Part 5: Independent Reading—The Foundation of Vocabulary Instruction

Part 5 of The Independent Reading Series
(Originally posted on October 6, 2015.)

How is it possible that something as simple as independent reading can provide such rich results for students? In education, we often try to make answers to problems too complex.

How have people been learning new vocabulary for centuries? Through reading and academic conversations. Young children develop early vocabulary by listening to adults and other children talk and by engaging in talk with their peers and adults. They also learn new words by hearing books read aloud.

As students age, conversational language is no longer enough to support and develop a complex lexicon. Regular, everyday conversations are too simple.

So, how do older children and adolescents increase their vocabulary? The answer is simple. Through reading. Kelly Gallagher (2009) cites vocabulary development as a key result of sustained silent reading (SSR): “When it comes to vocabulary acquisition, SSR provides the best investment of reading time . . . . If those students who enter schools linguistically impoverished—thirty-two million words behind—do not read extensively, they will never catch up. This bears repeating: struggling readers who do not read voraciously will never catch up” (43).

Kyleen Beers (2002) explains that “Giving students time for daily, uninterrupted, sustained silent reading is critical. Studies show that giving students as little as fifteen minutes a day for SSR can impact attitudes, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.” (199)

You might be asking, “How much reading must students do to increase their vocabulary?”

Minutes matter. The amount of time students spend reading is directly correlated to their reading achievement. In “Independent Reading and School Achievement,” Bernice E. Cullinan (2000) summarizes the research:

Anderson, Fielding, and Wilson (1988) compared the amount of student reading with their scores on achievement tests. The number of minutes spent in out-of-school reading, even if it was a small amount, correlated positively with reading achievement. The more students read outside of school the higher they scored on reading achievement tests. Students who scored at the 90th percentile on a reading test spent five times as many minutes as children at the 50th percentile, and more than 200 times as many minutes per day reading books as the child at the 10th percentile. The researchers conclude that “among all the ways children spent their time, reading books was the best predictor of measures of reading achievement reading comprehension, vocabulary, and reading speed, including gains in reading comprehension between second and fifth grade.” (285)

Kylene Beers (2002) recommends 20 minutes a day of uninterrupted independent reading time for students who need to catch up to their more competent peers.

The next logical question is, “How do we make time for independent reading or SSR when we have so many other responsibilities?”

Richard Allington (2001) explains that “Replacing whatever went on in classrooms with added reading time was just as effective as, or more effective than, traditional instruction in enhancing reading comprehension performance” (25). When students read, vocabulary increases. This is true of both independent reading and supported reading of more complex texts. Schools are spending thousands and thousands of dollars on reading programs, money that could be spent on books for students. Once students have books, the only additional investment needed is time.

Please. Make the investment. Make the commitment. Make the time.


This has been the final post in this independent reading series.  To read previous posts, please follow the links below:

Part 1: The Power of Independent Reading

Part 2: Building a Classroom Library—If You Build It, They Will Come

Part 3: Independent Means Independent—The Importance of Student Choice

Part 4: The Importance of Series Reading