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Ask A REL Response

August 2020


What research has been conducted on independent reading and its effectiveness?


Following an established REL Southeast research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles on independent reading and its effectiveness. We focused on identifying resources that specifically addressed independent reading and its effectiveness. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. These references are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. Also, we searched the references in the response from the most commonly used resources of research, but they are not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

  1. Cuevas, J. A., Irving, M. A., & Russell, L. R. (2014). Applied cognition: Testing the effects of independent silent reading on secondary students' achievement and attribution. Reading Psychology, 35(2), 127-159.
    From the abstract: "This study implemented an independent silent reading (ISR) program with 145 10th grade students. Students were measured on total reading ability, vocabulary, reading comprehension, a state-mandated high stakes end-of-course test (EOCT), and reading attribution. After controlling for initial skill and disposition levels, the results indicated that students from the ISR groups made greater gains than the control group in total reading ability, reading comprehension, EOCT reading scores, and success/ability attribution. This research offers much-needed data on secondary students' reading achievement and disposition and provides evidence for one method, ISR, that has broad potential to address development in these areas."
  2. Harlaar, N., Deater-Deckard, K., Thompson, L. A., DeThorne, L. S., & Petrill, S. A. (2011). Associations between reading achievement and independent reading in early elementary school: A genetically informative cross-lagged study. Child Development, 82(6), 2123- 2137.
    From the abstract: "This study used a cross-lagged twin design to examine reading achievement and independent reading from 10 to 11 years (n = 436 twin pairs). Reading achievement at age 10 significantly predicted independent reading at age 11. The alternative path, from independent reading at age 10 to reading achievement at age 11, was not significant. Individual differences in reading achievement and independent reading at both ages were primarily due to genetic influences. Furthermore, individual differences in independent reading at age 11 partly reflected genetic influences on reading achievement at age 10. These findings suggest that genetic influences that contribute to individual differences in children's reading abilities also influence the extent to which children actively seek out and create opportunities to read."
  3. Liu, S., & Wang, J. (2015). Reading cooperatively or independently? Study on ELL student reading development. Reading Matrix: An International Online Journal, 15(1), 102-120.
    From the abstract: "This study examines the effectiveness of cooperative reading teaching activities and independent reading activities for English language learner (ELL) students at 4th grade level. Based on simple linear regression and correlational analyses of data collected from two large data bases, PIRLS and NAEP, the study found that cooperative reading activities such as small group intervention and pair work were not effective for intermediate grade level ELL students as assumed. Instead, independent reading such as silent reading and reading books of students' own choice improved ELL students' English reading proficiency. The study lends empirical support to the assumption that ELL students may use their first language reading experience and skills in their second language reading."
  4. Moses, L., & Beth Kelly, L. (2019). Are they really reading? A descriptive study of first graders during independent reading. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 35(4), 322-338.
    From the abstract: "This article provides an analysis of how a large, diverse Title I class of 1st-grade students spent independent reading time when an exemplary teacher provided instructional supports to foster engaged independent reading. The data derived from observational checklists that documented students' literacy-related, off-task, and transition behaviors; video recordings of the literacy block; student interviews; and research notes. The quantitative findings showed that students overwhelmingly adopted literacy-related behavior (rather than off-task behavior) during independent reading. We provide a qualitative analysis of the ways in which 3 of the most frequently observed literacy-related behaviors (documenting thinking or strategies on stickies, conferring with the teacher, and related talking) supported meaning making. After a year of engaged independent reading, students shifted from viewing reading as isolated and accuracy focused to viewing it as an opportunity to make meaning. The findings suggest that fears about emergent readers being unable to productively use independent reading time may be unfounded. The article concludes with implications for practice and teacher education."
  5. Nielsen, A. M. V. (2016). Boosting orthographic learning during independent reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 51(3), 305-322.
    From the abstract: "Research has shown that phonological decoding is critical for orthographic learning of new words during independent reading. Moreover, correlational studies have demonstrated that the strength of orthographic learning is related to the orthographic knowledge with which readers approach a text. The present training study was conducted to assess experimentally whether this relation between prior orthographic knowledge and orthographic learning while reading is causal by assessing whether instruction designed to increase sublexical orthographic knowledge would facilitate orthographic learning during independent reading. A group of Danish-speaking third graders (n = 21) was taught conditional spelling patterns conforming to the opaque Danish writing system, with emphasis on how to map the spellings onto their pronunciations. A matched control group (n = 21) received no treatment. Both groups were exposed to 12 novel words containing trained spelling patterns in an orthographic learning task. Posttests revealed a moderate transfer effect from training to orthographic learning, measured as the students' ability to identify target word spellings in an orthographic choice task, and a strong transfer effect when measured as their ability to reproduce target word spellings in a spelling task. However, no advantage of explicit training over reading only could be detected when orthographic learning was measured as target word naming. The findings support the view that larger sound spelling units are used to form connections between spellings and pronunciations of words. Additionally, the findings support the view that preexisting orthographic knowledge is causally related to the degree and quality of orthographic learning during independent reading."
  6. Swanson, E., Reed, D., & Vaughn, S (2016). Research-based lessons that support student independent reading in social studies. Preventing School Failure, 60(4), 337-344.
    From the abstract: "High school social studies teachers face unique challenges in helping their students learn independently from text in their discipline. In this article, a set of research-based practices that couple independent student reading with high-quality instruction proven to improve content learning for high school nonnative English speakers is provided. Specific examples of each practice within a social studies unit are used to illustrate how to promote independent student reading and understanding that is integrated with the content."
  7. Topping, K. J., Samuels, J., & Paul, T. (2008). Independent reading: The relationship of challenge, non-fiction and gender to achievement. British Educational Research Journal, 34(4), 505-524.
    From the abstract: "To explore whether different balances of fiction/non-fiction reading and challenge might help explain differences in reading achievement between genders, data on 45,670 pupils who independently read over 3 million books were analysed. Moderate (rather than high or low) levels of challenge were positively associated with achievement gain, but non-fiction read was generally more challenging than fiction. Nonfiction reading was negatively correlated with successful comprehension and reading achievement gain. Overall, boys appeared to read less than girls, and proportionately more non-fiction, but this less carefully--especially in the higher grades--and had lower reading achievement. Differences between classrooms in promoting successful comprehension of non-fiction were evident, suggesting intervention could improve achievement. Implications for research and practice are explored. (Contains 2 figures and 5 tables.)"
  8. Topping, K. J., Samuels, J., & Paul, T. (2007). Does practice make perfect? Independent reading quantity, quality and student achievement. Learning and Instruction, 17(3), 253-264.
    From the abstract: "Does reading practice make perfect? Or is reading achievement related to the quality of practice as well as the quantity? To answer these questions, data on 45,670 students in grades 1-12 who read over 3 million books were analyzed. Measures largely of quantity (engaged reading volume) and purely of quality (success in reading comprehension) showed a positive relationship with achievement gain at all levels of achievement. However, both high quantity and high quality in combination were necessary for high achievement gains, especially for older students. Both were weakly associated with student initial reading achievement, but more strongly associated with the classroom in which the student was enrolled, possibly suggesting the properties of teacher intervention in guiding independent reading were important. Implications for theory-building, research and practice are explored."
  9. Williams, N. A., Nelson, K. L., Rasmussen, C. L., Alexander, M., & Ricks, A. H. (2017). Decreasing the off-task behavior of reluctant adolescent readers during sustained silent reading through book interest and ability matching. Journal of the International Association of Special Education, 17(1), 40-50.
    From the abstract: "Teachers are often required by their administrators to implement Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) into their daily routines. Although there is research to support wide reading, there is little to support the specific practice of SSR. Recent researchers have suggested modified versions of SSR to better address the needs of struggling readers, including ensuring suitable reading selections. This study utilized a multiple baseline across students design to evaluate a modified version of SSR over four weeks with six junior high students displaying high levels of disengagement during SSR. The dependent variable included off-task behavior during SSR. The independent variable was matching books to students' interests and reading levels. Results indicated reduced levels of off-task behavior throughout the study. Across the course of the study, five of the six students' off-task behavior decreased by an average of 25% as a result of the book matching. This result confirmed a hypothesis from a previous study that matching students with books to read according to their interests and reading abilities, positively affects their time on task during SSR. This article provides practitioners with a modified version of SSR that will enhance the effectiveness of its use and suggests future research and implications for practice."


Keywords and Search Strings
The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Independent reading
  • Independent reading and student achievement
  • Effectiveness of independent reading

Databases and Resources
We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published for last 15 years, from 2003 to present, were include in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, JSTOR database, PsychInfo, PsychArticle, and Google Scholar.
  • Methodology: Following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types - randomized control trials,, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in this order (b) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected, etc.), study duration, etc. (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, etc.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Southeast Region (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast at Florida State University. This memorandum was prepared by REL Southeast under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0011, administered by Florida State University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.