Guiding Questions

  1. Why is Free Reading (FR) important?
  2. How do I introduce FR?
  3. How can I structure FR into my class?

This Article’s Goal

The goal is to encourage EAL educators to create a space where ELs can enjoy reading.  Additionally, I hope to make students’ reading visible during the process and make visible our role while students are reading. 

Past Practices

I actually rarely gave time for it.  I am embarrassed to say that I used to make students read basal readers and do the accompanying questions.  Another thing I did was make students do a fluency program where students read aloud from a passage and were scored on their fluency.

Students could read the words faster, but that did not mean they could comprehend more.  These structures killed the joy of reading because reading became a scoring activity without a sense of exploration or student choice.  

These drill-and-kill reading activities produced the opposite of what I wanted.  Students did not love reading more than before.  Most likely, I killed any remaining joy.  

This process is what Kelly Gallagher, legendary EAL advocate and adolescent literacy author, calls “read-i-cide”.  Kelly said that “readicide” is (2009):

The systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.

Current Practices

A New Approach

My desire for students to be life-long readers remained steady, but my approach changed after I joined two on-line book clubs held by Jim Burke on his website English Companion.  This community has 48,000 teachers who post questions, provide answers, and share resources.  

One book was Readicide: How School Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About I(affiliate link) by Kelly Gallagher and The Book Whisperer (affiliate link) by Donalyn Miller.  Both books implored readers to allow students time to self-select books and be given time to read them.

The Research

Research also supports the benefits of FV.  Yi-Chen and S. Jay Samuels (2004) found that students who read for 15 minutes daily developed greater gains in vocabulary.  Krashen (1993) suggests that FR is the best investment of time because it results in better reading comprehension, writing style, vocabulary, spelling, and grammar development.  

Krashen (1993b) also found that the students in 38 of 41 studies who were given FR time did as well or better in reading comprehension tests than students who were given skill-based reading instruction.  If this wasn’t enough proof, The National Endowment for the Arts (2004) found the more time spent reading for fun, the higher the performance on standardized tests.

Teaching Book Selecting

I used to go to my school’s library and gather a collection of 100 books that were within the reading ability range of my students.  Then after talking to a legendary school librarian and library designer, Phillip Williams, he recommended that we co-create a criteria for selecting books and allow them to choose based on the criteria.  

Williams quoted Daniel Pennac’s “Righters of Readers” philosophy when advising me on how to help students love reading.

Our criteria are:

1) a book that they are interested in

2) a book they can understand.  

Modeling Selecting a Book 

Then I take students to the library and model the process of selecting books based on our criteria.  To find the book they are interested in, I model looking at the cover to see if the image is related to a fiction or non-fiction book.  

It is important for me to model that I enjoy both fiction and non-fiction books to help them be familiar with both forms.  We walk over to the non-fiction section, and I show them a book about cooking that I might enjoy reading.  

Then, I model reading the first page aloud.  I read about a paragraph, and say aloud, “Yeah, I understand most of the words in this text and feel comfortable reading it.”  I take it to potentially check out.  

We then walk to the fiction section, specifically, the graphic novels.  I am semi-fanatical about the Walking Dead.  They have produced a graphic novel series to accompany the TV show.  I pick up a Walking Dead graphic novel, look at the cover, and say aloud, “Yeah.  

Fortunately, there are no zombies in real life, so this has to be a fictional book.  I like stories about zombies because it’s scary and has lots of action.”  Then I model reading the first page, and after, I explain that I understand the details in the text and feel comfortable reading it. The graphic novel is added to my collection of books to borrow.  

After modeling, I send students off to select their books.  As they are searching, I visit with each of them and specifically ask how the books they selected match the criteria we established.

Below is a video of me modeling how to select a book before we go to the library.

I do allow students to get books that are beyond their ability. It is part of the process of reading.  At times, proficient readers will abandon a text that is too challenging to replace it with another more accessible resource.

But I leave this learning experience to them instead of me saying, “No. That book is too hard for you.  Find another one.”  I allow the process to be their teacher.

On graphic novels:  For my ELs who are on the entering and emerging phases of English language development, reading graphic novels and comics have significantly increased their eagerness to read.  After developing reading confidence from completing graphic novels, they gradually move to other genres.  

In the picture below, you are seeing a Chinese student with a graphic novel.  She came to us with English at the entering phase of English.  The graphic novels empower her to be a reader and honors the level she is currently on.  Reading in English does not become a scary or marginalizing activity.

The School Library Journal published an article about how educators can teach using graphic novels, and this republished article on Reading with Pictures presents data on the benefits of reading comics.

In-class libraries

I ask students to find up to the five books because at any time during our FR session, they can switch books or discontinue reading a book.  Instead of sending them to the library to find another book every time they want to get a new book, they already have a small collection of books in the class.  Students leave their small libraries in my classroom.  When students create small libraries with books of their own choosing, reading becomes an empowering act of discovery.

The value of an in-class library and setting time for independent reading cannot be overstated.  Dr. Kimberly Tyson from TeachingunlimitedLLC.com wrote an article for TeachThough.com entitled “25 Ways School Can Promote Literacy and Independent Reading”.  Her two of her first three recommendations are set time for independent reading and having high-quality classroom libraries.

As I’m writing this, I have to take in account the opposing position that FR does not support the literacy development because students can pretend to read, and it does provide direct instruction for ELs who need explicit reading instruction.

However, fellow English teacher and blogger, Andrew Tharby suggests that, “To deny this opportunity in school to those who do not have the encouragement at home would”.

I would counter by saying that structures like Quick Writes (discussed later) and conferences can be used as accountability systems.  Each year, I do have ELs who are at the entering phase of language development.  They do not possess the skills to independently read yet, so I often give phonic lesson during Fun Reading time and guided reading during conferences.

Facilitating FR  time (15 minutes)

Before I go into the process of running FR, I’d like to explain why I embed this process into my classroom. I know 15 minutes is a lot of time in a classroom, and time is of short supply when teachers feel pressured to “cover” content.

However, I see it as an investment of time and resources because we cannot tackle challenging literature and texts with academic language if the act of reading is not established.  It is also a great return on investment because reading soon becomes an enjoyable hobby.

When students choose to read for fun outside of school, their academic achievement increases because every word read builds on vocabulary.

1. Silent Reading (10 minutes)

I allow students to go to their in-class libraries and pick out the book that they want to read the most.  They are encouraged to stay with that book until they finish it or if they are no longer interested. Granting ELs this right makes them more receptive to the reading process.  

I turn on soft, non-vocal coffee house-style music in the background. 

As they read, I spend 2-3 minutes with as many students as I can.  I often ask them to read aloud for me in a whisper voice.  After the student reads aloud to me a short section of text, I ask them to summarize what they read.  Their ability to explain the reading reveals if I should provide a reading strategy or suggest that they exchange it for one of the other books in their in-class library.

Below is a video of me working with an EL during the mini-Free Reading conferences.  I do this to check for understanding of the text and active use of reading strategies. In this video, I had an opportunity to share a reading strategy. 

2. Quick Writes (5 minutes).  

Processing one’s reading is just as important as reading.  Therefore, I give students a notebook and ask them to write about what they read today.  I instruct them to write as many details as possible.  If they have a strong emotional response to the events in the text, I encourage them to write about it.  

The notebook provides a record of their reading, and I can return to the notebook to “check-in” with students who I have not yet met with during FR. We then proceed to today’s lesson with students already academically ready to learn because they have been stimulated by reading, writing, and thinking.

If you would like more information about Quick Writes, read this article from Harvard University on their website that offers instructional practices to their professors, teaching assistants, post-doctoral students, and anyone else who teaches regardless of discipline.

Below is an example of a student’s Quick Write. 

Quick Writes from Free Reading

3. Debriefing the Process 

Listen to my 10th graders share their reflections of our FR program.  I have used FR with them for two years, and usually a highly jaded group, they opened up and shared their reflections.  Their responses vindicated all the time we invested in FR.

Take Aways

1). Fun voluntary reading helps ELs achieve academically.

2). Teachers can design an FR experience.

3). FR is worth the investment of time.

4). A love for reading can be taught to students.

Thank you

Thank you for reading this post.  I hope the information presented encourages you to create the space and time for your ELs to develop a lifelong love of reading.

To continue our reading theme, the next post will be about using a workshop approach to teaching the habits required to read closely.

Free PDF

A2 Prevent Readiciding ELLs


Gallagher, K. & Richard L. A (2009). Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do about It. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse.

Krashen, S. (1993a). “The Case for Free Voluntary Reading.” Canadian Modern Language Review 50 (1): 72–82.

———. 1993b. The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research. Edgewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

National Endowment for the Arts. 2004. Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary  Reading in America. Research Division Report 46. Washington, DC:Library of Congress.

Welham, H. (2014, May 8). Ten ways to improve student literacy. Retrieved August 20, 2016, from https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2014/may/08/ten-ways-improve-student-literacy

Wu, Yi-Chen, and S. Jay Samuels. 2004. “How the Amount of Time Spent on Independent Reading Affects Reading Achievement: A Response to the National Reading Panel.”  Paper presented at the International Reading Conference, Reno, NV, May 2–6, 2004.