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NYC Helpline: How To: Teaching Upper Grade Literacy

The First Twenty Days of Independent Reading: 
What You Need to Accomplish

by Lisa Peterson

Any veteran teacher will tell you that the beginning of the school year is a crucial time for shaping students’ behavior.  If your students learn good habits early on, you will be able to accomplish a much greater amount of academic work later.  Luckily, lots of guidance is available to help you foster positive routines and behaviors during the independent reading component of your literacy block.  (I recommend the plan found in Guiding Readers and Writers, Grades 3-6: Teaching Comprehension, Genre, and Content Literacy by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, but there are many excellent guides available.)  Below, you will find a list of general issues addressed in most of these guides.  If you think through these issues and develop lessons to address them, your students should be in a good place at the end of the first month of school.

 1)  Assessment:  Early in the year, you will be required to administer some sort of standardized assessment in order to get a sense of students’ reading levels.  However, you also need to know what your students think and feel about reading.  It can be incredibly helpful to know what kinds of books your students like, what sort of experiences have shaped them as readers, and even what TV shows and movies they enjoy (you can always guide them towards books with similar themes).  You can have students complete a survey, construct a reading timeline, or write a reading autobiography so that you can get a sense of their preferences and self-image as readers. 

2)  Goals and Purpose: You will want to give your students a sense of the purpose and goals of their independent reading program.  Especially in the upper grades, students generally respond better if they understand WHY they are doing something.  It is helpful to give students an overview of the components of reading workshop and explain that research shows that kids who read more increase their reading levels more.  You can explain the importance of reading a lot of books and of reading books at the right level.  If you have a push-in teacher, you might also want to explain his or her role. 

3)  Choosing a Book:  Independent reading won’t take off unless students are reading books that they can understand and enjoy.  Therefore, it is crucial for them to be able to select books effectively.  They need to understand two basic concepts:  how to find interesting books and how to make sure the books are at an appropriate level for them.

How to find interesting books: 

  • You can work with students to generate a chart of ways to find a good book.  Here is a sample chart:

    How to Find an Interesting Book       

      • Look for topics and/or genres that interest you.
      • Look for authors you have enjoyed in the past.
      • Look for series/characters you have enjoyed in the past.
      • Look for books related to movies or TV shows you enjoy.
      • Look for books with interesting covers:  exciting cover pictures, interesting blurbs on the back.
      • Look for books you have heard read aloud.
      • Ask a friend.
      • Ask the teacher.  (I always reassure them that I won’t recommend my own favorite books – too boring!-- but books I know other students enjoy!) 
    • As part of this lesson, or as an extension lesson, it can be helpful to go over what it means to preview a book – examining the front and back covers, reading chapter titles and/or the first page, and looking through illustrations (“taking a picture walk”) or other special features.  Previewing is a key component of choosing a book.
    • Also as an extension to this lesson, you should take some time to discuss genre, making sure to emphasize the genres in your classroom library, so students get a sense of the options available to them.

            How to find books at the right level: 

    • Early in the year, you should receive information about students’ reading levels, and you should begin conducting your own assessments.  If your library is leveled, then it is easy to guide students towards appropriate books.  Until you have all of these pieces in place, you can emphasize the importance of reading books that are comfortable – you can understand them, but they aren’t too easy.  You can give students a rough idea of level by teaching them the five-finger rule – if there are five words you don’t know on any given page, the book is probably too hard. 

4)  Procedures, Routines, and Expectations:  One of the most difficult things for new teachers is to think through routines and procedures.  All too often, students create their own, less-than-optimal procedures for activities because they don’t have clear guidance from the teacher.  Here is a list of questions to consider as you create your own procedures.


  • Where will students sit during the mini-lesson – in their seats or at the meeting area?
  • If students will move to the meeting area, what is the procedure for getting there?  How will they be seated?  What is the procedure for leaving the meeting area?
  • If students will stay in their seats, will they need to turn their chairs?  Where will they direct their attention?  Where will you teach?
  • What will students do during the mini-lesson?  Will they listen?  Take notes (and if so, where?  In a notebook?  In their reading journals?)

Independent reading:

  • What materials will students use during independent reading -- books, notebooks, post-its, teacher-made forms?
  • Where will independent reading materials be stored?  It may be helpful to have folders or bags that keep each student’s materials together.
  • How will materials be distributed and collected?
  • Will any materials go home?  If so, which ones?  (You will definitely want students to read and write at home, but you may want them to have separate books and/or notebooks for home and school – since what goes home doesn’t always come back.)
  • What activities are permitted during independent reading?  Can students write in their notebooks, or will they only be allowed to read?
  • What are the procedures for checking out and returning books – when can students do this, where do they do this, and how do they do this?
  • What is the procedure for abandoning a book?  (You want a procedure that is difficult enough to prevent students from abandoning a book every day, but not so difficult that students will stay mired in a book they hate.  Usually an explanatory letter to the teacher works well.)
  • What should students do when they need help?
  • Will you confer with students?  If so, where will you confer?  What are your expectations for students in a conference?  What are your expectations for other students while you confer?
  • How will independent reading be evaluated?  (Although this isn’t technically a procedure, some teachers like to give students points for effort/time on task during independent reading.  If so, students need to be taught exactly what is expected of them.)

Share time

  • How will you signal the end of independent reading?  What should students do at that time?
  • Where will students sit during the share – in their seats or at the meeting area?
  • How should students speak to you and to each other during the share?


5) Recording and Responding to Books:  Although all of your students might look as if they are reading, not all of them will be reading as effectively as they might.  If you carefully monitor students’ progress, you will be much better equipped to help them grow.

  • You should have some procedures in place to track what students are reading each day.  It is helpful to know the title of the book, the level, and the number of pages, so you get a sense of whether students are reading appropriate books and putting in enough effort.  Some teachers conduct a status of the class each day, in which they quickly record this information on a form.  Other teachers ask students to record this information in their reading notebooks or folders.
  • You should also have a sense of how many books students have actually completed.  Along with a list, students should complete some sort of end-of-book activity, whether it is a report, a mini-project, or simply a letter.  This end-of –book activity should include both summary and response because both are vital skills for students to practice.  Book lists and end-of-book activities are usually kept in the writing notebook.
  • Particularly with upper grade children, who will most likely be reading longer books, you will want to have students respond to books during reading, not just at the end.  Not only will these responses give you a window into students’ thinking, but the very process of writing the responses will help students organize and develop their thinking.  Response during reading can be quick (e.g., a jotted note on a post-it), or a more extended written response.  Both are useful.  Many times teachers scaffold longer written responses by having students record their thinking on post-its and/or discuss their thinking by turning and talking to their partners.  Later, students write longer responses based on their quick ones.  Some teachers give students a menu of response options, while others make the response more open-ended.  Just make sure you model and practice the responses with students so that they fully understand what they are expected to do. 

6)  Discussion: It is always frustrating when a little chatterbox, full of opinions and ideas about anything, limits a written response to one sentence.  Most students naturally find it easier to talk about their reading than to write about it, and talk should play an important role in any reading program.  You can use talk to get a fuller picture of what students are thinking.  You can also use talk to help them articulate and develop their thinking, which will support fuller and more detailed written responses.  However, unstructured talk can often be ineffective and/or disruptive.  In the first twenty days, you should introduce the idea of sharing with a partner (and a small group, if students are ready).  You can teach general expectations for student-student talk (soft voices, respectful words, sticking to the topic, etc.) and some procedures (face your partner, take turns, etc.).

7)  Creating a Book-Loving Community:  The teacher’s enthusiasm about reading is obviously important, but the enthusiasm of peers motivates like nothing else.  You can harness peer pressure by creating a forum for students to recommend books to each other.  Some teachers have kids do weekly book talks (rotating through the class on a regular basis), while others have a wall or bulletin board for book recommendations.  You will want to introduce and model these activities early on, and then continue to support them through the year.

Some ideas for creating a book-loving community:

Book talks:  Have students respond to 5 basic questions when giving a book talk –

1)  What is the title?
2)  Who is the author?  What other books has this author written?
3)  What is the book about (characters, setting, problem)?
4)  Why did you enjoy/not enjoy this book?
5)  Read a short passage from the book to the class.

Index card books:  Students can fold a large index card in half.  On the front, they write the title and illustrate it with a picture.  On one of the inner sides, they write what the book is about, and on the other side, they write why they are recommending the book.

8)  Emphasizing that Reading is Creating Meaning:  When you explain the goals and purpose of independent reading, you will certainly explain this concept, but towards the end of the first twenty days, you will want to teach a couple of strategies to reinforce it.  Most curriculum maps for the first twenty days include lessons on monitoring for meaning/fix-up strategies and what to do when you come to an unknown word.

I hope you found this guideline helpful. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to e-mail me.


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