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(Yet Another) Case for Teaching Into Independent Reading

Many of us have heard about Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule”, which indicates that to become an expert at something, one must put in ten-thousand hours of practice. Gladwell's rule derives from a 1992 paper published by a psychologist from Florida State University named Anders Ericsson. While trying to uncover what factors mattered most for success, Ericsson and his team studied violin students in Germany. They figured out that what distinguished those who rose to the top of their class and those who didn’t was--in large part--the amount of time those students spent practicing. From this research, Gladwell extrapolated that the magic number for becoming an expert was 10,000 hours of practice, and he applied this same rule to a variety of fields beyond music.

Yet, a lot of press has been made in the last few years because Ericsson objects to how Gladwell interpreted his research. Ericsson argues that, to be sure, those at the top of their field practice a lot-- maybe even more than others-- but the kind of practice they do matters more than the time they spend. Ericsson argues that the defining variable for the violinists' expertise was that they were engaging in “deliberate practice”, which he calls the kind of practice that is designed by a teacher to help a student improve in a particular area, so that the student can reach her goal. Deliberate practice is targeted and takes the student out of her comfort zone, where she is met with immediate feedback to improve in that particular area. Deliberate practice is differentiated and dependent on a teacher or coach.

Let's apply this to reading instruction. Gladwell and Ericsson are clear that the quantity of time spent practicing matters. Yet, Richard Allington has written that in most commercially published reading programs, only 15 of the 75-minute reading block is spent with students actually practicing reading. Fifteen minutes! The rest of the time--as we all know-- is spent in a series of assessments, group drills, and pre-determined “skills-practice” on the “skill of the week”. How can teachers help a classroom of individuals become experts in reading in 15 minutes? More importantly, how can we possibly take 15 minutes and design deliberate practice for a classroom full of individual readers, in which we set individualized goals for each student, and give each targeted feedback about her performance toward her goal?

The answer, of course, is that we can’t, and it is high time that we put our energy into and base our reading programs around long stretches of independent reading with conferring. While conferring with individual readers or with small groups of readers who share the same goal, the teacher holds a specific goal for a student and angles his work so that he must try to step outside of his comfort zone as he practices toward that goal. All the while, the teacher is alongside him, coaching him through the trouble spots and offering immediate feedback. And the student is practicing reading by… reading.

The classroom Ericsson's research calls for is not the classroom I was a student in so long ago, when Sustained Silent Reading provided my teacher a time to catch up on grading, take attendance, or demonstrate how she too loves to read novels from the comfort of her desk. These are not the leveled reading groups of my generation when my teacher told me and six of my peers to read our pre-selected texts of the week and turn in our answers to the generic comprehension questions on the last page. (I remember plenty of happy and frowning faces written in red ink across the top of my answers-- a poor substitution for real feedback. I also remember copying answers from my friends' papers; we all had the same questions after all, and having the right answer mattered more than how we thought of it.)

Ericsson’s work requires us to recognize that independent reading is the most fertile time of the day for students to grow as readers. We should invest our time there. Just as importantly, it requires our school school leaders to invest in deliberate practice for teachers, in the form of targeted professional development that incorporates coaching with immediate feedback. To become experts, we need to listen to Ericsson’s expertise.

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