Reading More through Independent Reading

written by: Nancy Martin, Reading Department Chair

Tips to Improve Reading Skills in Students with Dyslexia

As humans, we tend to enjoy activities that come naturally or easily. So how do we encourage students with dyslexia to read? Research has shown the best way to improve reading is simply to read. Not complete worksheets, not write book summaries, not answer comprehension questions—simply spend time immersed in a book we’re enjoying to the point we can’t put it down. Unfortunately, research has shown that in many schools the students with the lowest reading skills are given the least amount of time to read (Allington 2006).

As counterintuitive as it may sound, the best way to encourage a reluctant reader is to let them read independently. However, as parents and educators we must model, guide, and encourage this to happen. My teaching background is both an English teacher and a reading specialist who has taught students in middle and secondary school, and college. Often early on in my classes, students tell me they don’t like to read and have never voluntarily read a book for pleasure. My response is simply that “we haven’t found the right book for you yet.”

There are several necessary components for students to learn to read and enjoy independent reading. First, students must be matched with high interest and appropriate reading level versus grade level books. Second, they need to be given time to read independently, and third, they need access to books either in a classroom library, a school library, or a public library.

Four important components are essential for students with dyslexia or any student to learn to read and enjoy independent reading:
  • Students must be matched with a topic of high personal interest.
  • Students should be allowed to choose the appropriate reading level books versus grade level books.
  • Students need to be given time to read independently.
  • Students also need access to these books in a classroom library, a school library, or a public library.
Matching students to books is essential. Reluctant readers usually don’t have a “what to read next” list, so the adults in their life need to help them find the right book. Do this by beginning with where the student is. Learn who they are, offer book suggestions, but make no book mandatory. Let them switch books and even reread a favorite book (don’t we do this as adults?). Knowing the reader and knowing the kinds of books that would appeal to them are critical. Many online resources have book lists: AmazonGoodreadsYALSA, and YourNextRead. Another way for teachers to “hook” students is through short book talks. In 2-3 minutes, you “sell” the book, by showing the cover, giving a brief synopsis and reading a short excerpt that makes the listeners pine for more. Teachers and parents need to make the reading experience enjoyable, not arduous. This means not requiring a book report, providing a pleasant environment in which to read, and allowing plenty of choice.

The desire to read a book should always outweigh the reading level. If a student is enjoying a book, it’s the right level regardless of some number attached to it for readability purposes. Teachers can help students determine if a book is “just right” by having the student read a page aloud. If the student is reading most of the words without miscues and they can demonstrate an understanding of what they read, the book is the right level.

How much time should a student read? In a comprehensive study of independent reading, Anderson, Wilson, and Fielding (1988) investigated the relationship of reading time to reading achievement. Their findings demonstrated the amount of time students spent reading independently was the best predictor of vocabulary development and reading achievement gains. The following chart displays the high impact in independent reading time to word exposure and the percentile of reading achievement:

Independent Reading
Minutes per Day
Words Read
per Year
Source: Beers, G. Kylene, and Robert E. Probst. Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters. Scholastic Inc., 2017.

I often think of Malcolm Gladwell’s theory in Outliers in which he asserts it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. If students were in a school system with independent reading programs every year, and were encouraged to read for pleasure on their own, by the time they graduated from high school they would have read around 1,000 books, well on their way to 10,000 hours.

Often one hears the argument that teachers who give up precious class time for independent reading are shirking their responsibilities. As teachers, we are responsible for creating an environment in which students want to read of their own volition. In other words, we have to provide the time, space, and books in order for reading to occur. I would argue that this is all the more critical for students who learn differently; by allowing more choice, more time, and access to books, they will become strong readers.


Allington, R. (2006). What really matters for struggling readers: Designing research-based programs. Boston: Pearson.

Anderson, R. C., Wilson, P. T., & Fielding, L. G. (1988). Growth in reading and how children spend their time outside of school. Reading Research Quarterly, 23, 285-303.

Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown, 2008. Print.

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