Implementing an Independent Reading Choice System: Part 1

"Bear on a Unicycle" by Julius N. Santiago (

"Bear on a Unicycle" by Julius N. Santiago (

Sometimes, Reader’s Workshop makes me feel like a bear on a unicycle.

I’m pedaling and pedaling… trying to keep “balanced literacy” balanced, all the while worrying about reaching all of my kids’ needs.

And just look at the little guy’s giant head!  It’s just how I feel, always thinking and planning, sometimes even dreading how much work needs to be done.

And I know I’m not the only teacher who feels this way.

It takes tremendous resources to keep mini-lessons and guided groups going, and as a result, independent reading is not always as a valuable a time for students as we would like it to be.

But I am a woman of solutions!  And often, the solution is a system.  A few weeks ago, I began wondering, could I bring the same choice system I use for homework to independent reading?  Could a choice system make independent reading a targeted and effective time for students?

So, here are my goals:

  1. Empower kids to set and achieve learning goals during their independent reading time.
  2. Ensure that kids are working on the right goals according to their needs.
  3. Hold kids accountable for making thoughtful choices and putting in effective effort.
  4. Help kids understand that effective effort + time = success.

The System

Here’s how the system will work:

In their Reader’s Notebooks (I use 3-ring binders), students will have the following pages:

Independent Reading Menu and Log 2009-2010 (PDF)

Independent Reading Menu and Log 2009-2010 (Word)

(Many thanks to Beth Newingham, who created the genre chart in this document.  She has an inspiring, no, make that awe-inspiring website that I highly recommend.)

Setting GoalsFirst, on Mondays, students set their goals for the week.  On pages 8-9 of the notebook, there is an Independent Reading Goals Bank, where students can keep a running list of possible goals.  This is where I (and Special Education teachers) will have students record the goals we set together during reading conferences.

(By the way, the goals students set in reading should naturally complement the ones they’re setting for homework.  Students should come to understand that the strategies they use to reach their goals in school can also be used at home.  Study skills are transferable!)

Students set weekly goals, then choose one activity to work on each day.

Students set weekly goals, then choose one activity to work on each day.

Then, each day of the week, students pick an activity to do during Independent Reading time that will help them reach their goals.  The Independent Reading Menu is organized by reading skill sets: decoding, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary.  Every day, I expect students to read and do an activity, knowing that some activities will take more than one class period to complete.

Students record their reading and their activity choices just like in the Homework Notebook, except there is also a quick daily self-assessment built in.  Beth Newingham originally gave me the idea for an Independent Reading Self-Checklist, and my friend Ilse reminded me of it after my last post.  For my checklist, I distilled effective effort in reading down to what I felt were four key qualities:

Each day, students record their reading and their activity choice.  At the end of Reader's Workshop, they rate the effective effort they put into their work.

Each day, students record their reading and their activity choice. At the end of Reader's Workshop, they rate the effective effort they put into their work.

  1. Focused: “I focused on my book and did not distract myself or others.”  (One of my students added, “In other words, don’t fake-read.”)
  2. Just-right Book: This one is pretty self-explanatory.
  3. Checked Understanding: I roughly follow “The First 20 Days of Readers Workshop” from Fountas and Pinnell, including the lesson on checking for understanding.  I expect students to monitor their comprehension and use one of our “fix-it” strategies when they realize they don’t understand their reading.
  4. Just-right Activity: “I chose an activity that would help me reach my goals.”

Finally, I will set aside some time every Friday for students to reflect on their work.  As always, the key question is, “Did you achieve your goals?” and, “If you haven’t achieved them yet, do you need to put in more effective effort and/or time?”

Getting Started

In our first 20 days, students have learned (or, at least, reviewed):

  • behavior expectations for Reader’s Workshop
  • how to choose just-right books
  • the different genres of fiction and nonfiction
  • how to keep a book log
  • how to leave “tracks” of our thinking on sticky notes and thinkmarks
  • how to monitor and fix our comprehension
  • how to decode hard words
  • reading strategies: making connections, asking questions, visualizing, and predicting

I’ve also introduced a few elements of our system, without using the notebook.  Together, we made an anchor chart of the elements of effective effort in reading, and instead of the fourth element (making a just-right choice), I had the whole class leave tracks of their thinking.  Students rated their effort out of 4 points, and they set reading goals.

We’ll add two more skills this week: writing and responding to reader letters.  Then, I think my students will have enough of a foundation to begin incorporating choice into their routine.

I’ll let you know how it goes later this week.

It’s my vision of November (okay, maybe early December) that drives me.  In this vision, I see a class diligently working towards their reading goals, so focused and clear on what they need to do that I don’t even have to be in the room.

I have the vision.  This week, we’ll get working on the reality.

— a. fox

2 thoughts on “Implementing an Independent Reading Choice System: Part 1

  1. Having a plan is the first step towards success, and your plan looks like a great one. You really sound like you are giving your students ownership of their learning, and promoting independent working skills.

    Our district has just adopted a new reading scheme, (Treasures by MacMillan McGrawHill), and it is completely different to what we had before. It is very comprehensive and hits a lot of the targets we have at the elementary level. However, there is so much to it that we are all wondering how we are going to fit it all into one day! We have the challenge of getting staff and students used to the new routines, and although we know it will take time, the end result will be worth it.

    I like your end comment about vision and reality. The vision is important. You just need to look long term at what the potential improvements are to your classroom practice. But the vision is the easy part. Reality is where it really hits home…

  2. Great post! I recently got my Masters in Reading Education and have been thinking of different ways to do things. I have been using SMART Goals with my students as a way to keep them on track. They seemed more focused now and are working toward their goals every day!

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