How can we scaffold or support the development of proficient self-selected reading? The answer is not to put students into contexts without any guidance. That is, students shouldn’t spend instructional time with text that they have self-selected when they have not been taught how to select books. However, should instruction on self-selection be part of an instructional program? I believe strongly that it should be. In fact, I’m advocating interventions on book selection and reading these books independently.

One aspect of such an intervention involves identifying books that one can benefit from—books that aren’t too easy and aren’t too hard. To date, many of the text leveling schemes that underlie programs (including many of the computerized programs that claim to match students and books precisely) are simply too vague to ensure that books are just right for particular students. There needs to be understanding on the part of students—even young students—of what characterizes an appropriate book for them at a particular time. Further, an intervention on book selection involves students with numerous titles that represent different genres, authors, and topics. A book selection intervention does not simply stay with the books that students already know. Such an intervention also needs to involve them with new authors, new genres, and new topics. Some children may consistently select books about Arthur and Clifford. Instruction on book selection recognizes students’ interests in reading popular books. After all, part of the diet of avid readers is popular books. However, just as the diet of avid readers is varied, so too an instructional program involves students with an array of topics, genres, and authors and the skills of knowing when a book is too easy or too hard.