Fostering Independent Reading with "Just Right" Books

Rob Schoen
Both comments raise thought-provoking questions about independent reading: Why is independent reading important? What are some parents doing to support their child’s independent reading habits at home? Why are some students avid readers whereas others reluctant readers? What part does the classroom teacher play with regard to independent reading?
Common sense suggests a collaborative approach is most effective to motivate children as readers. The good news is that more can be done to jolt a passion for reading, inquiry, and thinking. Plenty of strategies can pack a punch, especially when applied by educators and families in tandem.
Still, linking research, theory, and experience with practice can be challenging. In the Lower School, students are required to read independently in each grade. Teachers discuss reading levels, interest, and genres in terms of “Just Right” books. Texts that are too difficult are frustrating; texts that are too simple don’t allow for growth.
Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, often abbreviated as ZPD, is the difference between what a learner can do without assistance (independently) and what he or she can do with help. Just Right books should fall into the former category.
The Five Finger Test helps students to determine quickly whether a book’s reading level is just right for them. A child begins reading a random, full page of text in a book. As the student reads, he or she holds up one finger for every word that cannot be decoded or understood. If five fingers are up by the end of the page, that novel may not be the best choice at that point in time.
Third, fourth and fifth graders are asked to read between 20 and 30 minutes each night. However, weekly goals can be accomplished in a number of ways based upon individual schedules. Speak to your child’s classroom teacher to discuss arrangements that meet the expectation. Some students take advantage of weekends to complete their independent reading. While teachers have an arsenal of reading strategies for their students to build comprehension, nothing can replace parent involvement.
In 2016 Dr. Wendy Grolnick, Professor of Psychology at Clarke University, published Parental Involvement and Children’s Academic Motivation and Achievement. “There is now ample evidence demonstrating the significant effects of parents’ involvement in their children’s schooling for children’s school success. Yet, how these effects occur and what factors facilitate parent involvement are less well understood.”
Teachers, parents, and students must work closely to ensure that informed decisions are made about independent reading opportunities. Independent reading is an excellent topic to discuss at Parent-Teacher Conferences or anytime. Ask about just right novels for your son or daughter.

Note:  IDS offer Book Fairs sponsored by Scholastic. Find additional guidelines for "Just Right" reading at