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Open a World of Possible
With Independent Reading: The 20-Minute Challenge

Giving kids access to books they love and the time to read them is the best way to help them achieve academic success and lifelong joy.
By Pam Allyn

If you could free up 20 minutes in class each day—no small feat, I understand—what payoff would you need to justify the commitment? Would boosting test scores, nurturing better writers, and creating students with a deep love of learning be enough? If so, then I have a challenge for you. Will you make independent reading a regular part of your school day?

Independent reading time is truly the simplest, most economical intervention we have to transform even the most struggling readers into kids who read with flashlights after their bedtime and who use reading as a tool to change their lives.

Olympic athletes don’t get to the podium because they filled in worksheets about their sport or listened passively to a coach for hours on end. They become strong and skilled through daily practice, through exercising many muscles, and taking initiative. Reading muscles grow strong in the same way, through regular, dedicated practice. It’s been shown that as little as 20 minutes a day of brisk walking provides measurable health benefits. A similar principle holds true for reading. Twenty minutes a day of the kind of reading where children select their own titles and where the time is spent fully engaged in reading will have a big impact and open up a world of possibility for each child. Practice does make perfect. And practice must start from a place of love and passion. There is not one thing you do well that you did not love to do first. We must make space for independent reading time in school because it gives children a chance to actually practice and to fall in love with the work of reading.

The Benefits of Daily, Independent Reading

Independent reading builds fluency, stamina, independence, comprehension, and an increased vocabulary. And, it leads to high test scores. Years of research by renowned experts have proven this time and time again. Richard Allington sums it up perfectly when he says, “It is during successful, independent reading practice that students consolidate their reading skills and strategies and come to own them. Unless children read substantial amounts of print, their reading will remain laborious, lacking fluency, and limited in effectiveness.”

Creating daily regular work around independent reading experiences exposes our students to the three major text types: narrative, opinion, and informational text. Daily independent reading time promotes high levels of critical thinking and comprehension skills. As Nancie Atwell points out, “Students who read widely and frequently are higher achievers than students who read rarely and narrowly.” The independent reading time gives students the chance to read widely—to browse and reread, to read across genres and text types, to read voraciously and to fall in love with authors.

The benefits of reading independently extend to our students’ writing lives as well. Reading is like breathing in, and writing is like breathing out. Allowing students to immerse themselves in authentic texts gives them powerful models to inspire their own writing. It’s no surprise that a universal piece of advice that great writers give to aspiring writers is this: Read often. Ernest Hemingway, when asked how to become a great writer, responded: “Read Anna Karenina, read Anna Karenina, read Anna Karenina.” And he meant it; rereading counts. This is also a key part of independent reading: letting kids love the books they read and letting them read authentically too, which always, for anyone under the age of 12, involves rereading.

The Power of Student Choice

The integral ingredient of independent reading time is student choice. Having ownership of their own reading empowers children to build a strong identity as readers and is profoundly motivating for students, even and sometimes especially for struggling readers who may feel a lack of autonomy in many other areas of their academic learning lives. The 2013 Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report found an astounding 92 percent of kids are more likely to finish a book that they chose themselves as opposed to one that was chosen for them. That is persuasive testimony not only to the power of choice but also to the good decisions children make when they are supported in making them.

Today’s independent reading time should be deeply connected to a child’s ongoing learning and to the learning timeline of the classroom literacy work. A teacher’s role should be to teach into that independent reading time, not away from it. Independent reading should be the fuel for whole-class instruction. For instance, if the teacher is leading a unit of study on characters and themes, the children should be exploring those same big ideas in their own independent reading, whether a child is reading Frog and Toad or The Chronicles of Narnia. Teachers can confer with students individually during independent reading time to discover what parts of their teaching are impacting that child’s independent exploration of texts.

PamallynpressphototwoThe launch of Scholastic’s Open a World of Possible campaign is a perfect moment for us as educational leaders to commit to providing every child with at least 20 minutes of independent reading time every day in every classroom and to commit to providing the kinds of books and texts children will stay awake all night for. Independent reading at home and at school puts the child at the center of his or her own learning, which fosters success and enthusiasm. So there is a new effort among teachers to help children find books to get them excited about stories and information, to link reading to fun, discovery, and curiosity, and to promote the sheer joy that reading can bring. A child with the right book becomes the driving force in his or her own reading, and that is the key to becoming a learner. Open a World of Possible points to independent reading as a doorway to imagination and discovery—a way to motivate children to read and learn and realize themselves.

It’s no coincidence that many of today’s trailblazers and entrepreneurs pinpoint reading and favorite books as the source of their inspiration. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has said that reading Nancy Drew mysteries changed her life and made her want to solve mysteries too, which is what she does today! Lest we think independent reading is supplemental or extra, to be done only on Friday afternoons, let’s think again. Take the Open a World of Possible challenge and put independent reading time at the center of your school community. Let’s leave a literacy legacy for our students they will remember always. Let’s give every child those 20 crucial minutes each day to change their lives.

Pam Allyn is a renowned author of award-winning books on parenting and teaching. She is the founder of LitWorld, a literacy advocacy initiative working nationally and globally to provide literacy to at-risk children.


BIGGER THAN WORDS: A Live Webcast with Usher

The best selling musician discusses how kids can open a world of possible through reading.

Thursday, November 6, 2014   
1:00pm ET / 10:00am PT


An Exclusive Video. Global superstar and seven-time Grammy® winner shares which books have influenced her, and how reading and writing have opened her world. scholastic.com/taylorswift

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in edu Pulse are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.