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NEA News

Independent Reading in the Classroom Critical to Student Achievement

Judy Newman, president of Scholastic Book Clubs, talks about how schools can encourage more reading.
Published: February 2, 2016

Despite the explosion of apps and games and online videos, kids are still reading, and many are doing it the old fashioned way with printed books. Just like us, kids pick up books because reading is fun. It lets them explore other worlds, go on adventures, and recognize themselves in their favorite characters, showing them that they are not alone.

But if we want them to keep reading, we need to find ways to keep it fun. Scholastic is the largest publisher and distributor of children’s book in the world, and NEA Today recently spoke with Judy Newman, president of Scholastic Book Clubs, about trends in reading among children.

Why is reading for fun important for students academically?

Judy Newman: The most critical skill for success in school or in life is the ability to read well. Reading is the only way to build usable vocabulary because in books, words are written in a context, with meaning and nuance. You need to build your vocabulary over time by reading. Once you have a strong, dynamic vocabulary you can translate your thoughts and ideas (and hopes and dreams), and communicate them to others.

However, I’d like us to consider changing the way we speak about “reading for fun.” Professionals familiar with the benefits of reading understand that “fun” reading is critical to kids’ learning and development, but not everyone shares that understanding. We should define “reading for fun,” as “enjoyable independent reading,” which means letting kids choose books they will enjoy reading. And when they enjoy what they are reading, they will finish the book and learn and absorb whatever that book is about.

It seems that if kids find books they like, they will read more often. How can educators help kids find books they’ll like?

JN: Teachers and librarians are hugely instrumental in connecting kids to books they will enjoy reading because they truly get to know the kids in their class and their school. They know students’ reading levels so they can suggest books that will make kids feel successful and positive about reading. And they know that the easiest way to help kids find books they’ll like is by giving them continuous access to a wide variety of books to choose from. They know that their students have a wide array of interests and personal experiences and that they read at many different reading levels.

I can’t say enough about allowing kids to choose the books they want to read—just like adults do. As adults, we choose topics we like for many reasons: to escape with a good fantasy, get lost in a mystery, read about important figures in history or in the future. The same is doubly, triply, even exponentially true for children. Kids will be happy reading something that they choose—that matches their interests and their ideas of the world. Plus, the act of choosing a book to read and borrow from the library or owning a book to add to a personal bookshelf is amazingly empowering.

When I was a kid, reading was one of the major ways I made sense of my world. It was how I could see characters going through what I was going through as well as experiencing what was happening in the world around me. I think one of the most empowering gifts we can give kids is the opportunity to choose what they want to read and to help them understand their world and the people in their lives.

What can schools do to create more opportunities for daily independent reading?

JN: Most teachers I know crave the time and freedom in their daily schedules to allow kids to do more independent reading. But often that is really difficult because of the pressures educators are under to cover extensive curriculum, develop specific skills and measure student gains. The gains achieved by independent reading will be apparent over the long-term but not necessarily on a weekly or quarterly test.

It seems to me that we have three key specific opportunities to drive more independent reading:

One, be sure that schools and districts build at least 20 minutes of independent reading time into each child’s day whether in school or at home. We would hope more kids would have this opportunity during the school day as our research shows that lower income students are more likely to rely on in-school independent reading time than their higher income peers.

Two, re-focus on school libraries and make them a vital part of the curriculum—something the author  James Patterson is doing so brilliantly with his donation of $1.75 million to support school libraries. Then get students of all ages into the library.

Three, make reading “cool” and easy to do. With competition from YouTube, on-demand-anything-you-want-to-watch-anytime TV, video games, and a whole host of other activities, educators and parents need to find creative ways for kids to share books with one another (through video projects, book talks, starting a book club, etc.) to generate more interest in favorite books and make reading a “social” event for kids—giving them the same excitement they get through other media.

Judy Newman Judy Newman

Why does reading enjoyment decline sharply after age 8? What can educators do to help prevent this?

JN: Well, the obvious answer is that once kids turn 8 years old their attention is diverted by video games, YouTube, TV, sports, and a million other activities that are potentially “cooler” than reading. But another answer is that around age 8, families often decide to stop reading aloud with their children, either because the child can read on their own or because the parent wants the child to read on their own so they will strengthen their skills. But the fact is that most kids want their parents to keep reading aloud to them even when they can read on their own because it’s a special time they share with their parent.

Also, a lot of children have trouble making the leap from younger books (picture books, early chapter books) that are read aloud to them to harder books that are technically geared to their age level. At the same time, the books that are designated for a particular age level are getting more difficult. When I first came into publishing, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Books, for example, were considered right for fourth grade and up. Now, they are being recommended for much younger kids. But a lot of kids can’t make that leap, and so rather than struggle through books they can’t successfully read, they drop out of independent reading altogether. Who wants to be embarrassed in fourth grade when you’re reading something the other kids are going to call “babyish?”

With two-thirds of our students reading below the proficient level for their grade, there is a tremendous need for “high/low” books—high interest/low level. But the truth is, it’s very dif cult to create books with sophisticated, age-appropriate content and storylines with simple vocabulary. We, as publishers, have to keep trying. Otherwise we are going to continue to lose the readers who can’t make the leap from Dr. Seuss and Nate the Great to Harry Potter.

How can educators work with parents to encourage more reading?

JN: Partnership between teachers and parents is essential in encouraging students to read more. No one has a more powerful, compelling, or credible voice to a parent than a child’s teacher. At Scholastic Book Clubs, we work hard to partner with teachers and give them the tools they need to help reach parents in an understandable, actionable way that explains the power of independent reading—and to insist, as with any homework, that families have a critical role to play by encouraging independent reading outside of school. Parents who have books available in the home and are themselves reading role models are more likely to raise kids who are frequent readers.

Scholastic’s latest reading survey shows that kids prefer print books to ebooks. Can you explain why?

JN: Kids love to collect books. You can have pride of ownership in displaying your print books in a way you cannot with digital editions. Kids like to turn pages. To keep track of how far they are in a book. They like to write their name in the front cover and use bookmarks and book covers.

For younger children, the joy and bonding that happen when parents or adults or even other children read aloud is much richer with a physical book than with an e-reader, tablet, or phone sitting between the parent and child on the couch or at bedtime.

Kids seem to enjoy books that make them laugh. What are some examples of great children’s books that make kids laugh?

JN: Of course! Who doesn’t like something funny that makes them laugh?
The top funny series on our list of course has to be Captain Underpants! These books have turned more reluctant readers into readers than any others. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is another bestselling, funny hit with kids. There’s also Fly GuyDear Dumb DiaryAdventures from the Black Lagoon Duck on a Bike, and Goosebumps.
And, although there is adventure, fantasy, and a number of life lessons in everyone’s favorite—Harry Potter—there is also a lot of humor.

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.