Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | September 1, 2008

Independent Reading Programs: Gateway to Academic Success

The most important thing to grasp about your education is that learning occurs entirely within yourself.  Parents, teachers and coaches cannot ‘learn’ for you.  They can only offer encouragement and show you the necessary tools for successful learning.


The ability to read is your greatest tool for learning.  Literacy experts agree—with much evidence from research—that your reading ability improves with reading experience.  For example, Kathleen Cox and John Guthrie (2001), writing in Contemporary Educational Psychology, found that the amount of reading students do is a major contributor to their reading achievement.  However, not all reading is the same.


Intuitively, everyone recognizes the difference between reading the instructions for assembling a complicated piece of equipment and reading a steamy Danielle Steel romance novel.  The former requires focused attention to detail, while the later can result in getting so engrossed in the experience that you completely forget about time or place.


Louise Rosenblatt termed these two types of reading efferential and aesthetic, and described them as belonging to opposite ends of a continuum.  Most required reading for school—even literature—is efferential because you typically have a test hanging over you; you must learn the details.  Aesthetic reading occurs most often when you read for pleasure; for example, the type of reading you might do in an independent reading program.


So, why start an independent reading program?  Research by Stephen Krashen, Professor Emeriti USC, has shown that independent reading—that is, voluntary reading for pleasure—improves: reading comprehension, vocabulary, spelling ability, grammar usage and writing style.  A long-term routine of independent reading is good preparation for exams such as the SAT and ACT exams.


How much independent reading should you do?  That’s a bit like asking, “How much physical exercise should you do?”  It depends on your goals, the time you are able commit and your motivation.  A voracious reader might aspire to read 360 books in four years.  A more typical goal, still very challenging, would be to read 100 books in four years.  However, due to schedules filled with extra-curricular activities, even 12 books per year is a challenging goal for many students. 


Since books vary so widely in length, standard book equivalents (SBE) are a useful way to help you set reading goals.  An SBE defines a standard book length as 260 pages.  So, a book 130 pages long would be 0.5 SBE.  Likewise, a 520 page book would be the equivalent of 2.0 standard books.  You simply divide the number of pages in a book by 260 to get that book’s SBE.  Now, you can be more precise in your reading goals.  Instead of having a goal to read 25 books during the next twelve months, your goal would be to read 25 SBE.


Choosing a Book to Read

How should you choose which book to read? You should strive to read books from a broad range of genres and subjects.  This will give you a well-rounded reading experience.  You can further diversify your reading by selecting books published from varying time periods and authors from different countries. 


In addition to genre and subject matter, you should consider book length and difficulty in your choice of reading material.  A long book might be discouraging to a person who can only spend a few minutes reading each day.  Likewise, reading material that is beyond your ability can discourage you from a routine of regular reading.  You should skim through a book— checking its length and level of difficulty for appropriateness to where you are as a reader—before committing to reading it.


A final consideration in choosing books to read should be the knowledge base you are building.  It is important to both diversify your reading and develop a depth of knowledge.  That means you should have a group of topics in which you are building a knowledge base by the choice of books you read.  For example, reading topics might include the American Civil War, ethology (e.g., books such as Gorillas in the Mist, Silent Thunder, and Waiting for Aphrodite), West African literature, and epic poems.  The idea being that as you acquire expertise about a topic your ability to read further about it is enhanced.  However, do not neglect to read anything that catches your fancy, even if it does not fall into one of the subject categories you are reading.


You now have three things to do to improve your reading.  First, if you haven’t already started a routine of independent reading, do so now.  Set a goal for the number of books you plan to read each year, keeping an eye on how long they are.  You can create a log in a notebook to record and track your progress.  Second, be careful in your book selection.  Reading material should be right for your ability and cover a broad range of genres and subjects.  Third, commit to a long-term program.  Two years of following this routine will place you in a great position for academic success. 


Careful reading does increase your knowledge and reasoning skills.  That makes you a better student and improves your chances for a happy experience when you enter college.  It also can connect you to the thoughts and experiences of earlier generations, unite you with your cultural heritage, and raise your awareness of other cultures. 


So, read often and read challenging material!  It’s fun and will bring you closer to your goal of academic success.




Cox, Kathleen E. and John T. Guthrie 2001. Motivational and Cognitive Contributions to Students’ Amount of Reading. Contemporary Educational Psychology 26(1):116-131.

Krashen, Stephen 2004. The Power of Reading, 2nd ed. Heineman.

Rosenblatt, Louise M. 1996. Reading as Exploration, 5th ed. Modern Language Association of America.



The best way to improve your reading skills is by reading challenging material.  The Weekly Read-Along, posted every Thurs/Fri on this blog, provides links to well-known historical essays.  Making a habit of reading those essays is a great way to increase the amount of reading you do.








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