One Day of Independent Reading with High School Students
One Day of Independent Reading with High School Students

Today was the first day I did independent reading with my high school students.

I think a lot of secondary teachers figure that independent reading isn’t necessary for with high school students, is too “baby-ish”, or is a waste of time among a jam-packed curriculum. This blog post isn’t to explain my rationale for independent reading with high school students. Rather, I want to share what it looks like in my classroom.

At the end of today, I realized just how different my class looked compared to the first time I tried independent reading. I wish that three years ago when I started, I could have seen what it looked like today.  

It was hard for me to picture success when I first started. My first time was a struggle of giggling, disruptive students and kids who just couldn’t figure out how to pick a book and actually engage with it. I had twelve books in my room. I was barely reading myself.

Now, my room is silent, my students read right away, and I’m reading on average a book a week myself. I have over four hundred novels in my room. Before we even begin our first independent reading session, many students have a long list of books they’d like to read.

So, in case you too are embarking on the journey of using independent reading with high school students, I wanted to share a snapshot–just one day of independent reading–with you. I have done my best to record as accurately as my memory allows: every disturbance, disruption, and success.

My Process for Independent Reading with High School students

We read once a week for thirty minutes. I think a smaller chunk of time every day may be considered “best practice”, but right now, this is what I have. When I started, once a week seemed like a doable practice; every day sounded impossible.

(I am in a book study right now for 180 Days and may adjust my independent reading strategies to align with Kittle and Gallagher’s practices.)

Students can read anything they want. I steer them toward novels (and graphic novels), but also let them know that if they want to bring in magazines or newspapers, they may. Sometimes I let them read on their phones if we negotiate ground rules ahead of time and if they use a legitimate app–not Wattpad.

Prior to today, I had explained the expectations and routines several times. My sophomores had done a book tasting in the library and my seniors had had a visit from the librarian and her cart of books. All of my classes filled out reading inventories and I have had one-on-one conversations with each student about his or her reading preferences.

Product Cover for Teachers Pay Teachers product: Reading Strategy Independent Reading Exit Tickets
These are the exit tickets I use weekly with my students during independent reading. They’re quick and give me a really good idea of how my students are progressing in their novels.

Students have blank worksheets for titles and authors of book titles they may want to read. Before each independent reading session, I book talk two novels. I try to focus on books that I have several copies of in my room.

After each session, I give students an independent reading exit ticket. These are quick and purposefully easy. In the beginning, I felt like I needed a way to keep students accountable. However, I did not want reading to feel like more work or grade the joy out of it.

These exit tickets are often practicing a reading strategy. One asks students to reflect on a prediction they made. One asks if they like their book. Another has students sketch an important scene, etc.

Block One

This class is small and I expected full compliance. They had all been great, save one, when allowed to look through the library book cart for check out.

I always start by going over the expectations. Every. Single. Time. Even my seniors will hear these expectations every week for the entire semester.

One Day of Independent Reading with High School Students

My expectations are short, and the first time I made sure to explain my rationale.

  1. You are reading. No napping, missing work, texting etc.
  2. No cell phones. I do let students use their phones for music while reading if they want. However, I require that they have a playlist (you can’t touch the phone once the timer starts, so make sure your music is good to go) the volume must be LOW, and the phone should be upside down on the table so incoming notification messages aren’t distracting.
  3. We are silent. I explain the importance of silence and being able to focus for many readers. This includes tapping and kicking desks.

I asked if there were questions. There were none.

I moved onto my recommendations. I reminded students about their “to be read” lists.

My first book talks are always titles that I think are great for reluctant readers. They’re harder to capture. So today I talked about Black and White by Paul Volponi. I also talk about Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Draper. Briefly, I overview the story and explain why I like it.

I keep a slideshow of my book recommendations with quick book facts and pictures of the covers. For each book, I also have a slide with an exciting quote or excerpt, so students can get a feel for the novel. I add to it as I finish books that I enjoy and want to share with students.

In this class, no one took me up on my recommendations, but all but one had a book in front of them. I told students they could grab their books while I set up the timer.

Meanwhile, I reminded the student without a book of the class expectations. I knew from our previous chats that dystopian literature was his favorite. I placed a couple of titles that fit the bill in front of him. Then, I pretended to check in on the other students.

When I turned around, the student had begrudgingly picked up one of my selections and opened it. Satisfied, I started the timer.

Reading went without a hitch first block. I read myself, looking up every few minutes or so to make sure students were on task. About halfway through I gave students “Power Paws”–our PBIS tickets/rewards–and went back to my book.

Second block worried me.

The set up is the same. I reminded them of the expectations. Students took a few minutes to remember where we put our books. I made some recommendations to students who still struggled to find a title.

This gets faster as the semester goes, but getting going will take an extra fifteen minutes or so the first time each semester.

One student refused to grab a book. I tried to confer with her, but her head was down and she wouldn’t acknowledge my existence. I wrote her a pass to the dean discreetly, and she stormed out.

Rarely do I send students to the dean, but independent reading is where I’m a hard ass.

Another student seemed asleep before we’d even began. He had picked out some graphic novels at the library the previous week, so I knew he wanted to read. I tapped his shoulder and reminded him to stay awake.

Another student looked lost. He’d been absent through all of my expectation settings, book talks, library visits, and reminders. Of course, he chose today to finally come to class.

I tried to talk to him about what he liked to read, but he said he doesn’t. When this happens, I try to then talk to students about what kind of TV shows or movies they like–after all, we all love stories in some format or another.

This student shrugged. I explained the procedures (i.e. the consequences of noncompliance) and then asked again what he’d like to read. He grabbed Mockingjay off of my shelf to appease me. I asked him if he’d read the first few. “No.” I offered to get him the first in the series, but he declined my offer.

I made a mental note to watch him during reading and to meet with him soon to discuss his reading habits. He opened the book to the middle and didn’t look at it. He wasn’t even good at fake reading.

As I finally got around to starting the timer, I was pleased to see that most of my students had books open or were waiting anxiously for me to start.

The one student who had argued with me about independent reading the week before asked to go to the bathroom just as I started the time. I let him. I figured I’d give him a chance before restricting his bathroom privileges during reading.

Once I checked that everyone was on task, I went back to my Mockingjay kid.

He was all jittery. He seemed unable to stop tapping or moving his leg. I asked him to avoid tapping so that he didn’t distract others and also reminded him with a smile that books are better if you start at the first page. I stood near-ish him and read my own book for a few minutes.

My other reluctant participant came back from the bathroom and to my surprise, he sat down and pulled out a technical manual from his backpack before beginning to read immediately. Curious, I peeked at his book and caught something about Nikola Tesla. Interesting.

Mockingjay kid sighed loudly and I said, “I can’t do this.” Ok, I knew a meltdown was coming.

Just because I do independent reading with high school students, doesn’t mean it’s really any different than reading with elementary schoolers.

One Day of Independent Reading with High School Students

I went over and kneeled next to him.

I asked him what exactly he was struggling with. The students said he was incapable of sitting still to read. This seemed true; he twitched like crazy, moving his hands and bouncing his knee. I wondered if the student was on something he was so jittery, but he seemed lucid. Just antsy.

After some back and forth, I gave him a pass to the social worker’s office for some fidget supplies. He came back at the end of reading with some putty and handed it to me.

The social worker and I created a plan for him to take breaks halfway through future independent readings, with the goals of shortening the breaks and moving them later and later during the reading in hopes of building his stamina. I now keep the putty with the checked-out books in my room, so the student can use it each week.

The student I sent to the dean came back but put her head down. I made a mental note to check with the dean later, but it was clear that the kid was having a rough day. I left her alone for the remainder of the reading time. She’d been spoken to already, and the other students had seen that there were consequences for not reading.

I passed out Power Paws to students about halfway through again. My class impressed me until the last three minutes or so, when they started getting antsy, knowing that time was almost up. For the last three minutes, I ended up shushing a lot of students.

Third Block

My last class is set up the same as the others. About five minutes in, I noticed a student had given up and put his head down. I went over and tapped his shoulder. He picked his head up.

Another few minutes passed again before I saw the same student had put his head down. I went over and kneeled by the student. I whispered to him, trying to figure out what was going on. He said reading gives him a headache.

I turned off the fluorescent lights and plugged in a strand of Christmas lights I have hanging in my room. Some other students nodded in approval, and I made a mental note to try and remember to turn off the lights while reading every time.

Then I went and grabbed some graphic novels and Monster by Walter Dean Myers. I thought that maybe a book with the text spaced out more would be better for my student with the headache.

I put the books in front of him and explained my rationale. He looked skeptical but said he’d try.

For the remainder of the time, he halfheartedly flipped through some of the books, reading a few pages from each. He wasn’t into it, but he didn’t put his head down either.

Conclusion: One Day of Independent Reading with High School Student

So, my independent reading time wasn’t flawless. Some students were just not engaged. I definitely had some fake readers. But overall, I would say at least 80 percent of my students were engaged with their book.

For the first time this semester, I’d say that’s pretty good.

When students struggle–they refuse to pick up a book, they put their heads down, they text instead of read–I try to have a conversation with them first.

I kneel down next to them and whisper. You don’t want students to feel that you are being confrontational, but you do want to understand what is stopping them from enjoying reading a good book.

First, I ask students why they aren’t reading. Often, students say they don’t like to read or they don’t like their book. We discuss what kind of things they do like and I try to give them a couple of titles off of my classroom library shelf.

Having a classroom library with a variety of titles is important. The more options, the more solutions you can offer. You also need to be familiar with as many books as possible. Students want your input.

When students are just flat out noncompliant, though, they get sent out.

Our dean knows that I’m relatively patient, so if a student is sent out they must have really messed up. I do give students options first. I remind them that they are either choosing to read and participate, or they are choosing to leave the class and meet with the dean. It is never my doing, but theirs.

Lastly, what do I do with my fake readers?

Honestly, I let them fake it.

If they would rather pretend to stare at a page for thirty minutes, then I let them. It’s still probably more productive than them staring at their phones or the wall of the dean’s office.

I will, of course, continue to try having conversations and conferences with them and matching them with books that pique their interest. But if they’re not distracting anyone, then they’re only hurting themselves. I don’t want to cause a distraction that will ruin reading for everyone else.

So there it is.

My independent reading with high school students is not perfect. It probably will never be. But when it works, it’s magical.

I love seeing students walk down the hall juggling multiple titles. Or hearing other teachers say that my students were reading in their classes. It’s the best part of teaching.  

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Hi Heather. I came across this post on Pinterest, and it piqued my interest because I have students do independent reading for 10 minutes a day in my 10th grade English class. I seem to have very similar experiences with my students when it comes to focussing on reading. What I’m really curious about, however, is how you’ve acquired such a large classroom library. Does your school allocate funds for choice books? I’d love to have more books in my room and to have more copies of the more popular novels!

    1. Hi Taylor! I love that you do ten minutes every day! I am thinking of trying that method next year!

      My library has definitely been a labor of love! I have collected books in a few ways. First, every summer I ask everyone I know for their old YA books. I work with teens during my summer job and they are happy to help. I also reach out to adults on Facebook who I know read YA.

      Second, we go to a conference every year that has a vendor who sells overstocked YA books for $2 each! This is where I’ve gotten most of mine. I have put a decent amount of my own money into it, but when $200 gets me 100 books (and I want to read a few myself!) it’s not too bad. If you’d like to check them out, they have a website:

      I also use my own money when I see Scholastic BOGO sales at our school. I’ll often do one or two small orders from the First Book website each year. I have also gone to Goodwill and Half Priced Books to book hunt.

      I did do one Donor’s Choose project for some, and I don’t know why I don’t do it more often! I got a ton of great titles and I was amazed by how willing total strangers were to donate to my little classroom.

      The last way has been from school. Once a year my department and I will go make puppy dog eyes at our principal and ask for some books. He never turns us down if we all ask together. Our librarian is also working on a professional goal of increasing the school’s independent reading. She has been grabbing the books from the other libraries in the district that are being retired and then passing them to us instead.

      In short, I will beg, borrow, and steal whatever I have to do to get the books, but I rarely pay full price. When I do buy them on Amazon, it’s only ever because I want to read it. In that case, the classroom gets it when I’m done, and that keeps a lot of the book clutter out of my home 🙂 Hope that helps!

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