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  • by Blaine Helwig

Independent Readers - Ultimate Literacy Goal!

Updated: Mar 1, 2023

Beginning in third grade, every Tuesday night, my mother would load my two brothers and me in the family car and drive us to the city library. My mother required that my older brother and I check out at least two (2) chapter books, and that both books be read by the following Tuesday – our return visit. From my earliest memories, my mother was and remains a voracious reader, and I am sure her reading habits inspired and influenced her children’s life-long reading habits.

However, after my elementary school years, my mother no longer took me to the library. I was in junior high, and I continued to read on my own accord until the end of seventh grade. During my last year of middle school, I had grown much more social, and I did not read with the frequency of past years. In the spring of my 8th grade year, I sat for the Iowa Test of Basic Skills assessment. While taking that test, I was keenly aware that I could not read nearly as quickly as I had in previous years. On the 7th grade Iowa Basics, I was in the high 90’s percentile range in reading proficiency, but on the 8th grade assessment, the words and sentences did not flow as smoothly and effortlessly. Simply put, I had not practiced free reading for the last year, and when the standardized assessment results arrived a short time later, I was not surprised on how poorly I had scored. More on the need for practice a bit later.

When I left structural engineering and finance/accounting in the early 1990’s to enroll in the University of Texas at Austin’s teacher certification program, I was first exposed to the reading instructional approach of ‘look at the first letter and insert a word that makes sense’ described in the podcast ‘Sold a Story.’ At that time, I was not a young college student like most of my undergraduate classmates. I was in my early thirties with a decade of professional experience, and I openly questioned this pedagogical literacy approach much to the chagrin of my reading method’s professor. It made no sense to me from a pragmatic standpoint that when a child encountered an unfamiliar word, they would mentally scroll through a rolodex of possible words and magically insert the exact one in the sentence that yields the correct meaning. It was an illogical and inefficient approach – dependent upon guessing, instead of simply reading the unfamiliar word via its letter sounds.

The podcast, “Sold a Story” by host and education journalist, Emily Hanford, is out this fall. I listened to the podcast in its entirety, and it is an exquisite piece of journalistic work on the whole language versus phonics’ approaches to reading instruction debated the last 40 years. Like many educators over the past three decades, I have fought this literacy battle, internally. It is refreshing and hopeful that possibly the tide may turn on the nonsensical literacy approach of word insertion and guessing as opposed to sounding out the word via a focused decoding approach as children move beyond the kindergarten years. This podcast has received heightened attention from authors that have not produced academic results as educators. The American public education system weathers internal challenges and objections against many of its nonsensical curriculum, methodologies and pedagogy simply by discrediting or ignoring its detractors. Apparently, the only means that the public education system appears incentivized to change ineffective methodology is when they are exposed from an external source.

I was also strongly opposed to the whole language reading methodology because when I was in first grade, my teacher used a series of books entitled ‘Dick and Jane’ student readers – the whole word literacy approach. Throughout that school year - 1967, I had not learned to read those books independently without heightened frustration. I can distinctly recall sitting at my desk crying profusely because I could not read the ‘books’ by myself. However, soon enough, my sister and my second-grade teacher would come to my literacy rescue. Unlike my first-grade teacher who was in her mid-twenties, my second-grade teacher was much older – probably more than twice as old as my first-grade teacher. My other teacher was my older sister. She was seven (7) years older than me, and she taught me at home what my second-grade teacher taught me at school – how to sound out the unfamiliar words by their individual letter sounds. And, it worked! I was a reader!

In third grade, I can recollect a personal reading triumph. I was reading a chapter book and encountered the unfamiliar word, ‘remember.’ I did not recognize that word in print, but I started sounding out the word slowly using my sister’s and second-grade teacher’s decoding method, and in a second or two, I had it! Remember. Actually, I knew the word ‘remember’ orally, but I did not recognize the word in print. Pragmatically, it is important to note that it is quite common in language acquisition when a learner can orally pronounce a word, but not recognize that same word in print form. It is especially valid if a language’s historical and linguistic evolution has occurred in which many word spellings do not match their oral pronunciations. Since the English language Germanic origins 1,500 years ago to the current day, it is a prime example of this linguistic incongruence – in particular to the most common, everyday words, such as: made, tough, make, because, debt, doubt, house, enough, island, while, said, etc.

Thus, in 1992 and 1993, at the University of Texas, I rejected my professor’s instructional reading philosophy for first and second graders out of common sense and logic as well as my own personal elementary aged reading experience a quarter century prior. I believed then, as I do today, that beginning readers must be taught letter sounds to decode unfamiliar words they encounter especially when the contextual picture aids are no longer present as during their early childhood prekindergarten and kindergarten school years. My lack of confidence in the prescribed reading methodology in my university coursework opened the door at a critical juncture in my early educator days to press phonics and aggressively pursue more analytical and pragmatic processes when teaching children to read. As a matter of fact, years later when I became a Title 1 elementary principal, my first action at the campus was to purchase a structured first and second grade phonics program.

Educator’s Goal – Independent Readers and a Love for Reading

In my nearly three-decade career in public education, I have never met an elementary educator that does not desire students to become fluent independent and life-long readers. They all do! The problem with this desire is that it is not happening by accident for the vast majority of children. I have always divided children by reading acquisition into three groups. One group seems to catch-on to reading regardless of the method they are taught. Those children ‘just’ get the code and figure it out. The second group learns with consistency, practice and solid reading instruction methodology, and the last third, teachers have to expend a lot of effort to assist them to become good readers. The last group struggles, but with a logical and structured plan, consistency, motivation and practice, those students also can become capable independent readers.

It is usually not enough that students become independent readers by teachers recognizing that there are five (5) pillars of reading instruction – phonics, phonemic awareness, word fluency (including sight word automaticity), vocabulary development and comprehension. With those elements soundly taught, a child is off to a good start, but it takes more since so many low-income students are academically behind when their parents enroll them in prekindergarten or kindergarten. Of course, when teachers implement poor reading instruction methodologies as adeptly described in the podcast, “Sold a Story,’ many middle- and high- income children also struggle with learning to read. However, more affluent parents – more often than not – possess highly educated home support as well as financial resources to hire personal tutors and afterschool commercial tutoring vendors to assist their children. Absolutely, it may still be a problem as described in the referenced podcast – no doubt about it! But, the number of low-income elementary children that do not fluently read and comprehend on grade level is shocking to outsiders unfamiliar with Title 1 elementary school classrooms. Consequently, this blog or essay concentrates its focus on Title 1 elementary and middle schools that matriculate low-income children. Of course, the described methodology works equally well with struggling readers of their more affluent children as well.

Preparing Children to be Capable and Successful Independent Readers – Chapter Books/Novels

If the goal is for students of any socio-economic background to read on grade level, then children must be placed in a position to BE READY and ABLE to engage successfully as independent readers. There is one primary reason that children are not successful to actively and independently engage in the act of reading. It is because they were not prepared to read independently. This reasoning may sound simple, and it is indeed. Many poor readers were not taught decoding and fluency skill automaticity/mastery, and they read so slowly and choppy it is difficult for them to read for an extended period of time. They possess little reading stamina. The entire process of reading has evolved into an arduous task, and they avoid the task as often as they are able because it is so difficult and unsatisfying. Thus, they rarely discover the excitement of reading interesting fiction and non-fiction literature and its inherent satisfaction. In short, students never reach the stage of the literacy process to discover that they actively enjoy reading. Thus, if independent reading is the objective, then there must be a plan to prepare students so they are reading ready and are able to discover the joys of reading.

In students’ primary school years, phonics and phonemic awareness programs are essential ingredients in the classroom. There are many commercial programs that are viably available. However, students should have fundamentally sound reading methodologies to practice and apply their phonics and phonemic awareness lessons – read aloud sessions, guided reading (i.e., that focus on decoding, letter sounds, blends, diagraphs, etc.), aligned decodable readers, word studies, rhyming words, etc. It is imperative that beginning in first grade, students are held accountable to these programs’ learning objectives with rapid, daily spaced repetition lessons so all students are held accountable for content mastery.

However, students hailing from low-income homes present an added challenge. Many of these children are academically behind the instant they enroll in the early childhood grades at their elementary campus in comparison to their more affluent peers. Thus, the five (5) central tenets of ‘The Science of Reading’ is usually not sufficient as a standalone to academically ‘catch-up’ the mass of impoverished children. Many of those children require specific instruction of sight word fluency.

In short, the majority of low-income children possess a literacy word-gap – a correctable one. There are many common English words that they do not know by sight, and they do not read well and are not fluent readers because of it. Their mental ‘CPU’ processing is expended on attempting to pronounce so many of the most commonly occurring English words that many are overwhelmed. In fact, a majority of these students read so slowly trying to discern the simple, everyday English words such as “they, because, for, any, some, and said” that their overall comprehension is exceedingly low. In fact, many of these elementary students read so slowly that by the time they finish reading a sentence they are unable to verbally respond to its meaning. I believe it is also important to note that adults learning foreign languages experience the same phenomenon. They are equally and mentally overwhelmed in the pronunciations of similar common words in another language when they read. Hence, it appears to be a common developmental experience in language acquisition at any age.

This situation is exacerbated for low-income children that are also classified as English Language Learners (ELLs/Els), or the latest common classification – Bilingually Emergent. Many of these immigrant students miss out on large swaths of foundational English content in the primary grades due to poor bilingual curricular programming, and the majority of children do not academically catch-up. The fault of this learning process is on the bilingual educational system that has aligned itself with research that is not empirically correct, and it continues to this day. In general, children who speak a non-native English home language are placed in predominately native tongue language programs in elementary school. From the outset of their literacy acquisition in Title 1 elementary schools, these children miss much of the structured language instruction in English. Unfortunately, the school classroom is the only place that most non-native English speakers learn structured language development in the English language. Accordingly, it is imperative that immigrant students be taught aggressively in English instruction with the use of their native tongue as language support – unless the school day is extended to afford equal instructional time in two languages.

In Title 1 classrooms, the literacy word gap that is endemic to the majority of low-income children must be reduced and closed so students possess word automaticity or word fluency. The pronunciations and associated spelling incongruities must also be similarly addressed. It is recommended that primary teachers implement supplemental fluency and non-negotiable word spelling programs to significantly reduce and hopefully, eradicate the literacy word gap. The white paper entitled, How to Improve Word Fluency and Heighten Reading Proficiency,” can be downloaded for free under the 'Expertise Tab' on The New 3Rs Academic Transformation. Finally, a pedagogical application that presses all language arts programming is Guided Novel Instruction (GNI). This daily language arts activity applies all facets of the five (5) tenets of reading as well as the fluency supplemental program in an authentic novel setting that promotes students’ independent reading interests. GNI is a vehicle to expose children to rich literature that speaks to their culture and identity. Its exposure promotes and prepares students for grade level reading proficiency, but students discover reading as a worthwhile and rewarding pursuit. A white paper on “Guided Novel Instruction (GNI) – Improving Literacy Outcomes” can also be downloaded for free at the website address address provided above. These supplemental literacy fluency/non-negotiable word programs, GNI and the Science of Reading methodology will prepare reading-ready students for an independent reading environment.

It is important to note if schools implement GNI and the other aforementioned language arts’ supplemental programs, principals frequently make the mistake of continuing their current curricular resources that have proven ineffective. Time is a valuable resource in the core language block, and instructional minutes and tasks cannot be lost on ineffective curricular programming. If the activity is not yielding an impact on student achievement, its use should be discontinued. Please note, if an elementary school’s standardized reading scores are chronically low each school year, it is highly likely the current literacy curricular program and instruction is NOT effective.

Independent Reading – Title 1 Elementary and Middle School Reading Program

Ironically, this section – the crux of the essay – begins here; however, the preceding content was necessary so the reader understands the essential preconditions to implement a successful student reading-ready independent reading program. Without taking the initial steps of a global language arts program and supplementing a hyper word fluency approach and GNI methodology, low-income children’s ability to read independently will be moderately effective as it is currently at the vast majority of American Title 1 elementary and middle schools.

As a former Title 1 elementary principal, the initial program I implemented for independent reading was of my own design, and since all the aforementioned elements were sound in place, it worked fairly well. I had monitoring accountability of students’ independent reading progress with the purchase of a commercially web-based digital program called Accelerated Reader (AR) by Renaissance Learning. My program design was simple and grade level dependent: 1st grade readers read for 10 minutes per night, 2nd graders read for 20 minutes per night, 3rd graders read for 30 minutes per night, and so on to fifth grade. The program worked well, and I had no intention of changing it. My urban, Title 1 elementary school was one of the highest academic performing campuses in the State of Texas with standardized reading ‘passing’ scores well above 90% and mastery scores hovering between 30 and 40 percent. The campus student demographic percentages were challenging. The economically disadvantaged population was approximately 95 percent, and 65 percent of students were classified as English Language Learners (ELLs/Els). However, over 98 percent of intermediate grade level students were assessed in English on the spring standardized assessment. Consequently, there seemed no reason to change the school’s independent reading program.

In 2013, one of my classroom teachers, LaTrese Smith created a different approach to independent reading student accountability. After a couple months of action-research implementation, she brought her classes’ student data into my office. I was more than a little surprised. She was still using the Accelerated Reader (AR) program to digitally track students, but a much different process to encourage, motivate and hold EACH student quantifiably accountable. She had abandoned the unaccountable methodology of minutes per night of my independent reading program, and she had replaced the nightly minutes with nightly page limits – 40 pages per night for each fifth grader with IEP adaptions when necessary. The program was simple and replicable – the first requirements of any global schoolwide program, and the AR points were more than doubled for each student in comparison to my program. Before I would make a wholesale change of our school’s independent reading program, I implemented her program in a third and fourth grade classroom to ensure her classroom results were not an anomaly. After 6 weeks of implementation in the other two classrooms, the student reading data was clear. Her program design was more productive than my independent reading program. Our elementary campus was based on data-driven student outcomes, we changed the independent reading program, whole-sale, in the middle of the school year.

Ms. Smith’s program was a simple reading accounting process for EACH student that took place at the end of school day – near dismissal time. Each grade level teacher would assign nightly reading via a page limit requirement. For example, first graders were required to read 10 pages, second graders – 15 pages, third graders – 20 pages, fourth graders – 25 pages, and fifth graders – 30 pages. Students would still be required to ‘pass’ a simple AR reading test on their book as before. As is common knowledge, the questions on a typical AR assessment are basic and usually do not delve deeply into main idea, inferences and summary questions; however, students were consistently practicing as well as building reading stamina. It is also important to recognize that the students received higher order questioning and text analysis in their daily language arts reading and writing activities. The AR software from Renaissance Learning assured both the school’s administration and classroom teacher that the child actually read the book.

As a professional in three discrete fields and a former athlete, there is much improvement to consistent practice in any human endeavor. Similarly, I believe my mother’s Tuesday’s trips to the library were a major factor in my development as an independent reader. As expected, a child’s monitored and accountable nightly reading is invaluable practice – providing the necessary repetition to improve task performance.

At the end of the class day, each teacher would use a clip board and an ‘Accountability Sheet’ containing the children’s names, and she would check to ensure EACH student was on track to finish their book by the required nightly page limits. For instance, Student A – a fifth grader – was reading a book that was 150 pages in length. At 40 pages per night, the student should complete and sit for an AR comprehension test in approximately four (4) days. The teacher can monitor the independent reading process each day in real time – inquire, press and motivate the student directly if they were on track to complete the book. In practice, it is best to use two (2) of these accountability pages simultaneously since students are finishing books at different times. Blank versions can be downloaded for free at The New 3Rs Academic Transformation under the 'Expertise Tab' on the white paper/essay entitled, "Independent Readers - Educators' Ultimate Literacy Goal." After the teacher sets up an organized page-limit accountability system, he or she can monitor a class of nearly 25 to 30 students on their nightly reading each day at dismissal time – individually – in only 2 to 3 minutes.

If the student is not keeping up their nightly reading, and they do not possess a known or suspected learning disability, the teacher has options. Several of these options are as follows: make an agreement with the student to finish the book at some point near the expected date to finish, call the parent and discuss viable solutions. Other options include that the student choose to read during lunch, or the student and teacher agree that the child may come back to the classroom and read.

Ms. Smith’s independent reading process is superior since EACH student was held accountable for nightly reading as well as their basic comprehension of their selected novel via an AR assessment. It is important to emphasize that students were prepared to be proficient grade level readers because the school’s global language arts program was designed to create adept independent readers. I believe it is imperative to stress that every student must be pressed and encouraged to read. Once they discovered that reading was inherently satisfying, the number of students followed a similar pattern to reading as I did in my sixth and seventh grade middle school years. Students read because it was enjoyable.

Finally, external incentives are motivating to many children. There can be both individual and class goals. Some educators disagree with an incentive approach, but I am in favor of incentives – if they are efficient, effective and earned. One such incentive associated with an aggregated class total for each nine weeks – a pizza party (e.g., for example). However, individual reading recognition is also a possibility based on students completing set AR point totals. For instance, for fifth grade, students could earn a prize for reaching totals of 50 AR points, 100 AR points and multiples of 100 points (and appropriately adjusted point totals for students receiving special education services). It was different for each grade level, and the grade level teams can meet and agree upon the standards that are developmentally reasonable for their students.

Final Commentary

The proposal to surround children in a rich literature environment and then expect students to naturally become readers is the very definition of educator naivete. In general, this thinking or philosophy is foreign to all aspects of human behavior. Desirable outcomes rarely happen by chance. For instance, in order to retire comfortably, it requires financial planning and structure over many years. The most successful athletes are not only gifted, but they consistently complete a daily practice regimen at an early age until they mature into high school, university and beyond. Nurturing and building confident life-long readers is no different. It requires a plan from adults who are willing to prepare them for a successful transition to become independent readers.

Reading is the most important skill a student acquires in elementary school. I valued literacy above all other subject content as a campus administrator. I allocated much of my personal time, effort and available monies toward literacy at my school, and I elected to selectively allocate campus’ Title 1 funds to purchase reading resources. I authorized the purchase of library books, classroom novel sets, Accelerated Reader software and fund classroom libraries. I also purchased a commercial grade level vocabulary program, reading and writing resources for weekly literary elements, and two reading coaches who worked not only with teachers but taught their own small reading groups of students every school day in third, fourth and fifth grades.

The school librarian used volunteers to label every applicable book in the school library as an AR book, so students could easily identify those books. When classrooms visited the library, teachers required students to check out one book of their choosing and one AR book – much like my mother had done when I was their age – two books to be read per week. Our elementary school mantra was, “Show-up, Work Hard and Read!” It conveyed to every stakeholder that set foot on our campus, from student to parent to faculty member precisely what our school deemed important and valued. Moreover, if school personnel desire en masse grade level readers, campus administration and faculty must know what curricular programs yield results. Performance in any task is not free, it requires know-how and effort! And, as expected, independent reading – the ultimate ending goal of the language arts program is not an exception to these two performance requirements.

There are recommended stages that Title 1 elementary school personnel must follow to prepare their students for a successful independent reading experience and develop an affinity for reading. The Science of Reading’s five (5) components are all essential components; however, low-income and impoverished immigrant children will generally NOT be successful independent or life-long readers without supplemental curriculum. They must be academically accelerated with additional fluency work of the most common English words. Furthermore, the science of reading and the fluency work must be pressed in an authentic novel setting (i.e., GNI – Guided Novel Instruction) for two (2) reasons. First, their foundational literacy learning is consistently applied to automaticity via interesting novels and stories. Second, students discover that books are exciting and enjoyable pleasure in their own right.

One of the primary mistakes that is universally made in the public school system is not adequately preparing students for success at an activity. It is done in all core subjects, and a significant number of children learn to detest mathematics, writing, reading, or science because they are unable to connect to the grade level material. The fault in the learning process is educators NOT understanding the developmental and dependent skills that their students require.

Conversely, educators are well aware of developmentally layered adult content that requires fundamental skill support in order to garner complete understanding and comprehension. For example, if a mature adult is enrolled in a foreign language class at university, they fully understand that they would not be successful in 4th semester Spanish without successfully completing the prior three semesters of prerequisite Spanish. Those three semesters of Spanish instruction and knowledge created a foundation for preparation for fourth (4th) semester in that language study. It is no different developmentally for elementary students. The language arts program should be designed for students to learn to read independently so that they are competent at the task, or they will not readily engage. When educators do not prepare their students, teachers and parents frequently state, “My students/children do not like or enjoy reading.” Of course, they do not read well! They are analogously in fourth semester Spanish without the luxury of three sound semesters of prerequisite preparatory language work.

When students are engaging in independent reading in class or at home, it is the LAST step of the reading learning process – it is by definition, ‘independent’ work. Successful independent reading programs are wholly dependent upon academically positioning children so they are prepared and capable of completing grade level work. Equally important is a motivating and organized teacher willing to expend the necessary effort to press EACH of his or her students to become a proficient reader, and ultimately, discover the joy of reading.


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