Does Independent Reading Time During the School Day Create Lifelong Readers

  • alphabet amount of instruction amount of reading
  • 04 October, 2016

Teacher question:

You have attacked DEAR time [Drop Everything and Read] because you say it does little to raise reading achievement. But what about having kids read on their own as a way to motivate them to be readers? As a teacher I want my kids to be lifelong readers so I provide 20 minutes of daily independent reading time. What do you think?

Shanahan response: 

     I think you sound like a nice teacher, but perhaps an ineffective one.

     As you remind me, the effects of DEAR, SSR, SQUIRT or any of the other “independent reading time” schemes are tiny when it comes to reading achievement. Many of those studies have not been particularly well done, but even when they have been the learning payoffs have been rather small.

     Surprising to me is that it has even been true with that kind of summer reading program—when the reading clearly isn’t replacing other academic procedures. James Kim has studied that kind of thing a lot and while he concludes that some very small learning benefits can be derived from such programs, he has had a lot of difficulty obtaining even that result from study to study.

     Unfortunately, the motivational impact of such procedures has been studied less—and with even less payoff. In my experience, the better readers enjoy the free reading time—so they continue to like reading even within the DEAR time framework—but the other kids don't enjoy it much since they don’t read very well. Yikes!

     I definitely understand the logic that you are working with—I shared it when I was a classroom teacher. The idea that kids practicing independent reading would make them want to be independent readers in the future is compelling. But when you think deeply about the practice, its problems become more evident.

     How do kids interpret our approach? What determines whether reading is independent—as opposed to just being another classroom assignment?

1. Whether the reading is going to be done or not.

     If the teacher makes me read for the next half hour, that doesn’t seem very “independent.” She might let me choose the text I read, but what if I’d rather not read at all or would prefer reading during math? Now that would be independent. Required reading time—even when it does not include teaching or other teacher involvement—is not inherently motivational. Making somebody do something may accomplish compliance, but it won’t make him/her like it. (As they say, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him take a bath.)

2. Whether the reader picks the text.

     This one is a bit easier. In fact, many experts talk about “self selected” reading rather than independent reading, since that is usually the only real choice students are allowed in these routines. Lots of times the unmotivated kids still can’t find anything they want to read, and, of course, there are complications. Many teachers/schools constrain these “free choices,” like only allowing students to read books at particular levels (a la Accelerated Reader). If I can choose only books with blue dots, then I’m not really choosing; and if I’m not particularly interested in reading about any topic, then choice is not a motivator. (Someone I know is fascinated with tennis. I once bought him a book about tennis sure he’d love it. Instead he was a real pill: “I love playing tennis, not reading about it.” There is an important motivational lesson there.)

3. How accountable is the reading? Do I have to answer the teachers’ questions? Or write a summary to be evaluated? Or read a segment aloud so the teacher can check on my fluency? Or discuss this with the book club group and not look like an idiot?

     As it became obvious and research accumulated showing the lack of learning from unaccountable reading (e.g., DEAR, SSR), teachers started adopting procedures for conferencing with kids about their books. In other words, we try to make independent reading more like reading lessons—we’ll set the level of the text and you have to prove you read the material and understood it; not exactly how free choice activity works. My point isn’t that this kind of accountability is bad—I suspect it makes “independent reading” more like instructional reading in its payoff, but let’s face it, it is no longer the independent motivational choice that we started with.

     Given all of that, the initial logic doesn’t seem as smart as it did on first blush. What motivates someone? I’ve read a lot of that literature and being required to do something is rarely a powerful stimulator of lifelong desire. But neither is being sent off on one’s own to do something on their own. Nor is doing something that doesn’t give us any sense of accomplishment or fulfillment. If you are a low reader or a beginning reader, how would you get success out of such activity?

     If you want kids to love reading, set up opportunities for kids to work together and with you around books. If you want them to be lifelong readers, work with them to encourage them to build reading into their daily life when away from school. If you want them to care about books, give them a chance to take on books that might be too hard for them. Give them ways to gain social rewards for using the knowledge that they gain from such reading.

     If you don’t want kids to love reading, then sacrifice their instructional time to focus on motivation rather than learning. Or, use reading to isolate kids. Or, treat instructional methodology (asking kids questions in individual conferences instead of in group or class) as a motivator.

     Sadly, research doesn’t provide us with methods proven to increase the likelihood kids will become lifelong readers. But it does give us insights into what does motivate people. SSR and DEAR do not match well with those insights.

     I appreciate how much you evidently care for your students. I hope you care so much that you’ll be willing to alter your methods to actually meet your very appropriate goals for them.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Jennifer Pastore
Apr 05, 2017 11:06 PM

Interesting how everything you disagree with becomes a scheme. You manage to make all instructional practices look bad unless they fit in with your latest "schemes" of direct instruction, whole group instruction, and complex text. I am a graduate of UIC, trained by you and in your reading clinic. I used to admire you. How things change. 10/5/16

Mike Grabartis
Apr 05, 2017 11:07 PM

I have discussed this with teachers on many occasions, and I must say the feeling has been widespread and on the surface sounding very logical. Unfortunately there has been evidence against this practice. I can understand a deep sigh at this point with many teachers. As air leaves my balloon of hopingredients this practice of independent reading would be more valuable, I now understand that this practice has to change. Thank you Tim for your perspective and insight. This practice has not produced the rewards once thought and we need to be more reflective and use this precious time more wisely. 10/5/2016

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 05, 2017 11:07 PM


You might want to look the word scheme up in the dictionary. It appears that you don't actually understand its meaning (and, in fact, I have used the term to refer to teaching approaches that are supported by research, too).

I find it bizarre when readers can only respect people who agree with them. Very sad. That means your classroom can never get any better than it is now--since you can only learn those things that you already agree with. Sad.

tim 10/5/2016

Apr 05, 2017 11:08 PM

I am once again taken aback by the condescending and disrespectful way you go about "supporting" educators on this blog. I would think that this would be a safe and supportive community for literacy educators, but time and time again I find the tone to be rude and argumentative. I do not disagree with your overall point here, but the way you deliver it needs work if your goal is to educate educators! 10/5/2016

Apr 05, 2017 11:09 PM

I believe the effectiveness of silent reading depends on your objective. If your goal is to improve fluency and comprehension, then reading is the best way to go. Allowing time set apart each day for students to practice their reading skills will help to build those independent reading skills. I'm a deep believer that a really good book will be the biggest motivator and that children should be allowed to read what they want, regardless of their instructional level- those books should be saved for small group guided reading. My 4th graders love silent reading time! Given enough time to get into their books,and providing a wide variety of books to choose from, they cheer for it! 105/2016

Ann Leon
Apr 05, 2017 11:10 PM

This is indeed a complex issue. As you pointed out, there are many factors to consider if the reading time is worth the time: how teachers use that scheduled reading time, the purpose for reading, and the motivation behind wide reading. I agree there is a facade behind self-selection and simply requiring independent reading does not guarantee reading growth. However, we know that students who read widely are better readers, so one issue to address is, how can we motivate students to want to read? My master's thesis (Ann H. Leon, California State University, Sacramento, 2007) entitled "Increasing Independent Reading in the Intermediate Grades Through a Book Club Approach" taught me that there are methods and teacher moves that will motivate students toward being lifelong readers: 1) teacher-student relationship, 2) kids selecting to read a book with peers - not leveled, but reasonable, 3) regular discussions and making personal connections, and 4) feeling accountable to others who are interested in the same book. The study was conducted with 5th grade students who were capable readers, but did not read enough according to Accelerated Reader points. As a result of the Book Club participation, all students chose to read more (on their own) than they had read all year; where the control group in an Accelerated Reader class continued to not read enough and not care to earn AR points. The book club approach is difficult and time consuming to carry out, but it reminds me again that reading includes discussion and relationships with others. It is not a solitary activity, and it is not automatically worthwhile just because it is in a daily schedule. I appreciate reading about this complex issue, and it will be something that continues to challenge all of us, if we wish to increase our effectiveness. 10/6/2016

Bridget Erickson
Apr 05, 2017 11:12 PM

Curious to know what your thoughts are on Stephen Krashen's work? His views are quite the opposite of yours. 10/10/2016

Bridget Erickson
Apr 05, 2017 11:13 PM

I agree with Tim's response to Mary that we need to be careful of focusing so heavily on decoding with struggling readers in the intermediate and middle grades, particularly for culturally and/or linguistically diverse students. Making the language of school - syntax, linguistic genres, vocabulary- explicit is necessary for students to comprehend the complex texts of the CCSS. 10/10/2016

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 05, 2017 11:13 PM


I'm glad you asked. Krashen emphasizes correlational research and I do that. In other words, he pays a lot of attention to studies that show that better readers read more. I don't dispute the finding, but like most scientists I don't accept that correlation proves causation, and I recognize that it while it could be that you become a better reader because you read more, it also could be that you choose to read more because you are a better reader.

When it comes to looking at experimental research on the matter, most scientists reject qualitative analysis that vary their criteria based on the outcome of the studies. In experimental research, the researcher actually tests the claim. Thus, one group would be given DEAR time during the school day and a control group would not. That kind of design does allow one to make causal claims at least if the study is done well. Krashen rejects any study without the "right" findings claiming that the researcher made some kind of mistake, and he accepts studies that come up with the "right" findings even if they have the same problem that was used to set aside other studies. There are ways of analyzing and comparing studies and when these are used (meta-analysis), you get the results that I described.


Rosemarie Jensen
Apr 05, 2017 11:15 PM

So do expand with what should be happening because it worked for 20 years in my classrooms, with my own children, and myself as a young reader. And it fit with years of Ed research. Please expand. I'm going to guess its more accountability and assigned reading because that's the patriarchal top down system that is so en vogue today. Count me as one of your former students who has to wonder who you are and what happened to the real dr. Shanahan? I'm guessing it has everything to do with what you think will get you a seat at the reading research table du jour. empowering children as readers and thinkers isn't really popular among the ruling class running Ed policy anymore and can't get research published or speaking gigs if you speak against it. Sad. 10/11/16

Apr 05, 2017 11:15 PM

Analyzed and compared studies (meta-analysis) regarding sustained silent reading


Rosemarie Jensen
Apr 05, 2017 11:16 PM

And your tone to the teacher who asked the question was beyond condescending. You have no idea if she is effective or not based on a question. So disappointing. 10/11/16

Apr 05, 2017 11:16 PM

What are your thoughts on the research done by Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher? They advocate choice reading for students and having the majority of your class time with those students dedicated to independent reading.

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 05, 2017 11:17 PM

Neither Penny Kittle or Kelly Gallagher conduct research. Research entails the collection and analysis of data. That's not their thing apparently. 10/11/16

Elizabeth Lietz
Apr 05, 2017 11:58 PM

Mr. Shanahan, if you do not consider these authors 'researchers', do you dispute the research cited in Kittle's and Gallagher's books on reading (such as Book Love and Readicide)? 10/11/16

Wonderful Wors
Apr 05, 2017 11:59 PM

I wanted to give a little anecdote that I think illustrates how sometimes what looks good to us as teachers does not necessarily equate to children learning. A few years back, I was working with a student because she had failed the state standardized test. As a dyslexia therapist, I was pulling her out of class to assess just exactly what her weaknesses were. As I looked at the teacher paperwork, her English teacher had commented how much this child enjoyed reading and that she was currently reading the Harry Potter series. Upon testing her, I quickly ascertained that she was, in fact, unable to read. When I asked the child about her reading habits, she just said she checked out the big books and pretended to read.

My point is that if you walked into her regular classroom, you would have thought the child was very engaged in reading. She liked to sit in the bean bag chair and would even come in during homeroom to "read." On observation, you would think that the SSR they practiced every day for 20 minutes was motivating her to be a stronger reader. If you looked at her list of "read" books, you would think she was a prolific reader.

The actual evidence in her testing showed she needed serious intervention beginning with phonics. 20 minutes spent "reading" silently was a waste of time for this child. 20 minutes a day in a school year is 60 hours of instruction, which is enough time to complete half of a solid, research-based phonics intervention curriculum. Think what a difference that might have made for her.

We can't simply rely on what feels good to us as teachers. Yes, it's a beautiful thing to see a classroom full of kids snuggled up to a good book -- I know that's what we all want. SSR cannot be used as our primary means of reading instruction. Yes, give kids time to read in class but not in place of good, sound instruction. 10/12/16

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 05, 2017 11:59 PM

It is not just I who don't consider Kittle or Gallagher to be researcher... they themselves make no such claims. I have conducted a quick scan of the scientific literature and can find NO research on Book Love or Readicide, so not sure what studies they (or you) might be alluding to.

Something that should help you to understand this: just because somebody writes/publishes does not mean that they are part of the scientific community or that they conduct empirical research. In this case, these two individuals--at least in their on-line information--are careful not to pretend that they are researchers. Their writing states their opinions and those opinions are more likely the result of personal experience or second-hand knowledge of research. Quite often, when someone cites another publication teachers assume the citation is to research, when it is often just to another opinion of someone else. That is not what I mean by research, it is not what the National Academies mean by research, it is not what IES and NICHD and the Department of Education mean by research. 10/12/16

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 06, 2017 12:00 AM

Wonderful Words--

Thanks for this insightful story. The late Steve Stahl used to write about the same thing he was seeing in classroom visits, and I have seen this many times. This practice is particularly hard on struggling readers, of course.

tim 10/12/16

Rosemarie Jensen
Apr 06, 2017 12:01 AM

And your tone to the teacher who asked the question was beyond condescending. You have no idea if she is effective or not based on a question. So disappointing. 10/12/16

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 06, 2017 12:02 AM

No, my answer was not condescending. Go back and read the comment that she wrote. She wasn't as much asking me a question as indicating that I deserved no respect because my answer did not agree with what she believed. That is a horrible position for any teacher to take about ideas. I have no idea whether she is a wonderful teacher, a terrible one, or someplace in between--but it would not matter. if she or any teacher is so committed to her instructional methods that she rejects any challenge to them, then it would be impossible to improve (since what she is already doing must be perfect). If we cannot disagree AND respect each other (and she was stating, that she for one could not), then we are all lost. That is not condescension.

tim 10/12/16

Apr 06, 2017 12:03 AM 10/12/16

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 06, 2017 12:04 AM


Yes, I am aware that Steven Krashen has blogged that I am wrong about this.

His evidence: studies focused mainly on adult learners of foreign language.

He fails to mention the heavy adult slant in the work he refers to, or that some of the meta-analyses that he cites suggest that the results were not encouraging of using the practice with younger readers (younger being high school). Nor does he mention that often these studies did not actually examine SSR, but only how much reading foreign language students were doing within instruction—like reading books and answering teachers question's—or outside of class.

He also ignores what the control groups were doing when reading on one’s own was being fostered—if the outcome goal is to teach English vocabulary to Japanese speakers for instance, then having adult students either reading English or doing math in Japanese, then I’m not surprised students learned more English vocabulary from SSR. I have written previously in this space and as a member of the National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children and Youth about the benefits of encouraging students to read in L2 (even using SSR), particularly when students have very limited access to the L2 language (through media, conversation, etc.). I, for instance, taught myself to read a foreign language, largely through reading; but then I’m not 9 and I didn’t have a teacher available to me who could have accelerated my progress.

For studies of elementary and secondary school students who are native English speakers here are some resources:

Kamil, M. (2006, April). A quasi-experimental test of recreation reading: Data from a two-year study. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. (Also available from

Summers, E.G., & McClelland, J.V. (1982). A field-based evaluation of sustained silent reading (SSR) in intermediate grades. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 28, 100–112.

Yoon, J., & Won, J. (2001, December). Three decades of sustained silent reading: A meta-analysis of its’ effects on reading attitude and reading comprehension. Paper presented at the National Reading Conference, San Antonio, TX.
Labels: Encouraging Reading

Yoon, J.C. (2002). Three decades of sustained silent reading: A meta-analytic review of the effects of SSR on attitude toward reading. Reading Improvement.

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 06, 2017 12:06 AM


Okay, you say SSR works because you have used it. The problem is that you cannot tell whether it worked that way or not. You--any of us--cannot measure the opportunity cost that is inherent in such a situation. You cannot tell whether kids would have done better if you had done something different. That's why I was not telling about my experiences in the classroom, but was telling what the research findings are. That can be threatening to practitioners who have practiced in a particular way and now find out that research doesn't support it.

From World War II until the early 1980s, doctors/pharmacists prescribed/recommended that pregnant women who were nauseous should take benedictine. Millions of women took it during that time. Then in the late 1970s, some crazy researcher studied it--still providing it to large numbers of women, while withholding it from matched women (the control group). The result: those who took benedictine were more likely to miscarry. The FDA immediately ended the practice of using that drug for that purpose. My father-in-law was a pharmacist who had prescribed that to hundreds maybe thousands of women, sure he was doing the right thing. When he learned of the research he was angry, he rejected it, but was required to follow the law. I understand that finding out that teaching kids might give them more than they can learn on their own. But research supports the idea and whether you are mad about the studies or mad at me, the better reaction would be to change your practice.

good luck.

tim 10/12/16

Apr 06, 2017 12:06 AM

Perhaps you did not yet see Steve Krashen's response link on Twitter...

Apr 06, 2017 12:07 AM

I appreciate some of the comments that people have written, that it is so frustrating to think that this practice, that has been created and implemented with such pure intentions, can be unhelpful or maybe detrimental. I still have a difficult time with the idea that it is possibly detrimental, but maybe the solution is not taking away independent reading time all together from the day, but morphing it to be shorter or as reward when other things are accomplished. This shows students that reading is a prize and allows them exposure to the different types of text that are in the classroom that a teacher may not have time to introduce or that a child may not get to interact with at home. The teacher can also take a moment to read and model enjoying a good book. There are still benefits to being around books and people who are reading because they want to, even if it is not the same kind of direct benefit that we had hoped. When there is an offer of reading time as a reward and students look forward to it and get to read, it is clear that those students want that time and there is positivity around reading, as opposed to having the reading time be forced on them. This will also give students the opportunity to chose their own texts which could lead to them choosing books slightly above their reading level, which you say is beneficial in their long-term love of reading. This is how I hope to balance these issues in my classroom and I hope that it will create a positive feeling for books. 10/14/16

Apr 06, 2017 12:08 AM

I was actually afforded the opportunity to read at school. I suppose I was lucky. May I ask how many years you spent teaching in a low-income high minority area?

African American poor is much different than White poor. So we can't compare your experiences to mine or my
Students. 11/24/16

Apr 06, 2017 12:09 AM

I was actually afforded the opportunity to read at school. I suppose I was lucky. May I ask how many years you spent teaching in a low-income high minority area?

African American poor is much different than White poor. So we can't compare your experiences to mine or my
Students. 11/28/16

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 06, 2017 12:10 AM

I've spent my whole career working in low income high minority areas. I don't buy your premise about white and black experience. For example, how could you possibly know (and how could I refute that "knowledge") about whether Whites and Blacks experience poverty in the same ways? If you've never experienced both situations, how could you possibly compare? Look at the research on what makes a difference in black student learning and you may be surprised to find that it is the same as the things that make a difference in the learning of white students (and in neither case does using school time for free reading come out as an important influence). Black and whites may feel different pain or may experience sadness in very different ways, but you can't tell that from your experience. 11/28/16

Apr 06, 2017 12:11 AM

I was often told that that I was smart for "a Black Girl". My school was plagued by gangs, violence, and children raised by single parent households. Please review recent statistics on single parent households, incarceration, and the effect it is having on Black children. Black males are incarcerated at a much higher rate than ANY other race.

Whites are able to escape poverty, relatively unscathed. A Black person may escape the the confindes of their neighborhood, but they will always carry the negative connotations that are attached to being Black. Black poverty and White poverty are completely different. Education and money will set a largely clear path for White students. How can you motivate students that see that despite their education, they will still be seen as inferior? (Check out the income disparity between professional blacks and whites).

Can you share the negative racial stereotypes that you faced as a child?

The research on Black learning is rather theoretical in nature, and very few studies are longitudinal and/or scalable. If they were, schools in Chicago, New York, and Detroit wouldn't be scratching their heads trying to figure out the "epidemic" of low achievement in Black schools.

Can you direct me to a study that shows a practical model for teaching high poverty black students that was successful?


Timothy Shanahan
Apr 06, 2017 12:12 AM


One thing that is clear in the research literature--there are not many black/white interactions. By that I mean, there are very few instructional routines that work any differently with whites and blacks... the patterns are the same. What works with the students of one race seem to be the same things that work with the students of another race. (And your notions about white poverty show a lack of knowledge of the research on that topic, too.)

You say that big city school districts are scratching their heads about how to teach black students... why not adopt policies that allow inner city schools to hire teachers of the same caliber as those hired in the suburbs? why not maximize instructional time instead of pissing it away on activities (like having kids go off to read on their own instead of receiving teacher support)? why not ensure that black children are taught the skills that research shows to be implicated in achievement gains (PA, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, writing, fluency)?

There are many societal problems that confront children raised in poverty...Poor Blacks are plagued by high crime rates, gangs, low family coherence, poor housing, poor medical care, racism... As a teacher I can't address those problems, However, I can make sure that the children I teach have the opportunity for the biggest learning gains possible when in my care, rather than the smallest possible learning gains. The average learning gain found across all the different instructional interventions studied by research is about .40 of a standard deviation (in the elementary grades that is just a bit lower than a half year's extra learning benefit for using the various innovative curricula, etc.). The average learning gain for providing free reading time within the classroom is .05... in other words, the kids who use their instructional time that way get a learning benefit of about 2 weeks.

You may be satisfied in giving Black children a two-week learning benefit, I'll continue to argue for a 5 month learning benefit for them instead. The only way to conquer the low achievement problem is teaching. If the kids could do it on their own, I assure you they would have. 12/23/16

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Does Independent Reading Time During the School Day Create Lifelong Readers


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