Building Better Readers - Freely Reading

“Some people there are who, being grown; forget the horrible task of learning to read. It is perhaps the greatest single effort that the human undertakes, and he must do it as a child.” ~John Steinbeck

Learning to read, and read well is essential, right? It’s a given. But if we look at the history of education, learning to read is also a privilege. Unfortunately, literacy is intricately tied to socioeconomic status which means many children go without books in the home while others, (much like my own), have shelves teeming with every genre. Many parents also feel it is the responsibility of the teacher to teach their child how to read. Ultimately, instruction begins at home. All research points to the fact that in order to read better, one must read more.  Although reading for school offers some practice, it is the time children spend reading material they choose that is the best predictor of vocabulary development and reading achievement gains.  The chart below from the American Association of Librarians shows the high impact of independent reading time to word exposure and the percentile of reading achievement.

Percentile Independent Reading
Minutes per Day
Words Read
per Year
98 65 4,358,000
90 21.1 1,823,000
80 14.2 1,146,000
70 9.6 622,000
60 6.5 423,000
50 4.6 282,000
40 3.2 200,000
30 1.3 106,000
20 0.7 21,000
10 0.1 8,000
2 0 0
Learning to read and be successful in school has a lot more to do with math than one might think. Struggling readers cannot read independently for very long. Their brains must be trained to read for longer durations and this type of stamina must be practiced outside of school. Besides developing vital language skills, reading turns on a part of the brain that requires creative thought and active involvement. Independent reading requires the brain to think differently. Brains that are in the process of decoding and comprehending text are required to think about their thinking.  It’s vital to teach children how to be attuned to themselves (and every thought they think while reading) so they develop critical thinking skills, and experience the impact of the mind-body connection in the learning process. I teach my students, even the thought that isn’t about what you’re reading, the one that distracts you, is a good thought, as long as you recognize you are no longer making sense of what you’re reading and you realize you need to refocus and reread. Of all the fancy strategies I know how to teach and use, that’s my ‘go to’ strategy. Reread it. Skilled readers reread. Struggling readers stop reading or keep reading even though it stops making sense.

Besides helping children learn to read better, I feel it’s equally important to help them feel better about learning. When they read more, the words flow better. An expert in creativity, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi (pronounded “chick-sent-me-high-ee”), defines a state of deep effortless involvement in any activity as “flow.” Flow is a state of mind in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. Think of the attention children have (and the selective hearing involved) when they play videos games, text message, or chat online. Instead of these passive screens, we must instead nourish their brains with reading and we must teach them how to think about their thinking, or be meta-cognitive. Reading is the perfect prescription for what ails our society and it is actually one of the most mentioned flow activities in history.

Achieving ‘flow’ while reading is much like driving a really fast car over a newly paved highway. It’s effortless. It feels good. But it requires a ton of knowledge about words. It requires what teachers call schema and background knowledge, or what a learner already knows about any given topic. The less you know, the less you’ll have to work with in achieving the blissful state of flow.

Have you ever watched a bridge being built? If you have, then you know that the scaffolding required is a sight to behold. There’s a solid foundation that hangs in the air, and layers of steel and concrete. The time spent reading outside of school helps build the structure of the scaffolding. Build it poorly (read less), with shoddy materials (don’t read for meaning) and it will crumble (see national drop out rates). The discussion, and further down the road, the writing that takes place because of reading, is the scaffolding a brain needs to flow. Fill up it with nonsense, and it will break down at some point and when it breaks down, children stop understanding. They will never achieve flow. They stop. They Do Not Pass Go. They Do Not Collect $200.