Reframing Independent Reading: We Can Start By Not Grading It

imgres-1.jpgAll week, I’ve been thinking about Pernille Ripp’s exasperated plea, “Can we please stop grading independent reading?”  (I imagine that she initially had an exclamation point at the end of that post, like, COME ON, people, but then deleted it to be nice.)

Still, I am one of those people she is exasperated with.  Or I was while in the high school classroom, dedicatedly printing log sheets and grading reading every week for three years, using a complicated system of reading rates and conferences to give a number grade that reflected reading growth and sustained progress.

One year, I abandoned this system in the third quarter, just to see what would happen–would kids stop reading if I removed the accountability of a weekly reading grade?

Yes, yes they would–and they did.  So I re-instituted weekly grades, which, combined with a quarterly assessment, combined to 20% of my students’ total grade.  I was happy that this much of my course grade was dedicated to independent reading, but I didn’t realize that the grades I was mandating weren’t really creating independent readers at all.  (In hindsight, I should have begun the year without reading grades and created an authentic community of readers who weren’t motivated by reading logs.)

imgres.jpgAfter I read Pernille’s post, while thinking about this idea (read: beating myself up for slaughtering kids’ love of reading), I pulled out one of the most memorable texts I read while in college–Janice Pilgreen’s The SSR Handbook.  In the foreword, Stephen Krashen writes:

Free voluntary reading means reading what you want to read, with no book reports, no questions at the end of the chapter, and not having to finish the book if you don’t want to.  Sustained silent reading provides children with an opportunity to do free voluntary reading in school.  Is this a good idea?  Yes.

Pilgreen lists eight components of a successful SSR practice:

  1. Access – to many reading materials (books, newspaper, magazines, comics)
  2. Appeal – the materials are interesting and appropriate for the students
  3. Conducive Environment – the space in which students may read is comfortable and welcoming
  4. Encouragement – teachers and peers encourage students to read through discussions, modeling, and more
  5. Staff Training – teachers should have practical approaches in place for helping kids become readers
  6. Non-Accountability – no records, no monitoring, no “task-oriented” attitudes toward reading
  7. Follow-Up Activities – thoughtful, creative, interactive ways in which students discuss their reading lives authentically
  8. Distributed Time to Read – a volume of time that consistently occurs during which students read freely in school

When I think now about these eight simple factors, I see them clearly through the lens of workshop teaching.  To me, the components translated to my real-world readers workshop classroom look like this:

  • a classroom library brimming with high-interest books;
  • a reader-friendly community built not only into a welcoming physical space, but one in which daily reading, talk, conferring, and encouragement happen;
  • a teacher-leader who is the best reader in the room, who can model fluent reading and recommend a wide volume of books to students;
  • a lack of graded formative assessment and an emphasis on summative assessments for learning, not of learning.

This means no reading levels, no required number of books per year, no structured programs in place, no minimum number of minutes of reading done per week.  This means relinquishing control.  This means a lot of modeling, conferring, and progress monitoring to encourage student growth and lifelong learning.

This means thinking about independent reading as truly independent–independent of grades and of accountability.  This means reframing independent reading in school as an authentic, student-centered activity in which the readers take the lead and teachers merely help provide coaching and guidance.

If these ideologies are in place, teachers will know if kids aren’t reading (by simple observation and conferring).  We can adjust our instructional practices from there, without the damaging effects of punitive grades.  We can still give a grade for summative student self-assessments of independent reading growth (student-led is the key, here) to satisfy those mandatory gradebook updates, but if students are to become real readers we, as teachers, cannot be the ones holding them accountable for their progress.

There are many other kinds of reading that happen in language arts classrooms in addition to independent reading:  whole-class study of texts; small-group book clubs; close reading studies of poetry, articles, essays; explorations of mentor texts; analyses and syntheses of plays and novels and writing of all sorts.  This is where the work of learning to become a better reader can come in (which can be very enjoyable!), which lends itself to skills-based reading assessments.

In contrast, independent reading and all its many joys and struggles and spaces for success and failure are not, as Pernille says, “gradeable skills but instead a child practicing habits to figure out how to get better at reading.”  If we want to nurture this practice, we cannot keep grading it–and that’s the first step to reframing our thinking about independent reading.

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or join her for the Slice of Life Writing Challenge here.


28 thoughts on “Reframing Independent Reading: We Can Start By Not Grading It

  1. […] each by offering students choice and ownership over their reading lives. In a previous post Shana suggested that if the reading is authentic and student-centered that it can even be independent from grades. […]


  2. […] each by offering students choice and ownership over their reading lives. In a previous post Shana suggested that if the reading is authentic and student-centered that it can even be independent from grades. […]


  3. […] been thinking since last May about how we should stop grading independent reading.  The best and brightest in our teacher hive give us their advice and wisdom in books, blogs, and […]


  4. […] Clubs are like independent reading, just a bit more social.  Why grade it with check-listy parameters?  I wanted students to read, engage, and think with one another.  To come to the table with […]


  5. […] and the concrete ledge of grading, that deep roiling vortex between theory and practice. In this post, Shana cites Pernille Ripp and Janice Pilgreen and translates some of their basic principles into a […]


  6. […] Three Teacher’s Talk:  Reframing Independent Reading […]


  7. […] a little to do this, but I like the way it’s worked out. While I’ve always longed to do away with grades, I struggled with how to do so within the confines of a system that makes me put grades into a […]


  8. […] I’m sure we all can agree, reading logs don’t work.  Shana summed up what I’ve been thinking for some time now.  All I can think of are my poor (now junior) students who had to endure a reading log entry every […]


  9. […] If our goal is to build fluency and have students reading authentically and for pleasure, we can’t keep grading or measuring or tracking our students’ reading lives so […]


  10. […] been thinking since last May about how we should stop grading independent reading.  The best and brightest in our teacher hive give us their advice and wisdom in books, blogs, and […]


  11. […] book was finished, students reflected on their reading process.  Since I’ve struggled with reading rates and accountability, I just loved this […]


  12. […] period explained it should be about the learning, not about the grades, but it’s been that way for so long that they don’t know how else to […]


  13. Amy Rasmussen March 17, 2017 at 9:11 pm Reply

    Insightful post! Plus, you’ve made me think about the difference between SSR and Independent Reading. There’s lots more room for discussion here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shana Karnes March 18, 2017 at 7:18 pm Reply

      Heck yes! I could think and write and read about this subject all day.


    • Jessica Paxson March 19, 2017 at 5:08 pm Reply

      I would like to know more about this, also. I don’t know if I knew there was a difference. As usual, I live in a hole. It’s dark and lonely, but I have books.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Shana Karnes March 20, 2017 at 5:58 am Reply

        All dark and quiet holes with books are awesome.

        You can google independent reading vs. SSR vs. choice reading vs. free reading vs. structured IR and get a million different results. Good luck with that!! Haha


  14. Pat Delzell March 17, 2017 at 8:02 pm Reply

    I was a high school student who read my own books hidden in textbooks which were being read out loud by poor readers. I would count down the paragraphs and hope they wouldn’t skip one. I would have paid all of my allowance (and all the $ I made by selling gum and Lifesavers in class) to be able to read what I wanted. Thank you for being an oasis.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Elizabeth Oosterheert March 17, 2017 at 12:59 pm Reply

    Thank you for your very thoughtful post!

    Like you, I’ve been pondering Pernille Ripp’s comments all week, and I agree with both of you-independent reading should not be graded. There are many other contexts in which it is much more appropriate to measure progress or growth. Placing a grade on independent reading stops the beating hearts of joy and autonomy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shana Karnes March 18, 2017 at 7:19 pm Reply

      Yes! And so often, we forget that joy and autonomy are tied together, and that both lead to sustained growth when it comes to learning. We need to have more faith in our kids.


      • Elizabeth Oosterheert March 18, 2017 at 7:23 pm Reply

        Thanks so much for the reply! 🙂 I love your insights and I read this blog frequently. I’m inspired by your dedication to the craft of teaching and your love for students.

        Liked by 1 person

  16. Amy Estersohn March 17, 2017 at 7:43 am Reply

    I’ve also de-graded independent reading – including no grades for volume, no grades for conferences, and no grades for preparedness with an IR book. Sometimes it’s frustrating to withhold a number, but what comes out is an authentic performance of where readers are — in reading level, organizationally, emotionally, etc.

    Independent reading should always be its own reward — read a book, love it, come and talk to me about it of your own volition.

    Also this column from the Times….

    A quotation:

    ““If you pay kids to read you’ll get them to read,” said Edward Deci, the author of “Why We Do What We Do” and a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. “They’ll continue to read until you end the experiment, and then they’ll stop.” Rewards encourage children to think of reading as something you have to be paid to do, not something that brings pleasure in itself, he says.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shana Karnes March 18, 2017 at 7:20 pm Reply

      This is such a great article, Amy!! Thanks for sharing it, and your wisdom!!


    • Jessica Paxson March 19, 2017 at 5:06 pm Reply

      I love this article, as well. Bookmarking! Reminds me of a book… um….. Drive? By Daniel Pink? I think that’s the one that talks about intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. Seems like I need to reread it this summer.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Shana Karnes March 20, 2017 at 5:58 am Reply

        Seems like I need to re-read everything by Daniel Pink this summer. And Malcolm Gladwell!


  17. tbreitweiser March 17, 2017 at 7:17 am Reply

    I always enjoy reading your posts!

    Thank you for the insight

    Liked by 1 person

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