In the Zone: Time for Independent Reading

By Lynne R Dorfman

There are many reasons why we should give our students daily time to read on their own. Daily independent reading time provides the opportunity for students to experiment with and develop the skills and strategies that teachers demonstrate during the minilesson. Try to block out twenty minutes of independent reading daily, especially for upper elementary grades. You can always start with a smaller amount of time or adjust the time according to grade level needs and what might be sustainable for your students. If you begin with ten minutes and everyone is still reading at the end of that time, try giving the class an additional five minutes. This block of time allows students to enter what Atwell calls “the reading zone” – that space in time when students get “lost in a book” and are not aware of the passing of time (The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers, 2016). 

Establishing the Reading Habit

It is during daily independent reading time that students build stamina and endurance for reading. This is particularly important for our striving readers. Of course, opportunities to read across the day include guided reading lessons, science and social studies time and more. Many teachers assign some amount of independent reading as homework each night. Our challenged readers do not rush home from school to curl up with a good book. We cannot be sure they are actually doing any reading at home. It’s understandable that busy parents may sign reading logs without really checking in with their children. But if we build in time to read independently at school, we can help students find a good book (if they need that help) and observe readerly behaviors to help them become more skilled at being a proficient reader.  Independent reading block is a time for students to consciously and subconsciously practice the strategies and skills they’ve learned in minilessons, and it’s the time when teachers are differentiating instruction through roving conferences and small-group instruction. In Good Choice!: Supporting Independent Reading and Response K-6, author/educator Tony Stead reminds us that when we create “a time for independent reading from the onset of the school year, children not only build up stamina for reading, but also see it as an important and pleasurable component of their daily lives (2008, 5).”  In part, our students learn to read by reading. With access to a wonderful classroom and school library and daily time to read books they select to read, students will grow as readers and develop a lifelong reading habit.

 Anchor Charts for Reflection

Independent reading time is sacred time in the reader’s workshop. It is the specific time set aside for children to engage in reading books they have chosen for their own purpose. Setting this expectation is important. Taking the time in the beginning of the year to help children understand the work they will do during this time, and how, will help you accomplish your goals for this time and increase student independence in the workshop. You might consider bringing the class together to create an anchor chart that lists what the reading workshop looks like, sounds like, and feels like. For children who have had workshop experience, this exercise reminds them of reading habits that have been used successfully in previous classrooms. It becomes a place to begin and can be added to throughout the year. Children who are newer to a workshop format will need more time and teacher modeling to learn habits that increase reading stamina and reading focus. One strategy for grades 1 – 3 is to send them off to read independently for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, the class can regroup on the floor or at their seats to create an anchor chart of actions that has helped their independent reading time and of actions that has hindered their reading time. This chart can be posted as a reminder of what they as a class have determined were the expectations for independent reading time. The children become the standard setters and have ownership of this time. 

Building Stamina is Key

Helping children read independently for extended periods of time is one goal for the workshop. Jennifer Serravallo reminds us in her book The Reading Strategies Book: Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Readers (Heinemann, 2015) if children are not reading during independent reading time they will not make the progress we are hoping for and working for. “Engagement is everything.” (pg. 44) Helping children increase their stamina – the amount of time children can sustain their reading – becomes part of the work done in independent reading time. Children need realistic time expectations and strategies to help them increase their reading stamina. These strategies become procedural mini-lessons, small group instruction opportunities, or individual conference focus points. 

Strategies to build stamina can range from finding a smart place to read in order to concentrate to figuring out your next steps. If you’re planning to read for research purposes, then you are thoughtfully gathering your tools and resources to sustain stamina for the work at hand. One strategy you might try is creating a class graph that shows the number of minutes the class read during independent reading time. Children will see the bars grow over time and feel their success as a community of readers. Older children are able to keep their own graphs. These children are often capable of noting specifically the number of minutes they were actually reading and when they were engaged in an activity that took their eyes off the text. (For example, when they were engaged in creating a written response, a book club discussion, or small group instruction.) Reading the graph and drawing conclusions from the data is important and could be used to set class goals as well as individual goals. Ask children to record the number of minutes they read at home. Setting a specific amount of time for your students is a way to start and be sure to tell them, “I expect you to read at home.” As the year progresses, remove the specific amount of time and just ask your students to record how many minutes of reading was done at home and the number of pages. This information is valuable and can be used to discuss stamina progress with students, book choices, and places to read. Keeping track of time and page numbers can help children see their stamina grow. 

One more thought about stamina. Not all kids can sit for extended periods of time — they need to move! We need to set reasonable and realistic goals for the group of children we are teaching. But there will always be the child who needs more specific strategies. Teaching students what to do when they lose focus is important to maintaining reading time. In a conference, establish a time frame for taking a break while reading independently. Giving students a set amount of time to read and establishing a signal system for movement helps you maintain your conferring schedule. It may also keep these need-to-stretch-and-move students reading for most of the allotted independent reading time. In the beginning a goal could be 10 minutes of reading with a quick standing stretch. Helping children recognize when they start to lose their reading focus, and giving them strategies to re-enter the text, is a way to increase their stamina as well as focus. Teach students to place sticky notes in the text to indicate where to stop reading and make a comment, ask a question, create a quick sketch, offer an opinion, or make a prediction. When students learn how to self-monitor, they can make good decisions. For example, some students may realize that their book choice often hinders their reading stamina and ability to focus on the text. These students should learn when to abandon a book in favor of another and how to choose books more appropriate for their interests and reading level. Examining a child’s reading habits; location, time, and book choice can help you and the child create goals that will increase stamina and bring greater joy to independent reading time. 

What the Teacher is Doing

Kid-watching or information gathering (Goodman and Owocki, 2002) can be about students’ progress, understanding, strengths and challenges, cooperation, reading habits, and attitude. Most of the time will be spent in observing students’ readerly behavior and noting it while you are clipboard cruising. During the first six to ten minutes of independent reading time, everyone is silent. As you circulate, you can observe students who are flipping back to reread or review information or the storyline events or who are staring at one page for a long period of time. Some readers may jot notes or write in their response journals. You may notice certain students who move quickly through their pile of selected books, from one to the other, without ever really reading any of them. Others will be deeply engrossed in one book and stay with it all week or even for a two-week period until it is finished.  You may start to understand that some students are engaged in “fake reading” – simply turning pages to be compliant. Others “read” the illustrations and text features. Jot important observations on sticky notes and transfer to an electronic file or notebook when you have a chance, preferably that same day.  Your notebook can have two columns – one for the sticky note(s) and date and the other column for you to translate into possible minilessons for the whole group, opportunities to extend learning through small group instruction, or future reading goals. Kid watching also leads to other work a teacher does to differentiate instruction during independent reading time – the work of conferring and feedback.

The Heart of Reading Workshop

We value reading. As readers ourselves we look for extended times to sit and read. This is something we strive to give our students in the workshop setting. Some of you will remember the Sustained Silent Reading practice (SSR) or Drop Everything and Read (DEAR time). You may have experienced this as a student or perhaps have taught using this practice. In a classroom that practices SSR, children read for extended periods of time from a book of their choice and so does the teacher. In a readers’ workshop, independent reading time offers more than just reading time. In a workshop approach, you will see teachers observing the readerly behavior of their students, conferring, and offering feedback. You may see a teacher interrupt her independent readers to deliver a mid-workshop teaching point or offer praise to spur them on.  Teachers will sometimes guide or model the book selection process (when it is necessary), monitor use of skills and strategies, teach small groups, hold roving conferences, and help their readers set goals. This work happens during independent reading time… the time every student can get “lost in the zone” reading something they love. Independent reading time. This is the heart of reading workshop.


Atwell, Nancie and Ann Atwell Merkel. 2016. The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers. 2nd ed. Scholastic Professional Books.

Goodman, Yetta and Gretchen Owocki. 2001.  Kidwatching: Documenting Children’s Literacy Development 1st Ed. Heinemann. 

Serravallo, Jennifer. 2015. The Reading Strategies Book; Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Readers. Heinemann.

Stead, Tony. 2008. Good Choice!: Supporting Independent Reading and Response K-6. Stenhouse.

Lynne R. Dorfman is an independent literacy consultant and an adjunct professor for Arcadia University. She enjoys her role as a co-editor for PAReads: Journal of Keystone State Literacy Association. Lynne has co-authored many books for Stenhouse Publishers, including Welcome to Writing Workshop: Engaging Today’s Students with a Model That Works and Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-6. Her latest manuscript, Welcome to Reading Workshop with Brenda Krupp, will be published in 2022.  Lynne enjoys writing poetry, taking her Welsh Corgis for walks, and planting flowers. She often vacations on Long Beach Island and Niagara-on-the-Lake. Lynne is planning a trip to Boulder, Colorado in 2022 with her husband and dear friends. She cannot wait!

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