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Independent reading provides students with an opportunity to practice the decoding and comprehension strategies and skills learned during class time on self-selected materials.  Not only does independent reading provide additional practice time for students, but it also fosters independence (Johnson & Keire, 2010).  TeachHub (n.d.) cites independent reading as the opportunity for students to “dive into a book with their heart”. Daily opportunities for independent practice reinforce learning, build independence, and foster a love of reading; these opportunities are especially important for students with learning disabilities (LDs) who may struggle with reading.

Why Independent Reading

According to Supporting Students with Reading Disabilities (Manitoba Education and Advanced Learning, 2015), rehearsal and practice is one effective intervention for students with learning disabilities. As such, independent reading allows students to read, or re-read materials, in order to build fluency and practice the skills and strategies introduced during direct instruction. Johnson & Keier (2010) explain that “if children are not spending a significant portion of their day engaged in texts that allow them to practice the strategies we are modeling, then we cannot possibly expect them to take on these strategies and use them independently” (p. 90). As a result, structures, supports, and strategies are essential in order for teachers to build an independent reading program so that all readers can improve.

It is important to note that independent reading is NOT a substitute for direct instruction, teacher interactions, and interventions/remediation. Targeted interventions are necessary for all readers, focusing on “word decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension” (Reading Rockets, 2012). Independent reading is one piece of a comprehensive literacy program.

Image of kids reading and laughing

Structures & Strategies to Support Independent Reading

Many structures are necessary in order to successfully implement in an independent reading program in a classroom. Bear in mind that all learners require individualized accommodations and the supports that are essential for some students with learning disabilities to be successful may also be good supports for others. A teacher must consider the following:


  • As a general “good practice”, the teacher must be fully engaged during independent reading time. This may include guiding small groups, conferencing with readers, and/or engaging in independent reading oneself (Fountas & Pinnell, 2012).
  • Positive role models (both adult and peer) are important for all children as they help to create positive habits; independent reading is a positive habit for helping students to build their fluency and decoding skills. Positive role models provide great benefit to students with learning disabilities, particularly young boys who often do not see reading as a desirable activity (Kipp, Ruffenach, & Janssen, 2016; McFann, 2004).


  • Don’t expect children to learn to read independently by having books read to them. Instead, consider role-playing exemplary reading behaviours and negative reading behaviours; this provides students with learning disabilities the opportunity to visualize what is expected (Boushey & Moser, 2006). Opportunities to see what is expected not only enhances memory consolidation, but also makes the abstract concept of independent reading concrete.
  • Particularly in the beginning stages of development, don’t be afraid to engage in reading; the impact of a positive reading model is priceless (Kipp, Ruffenach, & Janssen, 2016).
  • Multi-model instruction allows learners with various types of learning disabilities to access the content presented. For example, a student who struggles with processing oral language benefits from modelling to teach concepts (York Region District School Board, 2014).
  • Teachers can consider sharing their self-selected reading material with students. Share an easy read, a just right read, a challenging read and the criteria for making this determination. Boushey & Moser (2006) use an example of choosing appropriate footwear as a way to help students understand the “when and why” of independent reading. For students with deficits in executive functioning, supports in preparing for reading are essential.


  • Educators need to invest a lot of time into building the structures of an independent reading program into their classroom culture. Outlining the roles and responsibilities of classroom members supports planning and goal-setting for learners with executive functioning delays (Fountas & Pinnell, 2012; York Region District School Board, 2014).
  • Repetition allows learners to code and organize the information for later retrieval; particularly for students with memory deficits as part of their learning profile, repetition and review improves their ability to succeed (York Region District School Board, 2014). Colour-coded anchor charts provide opportunities for students to revisit vital information as needed.


  • Help students build stamina. Reading Rockets (2012) defines stamina as, “a child’s ability to focus and read independently for long-ish periods of time without being distracted or without distracting others”. In order to help students build stamina, consider the following structures:
    • Vary the ways reading takes place (consider the Daily Five (2006) approach: read to self, read to others, listen to reading). Novel situations foster motivation.
    • Start small and celebrate, celebrate, celebrate! For example, in a grade two class, start at four minutes of independent reading time, minute by minute increase the time (as the whole class models proficiency) – it may take until Thanksgiving to reach a goal of 20 minutes sustained reading time for every person in the class, but scaffolding “perfect practice” pays dividends in the long run.
    • For many students with learning disabilities, scaffolding reading involves teaching students a set of procedures or routines to follow as they are reading. McEwan (2009) suggests that the routines could function as a signal that prompts the readers to assist in internalization of strategies and comprehension monitoring. An example of such a strategy could be seeing the mind as a movie camera – as the reader is reading text they should be imagining the movie of the book coming to life in their brain; if the movie stops, they know they have lost focus and need to regroup.
    • Consider the importance of embedding self-regulation opportunities into your independent reading program; teaching the students unobtrusive ways to take mental space may have long-lasting impacts on reading performance (Berkley, 2018).


  • Shorter durations of independent reading may be preferable for less proficient readers; as readers build their stamina increase the amount of time spent reading independently. That said; do not limit independent reading sessions (after the initial stamina building period). Ensure strategies are explicitly taught to those readers who need mental breaks; what does a break look like during independent reading. Ensure you define what readers can do, as well as what they cannot do. Reading for long periods of time can be difficult for students who struggle to maintain attention (York Region District School Board, 2014).


  • Most fluent readers can monitor their comprehension strategies as they read a text. For students who struggle to read, provide explicit opportunities to pause and comprehension monitor. McEwan (2009) recommends six signals that readers can use to identify that it is a good time to pause and regroup: the inner voice stops its conversation, the camera shuts off, the mind wanders, the reader forgets part of the text, the reader is not getting clarifying questions answered, and characters are reappearing in the text that the reader cannot remember information about them. Explicit and repeated instruction of each strategy increases the likelihood that a student with a learning disability can apply the strategy during independent reading times. A 1999 study by Shimabukuro, et. al., indicated that effective self-monitoring helps students with learning disabilities and ADHD improve both their academic standing and attention.


  • During independent reading time, students ideally want to have material that they can be highly successful with; an independent reading level is typically lower than a guided reading level; Jorgenson, Klein, and Kumar (1977) indicate that struggling readers are more likely to engage with text that is easier for them to decode and comprehend. Optimal independent reading material is that which students can read (decode and comprehend) with 95% accuracy (Reading Rockets, 2012). Allington (2012) reports that struggling readers need many high-success reading experiences so they can “self-teach” to improve their literacy skills.
  • Check in with struggling readers as many find it difficult to self-select appropriate level text and may need teacher support in doing so, especially in the beginning (this is where roaming conferencing is helpful – as an educator, check in with students by “popping up” during their independent reading time and asking them to read aloud (from where they are in their independent reading text); during check-ins, model self-monitoring techniques).


  • Have a wide variety of text available to students; include a variety of material types (fiction, nonfiction, non-continuous text, graphic text) (EduGains, 2018). Include digital offerings (like auditory books found online via Hoopla or Libby, books on eReaders); ensure text-to-speech software is available as needed.
  • Teachers need to develop an understanding of reader interests. Reading inventories, preference analysis and discussion with students can help teachers to determine what types of text and topics appeal to their learners. Schanzer (1973) purports that without an understanding of reader interests, teachers cannot begin to expect to entice struggling readers to read; vast selections of material on preferred topics should be available.
  • Speech-to-text software typically offers dual-modality, which requires reduced effort on students to decode so they can focus on comprehension; this in turn improves fluency; Knopf (2003) found that instructional methods that simultaneously activate different parts of the brain are supportive of struggling readers.
  • For students who struggle with phonological processing, speech-to-text software models fluent reading and allows readers to hear and see words simultaneously. Studies completed by Kurzweil EDU (n.d.) indicated that students can double the amount of information they access in a given timeframe – all with improved comprehension.
  • Consider making the material used during guided reading sessions, shared reading, and read alouds available during independent reading time; although supportive for many students with learning disabilities, rereading invites deeper thinks, improves fluency, and supports students who struggle with language (Johnson & Keier, 2010).
  • For students who struggle to learn sound/letter relationships, rereading opportunities give them an opportunity to rehearse what has already been taught in a specific and concrete way. This will assist students in generalizing the skills that have been taught (Reading Rockets, 2012). A strategy to support re-reading, as described by Williams (2000) is MULTIPASS; this strategy requires a reader to: familiarize themselves with the main idea on the first reading, the second reading is guided by specific questions about the text (during the second read, the reader is looking for the answers), and the final pass involves reading the text to “check their answers”.
  • The most important thing is to offer choice that students are excited about; get to know students and ensure preferred material is available (Fountas & Pinnell, 2012). Choice optimizes intrinsic motivation. Options combined with instruction in self-selecting materials allows students to self-differentiate.
  • A revolving selection from your public library can offer a free way to keep current titles in your room. In fact, “most experts recommend that classroom libraries include 50% literary texts and 50% informational texts” (Moss, 2016).


  • Consider the physical structure of the classroom: are there opportunities to make it a comfortable space to “snuggle up and read”? In classrooms where space or funding does not allow for “comfortable spaces”, consider allowing students to flip their chairs (so the legs point up to the ceiling) and lay under their desks on their chair backs.  (Students may wish to sit on their coats for comfort). A space that is comfortable and inviting encourages all students to read.
  • Consider what other members of the class are engaged in during independent times. Some students may require noise-cancelling headphones or to be seated with their backs to computer screens to help maintain focus. Smith (2010) found that students with learning disabilities who wore noise-cancelling headphones during independent reading showed improved comprehension of text.


  • The time of day and positioning of independent reading is important to consider. Looking at both the class and individual learner profiles, determine:
    • What structure is best for independent reading time?
    • Are attention spans such that students can be engaged in a variety of activities while independent reading is going on, or will this be too difficult for some students? Consider the activities that come just before and after the independent reading block.
    • When is the uninterrupted literacy block scheduled during the day?
    • Do students need support transitioning between activities? What structures have been created to support the transition between various aspects of their day?


  • Ensure strategies have been taught for reading different types of materials; the strategies used to read a textbook would be different than self-monitoring comprehension while reading a favorite novel. Teaching and re-teaching this will help students learn to self-monitor (Allington, 2012).
  • Ensure that all students have the ability to choose the types of texts they engage with; do not make “virtual reading” available only to students with access to SEA funded technology. Never underestimate the value of a positive peer model.

Independent reading provides all students with a powerful opportunity to practice and consolidate learning. When provided with individualized supports and structures, students with learning disabilities are able to engage in independent reading programs. Teacher involvement, modelling expected behavior, thoughtful scaffolding, and the opportunity for multiple entry points allow differentiation for individual learners and result in an opportunity for students with learning disabilities to grow and thrive. Daily opportunities for independent practice ensure that all students have the opportunity to reinforce learning, become independent, and enjoy of reading.


Allington, R. L. (2012). What really matters for struggling readers: Designing research-based programs. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.  Available online: http://www.ocmboces.org/tfiles/folder1237/1603_Allington_WRM.RT_.pdf

Allington, R.L. & Gabriel, R.E.  (2012). Every child, every day.  Reading: the core skill 69(6), 10-15.  Available online: http://www.prn.bc.ca/lyrics/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Every-Child-Every-Day.pdf

Berkeley, S. & Larsen, A. (2018).  Fostering self-regulation of students with learning disabilities: Insights from 30 years of reading comprehension intervention research. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 33(2), 75-86.

Bottoms, L.K. (2015). The effects of sustained silent reading on reading performance of black adolescent males with reading disabilities: Two case studies. Ph.D. diss., The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Available online: https://www-lib-uwo-ca.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca/cgi-bin/ezpauthn.cgi?url=http://search.proquest.com.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca/docview/1769825892?accountid=15115 (accessed June 27, 2018).

Boushey, G., & Moser, J. (2006). The daily 5. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Catapano, J.  (n.d.)  5 teaching strategies to facilitate independent reading.  Available online: http://www.teachhub.com/5-teaching-strategies-facilitate-independent-reading

EduGains (2018).  Various resources available online at: http://www.edugains.ca/newsite/literacy/index.html including the Guides to Effective Instruction.

Fountas, I. C., & Pinnell, G. S. (2001). Guiding readers and writers, grades 3-6: Teaching comprehension, genre, and content literacy. Portsmouth, N.H: Heinemann.

Johnson, P., & Keier, K. (2010). Catching readers before they fall: Supporting readers who struggle, K-4. Portland, Me: Stenhouse Publishers.

Kurzweil EDU. (n.d.)  Research. [PDF files].  Available online: https://www.kurzweiledu.com/kurzweil-academy/research.html

Manitoba Education and Advanced Learning (2015).  Addressing the needs of students with learning disabilities: Supporting inclusive schools.  Module 3: Supporting students with reading disabilities.  [PDF file].  Retrieved from: https://www.edu.gov.mb.ca/k12/docs/support/learn_disabilities/module3.pdf

McEwan, E.K. (2009). Teach them all to read. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

McFann, J. (2004, August) Boys & Books, Reading Today, 22(1), 20-21.

Moss, R.  (2016 Feb 18).  Making independent reading work.  Available online: https://www.literacyworldwide.org/blog/literacy-daily/2016/02/18/making-independent-reading-work

Reading Rockets (2012).  Building reading stamina. Available online: http://www.readingrockets.org/article/building-reading-stamina

Schanzer, S. S. (1973). Independent reading for children with learning disabilities. Intervention in School and Clinic, 9(1), 109-114.

Shimabukuro, S.M., Prater, M.A., Jenkins, A., Edelen-Smith, P. (1999). The effects of self-monitoring of academic performance on student with learning disabilities and ADD/ADHD. Education and Treatment of Children 22(4), 397-414.

Share, D. L., & Stanovich, K. E. (1995). Cognitive processes in early reading development: Accommodating individual differences in a model of acquisition. Issues in Education, 1(1), 1–57.

Smith, G. W. (2010). The impact of a noise-reducing learning accommodation utilized by students with learning disabilities during an independent reading inventory. All Dissertations, Paper 514.

Spear-Swerling, L.  (2005). Independent reading.  Available online: http://www.readingrockets.org/article/independent-reading

Williams, J. P. (2000, November). Strategic Processing of Text: Improving Reading Comprehension for Students with Learning Disabilities. ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education, #599, 1-6Available online: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED449596.pdf

York Region District School Board (2014).  Understanding learning disabilities: How processing affects learning. [PDF file]. Available online: https://www.ldatschool.ca/york-waterfall-chart/

About the speaker:

Terri Anne Jackson

With over a decade of experience in programming for students with special needs as a Special Education Resource Teacher, Special Education Consultant, Special Education Teacher, and mainstream classroom teacher, Terri has extensive experience in differentiated instruction. Assistive Technology has been an area of extensive study, with a focus on embedding it into the differentiated classroom to support learning for all.